Gertrud Bodenwieser – Reconstruction of a Career in Exile
Interview with Jochen Roller
about his TANZFONDS ERBE project
The Source Code
Gertrud Bodenwieser and her art
I discovered Gertrud Bodenwieser as I was working for a while in Australia and had serious difficulties finding my way there at the start. I decided there must have been other Europeans who had emigrated here so I started researching and came across Gertrud Bodenwieser. I didn’t know anything about her beforehand; I only discovered her in Australia. She was a rather significant personality in Austrian expressionist dance movement, which isn’t big here in Germany, which may explain why I didn’t know about her beforehand, but when you start researching in Australia you notice something interesting: that the impact she had here was very big but there’s no historiography of it, so it’s only by researching that you discover the influence she had on the Australian dance scene, mainly via her school. It’s the classical principle: students have a teacher, students become teachers and the entire learning material and teaching system is disseminated throughout Australia through the students.
The main thing that fascinates me about Gertrud Bodenwieser’s work is the range, which had its roots in her Vienna days, a specificity that wasn’t a particularly big feature of her time in Australia. She put together dance programmes that ranged from comedies via classical movement studies up to dance drama.
She had a spectrum of different styles and genres that were essentially characteristic of her work. This made it difficult to position her in dance history, as it’s far easier when the works have distinctive features of a particular style in which they can be contextualised. What is extremely interesting about her work is what happened after her 20-year career in Austria when she came to Australia and her work changed alongside changes in her personal circumstances. All the students we spoke to described her as a ‘sponge’: the woman who went everywhere, soaked everything up and saw everything, be it music, theatre or exhibitions, and this naturally leaves traces in her Australian work, which I found interesting because I was very touched by the question of what happens when someone who has an illustrious 20-year career is suddenly kicked out the next day, declared to be completely worthless and has to go somewhere else, and at a relatively advanced age. She was born in 1895, which means she arrived in Sydney aged 45 and had to start her career from scratch.
Influence in Australia
All the artists we spoke to spoke of Gertrud Bodenwieser as ‘the mother of modern dance in Australia’, and I think you can say that in the Australian context. What is interesting is what developed in Australian dance history after her death. The influence of Martha Graham was so strong that American modern dance established itself as the reference dance system, so essentially there were these two strands co-existing in the Australian dance scene, but then the aesthetic of American modern dance as expressed by Martha Graham is so much stronger because it is so much more specific in terms of dance science. Martha Graham has trademark movements, contractions and release, and you don’t get that with Bodenwieser. There are two Bodenwieser arcs and certain lines, but it’s mainly about a certain world view that is passed on to spectators via her dance drama, her programme, and above all to her students, so it’s more of a teaching method than the Graham method is, the latter having this ideal type embodied by Martha Graham herself and you have to copy it, do it as best you can, whereas the Bodenwieser technique is based completely on improvisation. There’s a certain number of warm-up movements you do at the barre and then you improvise based on themes. We discovered in our research that the improvisation was based on material that had already been established, so there is a canon, but the main idea is a simple, improvisation-based technique.
Sources and legal issues
We reconstructed the dance drama Errand into the Maze from 1954. The situation in terms of material is that there is a recording of this dance drama from 1960. Gertrud Bodenwieser died in 1959. There was a memorial concert to honour her and the Australian broadcaster ABC said it would record two of her works on video, one of which is Errand into the Maze. The version that was recorded by ABC landed in their archive. You can access this archive via an institution called the National Film and Sound Archive, so you can go there and see the film but we didn’t actually get the film. They wanted to give us the copyright for the film but they couldn’t give us the rights for the choreography.
The legal situation is such that they wanted a letter of confirmation that Gertrud Bodenwieser had signed all her works over to her Emmy Taussig, who was her corrector and knew all her choreographies, in her will. Despite the fact all Bodenwieser ladies know this to have been the case, and no one says it isn’t, no written document exists.
After Emmy Taussig died, the heritage sort of went to Mary Cookson, who founded the Bodenwieser archive with Emmy Taussig, and then to her daughter Barbara Cookson, who knows these choreographies and remembers things. We worked together with her. You could say that in genealogical terms she now owns the choreography for Errand into the Maze, but she doesn’t have it on paper, as no will had been written in 1959.
