The Bildungsanstalt für Musik und Rhythmus (1910–1914) in the garden city of Hellerau near Dresden, run by music teacher and rhythmic gymnast Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, attracted not only musicians but also performing artists, including aspiring dancers, from all over the world. The First World War cut short the school’s promising beginnings, and Jaques-Dalcroze moved to Geneva. His time at Hellerau has interested scholars for over a century. However, the school’s later years have been overlooked, despite the fact that in the 1920s it emerged under new directors as one of the leading European dance and physical education schools. In what follows, I examine Hellerau after Jaques-Dalcroze as an example of the transnational culture of modern dance and physical education that transcended national boundaries, and consider why the school’s activities in the 1920s and 1930s have been neglected in studies of dance history.[1]

Jaques-Dalcroze’s vision of the importance of students’ perception and embodied experience in the study of music reformed music education of the era, and resonated with dancers. They were particularly interested in the improvisational exercises developed by Jaques-Dalcroze, and the system provided tools for creating their own dance compositions. Performing artists were inspired by the potential that rhythmic gymnastics offered moving groups. What they had learned at Hellerau was applied, for example, to enliven crowd scenes in theatres and operas. In the early 1920s, Jaques-Dalcroze’s successors began to modify his system, and the role of dance in the school curriculum was strengthened.

In dance historiography written in English, the development of modern dance is often discussed in terms of events in the United States and Germany, and national histories mirror the developments of the genre in these two centres. Research on the history of modern dance in Europe has largely focused on the German Ausdruckstanz and its most famous names, such as Rudolf von Laban and Mary Wigman. The canon of modern dance before the Second World War repeats the story of an absolute or non-representational dance that is based on the laws of dance composition and, alongside it, dance theatre, mainly with reference to Kurt Jooss.

The silence surrounding Hellerau is one example of the gaps Emily E. Wilcox refers to with the term placeism. Although the term derives from geography, Wilcox is referring to the way in which the history of dance is limited to dealing with specific places and communities, and thus serving their values and practices.[2] Dance forms understood as global and neutral, such as modern dance, should be treated as place-bound, bound to a particular community and its values. To broaden the picture of the past, Wilcox and historian Alexandra Carter both call for diversity and stories that cover different geographical areas, practices and actors.[3]

The understanding of dance’s past is broadened by looking at lesser-known people and different transnational networks, with an emphasis on transnational relations, networks and interactions.[4] Researchers should take into account the multiple careers of dancers, including their work as teachers, in theatres and as part of opera productions. The term transnational can refer to artists working outside their home country and to individual visits to performances, but also to the movement of techniques, styles, works and themes across national borders. It allows us to explore how different cultural identities are represented on stage.[5] Rather than exploring the one-way transfer of influences from one country to another, the transnational perspective emphasises interaction and process.[6]

From Rhythmic Gymnastics to Dance

The Hellerau school ceased to exist at the end of the First World War, but reopened in 1919.[7] The new directors, American Christine Baer-Frissell, German Valeria Kratina and Hungarian-born Ernst Ferand-Freund, were former students of Jaques-Dalcroze, and they wanted to transform rhythmic gymnastics into a modern method of art education, combining tonal, temporal, spatial and physical aspects. As a result of these changes they founded in the school a separate curricula for Körperbildung or gymnastics, dance and rhythmics, which had previously been called rhythmic gymnastics. In a move away from the dominance of music over movement, which was characteristic of Jaques-Dalcroze, the aim was to strengthen pupils’ physical capacities and prepare them for dance.

The teaching of Körperbildung began under the Czech Jarmila Kröschlová in the early 1920s, and her pupil, Marianne Pontan from Finland, was in charge of it in 1924–1930. Her collaboration with Rosalia Chladek led to the Hellerau-Laxenburg method, on which the school’s dance training was based.[8] The name of the method referred to the school’s new home, Laxenburg Castle near Vienna, where the school moved in 1925. The dance teaching was led by Valeria Kratina, after whom the school’s dance group Tanzgruppe Valeria Kratina was named. Alongside her, the core of the group was formed by Chladek and Hellerau’s Finnish teachers Annsi Bergh and Mary Hougberg.

