Dances of Vice, Horror, & Ecstasy
by Anita Berber & Sebastian Droste
translated by Merrill Cole
Decorations - Sketches
7 Poems from Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy
Weimar Germany was a virtually unparalleled period of social and cultural upheaval, as well as a time at which the impossible briefly seemed about to be realized. By the end of World War One, there was intense disillusionment across Europe with the civilization that had led to war. The ugliness and impersonality of protracted trench combat not only disappointed the heroic dreams shared by patriots on every side, but also led artists and intellectuals to question the system of values responsible for the carnage. In the Anglo-American context, such poets as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon called out bitterly against the lies that led to mass slaughter; other poets, like Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, anatomized the moribund condition of modern culture. At various Continental urban centers, abrasive and radically innovative forms of art, under the umbrella nonsense-term, “Dada,” expressed a parallel, if less nostalgic, revulsion toward the cultural status-quo. Berlin, the one-time capital of imperial Germany, arguably became the epicenter of artistic disenthrallment, the ground-zero of post-war modernity. For Germany had been the war’s great loser: not only did the nation suffer an opprobrious defeat, not only was the Kaiser forced to abdicate and flee, but a communist revolution—the Sparticist Revolt—almost succeeded in wiping away the entirety of the old order. The disrespected Weimar Republic, disliked even by its founders, was a weak compromise formation that pleased almost no one. To make matters worse, the unworkably harsh reparations demands made by France and Great Britain utterly undermined in the early 1920s what little social stability the Weimar Republic had been able to achieve.
In Weimar’s early years, Germany was a society adrift, come completely unmoored. When a loaf of bread could cost as much as four billion Marks, the attempt to pay reparations having debased the currency, people starved. Murder and violence were rampant, including sexual murder, or Lustmord, which became Weimar’s tabloid sensation. Women from once-respectable families could be seen selling themselves, their daughters, and even their sons on the streets of Berlin. It is partly for this reason, but also with the help of such travel writers as Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden, that our cultural imaginary in the English-speaking world has made Weimar Berlin the epitome of modern decadence. With the word, “Weimar,” images of cabaret, cross-dressers, and public prostitution come readily to mind. Indeed, there has been for decades an unfortunate and homophobic tendency to blame Weimar debauchery for the Nazi terror that followed it. Of all Weimar artists, perhaps none more than Anita Berber and Sebastian Droste exploited the bizarre cultural situation, including its fascination with Lustmord. Berber herself, the infamous naked dancer, has come to symbolize the utmost in Weimar depravity, a symbolism she carefully cultivated. Nonetheless, in presenting this first-ever full-length English translation of Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy, I hope to demonstrate that Berber and her one-time partner, Droste, should also be considered as artists, creative trailblazers who, anticipating by several decades the performance art and pop art of the post-World War Two period, used scandal, debauchery, and nudity to engage their contemporary culture. Berber and Droste respond to, as much as they ironically reflect, the crisis and the singular opportunity of German modernity.
For Berlin Dada, it was not enough simply to reply in the emphatic negative to the culture with the very forms of art sanctified by that culture: new art forms were imperative. Thus, for instance, Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausman (perhaps simultaneously with other Dadaists working elsewhere) invented photomontage, a genre that applies Cubist montage technique to mass media photographs, in order to critique and dissect the consumer images of commercial photography. Although we can find historical precedents for naked dancing, and although we cannot ascertain with certainty whether Berber was the first of Weimar’s naked dancers, it is beyond dispute that she became the most celebrated and the most notorious. There are a number of narrative accounts of her dances, some pinned by professional critics, and almost all commending her talent, finesse, and mesmerizing stage presence. We also have film images from the various silent films in which she played bit parts. There exist, too, many still photographs of Berber and Droste, as well as renditions of Berber by other artists, most prominently the Dadaist Otto Dix’s famous scarlet-saturated portrait. In regard to the naked dances, unfortunately, we have no moving images, no way to watch directly how they were performed. Early in my research, it became apparent that the best way to understand the dances and how they signify would to attend to the peculiar book of poems, photographs, and sketches that the two dancers co-authored in 1923, Die Tänze des Lasters, des Grauens, und der Ekstase, which I have translated.
The book cannot replace live dances we cannot see, but it reveals, in a different way, the cutting edge of Berber and Droste’s endeavor. While there is a section entitled “Poems,” most of what look like poems in the book are framed so as to be understood as dances. Clearly, they are not transcripts or voice-overs of the performances; nor are they stage directions. Rather, these hybrid texts register the attempt to conduct the performances in another medium. I would suggest that we read Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy as the promise of that which will never arrive—the promise of that which has not arrived being, it seems to me, the emphatic truth of Weimar Berlin. It is not only with Berber and Droste, but also with Berlin Dada, with Bauhaus, and with so many other vibrant artistic movements briefly alive in the Weimar Republic, that we can trace the emergence of the better modernity that never came to be. In Benjaminian terms, my translation is an effort to seize hold of a part of revolutionary history very much at the risk of vanishing.
Who were Anita Berber and Sebastian Droste? Even the biographical details seduce: a bisexual sometimes-prostitute and a shady figure from the male homosexual underworld, united in addiction to cocaine and disdain for bourgeois respectability, both highly talented, expressionist-trained dancers, both beautiful exhibitionists, set out to provide the Babylon on the Spree with the ultimate experience of depravity, using an art form they had helped to invent for this purpose. Their brief marriage and artistic interaction ended when Droste became desperate for drugs and absconded with Berber’s jewel collection. Berber never regained her popularity. The currency stabilized; and with it, an ultimately false sense of social stability led Germany to turn away from naked dancing as something passé, a reminder of bad times. Not many years after Droste left Berber, both succumbed, separately, to tuberculosis, dying a few years before the Weimar Republic itself collapsed. It is too easy to get carried away with the scandal and the drama, and not to attend to what the artists accomplished. I would refer those interested in the life-histories first of all to Rosa von Praunheim’s fantastic 1987 documentary, Anita: Tänze des Lasters. Also of interest are Mel Gordon’s The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin’s Priestess of Depravity and Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin. For those who can read in German, there is also Lothar Fischer’s Anita Berber: Göttin der Nacht.
In a stylistic switch-around reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in which Stein takes on Toklas’ identity and voice in the audacious move to write her lover’s autobiography, Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy opens with two poetic texts, “I: Sebastian to Himself,” which is signed by Berber; and “Dance: Anita to Herself,” which is signed by Droste. Perhaps the key words of the first text are “[c]orrupted / And lovely,” which echo the title and help to launch one of the book’s most important dynamics, the interpenetration of terror and beauty, of horror and ecstasy. The poem ends ambivalently: we can translate “[e]in Opfer von ihm” as “a sacrifice for him” or “a sacrifice from him.” This line anticipates Droste’s repeated positioning in the dances as a sacrificial victim. In “Dance: Anita to Herself,” there is intense movement—stirring, springing, rippling, waving, circling, running, weaving, dancing—meant obviously to evoke Berber’s exuberance. German words signifying “desire” appear three times in the poem’s 18 short lines.
The next text, “Dance as Form and Experience,” operates as a sort of manifesto for the book. Berber and Droste consider their performances as “[t]he overflow of the strongest experience in bodily form.” “Anita Berber does not reveal vice lasciviously,” the poem announces. Whatever might be said about her opportunism, “Anita Berber does not calculate lustful times’ economic possibilities / Anita Berber is vice / As much as she is horror / The horror and the ecstasy.” The greatest “horror,” even “[b]leeding to death,” is finally pronounced, “heilig,” “holy.” What Berber and Droste mean by “holy,” nonetheless, is quite different than its traditional signification. The dancers intend to embody, rather than any ideal of purity, religious, anti-commercial, or otherwise,
The holiest thrill of deep ecstasy
The most inflamed trembling of the most abrading horror
The lascivious becoming addicted to the most forbidden vice.
