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  • Ambivalent Agency:Gestural Performances of Hands in Weimar Dance and Film
  • Lucia Ruprecht (bio)

Ist es ein Zufall, daß gerade in den letzten Jahrzehnten gleichzeitig mit dem Film auch der künstlerische Tanz zu einem allgemeinen Kulturbedürfnis wurde? Offenbar haben wir viele Dinge zu sagen, die mit Worten nicht zu sagen sind.

(Béla Balázs 18)

Reporting on the 1928 Tänzerkongreß in Essen, the ballet theorist André Levinson noted "Caligariesque tendencies" (105) in new German dance. Levinson, one of the few critical observers of Ausdruckstanz, described what he saw as performances of "agonized ecstasy," "painful tension," and a body that "writhes with terror" under the influence of "spasmodic violence," driven by the "spectral obsessions of a nightmare," or the "gibbering leer of dementia" (102–03). Under Levinson's scrutiny, the new German dance seems to take the celebrated rediscovery of Ausdruck in early twentieth-century dance to an excessive level. While Levinson's account of such examples as "Caligariesque" shows how his approach to expressionist forms of dance was shaped by the medium of film, it also equates expressionism with the physical symptoms of a pathological imagination. After the 1920 premiere of Robert Wiene's Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, expressionist techniques in film seemed most convincing when used for representing exceptional mental and bodily states (Kracauer 76). Yet as Herbert Jhering claimed in his review of Caligari, this emphasis on pathology – what Jhering termed "Wahnsinn als Entschuldigung für eine künstlerische Idee" – was certainly not on the agenda of those who promoted expressionism as a more universal artistic Weltanschauung and inner truth, whether in literature, art, film, or dance (Jhering 133; Kurtz 127). Expressionism in dance meant first and foremost movement that is expressive in and of itself, while being situated on a wide spectrum of narrative, dramatic, cultural, and ideological possibilities. No longer code (as in the school of classical ballet), dance, for artists such as Mary Wigman, became gesture: "Den Wandel und Wechsel seelischer Zustände tanzen wir" (Wigman, Skizzen). As such, it worked in tandem not only with the gestural recovery that was seen to be effected by silent film, but also with expressionist film's turn towards "Phänomene der Seele" (Kracauer 77). [End Page 255]

Rather than looking at dance on film, or at a filmic aesthetic in dance, the following investigation is organized around the expressivity of the gestural as both discursive topos and performative practice in Weimar cinema and dance. After an initial discussion of discourses on gesture in film and dance writings, it will focus in particular on the gestural function of hands. Prime sites of at once mimetic and self-referential gesture, hands, as this analysis will show, stand for a body – and self – being caught in an undecidable dialectic of intentional and unintentional action. As this relatively narrow focus still opens up the potentially vast field of enquiry into the use of hands in film and dance, the main case studies used here are unavoidably selective, but also exemplary in their ability to cast light on the theoretical crosscurrents and historical resistances between two media: Wigman's Hexentanz II (1926), Conrad Veidt's "Expressionist ballet" (Eisner 145) in Robert Wiene's Orlacs Hände (1924), and Peter Lorre's confession in Fritz Lang's M (1931). All three examples are individual performances, rehearsing forms of embodied subjectivity rather than mass movement. They range from choreography as artistic practice, chosen on account of its characteristic function in view of core principles of danced expressionism (Wigman), to a postexpressionist, yet highly expressive representation of gestural speech (Lorre); from the stylized universal (Wigman) to the idiosyncratic (Veidt, Lorre). Together, these examples offer evidence of a gestural practice that negotiates the fault line between agency and impotence, yet they do so in very different ways. Although Levinson saw expressionist dance as a performance of pathology analogous to expressionist film, his account is hardly representative of the bodily imaginary that characterized the new German dance considered here. Wigman's body is able to perform the ecstasy of becoming witch because it is so thoroughly in possession of itself that it can incorporate and contain the other, thereby conveying a sense...