I was scrolling through the cavernous archives of Numeridanse.tv (which I find to be one of the best sources for dance film online, so vast that oddly enough I don’t use it as much as I should – I am most likely intimidated by the sheer amount of dance I have not yet seen) when I came across this completely amazing three minute video of German dancer/artist/performer, Valeska Gert. The name rang a bell but I was uncertain of where to place her. The piece reminded me vaguely of Mary Wigman’s Hexentanz but at the same time, not at all. It didn’t take much Googling to find out that Valeska Gert is one of the most fascinating characters in dance history to be overlooked. She had an interesting life, working in Berlin throughout the 1920s, she then had to leave Germany because of her Jewish heritage. In 1933 she moved to London and then emigrated to America, returning to Berlin in 1949. From what I’ve read about her, she appears to be slippery and radical artist, bent on doing her own thing and rather dismissive of the more popular and recognized Ausdruckstanz that was happening around her. In a quite interesting paper by a certain Alexander Kolb, she states, referring to the Mary Wigman school:
“Woe betide the dancer whose mind dares to cut capers. Mind is taken here for
intellectualism, intellectualism for mind. A dance performance must smell like sour
sweat, be ethical, confused and boring … Mary Wigman is the only dancer who fulfils all the needs of the German educated middle class and has therefore become the national dancer.”
So – yes. Valeska Gert sounds like fun. It’s always comforting to find someone reacting against a reaction. Mary Wigman rebels against the institutional aesthetic of ballet, Valeska Gert rebels against the bourgeois, boring aesthetic of German expressionist dance. She would perform in the cinema in between films, while the reels were being changed and these short performances included dancing out a traffic jam, a boxing match, dying, also a renowned and revolutionary piece called “Pause” where she stands on the cinema stage and does nothing in front of the audience. She also began to perform an orgasm at one point, I believe, before she was stopped and the police were called. She sounds so great. I think the following picture is from her piece “Pause”.
Aside from her interesting background and personal views on art and dance, Tanzerische Pantominen, the three minute video is something I find to be quite astounding. It is easy to be seduced by ancient, charming, silent black and white films, especially when they are only three minutes long. I know myself, I am a sucker for this aesthetic. But there is more to this video than aesthetics, her energy and presence is electric. The first section, as she starts moving with eyes closed, very slightly, very slowly – you think something deeply profound and artistic is happening. But the more you watch, you realize that you know this feeling. She is performing what happens just before, or just during, that massive yawn that throws you completely off. Children get this yawn a lot. It is all-consuming, nothing in the world exists, except this yawn. The build-up, the just before, the concentration and release. Except in the film, we never see the release or the actual yawn itself, just that feeling of ‘just before’. It is as though all your body can do in that moment is yawn (almost). A similar thing happens with sneezes, the entire body exists only for that moment – there is nothing else, it’s like your whole body hiccups slowly.
Now, I have no idea if this was her intention or if that’s “what it is about”. But that is what it reminds me of and I liked that very much. Her movement, as minimal as it was, I found deeply familiar. What follows next is a bizarre sort of mixture of outfits, movements, personas. She moves sharply sometimes, with explosive bursts, posing for us, bored and seductive, sometimes ugly. A word I’ve come across whilst reading about her is ‘grotesque’, which is a term I am not particularly interested in for reasons that aren’t really worth getting into. But she pulls faces and does odd things with a kind of chummy ferocity, it’s beautiful to watch. Please watch it.
She also opened up several bars that sound just like the sort of place you’d want to be a regular at, ram-shackled and mismatched, a bit like her – whose work has evaded so many artistic labels and movements. I also read that she laid the foundation for the punk movement (? and !). So there is a lot of interesting stuff going on here, all I can do now is encourage you to take a look at the film and add some nice photos.