- Watching Weimar Dance by Kate Elswit
In Watching Weimar Dance, Kate Elswit deploys a contemporary methodology for considering the turbulent era between 1919 and 1933. She defines dance broadly from the cabaret to the concert stage, examining works by Weimar period mainstays including Anita Berber, Valeska Gert, Oskar Schlemmer, Mary Wigman, Kurt Jooss, Bertolt Brecht, and the touring British Tiller Girls.1
Elswit uses accounts by the viewers of those danced moments to provide a glimpse into what theatregoers were uniquely drawn to during the Weimar years; she prefers the term "commentator" to viewer or spectator, acknowledging agency on the part of those who produced these accounts. She proposes that the act of watching allowed these spectators to work through broader cultural, social, and political issues of the time. Thus, she weds theories of spectatorship with what she terms "archives of watching" (x). Elswit embraces the instability of performance and the mutable reaction to performance as a compelling methodology for cultural historiography. Her source material is expansive, ranging [End Page 175] from contemporary theoretical essays, through secondary writings, to previously unexamined primary sources: newspaper reviews, cartoons, interviews, letters, film clips, scrapbooks, and promotional materials. Of these she asks, "How can we work with such archival objects in order to understand the embodied experiences of thinking-in-watching that produced them?" (xxi). What emerges is a multiplicity of voices that express widely varying experiences. Through her selections, Elswit builds a community of spectators that appears at times homogenous while at other times presents a cacophony of responses to these works. The organization of the book is equally multifocused, with choreographers and choreographies appearing and reappearing across chapters and decades, building evidence of how these performances were perceived.
Through the first three chapters, Elswit identifies a trio of themes: choreographing death, the functioning of human-machine hybrids, and the new visibility of the female (in the flesh and imagined) in an ascendant consumer culture. Her overarching principle is that "much of what was reported could not have actually happened onstage" (xxiii). What is revealed is a triadic performance of its own that collides choreographic intention, audience perception, and what really did occur.
The first chapter introduces Jooss's The Green Table (1932), Gert's Death (1922) and Berber's Cocaine (1922). While each is representative of the preoccupation with death in many forms after World War I, each artist approached the idea uniquely. The tacit contract between dancer/choreographer and audience made possible a perception of death that was paradoxically immediate and repeatable, personal and abstracted. By the final chapter Elswit has laid a foundation for a most valuable discussion of the return of The Green Table to the (then West-) German concert stage in 1951. The resultant issues—including but not limited to intellectual property, memory, and identity—come into sharp relief as part of the ongoing discussion about the enterprise of the re-construction, re-creation, and transmission of such iconic work.
There is much to admire in the density of ideas in this book. As a prescriptive text for the writing of dance historiography, the enterprise of placing commentators at the center of the work is its strength and arguably at times a weakness. Elswit makes clear her intention to expose the "singularity of individual encounters" while building "a heterogeneous model of spectatorship" in "various shades of expert spectatorship" to create a larger community (xxii). But how are we to discern such shading without knowing who these commentators really were? These events happened in discrete sociopolitical and economic climates at a time when German dance was contested territory and the nascent American dance was finding its identity. The limits of this model become particularly apparent in Elswit's fourth chapter where she examines the much-discussed 1930 production of Totenmal and Wigman's subsequent American tour. What is missing in this writing as in most discussions of Neue Tanz is a comprehension of the physical technique based upon Spannung und Entspannung (tension and release) and how that technique...