Mary Hougberg dancing the Gavotte in Corelli suite. A.J. Tenhovaara, Theatre Museum Archive, Finland.

The teaching was influenced by many physical education and dance practices of the era.

The basis of Körperbildung was the hygienic gymnastics of US doctor Bess Mensendieck. She introduced a system of gymnastics for women in her first book, Körperkultur des Weibes (1906), later published as Körperkultur der Frau. Mensendieck’s practical exercises and views had a broad influence on the development of women’s physical culture. She emphasised the economical use of muscular strength, naturally flowing breathing, the importance of relaxation and awareness of space and body alignment. She aimed her exercises at all women, so that they could use their bodies appropriately in everyday situations. Mensendieck herself had no artistic ambitions, but her system became an important part of early modern dance training. Instead of artistic goals, she emphasised the demand for a healthy and strong woman who had to fulfil her duties to continue the family line, and as a mother.

In Hellerau’s dance teaching, they modified Jaques-Dalcroze’s system, applying ideas such as Rudolf Laban’s spatial thinking and Schwung exercisesand Mary Wigman’s views on absolute dance. Although the relationship between music and movement was looser than in Jaques-Dalcroze’s time, Hellerau kept to the core of his work: a dancer sensitive to the music, interpreting its nuances and mood.

Tanzgruppe Kratina started in the early 1920s and gradually began to tour extensively, especially in German-speaking Europe, Italy, Poland and the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Under Kratina’s leadership, the group adapted Jaques-Dalcroze’s exercises following the aesthetics of modern dance in the wake of the First World War. The group’s repertoire included solos, narrative dance pantomimes and plotless group dances. Kratina was an important interpreter of modern music, and the works made extensive use of music by composers of the period, such as Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud. The use of folk music and compositions influenced by it allowed for a variety of rhythmic experiments, which were in the focus of interests in Hellerau. Kratina also choreographed works by historical composers such as W. A. Mozart and J. S. Bach.

In 1924 and 1927, the group performed at a theatre festival of ancient drama in Syracuse, Italy. The modern look of the Kratina dances appealed to the Italians, who, instead of reconstructing plays from Antiquity, wanted to present them in a way that was more accessible to the audience of their time. The performances abandoned masks and used modern contemporary music, with a large orchestra and choir backstage. This collaboration continued even after Rosalia Chladek took over as head of the school’s dance and physical education department in 1930.

Before the school closed on the eve of the Second World War, more than 3,500 students from 35 countries had attended courses at Hellerau-Laxenburg, some of whom had completed a three-year course leading to a diploma.[9] It qualified students as teachers of either rhythmics, dance or physical education. The method spread around the world with the students and teachers. A map based on data from 1930 and 1937 shows that the vast majority were based in continental Europe.

Forgotten Hellerau

One of the reasons dance historians have ignored the Hellerau school, the method and their dance group lies in the shifting aesthetics of dance. The school’s pedagogy differed from the prevailing German aesthetic, which emphasised expressivity, “ecstasy and frenzy” and an approach that focused on the inner experience of the individual. The role of music in dance was questioned, with an emphasis on absolute dance and the German origins of modern dance. Some critics considered the Hellerau-Laxenburg method, which combined rhythm, dance and physical education and analytically dissected them, to be too intellectual. Nevertheless, they acknowledged the technical skill and musicality of the dancers and Kratina’s strengths as a choreographer. The differences between the schools of dance permeated the critiques, which, depending on the author, showed a Wigman, Laban or Hellerau emphasis. When the school moved to Laxenburg, it drifted to the margins of the German dance discourse.

The transnationality of Hellerau, its interdisciplinarity and the tragic end of its activities following the Anschlussof Austria to Nazi Germany have in many ways affected the scarcity of research on the school. The school’s directors, Baer-Frissell and Ferand-Freund, were committed to an open internationalism, and the nationalist and anti-Semitic traits that were so prominent in German body culture were not given a place at Hellerau. Its history is interwoven with the history of rhythmics, dance, women’s physical culture and music education not only in Germany and Austria, but also in many other countries, especially in continental Europe and also in Finland. Its students and teachers came from many nationalities and the practice travelled with them around the world.

