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Hanna Berger, inventive dancer - prominent Modern dancer from the 1930s to the 1950s

by George Jackson
October 9, 2011
Hanna Berger has been featured in two recent Books:
Interwar Vienna edited by Deborah Holmes and Lisa Silverman; 302 pp; 2009; Camden House, Rochester, NY, USA … ISBN 978-3-85033-188-3
Hanna Berger by Andrea Amort; 183 pp; 2010; Christian Brandstaetter Verlag, Vienna, Austria … ISBN-13: 978-1-57113-420-2
Hanna Berger was an inventive dancer and intriguing individual whose life and legacy seem toyed with by fate. She is featured in two recent books: in one she is the focus and in the other she represents one facet of the city in which she was born, performed often, became prominent and was forgotten for a time following her death. Revivals of Berger's solos have been shown in Europe and America. Not only are they satisfyingly challenging to dance and deeply moving to see but these dances also have become catalysts for new work by current choreographers.

Key to Berger's character was her staunch, stubborn idealism. She believed in modern dance and communism. Often this earned her enmity from those who preferred ballet or rejected communism and even from communist bureaucrats. Yet her dance aesthetic did not blind her to "the wonderful Stravinsky ballets of George Balanchine". It took Berger more effort to appreciate American modern dancer Martha Graham.

Berger was born 1910 to an unwed, working-class mother in Vienna, Austria. From age 4 she was prone to dance but rejected ballet after just one lesson. Illnesses and different domiciles marked her childhood in Vienna. Following the end of World War I, she recuperated in Denmark and studied piano. Still in her teens, she married a Leopold Berger (a mechanic in his late 30s) and joined the Communist Party. The marriage didn't last though the party affiliation did. Dance and gymnastics she studied intensively in Berlin, Germany beginning in 1928 where such training was cheaper, but she made her choreographic debut back home in Vienna in 1930. Berger's early career included American tours as a member of two European modern dance groups – one being that of the famous Mary Wigman and the other that of the popular comedian Trudi Schoop. She also taught gymnastics and modeled in order to support herself. Romantically, she became involved with stone cutter and sculptor Fritz Cremer, a fellow communist. Later she never quite forgave him when he left her and turned bourgeois.

Continuing to study during the 1930s, Berger took classes in directing drama, in folkdance and, yes, in ballet. Her solo career took off in 1937 with appearances in Germany, Austria and Italy – all countries that had become fascist dictatorships. Despite her leftist politics, Berger's reputation grew and she thrived as dancer, choreographer and teacher until the Gestapo arrested her for high treason in 1942. Sufficient evidence to execute her was lacking, but the Nazi regime sentenced her to hard labor in Germany. Escaping during a bomb attack, she managed to return to Vienna and give two solo concerts there before being forbidden to perform. Next she founded a children's theater – which then was also forbidden. During the last days of World War II, Berger seems to have dodged Nazi prohibitions and danced in provincial cities.

In the postwar Europe polarized between communist dictatorships and capitalist democracies, Berger initially remained in her native Vienna which once again functioned as Austria's capital after the country was split from German annexation and restored to independence, becoming a "neutral" buffer between East and West. Berger's creativity intensified in the film noir atmosphere of the Vienna of "The Third Man". As prosperity returned during the 1950s, Berger's outlets began to shrink to a few leftist venues in Western Europe (which Austria eventually joined) and to Soviet dominated Eastern Europe (where she was politically acceptable but modern dance was considered amateur compared to Russian ballet). Defiantly, Berger continued to expand her skills, going to Paris and studying with mime Marcel Marceau in 1959. An illness – immobility – inflicts itself on her in 1961. She is hospitalized in East Berlin where she had been living. The diagnosis is a brain tumor. Following two surgeries, Hanna Berger dies in East Berlin but is buried in Vienna.

Thereafter, silence surrounds Berger's name until 1995 when dance critic/historian Andrea Amort discovers her through a few former pupils who know some of Berger's solos. One ex-student, Ottilie Mitterhuber, teaches "Unidentified Female from the Seine" and "Mimosa" to current dancers. Other solos by and with Berger are found in old films. A Berger revival commences!

What was Hanna Berger's dancing like, what made her dances distinctive? Her topics were not untypical of 20th Century modern, expressive dance. They included heroes of the class war and its victims, nature themes, folkways and historical figures. Her children's plays frequently were fairytales with morals. In all, though, she was an acute observer of life. She looked at action analytically and saw behavior clinically, capturing the telling core of the movement clearly in her choreography. Some of her solos are stepless. In "Unidentified Female", which is about a drowning body, the dancer's torso is constantly, complexly, eerily active. "Mimosa" consists of undulant motion for the trunk and arms; the legs are as if rooted. "Rider" is all steps and "Dogedame" involves the total body. According to Amort, Berger simultaneously shows the outside forces acting on a body and the body's inner, emotional state!

In the old films, Berger looks very alive, quite contemporary, and rather sportive. She had a free, forthright, Far West stride, not unrelated to that of the American modern dancer Valerie Bettis.

Berger believed in freedom as well as discipline and while her solos are meticulously structured, they also have passages in which the performer should improvise. That makes them very teachable to current dancers and keeps them contemporary. Powerful interpreters of the Berger repertory include Martina Haager and Esther Koller, whom I've seen perform in Vienna and Washington. I often show a Koller video of "Unidentified Female" in dance history courses because it is an impressive example of expressive 20th Century European modern dance. That several 21st Century choreographers have made their own variations on the thematics of the solos is a sign that Hanna Berger's influence survives.
Foto of Hanna Berger in the early 1930s

Foto of Hanna Berger in the early 1930s

Photo © & courtesy of Tanzarchiv Köln


Foto of Hanna Berger on 17 June 1945 at Vienna's Folksolidarity Day: Berger tanzt das Solo 'Kampfruf'

Foto of Hanna Berger on 17 June 1945 at Vienna's Folksolidarity Day: Berger tanzt das Solo "Kampfruf"

Photo © & courtesy of Franz Fremuth


Foto of Hanna Berger in Rome, 1938/39

Foto of Hanna Berger in Rome, 1938/39

Photo © & courtesy of Antonio Savio


Martina Haager performing Manfred Aichinger's variation on a Hanna Berger solo during the 2006 Retouchings performance in Washington, DC. Lighting by Silvia Auer.

Martina Haager performing Manfred Aichinger's variation on a Hanna Berger solo during the 2006 Retouchings performance in Washington, DC. Lighting by Silvia Auer.

Photo © & courtesy of Costas

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