Academic journal article New Formations

Kracauer and the Dancing Girls

Academic journal article New Formations

Kracauer and the Dancing Girls

Article excerpt

BERLIN 1927

In 1927 Siegfried Kracauer was a thirty-eight-year-old journalist editing the feuilleton section of the left-leaning Frankfurter Zeitung. He was also an intellectual with a solid training in Kantian philosophy and, having studied with Georg Simmel, in the still comparatively young discipline of sociology. At this stage of his career, he was using his position on the newspaper to work his way from his formation in German Idealism towards an idiosyncratically materialist cultural criticism. A defining experiment in this new style of writing was an article published in the Frankfurter Zeitung over two days in June of that year. In 'The Mass Ornament', Kracauer took as his object of analysis a popular dance troupe, the high-kicking, precision-schooled Tiller Girls, whose performances he linked to a fashion for elaborately choreographed mass gymnastic displays.

Although Kracauer symptomatically assumed that the Tiller Girls were the 'products of American distraction factories' - if it's modern it must be American - they were in fact the brainchild of John Tiller, a turn-of-the-century Lancashire cotton broker, who hired young women from towns like Manchester and Blackpool and trained them in a style of formation dancing that owed more to military drills and displays than to classical ballet. By the Teens and Twenties, Tiller was despatching his girls on order to cities around the world. One sign of the success of this prescient supply strategy was a contract for a Tiller troupe, renamed the Empire Girls for the occasion, to perform in the famous Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. Here they were seen by Herman Haller, a former operetta director who became the creative force behind a series of annual revues at the Theater am Admiralspalast in Berlin between 1923 and 1929. Haller immediately decided to hire the Empire Girls away from Ziegfeld to perform in his 1924 revue Noch und Noch (More and More), where they were a hit with both critics and audiences. (This roundabout route from the North West of England to the German capital via New York no doubt added to the confusion about the Girls' nationality. After their first season, the Empire Girls were renamed the Lawrence-Tiller-Girls after the founder's son. John Tiller himself died in 1925.) Haller's main rival in Berlin was Eric Charell, a dancer who staged three revues between 1924 and 1926 at the Grosses Schauspielhaus, which he took over after the theatre had been bankrupted by a number of hugely elaborate spectacles staged by the director Max Reinhardt. Charell's shows were famous for their extravagant choreography and expensive production values, and to compete with Haller he felt that he too needed his own troupe of dancers - which he named the John-Tiller-Girls. Other imitators soon appeared, including the Hoffmann Girls and the Jackson Girls. In response, Haller's Tiller Girls adopted the slogan 'Oft kopiert - nie erreichtV: 'Often copied - never equalled!'1

There was, then, nothing especially novel or out-of-the-way about Kracauer lighting on the Tiller Girls as a topic for a think piece, nor in presenting them as in some way a sign of the times. In the same year that Kracauer published 'the Mass Ornament', the Girls - or a troupe of Tiller-clones - made a brief but pointed appearance in Walther Ruttmann's film Berlin - Symphony of a Great City. A cartoon from the previous year had shown Tiller Girls rolling off Henry Ford's mass production line. The leading theatre critic of the period, Herbert Ihering, had already made a connection between the rhythm of the revues and 'the needs of the modern metropolis.' Again prefiguring Kracauer, Ihering saw the asexual athleticism and precision of their dancers as the key to the modernity of the performance.

For the audience reacts to movement, to tempo. The applause for comedians is often weak, but for the Empire Girls it thunders right on into the intermissions. The rhythm, the lightness, the exactness are electrifying. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.