Publication Date

April 2017


William Johnston, Hari Krishnan


Dance, History


English (United States)


This thesis addresses the question of how the idea of a German dance aesthetic changed over the decades between the Weimar Republic and the Cold War in Germany. Chapter 1 briefly outlines the roots of the Expressionist movement across art forms, as it arose as the antithesis to the Impressionist movement, and situates the rise of this movement within the establishment of the Weimar Republic and the complicated freedom of expression and individuality associated with it amid socioeconomic turmoil. The writing explains the development and rise of the Ausdruckstanz movement in dance through its prominent leaders, Rudolf Laban, Mary Wigman and Kurt Jooss. I highlight three choreographic examples – Mary Wigman’s Hexentanz and Totenmal and Jooss’ The Green Table, to demonstrate the range of expression represented within the Ausdruckstanz movement as well as the distinct political commentary associated with the choreography. Chapter 2 focuses on the use of movement practices to encourage nationalism and allegiance to the Third Reich. I argue that Nazi aesthetics were rooted in German gymnastics practices from the nineteenth century, and served as a guide in the search for the Nazi dance aesthetic. I track the rise of Joseph Goebbels’ Ministry for Propaganda and Public Enlightenment and its delineation of “degenerate” versus “decent” art and the place of modern dance along that spectrum. I explore Goebbels’ flirtation with Wigman and Laban’s movement and fame, and Wigman and Laban’s choice to participate in the regime’s arts initiatives. Yet the mutual infatuation did not last; the Nazis eventually rejected Wigman and Laban. The dearth of information about dance in Germany through the later war years has generally kept it from being scrutinized. Chapter 3 takes up dance in West Germany after the end of the Second World War, when the immediate return to ballet paved the way for the rise of more socially-aware, provocative forms of dance. There is little written about the arts and art production in Soviet-occupied East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic (GDR), so this chapter will address the boundless opportunities present in the West German art-scene. The chapter explores the rise of Tanztheater founder and choreographer Pina Bausch and her revolutionary approach toward redefining dance in the German present to make it more accessible for audiences both aware of dance and completely unfamiliar with the art-form. I analyze four of her most prominent works – Bluebeard, Café Müller, Kontakthof and 1980: A Piece by Pina Bausch – to further explore her continuation and re-imagination of the German dance aesthetic by imbuing it with political commentary and a contemporary twist. Bausch brought dance back into the public imagination and provided an outlet for entertainment and social action for people across the world. Chapter 4 explores my own choreographic research process in relation to my written research process. The writing situates my own body and choices in how I approached the choreographic process, as well as the selection process for each of my dancers. I explore my rehearsal process and the concepts and ideas that guided and directed the research, as well as the final performance iterations of both completed works– the first, an exploration of the rise and fall of Ausdruckstanz, and the second, an homage to the idiosyncratic choreography of Pina Bausch and Tanztheater. I rely on the experiences of my dancers to describe and reaffirm my research methods and to further reiterate the importance of both written and embodied research to argue for this German dance aesthetic. Using an interdisciplinary approach, this thesis argues for the reframing of how we study dance history in our time, and for the necessity of studying the often-separate fields of history and the arts from alternate perspectives to understand the full scope of the eras that we are exploring. It is impossible to understand the origins of an art movement without understanding the social and political climate of that era, and vice versa. This search for a German dance aesthetic attempts to arrive at a deeply understood history of dance in Germany in the twentieth century – of the opportunities for artistic freedom that a republic provided, of the power dynamics of a temporary, all-encompassing regime that was equipped with the ability to influence and redirect the course of the arts mid-century, and finally, the social and political tumult of the 1950s and ‘60s that made the creation of subversive art possible again. The goal is to present a new perspective on German dance during the past century. This thesis will pose questions and answers about freedom, power, identity, and individuality to shed new light on this debated, gapped narrative.



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