Front and rear covers of the Side Real Press edition.


    The following is intended a brief overview of the lives of Anita Berber and Sebastian Droste especially in relation to their book 'Tänze des Lasters, des Grauens und der Ekstase' ('Dances of Vice, Horror and Ecstasy'-1922) which is fully translated into English for the first time by Merrill Cole and published by Side Real Press in an edition of 300 numbered copies in 2012. For those only wishing information regarding the availability of the book itself please click HERE to go to the main Side Real Press website.

   Please note that the images of Berber and Droste by Madame D'Ora (Dora Kallmus) which appear in this article are of far lower quality than the versions that appear in the Side Real Press book. The Side Real Press edition utilises images taken (wherever possible) from rare negatives and original prints held by various institutions and are thus copyrighted by those holders. However, for the purposes of this article I have taken variant images which are freely available online and which are far lesser quality than those reproduced in the Side Real edition.



    In 1991 the German Post Office released a stamp bearing a reproduction of the Otto Dix painting, 'The Dancer Anita Berber' (1925). This striking image of a woman in a tight red dress, her gaunt pale face, cupids bow lipstick, and aloof arrogant expression could be mistaken for a portrait of a high-fashion grande-dame in her mid-60s or later. Berber was actually twenty-six. Within four years she would buried in a paupers grave.

Otto Dix: The Dancer Anita Berber (1925)
    Berber (1899-1928), and to a lesser extent her husband/dance partner Sebastian Droste (1892-1927), have come to epitomise  the decadence within Weimar era Berlin, their colourful personal lives overshadowing to a large extent their careers in dance, film and literature. Yet the couple's daring and provocative performances are being re-assessed within the history of the development of expressive dance, and their extraordinary book 'Tänze des Lasters, des Grauens und der Ekstase' ('Dances of Vice, Horror and Ecstasy'-1922), is a 'gesamkunstwerk' (total work of art) of Expressionist ideology largely unrecognised outside a devoted cult following.

   Berber is the better known of the couple. Born in Dresden into a liberal middle class family, her parents separated a year later. Her father remarried and her mother, in pursuit of acting career, left Anita in the care of her grandmother. Berber was partly educated in the newly built Jaques-Dalcroze institute at Hellerau, a progressive utopian experiment which extolled the principles of natural harmony in work and everyday life, and used  euthythmics as a teaching method. Eurhythmics aimed "to enable pupils, at the end of their course, to say, not "I know," but "I have experienced,” "(Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, 'Rhythm Music & Education'). Mary Wigman (1886-1973), who would develop 'ausdruckstanz' (expressive or Expressionist dance) and later become one of the century's major choreographers, was also a pupil at the same time as Berber, though it is not known if they ever met. Below is a  1921(?) clip of Wigman performing 'Hexentanz'.

    At fourteen Berber rejoined her mother and, moving to Berlin, joining a troupe of performers led by Rita Sachetto initially performing alongside another influential dancer Valeska Gert (1892-1978),  much of whose work is now regarded as proto performance-art. Berbers style, formally influenced by Eurythmics, began to incorporate Expressionist sensibilities and this mixture - fused with her dynamism and intense sexuality, gained her press notices which soon led her to be hailed as a new 'wonder in the art of dance'.

    She also began to develop a film career performing in a number of films directed by Richard Oswald (1880-1963). These included the melodrama, 'Prostitution' (acting alongside Conrad Veidt) and the equally controversial 'Different From The Others' (both made in 1919) the later taking homosexuality as its theme. Berber also appeared briefly in Fritz Langs' 'Dr Mabuse' (1921).

Anita Berber in 'Die Dame' magazine 1918
    Her personal life also contributed to raising her public profile. Married, in name only, to an Oswald scriptwriter, she conducted numerous lesbian alliances (Marlene Dietrich allegedly among them) and fuelled her polysexual/decadent lifestyle with vast ingestions of cocaine, cognac, opiates and ether. The tabloids of the day loved her:

        ‘What interests the audience:
        Hunger, misery, suffering millions,
        Thousands rotting away in jail?
        Does that interest the audience?
        Alas, the naked bottom of Anita Berber:
        That interests the audience.’

                       Cabaret song by W. Mann, cited by Alex de Jonge, 'The Weimar Chronicle-Prelude To Hitler'. (1979)

Sebastian Droste 1920
  Sebastian Drostes background is more obscure. He was born Willy Knobloch into a wealthy manufacturing family in Hamburg where he went to art school emerging as "a classic dandy, acerbic homosexual and art snob" (Mel Gordon: 'The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin's Priestess of Decadence' p. 116).

