Sunday, August 17, 2014

Kate Elswit's "Watching Weimar Dance"

Kate Elswit is an academic, curator, and dancer who has published widely on dance and theatre history, performance theory, practice-as-research, and cultural studies. She teaches in the Department of Theatre at the University of Bristol, and her recent performance projects include Future Memory (as dramaturg with choreographer Rani Nair). Among her awards are the Gertrude Lippincott Award from the Society of Dance History Scholars, the Sally Banes Publication Prize from the American Society for Theatre Research, a Marshall Scholarship, and a postdoctoral fellowship in the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in the Humanities at Stanford University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Watching Weimar Dance, and reported the following:
Watching Weimar Dance is about the strange things people claimed to see on stage during the Weimar Republic. I posit that spectator accounts archive not only the physicality of past performance, but also the ways audiences used the temporary world of the theatre to negotiate pressing social issues. Page 99 is early in chapter 4, “The Politics of Watching: Staging Sacrifice Across the Atlantic,” which looks at how viewing itself functioned as a form of political activity at a turning point for Germany. The page introduces one of the two performances on which the chapter focuses: the ambitious 1930 multimedia spectacle Totenmal that was a collaboration between choreographer Mary Wigman and Swiss poet Albert Talhoff, among others.

Totenmal’s invocation of the World War I dead was meant to be “apolitical” even though it has retrospectively been read in light of the rise of German fascism. Soon after, Wigman toured her dance cycle Opfer around the United States, including a solo from Totenmal. Chapter 4 compares divergent audience responses on both sides of the Atlantic to these two late Weimar-era performances that addressed themes of sacrifice and human fate. In it, I ask not what the performances categorically “were,” but what audiences allowed them to be. By focusing on the ideologies of reception, including the multiple models of community in play and the power of underreading, I locate the politics of dance in how spectators worked out meaning in relation to the world around them.

What I find compelling about Totenmal are the terms on which it went so wrong for so many commentators. For example, the main National Socialist paper was highly suspicious, because the piece’s utopian tendencies were suggestive of the old, rather than the new, right. Likewise, no fewer than twelve reviews charged Talhoff with being a “dilettante,” which signified something very specific. To bring a reader along with me into the particularities of such responses, I need to first set up the vision for the event and how it materialized on stage. Page 99 begins to describe the features of Totenmal’s total work of art—a “dramatic-choric vision for word dance light” as it was advertised—including the light altars and the various dance and recitation roles of the sixty performers. To underscore the scale of the project, it also includes a sketch for the purpose-built space in Munich that seated 1600 spectators per night.
Visit Kate Elswit's website.

--Marshal Zeringue