Dancing in the City: Scenes from the Works of Endell, Rilke, Döblin, and Lasker-Schüler
Lim, Wesley Ben
My project addresses the representation of dance, dance-like, and pedestrian movement within the urban space in German literature around 1900. The dynamic cosmopolitan centers of Berlin and Paris not only attracted authors and intellectuals like August Endell, Rainer Maria Rilke, Alfred Döblin, and Else Lasker-Schüler but also the pioneers of early modern dance such as Loïe Fuller, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis from America and the Ballets Russes from Russia. As a representative of a new generation, the diplomat Harry Graf Kessler detailed his keen observations of their live dance performances in his diaries. His aesthetic senses underwent a transformation by growing tired of the bourgeois balls and academic ballets of the 19th century and by developing a deep enthusiasm for the freer, modern dance. Similarly Endell, Rilke, Döblin, and Lasker-Schüler grew aware of the changing aesthetics and began writing texts that resisted traditional genres by reflecting the fragmented perception of the modern individual living in the urban landscape. Instead of depicting dance in the traditional confines of a theater space, I argue that these authors experimented with new forms of representations of the expansive urban space by setting the dynamic modern body and its movement possibilities in large squares (Endell), streets (Rilke), hospitals (Döblin), and cafés (Lasker-Schüler). Their texts aim at both capturing the display of movement in a crisp, precise, picturesque language and attempt to recreate the feeling as if the dances take place in front of the readers’ eyes. The texts demand the reader to feel both a combination of kinesthetic empathy with as well as intellectual abstraction based on the protagonists’ or narrators’ depictions. My readings of these literary scenes are informed by theoretical texts by Andreas Huyssen, Gabriele Brandstetter, and Susan Leigh Foster.