Impekoven, Niddy (1904—)

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Impekoven, Niddy (1904—)

German dancer of the Weimar epoch who combined several styles to become one of the most renowned artists on the periphery of expressionist dance. Born Luise Antonie Crescentia Impekoven in Berlin, Germany, on November 2, 1904; daughter of Toni Impekoven and Frida (Kobler) Impekoven; children: one daughter.

In November 1992, Swiss newspapers and German-language dance journals reported the 90th birthday of a virtually forgotten dancer who had once dazzled audiences around the world. For 15 years, Niddy Impekoven had created her own unique style of dance, veering close to the expressionism of the day but never indulging in its emotional excesses. Famous in her own day, she retired in the mid-1930s and by the start of World War II had begun to slip into obscurity.

Born in Berlin in 1904, Niddy Impekoven grew up in an artistic environment, her father Toni enjoying a solid reputation both as an actor and successful playwright. By age three, Niddy's parents noted with approval her spontaneous dancing to any music heard in the house. In 1910, soon after beginning her formal dance training, Niddy made her stage debut in Berlin at a charity performance. Declared a child prodigy, she found herself facing pressure from her parents to prepare for a career as a professional dancer. Soon after her successful debut, the Impekovens moved to Frankfurt am Main, where Niddy continued her studies with Heinrich Kröller (1880–1930), a noted dancer, ballet master and choreographer, whose goal was to fuse classical traditions with modern trends; he succeeded in this, particularly in the works he choreographed for several compositions by Richard Strauss.

After three years of intensive study of classical ballet with Kröller, Impekoven moved to Munich in 1917, where she studied classical gymnastics at the famous Bieberstein Castle School. Her first solo program, presented in 1918 at Berlin's Theater unter den Linden, was designed with the advice of Kröller. The numbers included Der gefangene Vogel (The Caged Bird), Schalk (Rascal), Puppentänzen (Doll Dances), and Das Leben der Blume (The Life of Flowers). A war-weary audience was transported into a better world by the artistry of the young girl. The music she chose was invariably classical—Bach, Chopin, Mozart, Schubert and Schumann being among her favorite composers.

Although many contemporary critics felt Impekoven to be unsurpassed in her portrayals of innocent country maidens or in her dances to the music of Mozart, she was also a child of her time. Reflecting her tormented era in German history, she often performed expressionistic works that mirrored the world, including the grotesque Pretzel Puppen (Pretzel Dolls). Her multifaceted artistic personality was also revealed in a number of humorous sketches, including Münchner Kaffeewärmer (Munich Coffeepot), and several short classically based ballets, among them Harlekin and Pizzicato.

Emotionally sensitive as well as artistically gifted, Impekoven experienced a crisis in her mid-teen years. The demands of sudden success and pressure from her parents served to trigger severe depression in 1919. She appeared to have given up the will to live and was taken by her parents to recuperate at the Hotel Quellenhof in the spa resort of Bad Ragaz, Switzerland. Losing weight rapidly, she was likely suffering not only from depression but from anorexia nervosa, and her physician as well as her parents and friends became increasingly concerned about her health.

Soon after arriving at Bad Ragaz, Impekoven met the German playwright Reinhard Goering and informed her parents, "Only this person can help me." He, too, was convinced he could cure their daughter. Goering moved into the house where the Impekovens were staying and began his course of treatment, a diet of raw fruits and vegetables, while discouraging any attempts to force Niddy to eat. Within two weeks, she broke her fast and began to recover her health.

Goering then remained secluded in his room for three days, while he meditated and wrote a new drama. He told the Impekovens that Die Retter (The Saviors) presented to the world "the kind of love that exists between the little sister (das Schwesterchen) and myself." The "little sister" was Impekoven, and Goering, who was married at the time, urged that she consider him her "brother." Though the relationship between the two was platonic and contemplative, years later Goering described his affiliation with the young dancer as one in which they had been able to "converse with each other without speaking. Only then and there and never again did I ever experience anything like this." Recovered, Impekoven returned to her career, but Goering began to send her letters virtually every day. After a while, she decided not to answer each of these, but they continued to arrive even when she spent her next holiday with her grandmother in Switzerland. The suspicious grandmother decided to hide Goering's letters from Niddy, who did not discover them for over three decades. Upon reading them, she learned that the long-unopened missives from Goering to her had in fact been passionate declarations of love.

Throughout the 1920s, Impekoven was acknowledged to be one of the most creative as well as popular dancers in German-speaking Central Europe. She was at home on the stages of Berlin, Munich, Vienna, and Prague, and when the famous Austrian novelist Arthur Schnitzler saw her perform at Vienna's Renaissance Theater in November 1923, he noted in his diary: "Niddy Impekoven: wonderful dancer." She moved in the highest intellectual circles counting as her acquaintances many of the leading artists of the day, including the novelist Thomas Mann. Despite her youth, she was considered an authority on various forms of

dance and in 1925 served as consultant (along with Tamara Karsavina ) on the film Wege zur Kraft und Schönheit (Paths to Strength and Beauty), a documentary calling for a revitalized German national identity after years of war and humiliation. This motion picture, produced by Berlin's Universum (UFA) studios, celebrated sports, exercise techniques, outdoor festivities, and modern-dance forms, while reenacting the sports and outdoor celebrations of Greek and Roman antiquity.

By the early 1930s, Impekoven was an international celebrity, performing in the Far East and the United Kingdom. Her visits to Paris were sensations, with French critics heaping praise on her for her interpretation of the second movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." French audiences were delighted with her depiction of a woman of the streets, accompanied by the modernist music of Darius Milhaud. During her visit to London in October 1931, The Times reported that her portrayal of "The Life of a Flower" was representative of "the modern school of dancing in which the feet have been dethroned from their old supremacy as the chief means of expression…. [I]t is the hands that domost towards the portrayal of the whole process from the opening of the petals to their shrivelling and fall." Furthermore, she was praised for showing "that her command of humour is as great as her command of beauty, and perfectly realized for us how a 'Münchener Kaffeewärmer' [a personified tea-cozy] would dance a waltz, if cosies did dance."

Although only in her 20s, by 1933 Impekoven was considering retiring from the stage. It had been more than two decades since she made her stage debut in 1910 at age six. The Nazi takeover in 1933 also alarmed her. Not only were some of her colleagues now being persecuted and driven from their careers because they were Jewish or politically unreliable, the very future of modern dance in the Third Reich was in jeopardy. Certain aspects of the moderndance movement, particularly the ones that had cultivated strength, physical beauty and vitality, such as rhythmic gymnastics and mass dance, were seen as a path to a revived German nation and were thus encouraged. The other strand of modern dance during the pre-Nazi Weimar period, which had emphasized often sharp social and political satire, was now characterized as Cultural Bolshevism (Kulturbolschewismus) and was outlawed. Although Impekoven had rarely made direct political statements in her art, she was too much an individualist and humanist to be able to co-exist with the demands of Hitler's regime.

During the 1933–34 season, Impekoven gave her farewell appearances in Germany. Soon after, she moved to Switzerland to raise a young daughter and be close to her mother's family. Never interested in teaching, she did not leave behind a specific style of dancing, always having been eclectic and catholic in her tastes. For many years she lived in the city of Basel, eventually moving to Bad Ragaz, the spa resort where she had entranced Reinhard Goering so many decades earlier. Here Niddy Impekoven would celebrate her 90th birthday in November 1994, informing one of her interviewers, "Dancing, that is something I only do once in a while in my dreams."


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia