In the Tiergarten district of Berlin we find ourselves on Lützowstrasse under a grey, frigid sky. As we walk westward the streets are all but empty. We pass Magdeburger Platz where once stood a covered market, a playground for the young Walter Benjamin whose family home overlooked the square. The actual playground which now stands in its place is deserted, desolate, like an establishing shot in a made-for-TV divorce drama. At Genthiner Strasse we wait – with Teutonic obedience – at the lights, although there is no traffic to breach the stillness. We look right – there is the Defence Ministry staring down the street, built in 1914 as the headquarters of the navy with which the Kaiser hoped to win the imminent war; we look left – the Twelve Apostles Church directly facing it at the other end of the street, its reproach muted once its bells were melted down in 1917 for the now-doomed war effort.
But not all was quiet on the home front during the Great War. With Genthiner Strasse behind us we pass a four-storey building presenting an incongruously Aegean face to the winter morning, and next to it we note a wall set back from the street announcing “You’ve reached your destination”. And it’s true – we have reached our destination, but we are not here to see “Berlin’s finest bathroom display” as the wall further infers, but rather the lifeless void before it.
This was not, of course, the car park of a sanitary ware showroom at the time. Here, in 1916, stood the largest of three halls in a complex which usually went by the name of the main auditorium: Blüthnersaal. One of Berlin’s major performance venues, the Blüthnersaal (later Bachsaal) was noted for its outstanding acoustics; a number of early Deutsche Grammophon offerings were recorded here. The remains of the adjoining Schumannsaal are still somewhere in that building to the left, a surviving pediment one of the few outward signs of its former life.
Had you been browsing the 24 February 1916 edition of the Berliner Tageblatt newspaper you might well have overlooked the announcement of “an evening of dance” at the Blüthnersaal with “Rita Sacchetto and her dance school”. The brief notice was merely one of dozens. World War One had been raging for over a year and a half – the Battle of Verdun had just begun and would consume much of 1916 – but even in these dark times the German capital offered a rich variety of diversions. The eclectic urban sophisticate could choose between the earthy stylings of Cläre (later Claire) Waldoff, a performance of Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem, romantic propaganda film With Heart and Hand for the Fatherland – forbidden to minors in its native Austria (in Berlin, on the other hand, children could see the matinée free with a paying adult) – the Association for Jewish History and Literature pondering the question, “What does Moses Mendelssohn have to say to us in wartime?”, Austrian piano virtuoso Artur Schnabel, avant-garde dancer Clotilde von Derp at the Wintergarten, Oedipus Rex under the direction of Max Reinhardt at the newly built Volksbühne, an ice ballet, copious operettas and military bands by the batallion.
Munich-born dancer Rita Sacchetto, the boldface name in that inconspicuous notice, had been electrified by an Isadora Duncan performance early in the century and had already toured the Americas, appearing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York at the invitation of Loie Fuller. Taking Duncan’s innovations even further, she was at the vanguard of a new, expressive form of dance for which Germany was the undisputed centre; Mary Wigman was another important figure of this movement, so too Clotilde von Derp, then appearing across town. In 1914 Sacchetto settled in Berlin, where she established a dance school. The following year Anita Berber arrived in the city and soon gravitated to Sacchetto’s school.
Berber was a teenager, barely older than the century, when she made her debut at the Blüthnersaal. The pieces choreographed by Sacchetto largely referenced antiquity, a necessary alibi for their progressive movement vocabulary and brief costumes in pastel shades. As well as ensemble pieces such as “Cupid, Psyche and Zephyr”, Berber had three solo appearances, “Allegory of Spring”, “The Rose” and “Diana with Arrow”. It was still a long way from her 1920s work with dance partner Sebastian Droste, with its explicit references to drug usage, psychological terror and transgressive sex – and frequent nudity. But Berber’s physical beauty was a constant, and she made the most of it from the beginning.
Valeska Gert stood out from the rest of the corps in every way. Eight years older than Berber, she was not a full-time pupil of Sacchetto; even then her anarchic movements could not be tamed or schooled. “You’re quite taken with yourself?” Sacchetto asked when Gert first presented her angular, grimacing choreography. Gert answered in the affirmative. On the evening of her debut she dressed in a garish paraphrase of the other dancers’ costumes. Her “Dance in Orange” echoed the violence of the age which was otherwise banished from the capital’s stages. In her autobiography Ich bin eine Hexe (“I am a witch”) Gert recalls standing in the wings, watching Berber dance:
I burnt with the desire to burst into this sweetness. Full of arrogance I exploded like a bomb out of the wings. And the moves which I had danced gently and gracefully in the rehearsal I now exaggerated wildly. With enormous steps I strode across the stage, arms swinging like a huge pendulum, hands spread, my face distorted into an impudent grimace.
Then I danced sweetly. Indeed, I can be sweet too, much sweeter than everyone else. The next moment the audience got another slap in the face. This dance was the spark in the powder keg. The audience exploded, shouted, whistled, cheered. I withdrew with an arrogant grin. Without me wanting it or being aware of it, modern dance satire was born. And by immediately following sweetness with arrogance, the soft with the hard, for the first time I created something which was highly characteristic of this time – imbalance.
Gert’s contrary nature, her drive to up-end expectations as soon as they were set, was evident throughout her long career. Well into the 1970s she performed a monologue in which she assumed the persona of notorious SS camp commandant Ilse Koch, switching between entreaty and savagery. And here, in her first stage appearance, we find her presenting a parody of the very show in which she appeared. Two and three-quarter years before the Weimar Republic began, its most radical creative force had arrived, fully formed. The mockery, nihilism and confrontation, the piston-driven energies, hard glare and dark shadows of 1920s Berlin performance are all here.
The very next day Sacchetto’s troupe was required to repeat the performance for the authorities, vigilant for any sign of depravity that might compromise the pious, positive, patriotic tone expected of the capital’s wartime entertainment. Berber refused, Gert obliged, but – unable to disengage her sarcasm – played the part of a diligent pupil, counting out her steps. She went straight on to a gig at the cinema on nearby Nollendorfplatz, where she and artist’s model Sidi Riha performed between reels. Meanwhile, Rita Sacchetto took her troupe on the road and before the year was out Berber had emerged as its star.
In the 1920s, Berber and Gert would pursue scandalous careers, but the nature of their scandals differed. Berber offered audiences a vicarious hit of the kind of demi-mondaine kicks which would so radically shorten her own life. She took her cues from German auteur cinema which in turn was inspired by Expressionism, which had been the dominant voice in Germany’s avant-garde art and literature since the early part of the century. But Gert dismissed films such as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as “kitsch”, preferring to draw directly on archetypes and ideals, distending their defining features to create something grotesque and entirely new. The implications of her work – with its radical presentiments of performance art – are still being explored to this day.
The Blüthnersaal went on with its high-minded fare of dance performances, classical recitals and public talks. Both Berber and Gert would return, separately, but two speakers in particular offer a vivid contrast typical of this polarised age: Adolf Hitler in 1927, and in 1931 Chaim Weizmann, then a Zionist activist who would later be the first President of Israel. While damaged in the Second World War, the venue itself fared better than many buildings in this area. It took a fire in 1949 to finally take out the birthplace of radical Weimar performance.