Authors: Peter Watson
Martin Green goes so far as to claim that Laban was “an incarnation of modern dance,” like a figure from Nietzsche’s
Die Geburt der Tragödie
: “The original image of the Dionysian is the bearded satyr, in him existence expresses itself more truly, really, fully than in the man of culture . . . and in the festivals of this satyrlike Dionysiac man, Nature mourns her dismembering into individuals.”
In Laban’s great plan to regenerate life, dancing was primary. He had a multifaceted mind, scientific as well as artistic (he devised an entire notation for his new form of dance). He naturally appreciated that dance was physical and genetic as well as imaginative and organic. “In the very depths lives the center of gravity. Around this is deposited the crystal of the skeleton, interconnected and directed by the muscles.”
The ambition at Ascona to replace religion was insistent.
EURHYTHMICS AND ETHICS: THE DANCER SPIRIT
Laban also embraced the concept of eurhythmics. Because eurhythmics marries music and speed, he believed that one thinks with not just the brain but also the whole body, becoming an “equilibrium of will, feelings and intelligence,” thus
bodily consciousness and, in so doing, “preventing any dictatorship by the brain or by the moral conscience.”
“Beauty, aesthetics, good manners, conscience, ethical equilibrium, goodness, are for me synonyms.”
For Laban, the eurhythmist performed a new social function: “a special profession, which employs the methods of art for ethical ends.” However, eurhythmics did not aim to establish a church, still less a state: instead, “It awakens a non-religious and non-legal conscience, and
will create the new social forms for itself.”
For Laban, dancing was transcendental, the fusion of thought, feeling and will. “Men must rebel against the domination of abstract ideas and fill the world with the dance of the body-soul-spirit. The most significant human creations, in all ages, were born of the
, the ‘dancer spirit.’”
At the height of his influence in 1913, Laban claimed that perhaps sixty families in the Ascona region were represented among his pupils.
This was when Mary Wigman arrived. Born in Hanover in 1886, Wigman came to dance relatively late in life; she insisted that Laban “was the guide who opened for her the gates to the world she had dreamed of.” She has left us a record of the high spirits she encountered at Ascona. One of the dancers lived in a harmonium crate; and they sometimes danced all night to a gramophone, in grottoes or in taverns.
The high spirits caught on. By 1914, the dance movement was spreading across Europe. There were, for example, seven thousand students enrolled in no fewer than 120 Jaques-Dalcroze schools. The claims made for these schools were ambitious—students were promised much more than the acquisition of rhythm: they would experience there “the dissolution of both body and soul in harmony.” And the Monte Verità Art of Life School promised each pupil “the regeneration of his or her life force.”
According to Green, Wigman represented the Asconan values of life-body-gesture-movement-
even more than did Laban. Others “regarded her as a feminine realization of the Nietzschean program of autonomous realization.” She studied movement in animals and in nature, and her own choreography tried hard to be anti-erotic, deliberately going beyond dance as “pretty girls entertaining men.” Fascinated by psychoanalysis and with an abiding interest in Nietzsche, she had more than one affair with the early analysts, Herbert Binswanger being the best known. She choreographed a version of
and claimed a role in the orig
ination of Dada, being a good friend of Sophie Taeuber, who was part of the Hugo Ball–Tristan Tzara set. In a notable comparison between Wigman and Isadora Duncan, the author Margaret Lloys related how Wigman would kneel, crawl, crouch and even lie down on the earth at the close of a dance. “She was like Isadora Duncan in that both were ‘womanly’ and both danced religiously the faith that was in them, a faith in the dignity and worth of individual man.” Wigman’s dance, modern dance, Lloys says, was a matter of wrestling and struggling—a matter of mass, not line—a matter of dynamic, Dionysian ecstatic struggle.