     He was drafted in 1915 and disappears from view, to resurface in 1919 in the major Epressionist journal of the day 'Die Sturm' to which he contributed poetry. Later that year he moved to Berlin and as 'Sebastian Droste' began work as a dancer for the Celly de Rheidt company which specialised in what were termed 'schönheitsabende' (beauty evenings), the 'beauty' aspect being the near nakedness of the performers. They specialised in performing 'artistic' interpretations of 'uplifting' classical works which they hoped would prevent them from attracting police attention. However De Rheidts' luck expired in 1921 with their interpretation of Philip Calderons' painting, 'St. Elizabeth of Hungary's Great Act of Renunciation' (1891) probably for its' blasphemous content rather than obscenity (though the subsequent discovery that some of the performers were underage did not help). As a result of this Droste became unemployed.

Celly de Rheidt Advertising card c. 1922
   According to Leo Lania (an early Berber biographer cited in Gordon) Droste entered Berbers life in June 1922. Perhaps Drostes' cold demeanour, analytical mind and ability to manipulate others offered her a stability of sorts, for he soon became her second husband and manager. He was also a serious cocaine user. 

'The Dances of the Ina Raffay' (1921)
     With Berber now a film starlet, dancer of note, and already fictionalised in a novel by Vicki Baum entitled 'Die Tänze der Ina Raffay'  Droste was able to obtain a contract for them to perform material at Viennas Great Konzerthaus-saal. This production was to become the 'Dances of Vice, Horror and Ecstasy'. Created in just under five months it was a mixture of old Berber material and new works to be danced by Berber and Droste either together or as solo pieces. The book of the same title was also produced, though this was not published until the following year.

    The show received mixed reviews, but was overtaken by scandal when Droste was arrested for attempting to pass a forged credit note for 50 million Kroner in order to partially pay off his own and Berbers' debts. Drostes' creditors convinced the court to allow him to continue working until it went to trial. If they could continue to perform, they would make money to pay their debts. However, Droste then signed 'exclusive' contracts with three different theatres and although one theatre eventually managed to gain exclusivity, the couple also broke that agreement. The International Actors Union became involved and banned them from performing on any continental variety stage for two years.

    This was the beginning of the end of their relationship. The publicity generated made them notorious in Germany and Austria, but they had little opportunity to work and drug habits to maintain. Both returned to Berlin. In October 1923 Droste stole what he could of Berbers jewels and furs using the money raised by their sale to leave for New York. They had been married for ten months.

Photo for 'The Way' by Francis Bruguière (ca. 1925-25)
   Droste, now named 'Baron Willy Sebastian Droste', presented himself as an eccentric aristocrat and began to mix in New York society supporting himself by writing for the german papers and attempting to revive (unsucessfully) his dance career. He also tried to find financial backers for an Expressionist film project he created called 'The Way' the plot of which had autobiographical streaks of drugs, power, dancing and mysticism. A number of  photos were taken of Droste by Vogue and Vanity Fair photographer Francis Bruguière (1879-1945) using abstraction and double exposures in ways that lift them above any normal publicity/fund-raising shots. Sadly the project did not progress further.

Three photos for 'The Way' by Francis Bruguière (ca. 1925-25)

    Droste became seriously debilitated by Tuberculosis and eventually returned to Hamburg in 1927 dying in November of that year.

    Berber had rapidly divorced Droste and managed to pull herself together enough to form 'Troupe Anita Berber' performing in various Berlin night-clubs, though once again her volatility resulted in bans and dismissals. She quickly married American dancer Henri-Chátin Hoffman in autumn 1924. He helped to revive Berbers career with shows featuring a mix of old favourites such as 'Morphine' (its music, specially composed for her by Mischa Spoliansky was a hit of its day) and new material.

Musical score for Morphine (date unknown)
But public taste was changing in Germany - a reaction against the previous decadence - and Berbers' destructive lifestyle continued to take its toll, despite her efforts to reduce her drug dependancies. Berber and Henri began touring outside Germany and had begun to make their way towards the Middle East. In July 1928, while in Syria she collapsed  and was diagnosed with advanced T.B. Friends helped pay her fare back to Berlin where she died on November 10th. 

   After the newspaper obituaries, which were generally complimentary, Berber remained of relatively minor interest outside dance history circles until Lothar Fishers book 'Tanz zwischen Rausch und Tod: Anita Berber, 1918-1928 in Berlin' (1996) helped resurrect her, while Rosa von Praunheims art film 'Anita – Tänze des Lasters' (1987) elevated her status as a taboo smashing feminist.

