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Suspiria dancers

Dances of Vice, Horror and Ecstasy: Suspiria and Dance as a Magical Act in Weimar Germany

I recently sat down to watch the 2018 film Suspiria. Maybe because I haven’t seen Argento’s 1977 classic (I know, I know), I watched Luca Guadagnino’s film without the baggage of comparing the two.

What fascinated me about the events in the Markos Tanzgruppe was the way dancing was portrayed as a magical and transgressive act. While the role of dancing in magic and ecstatic experiences is well recorded (for example there are many woodcuts of witches dancing with the devil, and accounts of dancing mania), I want to look at more recent history.

Weimar Republic Germany (1918-1933) was a chaotic place of permissiveness and creativity, and nowhere was this more noticeable than in the world of dance. Even just watching the dance sequences in the 1927 film Metropolis (which share some similarities with the sequences in Suspiria) it becomes obvious how intoxicating the Expressionist performance style of the time was.

One of the avatars of the period was Anita Berber. Androgynous, extrovert, and addicted to cocaine, morphine and ether, her indulgent activities brought her notoriety, even in the incredibly open society of 1920’s Berlin.

At 16 Anita moved from the city of Weimar to the Wilmersdorf district of Berlin. Here she started acting classes and was recruited by choreographer Rita Sacchetto. The following year Berber made her debut with Sacchetto’s avant garde dance company, before going on to tour around Europe and performing solo at Berlin’s Wintergardens.

It was when Berber met poet and dancer Sebastian Droste that her work took a darker turn. After marrying in 1922, Droste became her manager and they soon began collaborating on “Dances of Vice, Horror and Ecstasy”, a production to be performed at the Great Konzertsaal in Vienna.

The book that came out in 1923 to accompany the performance captures something of the tone of Droste and Berber’s collaboration. An example can be seen in the translation of Astarte by Merrill Cole, which echoes the ecstatic intensity of the dancing at the heart of Suspiria.

…Twenty-thousand women in corsets
Bite each other in ecstatic lust
Five-thousand painted boys tear each other apart in mad passion
A brother kills his sister
A child is greedy for blood
All slaves are longing for lashes from a whip
All stallions cry for their mares…

However, their chaotic business dealings, drug addictions and debts led to the breakdown of both professional and personal partnerships, with Droste fleeing to America after stealing Berber’s jewellery and furs to pay for his journey. In 1927 he succumbed to tuberculosis.

Following the separation, Berber formed the Troupe Anita Berber and returned to Berlin’s cabaret circuit, before losing her own life to tuberculosis in 1928.

While the intensity of their vision lay at the heart of Droste and Berber’s choreographic collaborations, it was a walk in the park compared to another pair of Weimar Republic era dancers.

There is not a lot of information about how Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt met, though it seems likely that they were first introduced via Lothar Schreyer. Schulz had previously worked as seamstress for Schreyer, starting to dance for him in his production of August Stramm’s Sancta Susanna.

Once Schulz and Holdt married they became distanced from Schreyer, leading a more and more intense life with dance at the centre.

Their accommodation was an apartment without the basic comforts like bed, hot water or floors. They wore grey tights at all times, so that at any moment day or night they could rehearse. Constantly near starvation because they refused to ask for money to perform, they spent their time making their full body masks, the costumes that gave their collaboration its name ‘Die Maskentanzer’. Schulz is quoted as saying, “Probably some among them [in the audience] were wondering that we offer our performances or events for free. You cannot sell spiritual ideas for money. Spirit and money are two antagonistic poles, and if you sell spiritual ideas for money, you sold the spirit to the money and lost the spirit.”

Made out of plasterboard, cardboard, gypsum, industrial waste and papier mache, the masks are unsettling and unworldly. Though well tailored, they were often left raw on the inside, with wire and nails left exposed. The performances were a physically intense experience for the dancers. Stanislaw Rowinski has also observed that the masks are often decorated in esoteric designs and symbols, for example the colour associations of Swiss expressionist painter Johannes Itten, and it was noted at the time how central the Edda was to Schulz and Holdt’s worldview.

Following the birth of their son in 1923 their situation became more desperate. Incredibly creative, their perception of distance between money and art brought them close to starvation, even as every other aspect of their life circled more and more around their creativity. In July 1924, Lavinia shot Walter twice, then herself. They were found close together, with their one year old son still alive and unharmed.

The following year Hamburg’s Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe staged a memorial evening, before the masks were placed in the attic unrecorded, where they stayed until they were rediscovered in the 1980s.

The two partnerships discussed here differ in one fundamental way. Berber and Droste lived lives of indulgence and freedom, with dance becoming another aspect of that approach to life. With Schulz and Holdt, the dance was their world, their obsession, and ultimately created a vortex of poverty that increased Lavinia’s anxieties.

Dance can be physically and mentally intense, whether that is in the atmosphere of suspicion present in the medieval witch scares and religious manias, or the permissive atmosphere of Weimar Germany. While Luca Guadagnino’s film has its flaws, it is incredibly effective at capturing that potency.


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