Roughly 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is perhaps an opportune moment to reassess the artistic practices in the Eastern Bloc, which are otherwise in danger of being swept away, unrecorded and undocumented, into the dustbin of history. It is timely, therefore, that in Jens Richard Giersdorf’s The Body of the People: East German Dance since 1945 dance in the GDR takes center stage. Giersdorf presents a fascinating kaleidoscope and nuanced discussion of dance developments in East Germany: a country which not only ceased to exist as a political and economic entity, but also lost much of its cultural identity in the process of (re)unification with its western neighbor. This is an important book that, in documenting GDR dance, makes [End Page 416] a valuable contribution to discussions of art under communism. In reading it, for instance, I noticed remarkable similarities between the GDR and dance developments in China which are attracting increasing scholarly attention and likewise involve the use of dance “to create socialist citizens” (5) through drawing on both ballet and folk vocabularies.
The book is divided into five loosely chronological chapters—each covering a period of one or two decades—from the pre-Wall period to choreographies that reflect retrospectively on events. Numerous photographs provide illustrations. The introduction offers an insightful overview of the historical and cultural underpinnings of GDR dance developments. Tracing the genealogy of the post-WWII era through key political moments, such as the Wall’s erection, the book seeks to chart ways in which dance—and art more generally—reflected the ideological shifts that occurred throughout the evolution of the East German project. It emphasizes that while in terms of government policy, dance was “purposefully utilized for the establishment of a distinct national identity at all levels of artistic practice and social discourse” (7), choreographers were also able to create spaces to explore heterogeneous vocabularies and forms of expression. While they were officially ambassadors for socialist ideals, they also at times posed challenges to the public authorities of their own state.
The introduction also draws the reader’s attention to several interesting facets of the period’s dance history, including the fates of dancers who found themselves within the newly established East German territory shortly after World War II. These included the classically trained Tatjana Gsovsky, and Gret Palucca who kept modern dance alive in a state that favored ballet and folk dance. It also considers the difficulties of preserving the artistic recollections of a former state such as the GDR. Giersdorf notes that while records of the officially sanctioned dance culture may linger in neglected archives, the “unofficial” East German dance history is more likely to disappear with the deaths of its practitioners.
Chapter 1 examines the redefinition (after its abuse by the Nazis) and instrumentalization of folk dance as a vehicle for East Germany’s ideological objectives. Considering, among others, the dance ensemble of the armed forces, Giersdorf explains how the GDR merged genres such as social dance and ballet technique with folk dance material in the effort to forge a national identity and express the proletarian struggle. This makes for an interesting and at times amusing read, in particular the descriptions of GDR officials’ vain attempts to make the couple dance “Lipsi”—an artificial hybrid of ballroom and folk—attractive to young people, only to be met with increasingly loud demands for the Rock ‘n’ Roll music of Elvis Presley.
The second chapter moves from explorations of modernism’s associations with Western capitalism and aesthetic autonomy, through a discussion of the GDR’s socialist realist art, which emphasized content over form, to focus more specifically on the contributions of East German choreographer Tom Schilling. Giersdorf discusses how [End Page 417] Schilling’s Tanztheater introduced modernist principles and folk elements into the officially approved dance vocabulary, thus illustrating how the parameters of socialist realism were not entirely rigid.
Chapter 3 examines the scope of “resistive” art: ranging from that which the state itself...