'Anita – Tänze des Lasters' (Rosa von Praunheim 1987)
Karl Toepfers excellent academic survey of the period, 'Empire of Ecstasy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910-1935' (1997) and Mel Gordons books 'Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin' (2000) and 'The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin's Priestess of Decadence' (2006) (the only English biography) introduced her into the English speaking world.



- The Book

'Tänze des Lasters, des Grauens und der Ekstase' (1922) Cover and title page.

    Of  the original edition of Berber and Drostes' 'Tänze des Lasters, des Grauens und der Ekstase', Toepfer (p91) says "it is difficult to imagine, let alone find, a more bizarre and complex relation between dance, writing, speech, nudity, and image than that found in this little book". It certainly seems that few copies of the original edition appear to have survived, its relatively small print run (1,000 copies) its size, and fragile paper binding having made it susceptable to damage.  Gordon reprints much of it in 'The Seven Addictions...' and also includes a number of the stunning D'Ora photos (in varying degrees of quality).

'Night Of The Borgias' (Photo by D'Ora)
    Extracts from the book and especially the photos proliferate online, but his fragmentation and lack of context allows others to configure a myth of their own choosing, but dilutes the overall power of the original. When viewed in its entirety it is apparent that they strove to create a  carefully considered 'gesamkunstwerk' which was intended to stand as its own entity.

    Berber and Droste chose to express themselves almost exclusively through the Expressionist/Modernist ethos, which was in itself filtered through the angst of Germany during the Weimar period.

    Expressionism had been in existence before Weimar  and, like many art movements, it had no formal beginnings, as opposed to a 'school' of artists who might band together under a common technique. It was fundamentally a reaction against the Impressionists who were seen by the Modernists as merely portrayers of 'reality' but who had failed to add anything of the artists own interior processes such as intuition, imagination and dream.

    This new wave of artists found inspiration in painters such as Van Gogh and Matisse but also drew from writers such as Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and the Symbolists, together with the philosophy of Nietzsche and Freudian psychology.

'Suicide' (Photo by D'Ora not in the book)
    Expressionists believed the artist should utilise "what he perceives with his innermost senses, it is the expression of his being; all that is transitory for him is only a symbolic image; his own life is his most important consideration. What the outside world imprints on him, he expresses within himself. He conveys his visions, his inner landscape and is conveyed by them". Herwert Walden: 'Erster Deutscher Herbstsalaon' (1913).

    In effect the artists were reconstructing reality in a 'purer' form, similar to the utopian experiments in schools such as Hellerau which were aiming to create new societies in reaction to what they saw as an increasingly crass, superficial and greedy society maintained by the corrupt and oppressive institutions of government and church. Almost by default such changes included the emancipation of women and with that, a challenge to the sexual morés of the period.

    This also found resonance in 'Nachtkultur' which had begun to emerge in the early years of the century; nudism was promoted as part of the route to a healthy mind/healthy body and whilst for some it was a 'return to nature' the Modernists also saw the unveiled body in the context of the emancipation of the individual in its purest state, unfettered by societal controls. Later, these ideas would be extended and perverted by the Nazis to suggest that a 'beautiful' body was a 'pure' body.

'Morphine' (Photo by D'Ora - not in the book)
    In the dark days of the Weimar, when a ruined economy left many Germans with little other than their bodies for generating income, this territory of erotic ambiguity was exploited by companies such as Celly de Rheidt Company. This, combined with Expressionisms' desire to look at the darker aspects of human nature was synthesised by Berber and Droste into their work, especially the 'Dances...'

    The book contains an essay by critic by Leopold Wolfgang Rochowanski, portraits of the authors by Felix Harta, photos by Madame D'Ora and stage designs by Harry Täuber, all complementing the poetry by Berber and Droste. Some of the poems relate to the eleven publically performed dances but also others that were probably never intended for performance. 'Murder Woman and the Hanged One', for example, includes 'one hundred thousand hanged corpses' among the cast.

    In its early pages Droste states: 'Our dances do not derive from studied thought...but rather from tormenting, breast tearing, agitating experience...the unconscious obedience of the limbs towards the holier music of the soul, the attention to strange powers that cry out to us...' 
    (From 'Dance As Form And Experience')


'Astarte' (Photo by D'Ora. This image 
is from the same photo session
but not reproduced in the book)

The book is saturated with an air of morbidity and decadence; death, dreams, torture, sex and sensuality proliferate often combined with a narcissistic homosexual undertone.