Isadora Duncan, whom the cultural historian Karl Federn described as “the incarnation of Nietzsche’s intuition,” was another Ascona habituée. “The seduction of Nietzsche’s philosophy ravished my being,” she admitted in her memoirs, and she called Nietzsche “the first dancing philosopher.” How much in thrall she was to Nietzsche is clear from her 1903 lecture, “The Dance of the Future”: “Oh, she is coming, the dancer of the future: more glorious than any woman who has yet been: more beautiful than the Egyptian, than the Greek, than the early Italian, than all the women of past centuries—the highest intelligence in the freest body!”
But the most extreme exemplar of these ideas was Valentine de Saint-Point (1875–1953), author of the 1913
Futurist Manifesto of Lust
. Respected enough then to have her own creations performed at the Théâtre du Champs-Élysées in Paris and the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, her manifesto was addressed “to those women who only think what I have dared to say.” It read in part: “Lust when viewed without moral preconceptions and as an essential part of life’s dynamism, is a force. Lust is not, any more than pride, a sin for the race that is strong. . . . Lust is . . . the sensory and sensual synthesis that leads to the greatest liberation of spirit. . . . Christian morality alone, following on from pagan morality, was fatally drawn to consider lust as a weakness. . . .
We must make lust into a work of art.
” For her, Europe and the modern world were going through a feminine historical period: men and women both lacked masculinity. A new doctrine of Dionysian energy was needed in order for “an epoch of superior humanity” to be achieved. As she said elsewhere, it was “the brute who must become the model.”
Laban stated that the most significant human creations, at all times,
have been “born of the dancer spirit.” He pointed out that we find dance doctrine—choreosophy—in Plato’s
and in the Sufis, for example. For him, the dance instinct consists of a need for change—that’s what movement
It follows for him that no religion and no orality can last in its original form. “We are polytheists and all the gods we know are parts of the daemonic self-changing of the gesture power. A demon is born (or unchained) whenever a roomful of people concentrate their attention on a dancer.” (Green refers to novels by the Ascona authors Hesse and Bruno Goetz which contain scenes “in which a spirit of lawlessness is born among people watching a dancer.”) Laban saw individualism—of mind as well as of behavior—as a threat to modern culture: this is why dancing
is so important. On Laban’s sixtieth birthday, Kurt Jooss, the German choreographer, wrote a tribute praising his conception of the dance that “rose above the merely aesthetic to the ethical and metaphysical and gave us images of the various forms of life in their ever-changing interplay.”
Dance is among the most evanescent of art forms (especially when it is the intention of the dance master to create an evanescent form). It is difficult to think ourselves back into that time, when film was in its infancy. But the theatre performances, dance troupes, dance festivals and congresses and the
and the Deutsche Tanzbühne of Laban together add up to a formidable array of activities and social manifestations, a widespread and coherent effort to put “life philosophy” into effect during the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s and on into the Third Reich. Moreover, the ideals and ideas of Ascona lived on to form elements in such phenomena as Nazism and the countercultural experiments in North America in the 1960s and later. Laban himself survives among us in, for instance, Joy of Movement, our contemporary cult of the body.
Ascona has influenced many people who have never heard of it.
WHAT THE HERD CAN NEVER KNOW
Nor must we forget that, beyond Ascona, up until the First World War, Nietzsche’s views were clearly linked with Expressionism. Says Steven Aschheim: “In virtually every one of its manifold guises—painting,
sculpture, architecture, literature, drama and politics—Expressionism and Nietzsche were linked.” Gottfried Benn, arguably the most talented if problematic German Expressionist writer, put it this way: “Actually, everything that my generation discussed, dissected . . . one can say suffered through . . . had already found its definitive formulation in Nietzsche; everything thereafter was exegesis . . . his . . . postulation of a psychology of instinctual behavior as a dialectic—‘knowledge as affect,’ all of psychoanalysis and Existentialism. They were all his achievements.” Nietzsche’s fundamental point, Benn maintained, was the replacement of content with expression; the strength or vitality with which views were held was as important as their substance.
Life was feeling as much as fact.
