Wiesenthal, Grete (1885–1970)
Wiesenthal, Grete (1885–1970)
Austrian dancer and choreographer who developed new dance forms based on the Viennese waltz and by 1914 had become an international star as the "ambassador of waltz." Born Margarete Wiesenthal in Vienna on December 9, 1885; died in Vienna on June 22, 1970; daughter of Franz Wiesenthal (a painter) and Rosa (Ratkovsky) Wiesenthal; had one brother and five sisters, including Elsa, Berta and Martha Wiesenthal; married Erwin Lang, in June 1910 (divorced 1923); married Nils Silfverskjöld (a Swedish physician), in 1923 (divorced 1927); children: son, Martin.
Born in Vienna in 1885 into an artistic family (her father was a successful academic painter), Grete Wiesenthal grew up at the center of the artistic and intellectual life of late imperial Austria. Avant-garde culture would be central to her career, but she began her life as a dancer within the traditions of ballet as it flourished in late 19th-century Vienna. Grete and her five sisters and brother grew up in an atmosphere saturated by music; thus, their transition from music to dance was a natural course of events. As a child, Grete was observant of the movements of the feet of peasants who came to Vienna on Sunday in order to perform dances in the open. To her, the dancers' feet seemed to be carrying on conversations with one another. Around the age of seven, when she was taken to see a ballet performance at Vienna's Hofoper (Court Opera), she was enthralled and wanted to leap from her seat in order to join the ballerinas on stage. The next day, she solemnly announced to her parents that she wanted to be a ballet dancer. In September 1895, she was enrolled at the Hofoper ballet school. A year later, her sister Elsa Wiesenthal also began to take instruction there.
In later years, Wiesenthal noted that when she began her ballet studies in Vienna the art was very much in a state of decline, routinely filled with kitsch and indifferent to any artistic expression, emphasizing instead a technique and drill that were boring, monotonous, and empty of meaning. Even so, Grete and Elsa continued their studies, and both sisters aspired to advance through the traditional ballet ranks of coryphée, corps leader, soloist, mimic and prima ballerina. Wiesenthal entered the corps in 1901 and one year later she and Elsa advanced to the level of coryphée. Grete's talents were recognized by Hofoper teacher and ballet master Joseph Hassreiter, but by this time she was finding it increasingly onerous to conform:
It became difficult for me to dance in the line; too easily I leapt forward somewhat or stayed back out of fear that the ballet master, the next day in rehearsal, could say: 'And Wiesenthal had again danced out of line, yes; do you always want to be the star?' Oh, I so honestly endeavored to stay in the line correctly and had, for the time being, had enough of the effort to become a star. But I was obviously not created for the line.
In the early 1900s, innovation was rampant in Vienna. In February 1902, Isadora Duncan danced there for the first time, introducing her influential new style to the Viennese, and artistic rebellion in general was in the air. Over the next few years, Wiesenthal's frustration with ballet only increased as it became clear to her that if she remained in a world dominated by individuals like Hassreiter her "desire for expression would stay unsatisfied and … I would have to experience everything lifeless." Feeling that the movements of ballet were severely limiting the expressive possibilities of the human body, the Wiesenthal sisters began to work on their own at home. While another sister accompanied them on the piano and their mother Rosa watched with sympathetic interest, Grete and Elsa choreographed new ways of moving and expressing themselves through dance. Their first completed dance routine was set to a Chopin waltz. Grete had found the path she would take for the remainder of her long, productive career. The second piece she worked on was the "Blue Danube Waltz" by Johann Strauss, Jr., a Viennese favorite she had seen performed many times at the Hofoper. In her autobiography, Wiesenthal tells how each time she saw the "Blue Danube Waltz" performed as part of the Strauss operetta Die Fledermaus, she would experience a shudder of ecstasy.
In 1907, Grete's opportunity presented itself when Hofoper scenic designer Alfred Roller and director Gustav Mahler decided to do away with the stuffy ballet conventions that had prevailed until then. Both men were aware of Wiesenthal's talent and ambitions, and Roller offered her the role of the mute woman Fenella in Daniel François Auber's opera La Muette de Portici, giving her considerable artistic freedom. The new production had its debut on February 27, 1907, and was a great success. Despite this, in late May, both Grete and Elsa left the Hofoper ballet, seeking artistic autonomy. Allied with the Secession circle of innovators, the sisters performed that June at an outdoor "Festival of Art, Nature, and Youth," the piece being a pantomime, Die Tänzerinnen und die Marionette (The Dancers and the Marionette).