The death of Baer-Frissell (1932) and the Jewish Ferand-Freund’s flight from Austria, as well as the damage to the school’s archives in the Second World War, have made research difficult. Marianne Pontan founded her own school, Studio Corposano, in Paris, and later moved from war-torn Europe to Mexico, where she continued her teaching work. Rosalia Chladek, who led Hellerau from the early 1930s until the Anschluss, has a prominent place in Austrian dance history, but other players, especially Valeria Kratina and her dance company, have been forgotten. As a phenomenon that transcended the boundaries of art and nation states, Hellerau has fallen by the wayside in the historiography of national histories, and its importance in its own time has been ignored.

In Finland, the Hellerau-Laxenburg method became part of women’s gymnastics. The most direct continuation is in Austria, where Rosalia Chladek continued the work she had started with Pontan. Chladek developed a movement technique known as System Chladek, which is taught in Austria by the Internationale Gesellschaft Rosalia Chladek.


1 The article is based on my research Tanssia yli rajojen: Modernin tanssin transnationaaliset verkostot (Dancing Across Borders: Transnational Networks of Early Modern Dance), Laakkonen 2018.

2 Wilcox 2017, 160.

3 Wilcox 2017, 160; Carter 2017, 114–121.

4 Laakkonen 2018, 29.

5 Henke 2008, 1.

6 Korppi-Tommola 2013, 35.

7 After Jaques-Dalcroze’s departure, the school was officially named Neue Schule für angewandten Rhythmus Hellerau and was headed by Kurt von Böckmann. In 1922 the school was renamed Die Neue Schule Hellerau in der Gartenstadt Hellerau bei Dresden, and a year later another new name was adopted, Schule Hellerau für Rhythmus, Musik und Körperbildung. After moving to Austria, the school was called Schule Hellerau-Laxenburg.

8 Laakkonen 2018, 81–94; Oberzaucher-Schüller & Giel 2011, 49–50.

9 Oberzaucher-Schüller & Giel 2011, 81.


Carter, Alexandra. 2017. “Destabilizing the discipline. Critical debates about history and their impact on study on dance.” In Larraine Nicholas and Geraldine Morris, eds. Rethinking Dance History: Issues and Methodologies, London: Routledge, 114–122.

Henke, Robert. 2008. “Introduction.” In Robert Henke and Eric Nicholson, eds. Transnational Exchange in Early Modern Theatre. Studies in Performance and Early Modern Drama. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1–18.

Korppi-Tommola, Riikka. 2013. Toisia liikkeitä, toisia virtauksia. Suomalaisen modernin tanssin muutosprosessi 1960-luvulla. PhD Dissertation. University of Helsinki, Theatre Studies.

Laakkonen, Johanna. 2018. Tanssia yli rajojen. Modernin tanssin transnationaaliset verkostot. Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seuran toimituksia 1436. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura.

Oberzaucher-Schüller, Gunhild & Giel, Ingrid. 2011. Rosalia Chladek. Expression in Motion. Translation. Alexandra Nieschlag. Munich: K. Kieser Verlag.

Post Jaques-Dalcroze Hellerau. Mapping a transnational practice. Accessed 19.3.2021

Wilcox, Emily, E. 2017. “When Place Matters. Provincializing the ‘Global.’” In Larraine Nicholas and Geraldine Morris, eds. Rethinking Dance History: Issues and Methodologies. London: Routledge, 160–170.


Johanna Laakkonen

Johanna Laakkonen (PhD) is Director of the Theatre Museum Helsinki. She has also worked as a university lecturer in theatre research and as an associate professor at the University of Helsinki. Her research focuses on the history of Finnish ballet and Finnish women dancers as part of the transnational networks of modern dance in the 1920s and 1930s.