'...Twenty-thousand women in corsets
Bite each other in ecstatic lust
Five-thousand painted boys tear each other apart in mad passion
A brother kills his sister
A child is greedy for blood
All slaves are longing for lashes from a whip
All stallions cry for their mares...' 
     (From 'Astarte')

    Almost all the poems are presented in texts stripped to the bone which are often more evocative than the few (rare) 'literary' descriptions that have survived.

    Compare this extract from Joe Jenčíks' description of the opening sequence of 'Cocaine' which appeared in the Laban dance journal 'Schrifttanz' with Drostes': 

    '...Deathly silence and no sign of human will. Obviously the first impact of this horrendous poison paralysis the body. The soul fights hard to regain its dominance. Tiny spasms of the body take hold of the porcelain-coloured limbs, and the unfortunate drugged woman regains conciousness - because the desire for life is indestructible. When she sits up, the muscles sway like the motions of a drawn out pendulum. Her body contracts into a bizarre coil of flesh with two indescribable slits for eyes and a blood red orifice for a mouth. Slowly the coils unravels as if an order - between reason and delirium - had been issued...
'Cocaine' (Photo by D'Ora)
       Joe Jenčík 'Schrifttanz' (1931)

    Here is the same section from Droste:

Nervous disintegrating desires
Blazing lamp 
Smouldering lamp 
Dancing shadow 
Small shadow
Big shadow 
The shadow
Oh, the leap over the shadow
He tortures me, this shadow 
He eats me, this shadow 
What does this shadow want?
    (From 'Cocaine')

   The image is the poem as portrayed in the book by D'Ora.  Interestingly, it is doubted whether the dance was performed (at least in Vienna) topless. Once again, this would indicate that the book is to be considered as its own specific entity.

    The poems cite their inspirations: artists Wassily Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso and Matthias Gr
ünewald and authors lsuch as Villiers De L'Isle Adam, Edgar Allan Poe, Paul Verlaine, E.T.A. Hoffman and Hanns Heinz Ewers.

    At first glance Grü
newald might seem out of place amongst the moderns, but compare this image from his famous altarpiece to this image of Droste.

Matthias Grünewald - Isenheim altarpiece (section 1505-15)                                     Sebastian Droste - 'Martyr' (c. 1922?)

    While Berbers' poems are more inspired by the fin de siècle and thus more traditional, Drostes' work is determinedly modern and aligned with poets such as Alfred Lichtenstein (1889-1914)

'Suicide' (Photo by D'Ora)
In the sunlight doctors tear a woman apart.
Here the open red body gapes.  And heavy blood
Flows, dark wine, into a white bowl.  One sees
Very clearly the rose-red cyst.  Lead gray,
The limp head hangs down.  The hollow mouth
Rattles.  The sharp yellow chin points upward.
The room shines, cool and friendly.  A nurse
Savors quite a bit of sausage in the background.  
    (Alfred Lichtenstein 'The Operation')

    Droste also drew from the Futurists, who postulated that traditional sentence structure was an almost outmoded device and recommended "parole in libertá" (word autonomy) in which the individual word itself carried the message. 

    'Die Sturm' had published the Futurist manifesto on literature in 1912, and also published its leading German exponent, August Stramm (1874-1915)




Hoist applaud.

Your laughter blows.

Seize a seizing

Bellow ferrules




       (August Stramm 'Attack'-1915)

    The only living author mentioned in 'Tanze des Grauens...' was Hanns Heinz Ewers (1871-1943) and should be of no surprise to readers of this article that I have attempted to discover if Ewers personally knew them. Ewers (who wrote introductions to translations of Adam and Poe) certainly knew the photographer Madame d'Ora (writing a brochure for her in 1914 as well as being photographed by her) and the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (advisor to Oswalds 'Different To The Others') and had many contacts in the film world through his work on 'Student of Prague' (1913). Given Ewers' interests, it is virtually inconceivable that he didn't see them perform, but sadly it appears that no direct letter or reference to them survives.


Egon Schiele portrait of Felix Harta (1914)
    Felix Albrecht Harta (1884-1967), provided portraits of the authors in the volume. Harta, who came from an affluent Hungarian background, was largely raised in Austria, and was well known is his day, associating with Klimt, Shiele and Kokoschka and was also a founding member of the Salzburg festival. Moving to Vienna in 1924 he drew many celebrities of the day, but was less an Expressionist and more a post-impressionist in style. Like many Jews in the late 1930s he was forced to leave Austria, relocating in Cambridge (England) where he survived by painting society portraits and pastoral landscapes. He returned to Salzburg in 1950 where he lived until his death in 1967.