That winter, on January 14, 1908, Grete and Elsa, joined by their sister Berta Wiesenthal , gave a performance of their new dance routines at Vienna's Cabaret Fledermaus. This fashionable cabaret had been opened some six months earlier by Fritz Wärndorfer, a founding member of the arts and crafts cooperative Wiener Werkstätte (Viennese Workshop). Reflecting the nascent international spirit in dance, that of New Dance (Ausdruckstanz), which reflected the passions found in Expressionist art, the performance of the Wiesenthal sisters that evening was both a triumph and a revelation for Vienna's artists and intellectuals. "One hardly finds artists in whom such an authentic and holy fire of enthusiasm is burning as is the case of the Wiesenthal sisters," wrote a reviewer for the Fremdenblatt.
Weeks after their appearance at the Cabaret Fledermaus, the Wiesenthal sisters were stars. With the support of the poet and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal, they performed in Berlin and most of Germany's other large cities. In Berlin, they danced at Max Reinhardt's innovative Deutsches Theater, ending a special performance of Lysistrata for which von Hofmannsthal had written a prologue. In 1909, the sisters performed again in Berlin and Vienna, with Grete dancing the role of the first elf in Reinhardt's production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Munich's Artist's Theater. For three months, from July through October 1909, the sisters performed at London's Hippodrome (between acrobatic acts, singers, and clown acts). That October, they followed their London success with an appearance at the Théâtre du Vaudeville in Paris.
The year 1910 brought significant changes in Grete's life. Professionally, in April she made her debut in Berlin in the pantomime Sumurùn, produced by Reinhardt. Wiesenthal regarded this as the first time that a truly modern pantomime had been seen on any stage. She made a distinction between traditional forms of pantomime using a sign language (Zeichensprache) to make the plot understandable, and the modern pantomime, which made its plot comprehensible to audiences through large movements of the characters, such as lying down, standing up, or walking. Personally, Wiesenthal married the painter Erwin Lang in June 1910. Lang, a son of Austrian feminist leader Marie Lang (1858–1934), had been inseparable from Wiesenthal for several years and had sketched costumes for her. That same year, Grete ended her dance partnership with her sisters. Elsa and Berta opened a dance school in Vienna, also giving performances of their own as a duo.
Grete made her United States debut at the Winter Garden in New York City on April 16, 1912, sharing a decidedly eclectic bill called "The Whirl of Society" with, among other performers, Al Jolson and the eight Texas Tommies. Her performance appears to have garnered more critical than popular acclaim, and a trade paper commented that she was "rather out of place in the noisy Texas Tommy and Bunny Hug affair." Upon her return to Europe, she created the role of the Kitchen Boy in Max Reinhardt's Stuttgart production of Der Bürger als Edelmann, with music by Richard Strauss. Soon after, Wiesenthal was pleased to discover that Hugo von Hofmannsthal had contracted with Sergei Diaghilev
for her to guest perform with the Ballets Russes during their upcoming 1913 Paris season. There were also plans to unite Reinhardt with Diaghilev for that production, but unfortunately Wiesenthal could not appear for health reasons. Instead, she discovered a new area for her art: the motion picture. In the spring of 1913, the German firm Deutsche Bioscop G.m.b.H. announced a "Grete Wiesenthal Series." Three films appeared before the summer of 1914: Kadra Sâfa, Erlkönigs Tochter (The Erl King's Daughter), and Die goldne Fliege (The Golden Fly). But the onset of World War I ended any further work by her in this medium.
The First World War left deep and lasting scars on Wiesenthal's life and art. The youthful innocence her dancing evoked was forever lost through that ghastly conflict. Her husband Erwin Lang became a prisoner of war in Russia, not returning to Vienna until 1920. Wiesenthal and Lang divorced three years later, but would remain friends until his death in 1962. By 1917, Vienna was a city of starving widows, orphans and beggars. Writing in the Neue Freie Presse in a forced spirit of optimism, Raoul Auernheimer insisted that "one could say of Wiesenthal that she danced Austria. And she dances it, one needs to note, in the midst of a war which threatens to devastate her art as well…. [I]t may not be so easy right now to come up with this exuberance of the limbs which constitutes her dance [but] nevertheless, being the determined Viennese that she is, … she dances toward a better future."