Above all, pre–First World War German Expressionism reflected Nietzsche’s vision of “the sublime if painful” role of the elitist, isolated artist-superman, “who in creating experienced what the herd would never know.” In particular, the Expressionist artist typically subscribed to an elitist, Nietzschean immoralism. Aschheim again: “In the metaphorical landscape of the lonely Zarathustrian heights, in the shadow of the death of God, stood the artist beyond conventional notions of good and evil: a Nietzschean law unto himself. When Georg Kaiser, the Expressionist writer, was sued for debts he had incurred, he proclaimed that the assumption ‘All are equal before the law’ is nonsense.” On this understanding, the act of creativity by a genius, something producing new meaning in itself, was paramount, “even if his wife and children should perish because of it.”
One defining aspect of German Expressionism was that its Dionysian anti-cerebralism was meant to proceed unchecked. In his drama
, Gottfried Benn’s spokesman Roenne murders a professor who insists on the unparalleled value of scientific knowledge. Roenne’s rant, inciting his fellow students to commit the act, is laid out in terms undeniably Nietzschean. “We are the youth. Our blood cries out for heaven and earth, and not for cells and worms. . . . We want to dream. We want ecstasy. We call on Dionysus and Ithaca!”
“More than any other Expressionist . . . it was Gottfried Benn who grappled with the consequences of the death of God.” His entire career, says Steven Aschheim, including his short but passionate attachment to Nazism, was an attempt to deal with that Nietzschean predicament.
“He accepted Nietzsche’s nihilism,” Michael Hamburger commented, “as one accepts the weather.” Until 1933, Benn occupied a position of what might be called “theoretical nihilism,” denying the possibility of any metaphysical truth. He preferred what he called a return to the “preconscious, prelogical, primal and inert state.” This was an attempt to explore what life was like before language and self-consciousness had produced man’s “rift” with nature (others, like Paul Cézanne, pursued similar goals). This was what linked Expressionism and vagabondage as Nietzschean cults.
The Expressionists, like many other Nietzscheans, dithered between a non-political individual stance and a redemptive hunger for union with communities. One prominent example here was Kurt Hiller, a writer and early human-rights activist (he was homosexual), and the “new club” he founded in March 1909, which took Nietzsche as its inspiration. The aim of the club was an “increased psychic temperature and universal merriment [
],” Dionysian evenings of excess. What was now needed, said Hiller, was “a new post-theist and neohellenic heroism [
],” as Nietzsche had proclaimed it. Has any club ever taken itself so seriously?
The line that runs through many of these developments, and Expressionism in general, is the Nietzschean vision of the self-legislating, creative
artist working in splendid isolation from (and by implication above) the masses. It was, again, ambitious, had its noble elements but was, to our modern sensibility, unattractive all at the same time.
Around and underlying German Expressionism, both less and more ambitious than poetry, playwriting and philosophy, were a myriad of
(life-reform) movements that mushroomed in pre–First World War imperial Germany and which more or less shared Nietzsche’s views. No doubt these groups also reflected the stresses caused by the rapid industrialization that was then taking place, especially in Germany. “Naturalist” issues were ever present: vegetarianism, nudism and “body culture”; and abstinence from alcohol and smoking. They were also animated by strong regenerationist, indeed eugenic, impulses and reflected manifold
and racist visions of renewal.
This was the Nietzschean key: renewal.
The most important of these movements, both at the time and later, was the German Youth Movement. As reflected in the slogan of one of its prophets, Gustav Wyneken, a philosopher and educational reformer famous for his concept of the attraction between teacher and pupil, “youth for itself alone” was the watchword. The movement was not just a variant of the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts: it was much more muscular—rejecting, for example, parents, schooling and bourgeois conventions, as it sought “the free development of the spirit of youth.” Eugen Diederichs was just one who claimed that the Youth Movement “and its self-redemptive impulses” grew out of Nietzsche’s prophecy of the
personality, but added that “the coming race” could not exist “in isolated self-absorption”; it needed to be melded into a community. This was a first step in integrating Nietzschean personal realization into a nation (
It turned out to be a fateful development—later on, Nietzsche would be blamed for two world wars.