    Leopold Rochowanski (1885-1961), who contributes an essay on naked dance, was a Viennese cultural historian, Expressionist poet,  and playwright. He was also an early supporter of radical Expressionist art and dance (having possibly been a performer of the latter himself) and used his position to promote it via his books. Rochowanski published works by his friend Franz Cisek who was an influential reformer of arts education believing that children should develop their own innate abilities without influence. Cisek who taught at the influential Vienna School of Applied Art alongside the likes of Kokoshka, also formulated a very short lived 'school' of 'Kineticism' (approx.1920-24). which he defined as “the art of breaking up movements in their constant rhythmic elements, which are then used to build the picture”. It fused Italian Futurism, Russian Constructivism, and Labanian Dance theory, tinged with the spiritual teachings of movements such as Theosophy.  It is probably through the  Rochowanksi/Cisek connection that Harry Täuber became set designer for Berber and Droste.

Frederick Varley sketch of Harry Täuber c. 1933-35
    Harry Ludwig Täuber (1900-1975), was a Cisek student and stage designer about whom I have discovered very little. It is known that he emigrated to Vancouver in 1931 (possibly after a scandal over his stage designs for Arthur Schnitzler's controversial play 'La Ronde') where he taught art and theatre design influenced by Expressionism, Kandinsky, Eurhythmics  and Steiner techniques to artists such as Emily Carr, Fred Varley and Jock Macdonald (part of 'The Group of Seven'). In 1932 he co-founded (with artist Beatrice Lennie) the intriguing sounding 'Harry Täubers Marionette Players' which performed a number of plays for Vancouver Arts around that time.

    Around 1938 Täuber relocated to Hawaii and was interned there for a short while after Pearl Harbour as a potential enemy alien.  An internee remembered him as "enormously erudite" and working on a history of the occult sciences. At some point he was a lecturer at the University of Hawaii but he disappears from view at this point until his death (still living on the island) on February 5th 1975. I would be very grateful to receive any further information upon him.

   I first became aware of Berber and Droste via the stunning photos by 'Madame D'Ora' (Dora Kalmus, 1881-1963) who contributes sixteen images to 'Dances.....'

    Kalmus studied at the institute for graphic design in Vienna learning photographic techniques with Nicola Perscheid in Berlin and opened her first studio in Vienna in 1907 with Arthur Benda - a Perscheid technician.  Her more informal portraiture style was popular with both the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy and the bohemian art scene, her subjects included artists Klimt and Mahler through to the Kaiser himself.

Dora Kalmus (self portrait) c. 1925
    D'Ora had a particular interest in modern dance and fashion and relocated to Paris in 1925, working for fashion magazines such as 'Die Dame' and 'Officiel de la Couture et de la Mode' with clients including Coco Chanel, Tamara de Lempicka, Cocteau, and Picasso.

    During the German occupation she was forced to hide in a cloister in the Ardèche (many of her family were killed in the Holocaust) and these experiences seem to have influenced her post war work which included documenting the plight of refugees at a camp in Austria in 1945 and Paris slaughterhouses in 1956. After she was hit by a motorcycle in 1959, D’Ora was unable to work, and returned to her Austrian family home (which was forcibly sold by the Nazis, but returned post war) and died there in 1963.

              Karl Lagerfeld (German 'Vogue', 2009)                          Sebastian Droste (Berliner Illustriete Zeitung, 1922)
    The Berber/Droste legacy and influence continues to grow, and was recently referenced by Karl Lagerfeld in 2009 as the example opposite shows. It is hoped that this article, and the Side Real  Press publication of  'Dances of Vice, Horror and Ecstasy' will also assist in their continued re-appraisal.

    For further information on the book itself click



    Very little known footage of Anita Berber and Sebastian Droste  dancing exists, but the latter does appear in the final scenes of 'Algol- Tragödie der Macht' (Tragedy of Power) which is an early German Expressionist science fiction film directed by Hans Werckmeister in 1920. 

     You can read about the film HERE, and view the footage  HERE

    To see Anita Berber act (and dance a little), the link HERE will take you to part one of 'Unheimliche Geschichten' ('Eerie Tales'), directed Richard Oswald in 1919 and starring Conrad Weidt. It is  a portmanteau film of horror stories set around an old bookshop.