We then tried another route, the traditional route via the family. It’s a bit complicated, but briefly there were a few relatives in Colombia. Gertrud Bodenwieser had emigrated to Colombia before she went to New Zealand and then to Australia. We discovered someone who would have been her closest relative in Colombia, he had a descendent and from him we got the confirmation that we should do this, that it’s OK with the family, but that wasn’t enough for ABC. And then we thought, OK, we can’t do it this way. Then for a while I tried learning the choreographies in this small booth where you watch the film, to learn them and film myself.
So I wasn’t allowed to film the film but I could film myself watching the film and copying the movements. I didn’t really like doing that as I had already started working with the dancers and I was eager to see what they were going to do with this choreography, i.e. working with the four dancers and seeing how their Australian dance background mixes with Gertrud Bodenwieser’s dances. There was a time when I was almost frantic and thought, OK, we’re not getting far with the project this way, and then something funny happened. I’d got Barbara Cookson involved and she said that the film existed only for those who had organised the memorial concert, i.e. her mother.
She intervened again and noted that the recording form 1960 was essentially a reconstruction. As it had been her mother who had organised this reconstruction back then, her argument was that, according to the legal guidelines, she had the copyright to this reconstruction of the piece, which had its premiere in 1954, played until 1956, but only on a few occasions, and then it was restaged in this memorial concert after Gertrud Bodenwieser’s death, at which point she could no longer have been the author. Then there was also the fact that in the version we had from ABC only half the dancers dancing in it were from the Bodenwieser group while the other half were hired. ABC had hired them and this was something that many dancers criticised in the reconstruction. They said, ‘OK, you’re working with this material but it’s never the original. Half the dancers have not been trained in the Bodenwieser method and you can see that. And you’re working with a copy of a copy.’ They made great efforts to put us on the right path, to describe what the correct Bodenwieser technique is, and then luckily at some point in our work with the older ladies a copy of the film turned up that we could use, so we could actually work with the ABC recording in the studio, but at the same time knowing that we were reconstructing a reconstruction rather than an original.
We worked on the reconstruction for three weeks. I said from the start that I didn’t want to reconstruct the piece, as I didn’t want to get to a point where it becomes a new canon, the original Errand into the Maze, so we worked on various sequences. We extracted them from the piece, so they weren’t rehearsed in the same order. We took a piece from the end and from the middle to see how that worked choreographically. I had two months’ run-up, I researched for two months before I started working with the dancers, then I brought all the material to the rehearsal, as you need all this material in order to have any understanding of the technique. None of the dancers had any real experience with the technique before we started working, and in order to start understanding it you have to know a lot about the context. You can’t understand the technique from the choreographies but from Gertrud Bodenwieser’s biography and the social situation in which it came about.
Then we did lots of things together, reading texts, looking at photos and discussing them, and then at some point the original company members, who were in their late 80s, turned up. At the point where they were included in the rehearsal process, the dancers were already prepared, so there was a pre-prepared image that I had put together from historical documents and we could compare this image directly with what the contemporary witnesses had to say. Naturally, there were things that they illustrated very differently.
Then came the time when we had to decide, based on what we had learned about the choreography, whether to do dance it this way or that. Do we dance it based on the historical documentation or on the way the contemporary witnesses have told us it was danced? That was a very difficult decision, particularly when Carol Brown came to Sydney. Carol Brown had been trained by Shona Dunlop MacTavish, who was the only person to have been in both Bodenwieser’s companies, in the Vienna company and then in the Bodenwieser Ballet, in other words she had accompanied Gertrud Bodenwieser on her dance journey and at some point went to New Zealand and started her own school where Carol Brown became a student. Carol Brown is herself a choreographer in New Zealand and she has translated this entire Bodenwieser dance technique into dance terminology.
There are no names for these Bodenwieser dance figures, well, they have strange names but there isn’t any canon or reference book you can look them up in, e.g. here are the Bodenwieser eights, they work like this etc. and Carol Brown did this work. She tried to canonise all this material so it could be described and understood using choreographic terminology and that was very helpful. And then we had this insane day when we had both Barbara Cookson and Carol Brown with us and we showed them some of our rehearsal pieces. There was of course a clash, as both explained things differently, but that was exactly where everything intersected: Barbara was very context-based and precise about the context while Carol was very precise in terms of finding the origins of the movement, e.g. that comes from the sternum, so you can locate it in the body.
