Theses Doctoral

Making Dance Modern: Knowledge, Politics, and German Modern Dance, 1890 – 1927

Keilson, Ana Isabel

Between 1890 and 1927, a group of dancers, musicians, and writers converged in Germany, where they founded an artistic movement known as German modern dance. This dissertation provides a history of the origins of this movement and its central figures, including Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, Isadora Duncan, Mary Wigman, Rudolf Laban, Hans Brandenburg, and Valeska Gert. These figures, I show, developed modern dance in an attempt to theorize and transform the social order. With the exception of Gert, this was a social order based upon principles of stability, unity, and consensus, which they developed in performance, pedagogy, and writing through inventive approaches to concepts from Western theatrical music, natural science, philosophy, and politics. Such order, they further demonstrated, could be displayed through the physical movements of the individual dancer, whose dancing body and the knowledge it contained formed a model for the coordinated movement of society.

In contrast to many of their contemporaries in artistic and literary modernism, German modern dancers developed what this dissertation labels as “embodied conservatism,” which was an attempt to actively shape society according to principles of physical alignment, harmony, and order. Though embodied conservatism was not a discrete program for politics, by the First World War it became a platform for many issues, ideas, and values of the Weimar political right. Among these issues included questions of human agency and freedom, which dancers such as Wigman and Laban made central to their respective approaches to dance. Though these issues were central to modern dance beginning with Jaques-Dalcroze and Duncan, this dissertation shows how, particularly after 1919, questions about social sovereignty and individual capacity for creative genesis were transformed into questions of national identity perceived as vital to the maintenance of a strong, stable society. This dissertation concludes by arguing that embodied conservatism enabled German modern dancers to conceive of National Socialism as an organic extension of their original vision of social order and harmony.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Moyn, Samuel
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 17, 2017