Mel Gordon’s Notes on Expressionism with 1917 clipping, Mel Gordon Collection, Box 12, Harry Ransom Center.
by MACAELLA GRAY
In 2018, The New York Times lauded historian, curator, and writer Mel Gordon as a “drama scholar of the fringe.”
At first glance, the so-called “fringe” certainly seems to find a home in the Mel Gordon Papers at the Harry Ransom Center, with materials ranging from anthologies on erotic dance to German and French adult magazines.
Mel Gordon earned his PhD at New York University in performance studies and taught popular classes on theater at UC Berkeley throughout the 1990s. Focusing on histories of 20th-century sex and eroticism, mysticism, horror, and spectacle, Gordon wrote Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin and Horizontal Collaboration: The Erotic World of Paris, 1920-1946—earning him a reputation as a “provocative, risqué storyteller.”
Based on his book titles alone, one can see how Gordon’s language tends to sensationalize 1920s Berlin and Paris—epochs often mythologized with tales of crazed sex and loose morals. However, at the heart of Gordon’s scholarship lies a contradiction: he challenges historical mythologies as much as he contributes to them. Gordon often questions the perceived marginality of the communities and figures he writes about, including the German silent film actress, dancer, and poet Anita Berber.
Knowing so little about dance and performance histories, Anita Berber immediately caught my attention. In 1920s Weimar Berlin, Berber was known for her “perverse” nude dances and gender fluidity on and off the stage. While I had never heard of Berber before my research in the Mel Gordon Papers, I was immediately skeptical about The New York Times’ characterization of Mel Gordon’s research subjects—of which Weimar Berlin and Anita Berber take up a large percentage—as “fringe,” especially considering Berber is now heralded as a bisexual icon of her moment.
The word “fringe” and its sister terms “marginal” and “periphery” all assert a specific configuration of physical space: one which is of a being off to the side, at the very edge of something, and out of sight. As a researcher who often works with queer histories and communities, there is rarely a time when I study a figure who I would consider simply and singularly “marginal” or wholly divorced from the canonical “center.”
To understand how Anita Berber and Mel Gordon’s research materials related to the “fringe” and its various interpretations, I decided to take a closer look into Berber using the many primary materials and translated texts in the Mel Gordon Papers.
Anita Berber was born in 1899 in Dresden, Germany. In his 1929 fictionalized account of Berber’s life, Dance in the Dark, writer Leo Lania explains that the dancer lived much of her early years amidst World War I.
According to Lania, the bleakness of war-time daily life inspired Berber to enroll in Rita Sachetto’s dance school. Here she was trained in avant-garde choreography and the style of Ausdruckstanz, or Expressive dancing. In addition to Ausdruckstanz, other dance styles such as Nachttanz (nude dance) and cabaret contributed to a broader dance craze that swept post-war Germany.
Generally speaking, interwar Germany or the “Golden Twenties” was marked by economic prosperity and increasingly relaxed moral boundaries. In his 1931 text, “Social History of Inflation,” critic Hans Oswald claims it was a “new lust for life, rising from war-time misery and general greater freedom,” which allowed for the ubiquity of dance and bodies on display in 1920s Weimar Berlin.
As Oswald indicates, these heterogeneous dance cultures were sites to experiment with changing tastes, cultural boundaries, and morals. At the same time, Ausdruckstanz and other dance styles represented a counter-movement against the understood rigidity of conservative ballet traditions; they also offered alternative definitions of beauty and sexuality.
In her provocative dances, Berber often represented encounters with drugs, sex, and physical and emotional pain (many of which she had personal experience with). For example, in her Cocaine dance, Berber, playing an addict, would awaken on a table. Subsequently, her body would visibly shake and tremble.
Through a series of seemingly unstructured twists and turns, Berber would eventually collapse on stage. The audience would then witness her tragic, drug-induced death. In general, Berber’s movements and form seemed to attend to the dancer’s interior life and experiences, one of the central tenets of Ausdruckstanz at the time.
According to German expressionist Kasimir Edschmid, the Expressionist poet “possesses even greater, more direct feelings,” and he “experiences directly.” Echoing Edschmid, 1930s critic Joe Jenick states, “in her work [Berber] transformed extreme experiences into a more extreme work of art.” While Jenick celebrates Berber’s expressionist artistry on and off the stage, others found her to evoke Weimar Berlin’s “New Woman.” Both desired and feared, this modern woman went out to bars, engaged in drinking and drug use, and often appeared somewhat “boyish” and androgynous.