In 1919, soon after the end of a war that deprived the world, including Wiesenthal, of affluence and elegance, she opened her own dancing school in the "Hohe Warte," in Vienna's upscale suburb of Döbling. Despite postwar inflation and political chaos, she trained promising students, and soon went on tour with the best of them and her male partner Toni Birkmeyer. In 1923, she married a Swedish physician, Nils Silfverskjöld, but the union ended in divorce in 1927. That year, Wiesenthal triumphantly returned to the Vienna stage at the Staatsoper (State Opera House), in the lead role of her ballet Der Taugenichts in Wien (The Ne'er-Do-Well in Vienna). Despite Austria's desperate political and economic situation in the early 1930s, she remained active professionally, appearing in solo dance concerts and tours, including a return to New York in 1933, this time accompanied by her male dancing partner, Willy Fränzl, the ballet master of the Staatsoper, and her youngest sister Martha Wiesenthal , leader of a string quartet. Wrote dance critic John Martin in The New York Times: "Grete Wiesenthal was one of a small number of pioneers who dedicated themselves to vitalizing the dance in a period when it was in dire need of their ministrations…. Hers was in its day exhilarating dancing, make no mistake. When it can be seen, at some future time, in relation to its period, it will again be exhilarating dancing. It has had the misfortune to be imported at exactly the wrong moment."
Although she was now seen by some as representative of the lost world of pre-1914 European culture, Wiesenthal remained popular in her home city of Vienna. In May 1934, she gave the opening performance at the International Dance Week held there. That September, she was appointed a professor of dance at Vienna's prestigious Academy for Music and the Performing Arts. But the world of Old Austria that she embodied was doomed, not only by the passage of time but by the rise of a Nazi Germany which despised the cosmopolitan and "decadent" style of prewar Austria. In January 1938, only a few weeks before the Anschluss that permitted Adolf Hitler to enter Vienna in triumph, Wiesenthal danced in public for the last time, partnered by Toni Birkmeyer, at a gala Festabend (evening of celebration). In August 1939, because of her close ties to Richard Strauss she was able to create the dances for the Salzburg Festival production of the Hofmannsthal-Strauss adaptation of Der Bürger als Edelmann. Within weeks, Europe was once again at war. For the next six years, Wiesenthal's career was in limbo. During the Nazi period, she presided over an informal salon that brought together artists of various shadings of anti-Nazi sentiments, allowing her to play a role, if only a modest one, in traditional Austria's cultural resistance to fascism.
After 1945, Wiesenthal's work enjoyed a renaissance in Austria, especially the dances she created for various Salzburg Festival productions. From 1945 until 1952, she held the post of director of the artistic dance section of the Academy for Music and the Performing Arts. A slightly revised edition of her autobiography, first published in 1919 as Der Aufstieg (The Way Upwards), appeared in 1947 under the title Die ersten Schritte (The First Steps). She even ventured into creative writing, publishing a novel, Iffi: Roman einer Tänzerin (Iffi: Novel of a Dancer), in 1951. Her last creative effort was her production of the dances for Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Salzburg Festival in July 1953. After Grete Wiesenthal died in Vienna on June 22, 1970, critics and audiences alike began to rediscover and reevaluate her remarkable legacy, a process that is still underway.
Above all else, Grete Wiesenthal will be remembered for having transformed the Viennese waltz from a monotonous one-two-three movement, performed by fixedly smiling dancers laced into corsets, into an ecstatic experience, performed by dancers with unbound hair and swinging dresses. For her, waltzing was bliss, but it could also represent suspicion and menace—something that George Balanchine would later embody in his choreography. Her legacy was a new method of dancing whose primary goal was to overcome the static quality of classical ballet, and, in an endless flow of movement, to dissolve all traces of posing. "Effortlessness, flying and swinging movement, rapture, and the capacity to be deeply moved by music were the characteristics of Grete Wiesenthal," writes Maria Josefa Schaffgotsch . "She specialized in translating into dance the flowing, wavelike quality of three-quarter time as embodied in Strauss waltzes."
Arbeitsgemeinschaft "Biografisches Lexikon der österreichischen Frau," Dokumentationsstelle Frauenforschung im Institut für Wissenschaft und Kunst, Berggasse 17, Vienna, biographical file on Grete Wiesenthal.
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Prenner, Ingeborg. "Grete Wiesenthal, die Begründerin eines neuen Tanzstils." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Vienna, 1950.
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Wiesenthal, Grete. Der Aufstieg: Aus dem Leben einer Tänzerin. Berlin: Ernst Rowohlt, 1919.
——. Die Biene: Eine Pantomime in zehn Bildern. Berlin: Drei Masken, 1916.
——. Iffi: Roman einer Tänzerin. Vienna: Amandus, 1951.
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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia