This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993
Gertrud Bodenwieser (1890-1959), dancer, choreographer and teacher, was born on 3 February 1890 in Vienna, younger daughter of Johann Theodor Bondi, auction-broker, and his wife Maria, née Tandler. Taught at home by governesses, from an early age Gertrud showed a talent for dancing. In c.1905-10 she was trained in classical ballet by Carl Godlewski, but soon recognized that this art form had 'become a mere exhibition of virtuosity'.
Proponents of the New Dance, such as Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis, had already appeared in Vienna. From 1910 Gertrud began to develop her own style, aiming to motivate 'the most primordial powers of human sensibilities'. She was influenced by cultural and spiritual renewals occurring in Vienna at the turn of the century, and by pioneers of the New Dance, including François Delsarte, Rudolf von Laban and Emile Jacques Dalcroze. By 1917 she had adopted the surname 'Bodenwieser'. She made her first appearance on 5 May 1919 at the Wiener Konzerthaus with six numbers; the novelty of her style was recognized and praised by critics.
Convinced that the New Dance required thorough training, Bodenwieser soon provided instruction at her private school (1919-20) and at the Neues Wiener Konservatorium. On 27 June 1920 in Vienna she married with Jewish rites Friedrich Jacques Rosenthal, a theatre director; they were to remain childless. Between 1920 and 1938 Gertrud taught on a contract basis at the Akademie für Musik und Darstellende Kunst. She incorporated Dalcroze's system into the foundations for her curriculum at the academy and in 1922 appeared with a group of pupils. She was appointed professor in 1928.
From an early stage she had co-operated with the Sprechtheater (living theatre). With her husband's assistance, the 'Bodenwieser-Gruppe' appeared in the 1923 production of Ferdinand Raimund's Der Verschwender at the Deutsches Volkstheater, a production in which the dance was considered to have equal merit with the spoken word, music, costumes and design. In 'Klabund's' Der Kreidekreis her dancers functioned as a mimic choir as well as stagehands. Bodenwieser collaborated with Max Reinhardt in the 1927 production of Das Mirakel; she subsequently taught (1932-34) gymnastics and the dance at Reinhardt's 'seminary'.
Numerous tours from 1926 onward provided her ensemble with essential funds; two of her groups often performed simultaneously in different countries. Of great significance in Bodenwieser's work was Dämon Maschine (1923)—part two of the dance-drama Gewalten des Lebens—which portrays the transformation of a group of people into a machine. She usually danced the role of the Dämon herself (until retiring from the stage in 1934); this item formed part of almost every programme of her guest performances and in 1931 was awarded a first prize at Florence, Italy. Bodenwieser regarded the 1934 tour of Japan as also providing an opportunity to publicize Austria: the Wiener Walzer (Viennese Waltz) was invariably performed at the end of each programme.
In her non-abstract dance-dramas, such as Wer will Frau Wahrheit Herbergen? (1930) and Die Masken Luzifers (1936), in which Lucifer personifies intrigue, terror and hatred, Bodenwieser analysed the disintegration of humane values in an era of political totalitarianism. The message of these dance-dramas was prophetic, not only in relation to the impending calamity for the world, but also for the Rosenthals. Following the Nazis' invasion, she and her husband were forced to flee from Austria in May 1938. Gertrud joined some of her dancers in Bogota, Colombia; Jacques went to France, was apprehended by the Gestapo, interned and died in the concentration camp at Auschwitz, Poland, after 31 August 1942.
On her arrival in Sydney on 23 August 1939, Madam Bodenwieser was met by her main group which had just completed a tour in Australia. Continuing to display amazing energy and creative productivity, she gave recitals, opened a studio and prepared a tour of the Australian capital cities for 1940. Although utterly unaccustomed to her style of dancing, audiences and critics reacted with enthusiasm. During the war she arranged frequent performances for the war effort and for charity.
Gravitating to Kings Cross, she became a familiar figure, dressed always in black, and absorbed in her thoughts and dreams. Her inability to discover the fate of her husband frustrated her efforts to become naturalized until 1950, when he was pronounced dead by a court in Vienna. In her Pitt Street studio she created and rehearsed works for her recitals and tours, entertained visitors and trained her dancers. She conducted a wide range of classes, from creative dance movement for young children to mime and movement for professional actors (attended by Peter Finch and Leonard Teale). Bodenwieser also taught at well-known schools, Hopewood House and Abbotsleigh, and for the Young Women's Christian Association; in addition, she ran classes for the Workers' Educational Association, the National Fitness Council and the Australian College of Physical Education.
Always rather fastidious, with beautiful, dark hair and eyes, she seemed small beside her Australian dancers. In manner she was somewhat self-deprecating, but, beneath the grace and charm, she was utterly determined, even ruthless, in pursuit of her artistic aims. Bodenwieser choreographed group dances, solo dances, dance-dramas and comedies, as well as dances for operettas, plays and musical comedies. Her new major dance works, Cain and Abel (1941), O World (1945), The Life of the Insects (1949) and Errand into the Maze (1954), continued to express the gamut of human experience.
From 1940 to 1954 the Bodenwieser Ballet toured Australian cities and country centres. The ensemble was chosen to make the first use of the Arts Council of Australia's mobile theatre unit to bring cultural entertainments to remote areas. She took her company on tours to New Zealand (1947 and 1949-50), South Africa (1950), Rhodesia (1950) and India (1952).
Her dancers took part in the film, Spotlight on the Australian Ballet (1948), and two of her comedy ballets were televised (1958) by the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Gertrud Bodenwieser died of a coronary occlusion on 10 November 1959 at her Potts Point flat and was cremated. She explained her artistic origins in her posthumous book, The New Dance (1970). Her significance has been acknowledged in the establishment of the Bodenwieser Dance Centre and the Gertrud Bodenwieser Archives in Sydney.
Marie Cuckson and H. Reitterer, 'Bodenwieser, Gertrud (1890–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bodenwieser-gertrud-9532/text16785, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 26 September 2016.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993