As I realized Anita Berber’s significance to then-contemporary discourses around dance, modernism, and Weimar Berlin’s cultural moment, it seemed “marginal” or “fringe” were hardly the words to describe Berber or the rich world she inhabited. I also found she was a highly visible public figure and local celebrity.
Throughout the 1920s, Berber appeared in a number of popular magazines in the form of lithographs, pornographic illustrations, photographs, and poems. Her eccentric choice of dress—often flaunting fur coats and a pet monkey draped around her neck—and her public drinking and excessive drug use often made her the subject of local gossip. The dancer’s seemingly tumultuous relationships, especially with her manager Susi Wanowksi and second husband Sebastian Droste, sometimes made the news. She was even rumored to have influenced the tastes and fashions of German film star Marlene Dietrich.
This challenge to Berber’s “marginality” is not to diminish how transgressive her performances and celebrity persona were. Nor, however, is it to suggest that she was a normative figure. Even against Weimar Berlin’s social relaxation and the popularity of nude dancing, Berber was still a “scandal incarnate.”
In fact, she regularly tested gender norms, whether through her male-clad dress or dance poems, asserting a certain gender fluidity. For instance, in her poem Orchids, Berber writes, “in my sexlessness, which possesses all sexes, I am pale as moon silver.” And as Brit Schulte suggests in their 2017 thesis, “Queering the Weimar Archive: The Transgressive Bodies and Transgressive Performances of Anita Berber and Sebastian Droste,” Berber’s public displays of the effects of drugs on the body undermined popular post War “body cultures.” These cultures—proliferated through magazines and advertisements—often emphasized perfectionism in the body through surgery, weight loss, skincare, and, according to Schulte, helped set the standards for what was considered a “good body” versus “bad body.”
Expressions like “fringe” and “at the edge” beget an image of Anita Berber as dimly veiled, masked by metaphor, and perceivable to very few, when in reality, she was a highly visible personality. If we diminish how prominent Berber was in her moment, we ultimately lessen her transgressive impact—how widely she violated tastes and offended social conventions. Furthermore, assuming an individual was “marginal” because they were queer or were associated with sex and taboo presumes a linear progression of history, in which societal attitudes uniformly become more progressive with time. It also flattens the multiple and confounding reasons they are not as well-remembered today.
In this specific case, it is significant to mention that Hitler’s Third Reich came into power immediately following Berber’s death in 1929. According to Mel Gordon, Nazi Germany’s campaign against “deviant” sexualities and cultures would soon erase Anita Berber, Weimar Berlin, and its legacy from popular memory; it would also destroy much of the related photographs, printed ephemera, and archival materials.
Because of Anita Berber’s celebrity status and lasting presence in the material record, it did not take long to demonstrate her complex relationship with popular culture and the bourgeois, or the “center.” That said, I want to take a moment to recognize the many queer performers, sex workers, and drag queens and kings who inhabited Weimar Berlin alongside Berber—participating in the same social, professional, and physical spaces—whom we might remember even less clearly today.
While these individuals had varying opportunities to be public-facing, like Berber, they did not simply exist in the unseen “margins” of society. Instead, Mel Gordon and his research materials make a case for how these individuals and the “erotic world” of Weimar Berlin interacted with the purported “center.”
When figured as metaphors for social space, terms like “fringe,” “marginal,” and “center” can cheat social interactions and groups of their fluidity. From this perspective, people are mapped onto solid terrain, and the “fringe” is interpreted as a fixed place isolated from and unseen by the “center.” At its worst, these terms evoke the metaphorical space of “the closet” as a non-social locale that discursively keeps queer individuals out of sight and invisible to the rest of the world. Considering how social, political, and economic dynamics unfold in physical (and printed) space—Anita Berber moving among “underground” performance spaces, popular magazines, bourgeois parties, theaters, etc.—deconstructs the “fringe” and “margins” as fixed social entities. Consequently, each term contains myriad meanings, interactions, spaces, and relationships.
The Mel Gordon Papers are open for research and full of rich material.