On the term ‚reconstruction‘
It was important for me to say at the start that we aren’t reconstructing anything, i.e. there is no work in the end where you can say, ‘That is the original, it looked like this.’ I think it’s impossible to reconstruct something that happened in 1954 in 2013, not to mention the fact that it happened 16,000 kilometres away from here. What interested me about the project was to reconstruct the context in which this work came about, so we are reconstructing the context. Sections of the choreography are naturally part of it, but what is important is to locate these parts in the context in which they came about, which means that what you will see on the website are extracts form the rehearsals and in the rehearsals we tried to appropriate this piece and that is for me the original document that interests me. I’m not interested in a version that has had ten people’s hands over it and comes very close to the original. It’s about showing this battle that today’s contemporary dancers have in appropriating material from 1954.
What we now have are fragments of the reconstruction, so there are rehearsal fragments and on the website they’ll be put together with the historical documents, the interviews we conducted and the material we collated so online users can create their own reconstructions. The website will been constructed in a way that there can be an almost unlimited number of combinations in terms of the order in which you look at these documents based on your own interest, each combination producing a completely different picture.
From the start, I intended for the reconstruction to take place in the heads of users rather than showing how it grew in my own ingenious head, or where the idea becomes a cemented version that in turn becomes a filmed stage version. It would be horrific to reconstruct it this way, as I don’t believe it works. I don’t know how it could work.
For me it’s about making the reconstruction process completely transparent, to publish everything, or as much as possible, that documents our route, even the false paths taken, as I believe that ultimately the attempt and failure to reconstruct something says as much about the choreography as succeeding in copying it perfectly.
I had the feeling that working with these four Australian dancers who are not trained in the Bodenwieser technique and whose bodies have been socialised in a wholly different context via their training and ethnicity that it was precisely through this failure to be able to present this choreography that you understand a lot about how this technique works. A very simple example: all the Bodenwieser dancers say it was a technique for women, there were no men who danced it back then and that it doesn’t work for men’s bodies, and there’s a duet that was originally danced by two women that is danced by two men in the reconstruction.
There was a lot of discussion about it and we noted that it in fact could be a technique for men and then we look at what is happening right now and it’s two men dancing it, so you can’t speak of a reconstruction in the narrow sense as the original duet was danced by two women, but I think in the transfer to a different type of body you understand a great deal about how this technique works and that is what transparent means for me: I’m not trying to create a space that is an exact copy of the space in 1954; I’m not trying to cast dancers who look like the original dancers; and I’m not trying to create the same lighting or to sew the same costumes. Spirit is a difficult word but it is the spirit of the choreography I want to reconstruct and I think that it emerges in the moment when it clashes with something resistant. I don’t think the spirit of the piece would have emerged had I made perfect copies of the original costumes. It’s a difficult process because there are 100 historical truths and it should be possible to see the full range of these on the website.
The way the website is constructed is a challenge. As an online user, I say, ‘OK, I’m interested in this choreography Errand into the Maze by Gertrud Bodenwieser.’ I go onto the site, www.thesourcecode.de, find a wealth of material and have to find a way to look at this information, and at the moment when I leave the website this PDF, this map, is printed out automatically and shows the path I took. There are a certain number of sequences divided into the different ways you can look at them. There are the sequences we reconstructed in the studio and then there are certain thematic guidelines you can follow, so one possible way could be looking at the sequences in the order they were performed in the original version. That is something the user decides. Another way could be to take a thematic approach, e.g. I’m interested in the theme of immigration, it is shown in this choreography and there’s a link to it. The linking is fixed. The number of links that are technologically possible is not limitless and that’s where you reach the limit. In order to develop this concept radically further then everything would have to be linked or linkable, and at some point a programmer says, ‘This is what you get for the money you’re paying me, so now it’s up to you to decide.’ The other thing is that when you link something another 10 links emerge. Every link provides you with information about something else and you can combine and relate it to other things. Then you have to decide and say, ‘OK that’s our framework, we’ll define it in this way,’ and then at some point you’ve reached the end. The research phase has more or less ended now, but we’re still getting new material coming in so now we’ve developed a kind of auxiliary function: we’re first going to launch the website using the material we have so far, and then we’re going to try and gradually build in the new information that to some extent throws a different light on the information we already have, e.g. all these contacts we now have. Every week, someone writes to me and says, ‘Hey I’ve heard you’ve done this Bodenwieser project, I was the student of whomever, I still have these wonderful pictures, do you want them?’ I should say that as far as the project itself is concerned the research phase is over and the photos won’t be included. But you just can’t do it.
Archive: digital vs. analogue
For me, the materiality of the online archive is the best way of preserving someone’s choreographic work. When I think about how many thousands of kilometres we travelled to be able to look at a single document, the number of papers we had to fill out, it was very clear that we were doing so much work in order that people who came after us wouldn’t have to do it themselves. The bureaucracy you have to plough through to get the information you want is an absolute joke. Naturally it’s great to hold a letter from Gertrud Bodenwieser in the hand: ‘This letter is in Australia so I have to go to Australia if I want to touch this letter.’ I’m privileged, as I was able to do all these journeys. I mean, who can afford that? What I find exciting about an Internet archive is that everyone, regardless of how much money he or she has, or where he or she lives in the world, can look at it, so this question of tactility is a luxury problem. Of course I could give anybody 2,000 euros and say, ‘Go and visit Barbara Cookson,’ but that doesn’t happen. Of course the traditional archive has certain advantages, for example being able to rummage around in old things, and looking at things closely, which you can’t do on a computer screen. But still, I would question this entire archive system. The Bodenwieser archive was pre-sorted and then given to the National Library in Canberra, but when you see how many errors there are, how many things are wrongly dated, wrong people attributed… You can only recognise and find these things out when you go deeply into the archive yourself, but it puts a question mark over the traditional archive system. Everything is so high security, locked away, and it’s extremely difficult to get close to things. I wanted to see this letter that was written to Gertrud Bodenwieser in which it’s written that her husband has been murdered in Auschwitz. I had the feeling I had to read that letter. And then there was this entire abstraction I had to go through in order to get this letter: now let’s see, there are nine Bodenwieser boxes. Is it in the biographical area or the personal area? So I have to guess whether it’s in box 3 or 4. Then someone pre-sorted it and said, ‘OK certain things concern the Bodenwieser family and other things concern the Bodenwieser dancers, but Bodenwieser always considered her dancers as family.’ So then I think, OK it was her husband, so I’ll look in the family area then after two hours I realise that it must be in folder 126.96.36.199.7, and then I have to fill out a card on which I write this code, then I have to get the card signed by two people and then in two days I can see this letter. That letter is now online because I was allowed to photocopy it and I think that is a thousand times better.
It was a good experience for me to do a reconstruction, as as it hadn’t interested me in the least beforehand. When Tanzfonds Erbe was set up, I thought, ‘Yes, of course I’d like the money,’ and then I thought what type of application would interest me as a reconstruction. At first, I thought, ‘OK I have to find an artistic methodology that is similar to my own choreographic practice and which would interest me in a reconstruction.’ This is how the idea of the online archive came about, and then it’s another a big step forward when the reconstruction actually takes place, when you’re not only a choreographer but everything, a curator, reconstructor, sociologist and dance historian at one at the same time. I learned so much from this work, even choreographically, and in the arrogance of my self-perception as a contemporary artist this necessity to deal with history never occurred to me before. It gave me a lot of strength and context for my own work, as Gertrud Bodenwieser had ultimately worked very similarly to the way I was working in that she had always seen her work as socio-political commentary, and it was fun to study the work of someone who did that 60 years ago. What I found really interesting was that when we started the reconstruction in Australia everyone found the idea of doing this reconstruction irrelevant, not just me but also the dancers. They said, ‘Why do we have to reconstruct? Why should things be reconstructed anyway?’ Then it was clear we had to do it, we were being paid to do it, but I think this detour, that we weren’t interested in the least in doing a reconstruction, generated lots of fresh methodology. There was always this resistance. We never sat together as a project group and said we’d reconstruct Errand into the Maze. That was a position I’d scrutinised and taken before starting the reconstruction and I think the fact we asked ourselves every morning why we were doing it gave the reconstruction a good spin. One of the dancers said it well at the end of the project: she said it was totally sublime that we had to question it every day, as we all saw ourselves as contemporary dance artists rather than reconstructors and every day we had to redefine why we were doing it. In a way, a reconstruction is in fact about copying someone else. As a choreographer, I initially found this idea that I should copy someone else’s work illogical. Why should I copy someone else’s work? I chose this profession to create something new, but the great thing about this reconstruction work was discovering that it wasn’t just about copying something, but finding new, creative appropriation methods and it made sense as a choreographer to reconstruct a piece, when you say the new isn’t in the creation of new material but in the generation of new ways of appropriation. This made the process a creative one and it became comprehensible and plausible for everyone, and it was very interesting for me to discover the creative potential of a reconstruction.
Interview guidelines – Martin Nachbar, Isabel Niederhagen
Content edit – Isabel Niederhagen
Camera and film edit – Andrea Keiz
Recorded 3 August 2013 in Berlin