Freedom and Frau Gerty

As a dance photographer, Max Dupain is best known for his 1930s portraits of the Ballets Russes’ stars.

But another important Australian client for Dupain in the late 1930s (and through to the 1950s) was Gertrud Bodenwieser, the Viennese choreographer who arrived in Sydney in 1939 and established her own dance troupe.

Dupain’s photographs of the Bodenwieser dancers were published in the Australian press when she had a new work to present to the public.

These days, newspapers identify images such as these as “supplied photo”, but there was no such credit, and none for the photographer, in 1939 when The Daily Telegraph in Sydney published a Dupain photo of Emmy Taussig and Evelyn (Irma) Ippen to accompany an article about the Bodenwieser dancers’ appearance in a prologue to A Kiss From Kiki at the Minerva Theatre on October 1.

The striking and ageless image of the two dancers in Centennial Park, Sydney, is among the Dupain collection of Bodenwieser dance photos at the State Library of New South Wales.

Another shows four Bodenwieser dancers, Taussig, Ippen, Bettina Vernon and Shona Dunlop, swirling in long full skirts, behind a grassy foreground. It appeared in The Home magazine on 2 June 1941 with the text under the photo noting that the Bodenwieser Ballet was “a most important force in our national culture”.

A third State Library of NSW photograph, taken at Dupain’s studio in May 1957, shows the Bodenwieser dancers, Eva Nadas and Bruno Harvey, posing in what was described as one in a series of ballet positions.

In 1963, four years after Bodenwieser died, two of her former dancers, Margaret Chapple and Keith Bain, opened the Bodenwieser Dance Centre in her honour.

The centre represents part of the sentimental and personal attachment I have to the studio, to Chapple, and to another of Bodenwieser’s dancers, Shona Dunlop.

As a student of Columba College in Dunedin, New Zealand, I took part in the modern dance classes Dunlop taught there. I remember Dunlop – or Shona MacTavish as she was then – as vibrant, energetic, enthusiastic, and so much more fun and vivacious than any teacher I had ever known.

Decades later, in Sydney, I took dance classes at the Bodenwieser Centre in City Road, Chippendale and from 1993, I began to teach there, taking the Royal Academy of Dance students through the children’s syllabus from Primary to Grade 5.

Margaret Chapple – or “Chappie”, as we all called her – was still teaching.

One of her last talented students was Andrew Crawford (now a member of the Sydney Dance Company.) Crawford won what is now called the McDonald’s Ballet Scholarship in 1997, and went to London to join English National Ballet School with an additional $10,000 scholarship money in his pocket due to the generosity of Chapple’s husband, Les Humphrey. Crawford’s win came a year after Chapple’s death in 1996.

But my connection with the Bodenwieser legacy is slender compared with the many who knew Bodenwieser herself and were influenced by her philosophy as well as her kindness.

At least three dancers have written with insight and love about their years with the Bodenwieser troupe, Bettina Vernon, Eileen Kramer and Shona Dunlop.

Dunlop’s biography of Bodenwieser, An Ecstasy of Purpose, was published in 1987 and her own autobiography, Leap of Faith, a decade later. Bettina Vernon and her husband Charles Warren were joint authors of Gertrud Bodenwieser and Vienna’s Contribution to Austruckdanz, published in 1999, and Eileen Kramer’s memoir, Walkabout Dancer, was published in 2008.

These books are all very useful resources for piecing together the life of Bodenwieser but any dedicated researcher would have to begin their work at the National Library of Australia, home of Bodenwieser’s personal papers.

A footnote to her life, however, can be found elsewhere – in the relatively recent decision of an organisation that processes claims relating to assets deposited in Swiss banks by victims or targets of Nazi persecution, before and during the Second World War.

In 2008, the organisation, the Claims Resolution Tribunal, found in favour of a distant relative of Bodenwieser. The woman, who can’t be named under the relevant legislation, proved that she was Bodenwieser’s sole heir and was awarded 325,000 Swiss francs ($A371,550) by the tribunal.

The judgment gives some background to the most dramatic days in the life of Bodenwieser, who was Jewish and who fled from Vienna in 1938 when Austria was incorporated into the Third Reich (the ‘Anschluss”).

With her husband, Friedrich Jacques Rosenthal, a theatre director who she married in 1920, Bodenwieser took one of the last trains to leave Austria for Paris.

From 1935, Bodenwieser, like many others, transferred some of her funds into Switzerland, maintaining a safe deposit box and various accounts in a Zurich bank.

Between March and November 1938, Bodenwieser closed some accounts, transferred money between other accounts, and instructed the bank not to give any information about her assets to anyone representing the German Reich.

The Claims Resolution Tribunal found that some of her assets were retained in two accounts and that under Swiss banks’ secrecy laws of the time, Bodenwieser would have been unable to obtain any information about the accounts after the war and therefore not able to access her money.

Using a formula to calculate what those assets might represent today, the tribunal was able to release funds for the applicant – Bodenwieser’s relative.

But losing access to her own money was hardly the most important of Bodenwieser’s concerns at the time.

For nearly three years, from mid 1938, she was unable to find out what had happened to her husband who had stayed in France when she sailed to South America on tour with her dance company.

He was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Auschwitz where he died some time after August 1942.

No wonder, then, that Eileen Kramer, recalled in her book that she sometimes saw Bodenwieser sobbing violently when she thought she was alone.

Dance was part of Bodenwieser’s life from her very early years in Vienna. She was the younger daughter of Johann Theodor Bondi and his wife Maria, née Tandler.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography gives Johann Bondi’s occupation as ‘auction-broker’ while Shona Dunlop, in Leap of Faith, describes him as a ‘Jewish stockbroker’.

As a young woman, Bodenwieser studied dance with Carl Godlewski, an acrobat, choreographer, and ballet master at the Viennese State Opera, and like his father before him, a circus clown.

His dance students came from the upper middle class families of Vienna, such as the Bondi family whose two daughters were taught at home by governesses.

It is likely that Godlewski’s views had a profound impact on the young Gertrud Bodenwieser who came to believe that ballet had “become a mere exhibition of virtuosity”.

She was also influenced by such dance pioneers as Isadora Duncan, Emile Jacques Dalcroze and, in particular, Rudolf von Laban.

As a professional dancer, Gertrud took the stage name Bodenwieser, and made her debut in 1917. Shortly afterwards, she opened a dance school and formed an ensemble that travelled frequently, as far afield as Japan in 1934.

Two of her best-known choreographic works were Dämon Maschine (1923) which showed the transformation of five, (sometimes seven, dancers), into a machine and Wiener Walzer (Bodenwieser liked to acknowledge her homeland. In Australia, one of her best-known works was another version of Vienna Waltz – The Blue Danube, which premiered in 1940.)

Bodenwieser’s ultimate journey to Australia was due to a New Zealand family, the Dunlops.

At the age of 15, Shona Dunlop travelled from New Zealand with her brother and their widowed mother to Europe. They toured through Italy then settled in Vienna where Shona took lessons from Bodenwieser.

In Leap of Faith, she describes Bodenwieser as “an imposing figure, inscrutable as she peered at her students through her lorgnette”.

Frau Gerty, as the dancers called her, “wore black silk trousers and small kid slippers when she taught…I was not the only one who was nervous in her presence”.

Dunlop spent two years in Vienna but the dream of a career in the arts in that city ended with the outbreak of the Second World War and the exodus of many artists and intellectuals, (such as Bodenwieser’s relative, Sigmund Freud who had fled to London) and of course the Jewish community.

The Dunlop family, meanwhile, had moved, temporarily, to London.

Within months, Shona Dunlop was reunited with Bodenwieser in Boulogne, the first port of call for the SS Costa Rica, which sailed from England on 20 June 1938 en route for South America.

On board were dancers from the Bodenwieser company, among them Magda Brunner-Lehenstein, the daughter of the Austrian consul in Colombia.

The troupe had been invited, along with Bodenwieser herself, to take part in events to mark the 400th anniversary of the foundation of Bogota.

During a tour that extended to 10 months throughout Colombia, Bodenwieser finally heard news of her husband. She was sent what Dunlop describes as “a crumpled card from a German concentration camp. She recognised the hardly decipherable handwriting as her husband’s. This was the final word she would receive from him”.

After the long Colombia tour, Dunlop returned home to New Zealand, and was thrilled to hear that Bodenwieser, along with the company’s music director, Marcel Lorber, decided to follow her, seeking refuge in this faraway country.

When they learned that six of the dancers from Vienna were to visit Australia, Dunlop, Bodenwieser and Lorber decided to join them in Sydney.

The dancers, sailing on the SS Maloja from England, had been engaged for a tour of Australia to appear in two revues staged by the Australian theatrical firm, J C Williamson. In the shows, London Casino: Folies d’Amour, and Around the Clock, the dancers performed snippets from the Bodenwieser repertoire, including The Machine, a version of Demon Machine.

The Maloja arrived in Melbourne on 7 February 1939.

A week later, under the headline “Dancers From London Casino”, The Argus newspaper reported:

“In the coolness of the darkened foyer of His Majesty’s Theatre yesterday afternoon, six dancers from overseas gasped at the warm welcome which Melbourne had given them on their arrival in the Maloja.

“It’s hotter than Bombay or any place where we danced in India,” one of them said.

“The dancers are the Bodenwissen [sic] ballet from the London Casino Revue, which will follow The Waltz Dream on the boards of His Majesty’s. Their names are Kathrin Rosselle, Bettina Vernon, Katja Georgiewa, Anna Roth, Irma Ippen, and Emmy Taussig.

“Four of them are Viennese, Katja is a Bulgarian, and Anna is English. [Taussig’s nationality was listed on National Archives of Australia immigration reports, as German while Ippen’s nationality was given as Czechoslovakian. Vernon, whose real surname was Lanzer, was Austian. I can find no record of Kathrin Rosselle].

“They dance modern Central European dances, Austrian peasant dances, and Viennese waltzes.

“They all trained at Madame Bodenwissen’s school of dancing in Vienna. Four of them have danced in New York, London, Paris, The Netherlands, and Japan, the other two, the babies, Kathrin who is 17 years old, and Bettina, who is l8 years old, are making their first long tour abroad.

“Until they boarded the Maloja their knowledge of English was very slight, but Anna has been a capable teacher, and they now can converse quite fluently in English. Emmy, spokeswoman of the ballet, said that Japan was perhaps the most interesting country in which they had danced.

“’The audiences apparently liked us,’ she said, ‘because we were invited to dance at many Japanese soirees, and the Crown Prince of Japan attended one of our performances. In Japan, the fashion is to present flowers to artists before the performance begins, and it was thrilling to arrive at the theatre and see masses of bouquets for us’”. (The Argus, 14 February, 1939).

The Argus reported that another member of the troupe, Melitta Melzer, missed the Maloja because of “passport difficulties at Vienna”, but was expected to arrive the following week.

As Dunlop wrote in Leap of Faith this was not “the most auspicious time for artists with German passports and German accents to arrive in a loyal outpost of the British Empire.

“The ominous approach of war must have filled the hearts of my Austrian friends with new misgivings. The early days of adjusting to what Bodenwieser called ‘this so beautiful desert’ were difficult for all of them…the dancers were never subject to internment but their movements during the war years were always checked.

“The first requirement during state tours made by the Bodenwieser Viennese Ballet was to report to the police station”.

Australian government archives also show that ASIO kept a file on Bodenwieser between the year 1939, when she arrived in Sydney from New Zealand (on the SS Maunganui on 23 August 1939) and 1957, two years before her death.

Dunlop recalled: “It was an emotional moment when the Maunganui docked at Woolloomooloo and Frau Gerty embraced her Viennese dancers. She had not expected to see them again. Sydney being much larger and more cosmopolitan than Wellington presented a happier picture ….she began to feel a little hopeful…”

The next day, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Bodenwieser was “planning to form a group of young dancers, similar to the group which she trained in Vienna”.

Bodenwieser told the Herald reporter: “People have seen that art should have more than a confined static beauty, that it should have vigour and strength”.

She wasted no time in preparing her dancers for a performance at the Minerva Theatre at the end of September, just weeks after war had been declared.

Her interview with The Daily Telegraph expressed both the fears of the nation and probably her own personal fears but she interpreted those fears through a particular lens, comparing her movement style with the traditions of classical ballet.

“The days we live in are packed with drama”, she said. “There is no time for romance. In the background of our daily lives there is an ever-present sense of fear: a feeling of tension that grips us tighter and tighter.

“Everything is becoming mechanical, standardised – even, alas our thoughts. How can we express this present day spirit in the traditional movements of the orthodox Russian ballet?

“Dancing on the points is of course very graceful, clever and charming, but what real relation has it to modern life? It is in an attempt to typify this modern spirit that I have created the kind of dancing which is interpreted here by my six girls.” (30 September 1939).

Until she found permanent premises for her studio, Bodenwieser worked from the Vere Mathew’s School of Exercise at 147a King Street, Sydney. Advertisements for the school promised that “Madam Gertrud Bodenwieser, famous European teacher” was “now attached to the business girls’ classes every evening…these famous exercises to keep you fit demonstrated by the Bodenwieser group.

“The beauty of the dance brought to you in beneficial exercises to build the body beautiful. Private lessons. Teachers training course…..a service by assistance in the home for slimming”. (The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 November 1939).

From the end of November, the Bodenwieser Ballet, as it was then called, began seasons at the Conservatorium and before each season, Bodenwieser would continue to express her views on the relevance of contemporary dance.

One can sense both her energy and an underlying frustration in one interview (27 November 1939) she gave to The Sydney Morning Herald.

“Every work of art”, she said, “is the expression, through a form, of an adventure of the soul. It is therefore understood that every epoch has its own artistic form of expression, so showing the inner feeling of the soul of that age.

“We do not ask men of our generation to express themselves in the way of men of past generations. Consequently we cannot ask dancers to express themselves in the same manner as the dancers of the last century, when classic ballet became the style. The ballet is the perfect art of its epoch, but it does not express modern life.

“The idea of the new dance is that it has taken up relationship to the great stream of modern life, choosing its topics, not only from a fancy fairy world of lightness and charm, but from the contemporary world in which we are living, a world full of problems, full of fight, and also full of great ideas and developments.

“The expressive dance is like every great art in expressing not only a part of human feeling, but all the feelings such as pathos, excitement, joy, as well as desperation, vigour, and exaltation.

“We of today are like clear and straight unbroken lines without adornment. This may be seen in painting as well as sculpture and architecture, so it is not surprising that it has also entered into the realm of the moving sculpture that we call the dance”.

She contrasted “the graceful and fairy-tale topics of such classic Russian ballets as Les Sylphides, The Wedding of Aurora and The Toy Shop with such a modern dance as The Green Table, by Kurt Jooss, which showed egotistical diplomats failing to realise that by their intrigues they were throwing humanity into the horror of war”.

Bodenwieser believed that “those who practise the modern expressive dancing are doing an immense amount of good, because modern life tends to encourage repressions, while this dance, expressing the deep things of life, serves to free the soul”.

Such commitment to the new dance meant Bodenwieser’s dancers felt twinges of guilt when they watched classical ballet dancers perform.

Eileen Kramer remembered how the Bodenwieser troupe shared a charity performance with the Ballets Russes in aid of the Czechoslovakian Fighting Force in France. The Bodenwieser dancers, she wrote, could not resist watching such stars Tamara Toumanova, Serge Lifar, Tatiana Riabouchinska and David Lichine.

They were “dazzled by their technical virtuosity” but believed, “like most exponents of the New Dance, that classical ballet had nothing to say in the modern world”.

Bodenwieser found her own central Sydney studio at 210 Pitt Street, a three-storey building where a Mrs McNaughton ran a physical exercise and ballroom dancing school on the top floor.

On the ground floor, the customers of the Viennese coffee house were distressed when, wrote Kramer, “Madam gave a class of strong movements and instructed us in her sometimes quaint English to ‘stamp on ze balls’ (evoking mirth)”.

The dancers responded by “stamping on the floor with all our might…the manager had to send one of his waitresses up to say that the chandeliers were shaking. Eventually as the weeks and months passed the waitress would just put her head around the door and say ‘chandeliers’ and we would say ‘Sorry’ and try to stamp with restrained animal-like stealth”.

Kramer remembers too, Bodenwieser’s movement style, “the circle, the spiral, the change of weight which is there in almost every movement we make in life, the wave, the strong pressure into the ground which could result in a spring into the air, and of course the use of the breath”.

Bodenwieser, a fastidious woman, self deprecating but determined, was always dressed in black, and seemed preoccupied with her own inner thoughts.

“Although she had the manners and deportment of what used to be known as a grand dame”, wrote Kramer, and although she “gave no sign of loneliness, I became aware of it.

“I never spoke of this to anyone because I had seen something one evening that I felt was too private for me to spread about. Passing her dressing room on my way to take my place at the barre, I happened to glance at her door. It was ajar and there I saw Madame’s bitter tears. She was sobbing quite violently. A few moments later she was at the head of the class with Emmy beside her. She was smiling as if she had never known a moment’s sorrow”.

Bodenwieser was unable to obtain official confirmation of her husband’s fate until 1950, when he was pronounced dead by a court in Vienna.

Her own dramatic and sometimes tragic life ended when she died of a heart attack on 10 November 1959 at her Potts Point flat. She was only 69.

The American website, Jewish Women’s Archive,, includes a biography of Bodenwieser with an interesting comment and further resource material regarding Bodenwieser’s papers and personal belongings.

The comment is from Barbara Cuckson, daughter of Marie Cuckson who collated the Bodenwieser archives that were donated to the National Library of Australia.

Barbara Cuckson writes: “I continue to teach in the Bodenwieser style, and have sponsored reunions of “old” Bodenwieser people. The last one was in 2008, and named photos can be viewed on: BodenwieserReunion. I regularly stage her smaller group works.

“There is an excellent modern appraisal of Bodenwieser’s work in Empire of Ecstasy, a book by Karl Toepfer, University of California Press Ltd, (1997).

“I hold the copyright of Bodenwieser’s book, The New Dance, and have some of her personal items, including her wedding ring and dress ring, an antique silver bowl from her family, and musical instruments used in her classes”.