Bending and flexing the back in modern dance
In 1908, the photographer Rudolf Jobst captured Grete Wiesenthal’s nascent distinctive modernist dance style, an idiom that was as natural as it was born of the moment, in pictures so striking and compelling that they are still indispensable to any exhibition on the dance of the period. What looks so light and spontaneous, so exuberant, became the foundation for the elaborate balancing and floating technique the Viennese dancer Wiesenthal (1885–1970) subsequently developed and her system of specific swings and turns, which dancers can still learn.
The American Isadora Duncan (1877–1927) is generally considered the groundbreaking and iconic exponent of modern dance; she made her debut in continental Europe at the Secession in Vienna in 1902. Wiesenthal, though she had heard of Duncan, had missed the opportunity to see her, yet she takes inspiration from the novel fact that a feminist woman artist strikes out on her own. She devises her unmistakable style of dance out of her own critique of classical ballet and her embrace of the greatest possible freedom of the body. In 1934, she writes that, where Duncan taps into the “ancient world of the Greeks,” she prefers music, by Beethoven, Strauss, and others, in which she finds a “Dionysian-ecstatic and heavenly-lightsome” element. She avails herself of the possibilities of the infinite-seeming expansiveness of space in all directions, exploding the classical ballet form in which she had originally trained. The uses to which she puts the spinal column, the hip shift, the extended free leg, the bent engaged leg create an intoxicating vision of insouciant freedom.
The bending and flexing and destabilization of the upper body in a variety of imbalanced poses and in ways that the dancer’s eye can hardly follow is integral to modern dance’s movement vocabulary. In the work of Mary Wigman in Dresden and Gertrud Bodenwieser in Vienna, at the Hellerau School in Laxenburg near Vienna, in Rosalia Chladek, Anita Berber, and Tilly Losch, the backbend serves in manifold ways that range from expressive gesture to an effective, even spectacular building block of formal composition, suggesting the dancer’s potential command over all spatiality defined by motion. The movement analyst Rudolf von Laban recognizes the kinesphere, the space that movement both uses and engenders—including the space located behind the visual axis—as the primary element in which movement is made reality. In artistic dance, the head typically extends the line of the spinal column, rather than falling back as in the depictions of Charcot’s studies in hysteria.
The categories of dance that appear in the twentieth century’s first three decades are extraordinarily diverse. In widely different ballroom dances, it is usually the woman who is thrown into a backbend or bent over and held by her partner. The varied—sometimes acrobatic, sometimes dramatic—cabaret dances that are advertised as international show acts under labels such as Eccentric Dance, Danse Mondaine, etc. and booked for stages small and large by artists agencies survive in the form of photographs of solo, duet, and group performances in which the backbend as the final pose concluding a movement phase is a stock motif. The variety theater as a popular entertainment format dating back to the nineteenth century may also have nurtured physical approaches to dance of the sort that Duncan, Wiesenthal, Wigman, and others subsequently formalized and established as a genuine modernist art form.