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Performing the Past: Alexander Sacharoff and the Modernist Body

Francesca Dytor, University of Cambridge

1 June 2020

The dancing body is a special kind of body. Taking centre stage, it invites criticism, demands praise, and at certain moments has functioned as a crucible for debate over the proper nature of the body. With the emergence of European modern dance at the beginning of the twentieth century, the dancing body was at the centre of discussions over the possible forms that knowledge could take.[1] Could knowledge be embodied in the dancing body? Was this knowledge a form of cultural memory or of scholarship? What relationship did the dancer in particular have with the past? This article outlines one way in which the past was performed in the 1910s, and the distinctions drawn by contemporary spectators between a reconstruction of the past, and the more problematic embodiment of it.

In general, spectators experienced a pleasurable thrill at such historical transgressions. Ruth St Denis has a smile ‘not of this world’, a smile ‘by Leonardo’; watching Vaslav Nijinsky is like watching a ‘work of art, a masterpiece’.[2] In the case of the now little-known dancer Alexander Sacharoff, however, his ability to play with historical boundaries frequently provoked an anxiety in spectators that he was also capable of transgressing the boundaries of gender.[3] As the critic Anton Huebner observed, watching dance always means confronting gender, but in the case of Sacharoff, it means a splitting of the self, where the ‘statue of the I is broken’.[4]

Sacharoff made his public debut in June 1910 at Munich’s Concert Hall. Standing in a corner, draped in a long silk robe, he stood motionless until the first chord of the music. Then, letting the robe fall, he began his performance. Dressed in sumptuous clothing from the Early Renaissance, Sacharoff moved silently, carefully, through a series of contained poses. This was not a dance that the audience would have expected. Used to the likes of the so-called mother of modern dance Isadora Duncan, who was then performing her signature barefoot dance around Europe, Sacharoff’s dance seemed shockingly austere. The restraint was such that many reported that it was as if they were watching not a human dancer, but an artwork come to life. Karl Wirth remembered an evening in 1911:

It was like a conjuring magic spell that evoked sensations as if a statue or an icon-like image of immaterial beauty had been awakened to life.[5]

This stony beauty left many critics cold. Anton Linder, for instance, dismissed his performances as mere museum art: they might recall mosaics from Ravenna, frescoes of Giotto, paintings of Piero della Francesca, but they gave ‘nothing to the nerves’.[6] Linder’s criticism rings hollow against his fascination with Sacharoff elsewhere in the piece. He lingers over the body of Sacharoff, this dancer whom, he claims, philosophises with his legs. Critics elsewhere frequently single out body parts for analysis, awed at the potency invested in the simple positioning of a fingertip, or the turn of the thigh. The Münchner Neueste Nachrichten complained that this sight managed to actually excite the viewer through revulsion, so symptomatic was it of an age in decline due to ‘womanish sensitivity and sexual perversity’.[7] Androgyny and ambiguity are frequently coupled together in these commentaries, so that watching Sacharoff is said to be like watching the ‘ephebe of Praxiteles’.[8] The uncanniness of Sacharoff, therefore, was this double transgression, of both the human-artwork boundary, and the boundary of the sexes.

Alexej von Jawlensky, Portrait of the dancer Alexander Sacharoff, 1909. Oil on cardboard, 69.5 x 66.5 cm. Lenbachhaus, Munich.

Sacharoff deliberately cultivated these ambivalences in both his practice and writing. In his remarks accompanying the 1910 debut, he gave historical precedence for his androgyne features. From the ancient Greeks onwards, he describes, the adolescent body has been recognised as the ideal body, since only this body is able to combine the ‘possibility of both sexes’.[9] Many revelled in Sacharoff’s sexual indeterminism, allowing the dancer to move seamlessly through a ream of historical characters and mediums, shifting, as one critic described, from painting to fresco to bas-relief, from angel to fifteenth-century pageboy.[10]

Unknown photographer, Alexander Sacharoff, c. 1930s [?]. c. 11 x 16.5 cm. Photo courtesy of Stader Kunst Buch-Kabinett.
These sequences of artworks and figures were the result of prolonged periods of study. Having initially trained as an artist, Sacharoff was familiar with the major museums in Germany and France, and a number of his notebooks contain copies after artworks, and reworkings of these artworks into dance. Sacharoff, though, was sure to stress that positions after artworks were not simply empty imitations of ancient movements. He dismissed those who thought that they could represent a period simply by learning some period-appropriate steps. In an unpublished text he instructs an imagined student to

Learn all about the periods, see all the pictures you can and then – forget them and try and imagine you are living in one of these periods […] the main objective is not which steps you do, but that in the mind of your audience, you conjure up a living person of a particular age, with all its details, its mannerisms, and even its thoughts.[11]

In short, the dancer should aim at nothing less than a form of historical re-enactment. Certain gestures were capable of achieving this unconsciously, ‘reveal[ing] the culture of thousands of years’.[12]The job of the dancer was to turn this movement into a representational art.[13]In this revision of reconstruction, the past could be embodied through the living archive of the dancing body.


[1] See in particular Gabriele Brandstetter, Poetics of Dance: Body, Image and Space in the Historical Avant-Gardes, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) and Samuel Dorf, Performing Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[2] As in Harold Segel, Body Ascendant: Modernism and the Physical Imperative (London: John Hopkins, 1998), p. 122; Bronislava Nijinsky, Early Memories, ed. and trans. by Irina Nijinska and Jean Rawlinson(London: Faber, 1982), p. 270.

[3] This article focuses on Sacharoff’s solo dancing before his partnership with Clotilde von Derp in 1913: for this, I Sakharoff, Un Mito della Danza: Fra Teatro e Avanguardie Artistiche, ed. by Patrizia Veroli (Bologna: Edizioni Bora,1991).

[4] ,Die Statue des Ich ist gebrochen‘: Friedrich Markus Huebner, ‘Alexander Sacharoff‘, Phoebus. Monatsschrift für Àsthetik und Kritik des Theaters, 1 (1914), 101–104 <; [accessed 23 May 2020].

[5] As translated in Die Sacharoffs: Zwei Tänzer aus dem Umkreis des Blauen Reiters, ed. by Frank-Manuel Peter and Rainer Stamm (Cologne: Wienand, 2002), p. 34.

[6] ,Darum mutet seine Art nur wie Museums-Kunst an…[sie] gibt den Nerven gar nichts‘: Anton Linder, ‘Der tanzende Russe: Sacharoff: Soirée des Kunstgewerbevereins im Curiohause’, Der Hamburger Zeitung, 1 April 1912, n.p.

[7] ‚weibische Empfindelei und sexuelle Perversität‘: F. M., ‚Tanzabend Alexander Sacharoff‘, Münchner Neuste Nachrichten, 4 June 1910, p. 2.

[8] As translated in Die Sacharoffs, p. 22.

[9] ‚der Jüngling als ein Wesen, das…die Möglichkeiten der beiden Geschlechter in sich vereinigt.‘: Alexander Sacharoff, Bemerkungen über den Tanz, theatre programme, (Munich: n.p, 1910).

[10] L. Florentin and Alexander Sacharoff, Clotilde & Alexandre Sacharoff, (Lausanne: G. Vaney-Burnier, 1926), n.p.

[11] Alexander Sacharoff, ‘How I arrange my dances’, n.d. Held at Deutsches Tanz Archiv Köln [DTK-TIS-].

[12] Ibid.

[13] Sacharoff, Bemerkungen, n.p.


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