Emphasis falls on something they call “unconscious experience”: rejecting the “dreadful absolutes, stiff fixed measures” of the avant-garde Russian Ballet and other dances, they instead express an expressionist ideal of artistic immediacy, of a total embodiment.
In “The Legends,” Droste performs as the decadent Roman Emperor Heliogabalus,
who was boy and woman
who stood on the high ranges of his temples, sanctifying himself to the sun
Who became God through the ecstasy of his love and
Who as God sacrificed the purity of his body
The stride of his slender thighs
The giving and taking of his girl’s arms.
Here as elsewhere, Droste materializes as a liminal figure, both male and female, human and god. In this and other scenarios of sacrifice, the accent falls not on redemption, but on sheer eroticism of self-extinction, the ecstasy of Lustmord. As “Saint Sebastian” urges, “[s]tone him / Murder him / But kiss him.” Although German cultural history is rife with representations of nude young men sacrificing themselves, usually for their country, Droste subverts the cultural iconography first of all by luxuriating in what we might call the satisfactions of sacrifice. Then too, the liminality of his thin body—evident also in the photographs—controverts the hard and imposing body that had been the masculine idea before Weimar, would be again under the Nazis, and persists today in popular culture.
In “Astarte,” Berber “is not a woman / She is not a boy / She is not an animal / She is not a god / She is the moon.” Again rejecting all the ways we could classify her in “Orchids,” Berber describes her “sexlessness / That has all sexes within it.” Droste and Berber’s reconstellations of gender and sexuality occur in a particular historical setting. Following the Kaiser’s abdication went most of Imperial Germany’s artistic censorship. The world’s first homosexual rights movement got well underway in Weimar Berlin, not to be matched until the United States of the 1960s. In the era of Magnus Hirschfeld’s pioneering experiments in sexual-reassignment surgery, and in the psychotraumatic aftermath of trench warfare, Berber and Droste manage to usher in the unanticipated: not merely offering modern Germany ironic reflection of its own monstrosity, they afford glimpses of the possibility of radical social change.
In the dance, “Menschen,” or, “People,” we find,
Only two people
Two naked people
And both in a cage
Hard stiff horrible cages
The two king’s children sang songs
But with tears
The man smashes his cage
Convention he spits out.
The artistic motive for naked dancing is to break free of social tradition. This is so, even at the same time that the dancers court a commercial audience. In enacting spectacles of ecstasy for sale, they place the idealization of the naked body, so important in German culture, directly under critique. Berber and Droste recognize that the unexpurgated expression of modern desire, by necessity, must include the dynamic of commodification. The point is not to arrive at some naked purity that has washed away the taint of the commodity; but rather, to assert the fundamental impurity of the human body. Repeatedly in the volume, they insist on both the horror and the ecstasy at once, a complex, multifarious trajectory utterly at odds with the blunt singularity of Nazi—or more generally speaking, patriotic—purpose. Desire in Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy is crucially contaminated, compromised, intense, human.
“Rent boy and girl prostitute / Bodyless / Soulless / Coverless” (“Suicide”). Lurid, gorgeous, silly, daring—Dances of Vice, Horror and Ecstasy eludes easy characterization. The manic refusal to exclude anything from the performance of experiential extremity, no matter how distasteful, inappropriate, or grandiose, works as an overarching gesture of artistic negation, a wiping-clear of the cultural field for which the field, as it turns out, was unprepared—and may remain so today. Berber and Droste delivered to cabaret nightlife what it seemingly most desired, the utmost depravity, sexual extravagance pushed past well-being, health, even livability. In making bluntly obvious that they have to sell precisely what the audience wants to buy, they disallow the assumption of innocent spectatorship. While this spectacle shortly proved too much for Weimar to tolerate, we can, perhaps, from our cultural vantage-point, attempt to come to terms with it. If postwar Berlin, with its commodities stripped bare and its pervasive desentimentalization, presents the grittiest of modern panoramas, without Paris’ multi-colored romanticism or London’s literary flair, it also opens onto, as Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy shows, that flip-side of degradation, utopia.
Decorations - Sketches
7 Poems from Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy