Art and illegality on the Weimar stage: The dances of Celly de Rheydt, Anita Berber and Valeska Gert

Erika Hughes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


This essay explores the representations of crime and madness in the work of three German dancers during the interwar years. Before World War I, public displays of nudity were illegal, but after 1918 a window of opportunity appeared. This article analyses the work and reception of Celly de Rheydt, Anita Berber and Valeska Gert - contemporaries whose works differed greatly from one another but who all displayed contempt for onstage sexual norms. All three used the female body as a site where notions of art, pornography, legality and illegality were contested, both on stage and in the courtroom. The Nackttanz (nude dance), as performed by Celly de Rheydt, who along with her producer- husband was convicted of lewdness, possessed a self-awareness of the potential for artistic catharsis which she then played upon sexually. She performed in a small space where the performers and audience were in close physical proximity, and in which drugs and alcohol were consumed, thereby setting the space apart from the traditional stage. Yet some women performers took offence at such dehumanization and abstraction. Valeska Gert danced in the guise of prostitutes, corpses, and ruined young girls as an alternative to the quasi-pornography of the Ballet Celly de Rheydt. She did not titillate, but rather forced her audience to examine ugly bodies and characters that had been debauched. Drugs also found their way into performances: Anita Berber's Kokain paid homage to the drug that would later contribute to her early death. This paper looks at these dancers and the performances that tested the boundaries of representative mores in the interwar period. It shows how popular dancers, by presenting scenes of delinquency and insanity as the centre of their art, utilized it to refl ect on and criticize their society.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)320-335
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of European Studies
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Anita Berber
  • Celly de Rheydt
  • Drugs
  • Nude dance
  • Sexuality
  • Valeska Gert

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


Dive into the research topics of 'Art and illegality on the Weimar stage: The dances of Celly de Rheydt, Anita Berber and Valeska Gert'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this