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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 352-353

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Book Review

Empire of Ecstacy:
Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910-1935

Empire of Ecstacy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910-1935.By Karl Toepfer. Weimar and Now: German Cultural Criticism Series, no. 13. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997; pp. xvii + 422. $50.00.

Karl Toepfer's Empire of Ecstacy is an informative book, exhaustively researched and extensive in its scope. It documents the breadth of movement practices in early twentieth-century Germany, with particular attention to ones which used nudity or dance. There is a deeper goal here, however, than merely posting a list of dancers and forms. Toepfer states that his "main concern is to offer a fairly comprehensive description and interpretation of specific achievements peculiarly associated with Germanic ideas about what makes the body modern" (6). In the end, he says, the "empire of ecstacy" which the book documents is revealed as "a great constellation of competing schools, individuals, societies, and performances, and its appeal rested upon its power to align ecstacy with modes of difference rather than with modes of unity" in which "the body was an empire in itself" (384).

Examinations of the body's relationship to German culture have traditionally been found primarily within studies of National Socialism. The works of scholars like George Mosse, Klaus Thewleit, and more recently, Harold Segel, have charted a series of evolutionary courses for the "national body," usually originating with the wandering youth groups of the fin-de-si├Ęcle, travelling through the heroic war novels of the post World-War-I era, and culminating in Nazi performance spectacles like the Nuremberg rallies. Toepfer is careful to point out, however, that the German fascination with the body was not a uniquely Nazi phenomenon, although they did give unprecedented attention to the body in their writings and cultural productions. To Toepfer, what constitutes the difference between these spectacles and, say, Rudolf Laban's utilization of movement choirs, was not the form, but the function: "The totalitarian identity of mass movement therefore does not reside inherently in the formal qualities of such movement in itself but in the content of the movement? The symbol, not the movement, subsumes all difference" (319-20). This is a much different attitude than those taken by most scholars, who portray mass spectacle as a precursor of National Social ideology, and not an independent form of expression co-opted for promulgating its precepts. Toepfer opens the door for new interpretations of the relationship between spectacle and the formation of national identity, particularly in regards to the function of the body.

The book's analysis is divided into two main sections--nudity and dance--with supplementary chapters addressing dance schools, music, photography, and dance criticism. Chapters two through six address aspects of Nacktkultur (nude culture) such as outdoor gymnastics, erotic dance, nude ballet, and use of nude dance to promote "a new, modern identity for women" (39). Chapters eight through twelve cover various forms of Ausdrucktanz (expressive dance), including solo, pair, group, theatrical, and mass dancing. (The distinction between the two spheres, however, was not clear cut, a point emphasized by Toepfer in the text.)

Toepfer meets admirably his first goal of description. He has compiled a wide array of sources and figures from the diverse spectrum of what he terms "German body culture" (5) with information on practitioners of nude dancing, gymnastics, eurhythmics, and Ausdrucktanz from both inside and outside Germany. The chapters read like a "Who's Who" of German movement, containing information on everyone from a wide variety of artists, including Isadora Duncan, Mary Wigman, Jacques Dalcroze, Celly de Rheydt, and Mata Hari. As indicated in his acknowledgments, Toepfer has spent a great deal of time combing through European and American archives searching for obscure denizens of dance history, in his desire to weave a tapestry which reflects the intricate matrix of German dance culture in the early twentieth century. Toepfer's second goal, the "interpretation of [End Page 352] specific achievements," does succeed in conveying the struggles...


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