Gertrud Bodenwieser – Trailblazing Dancer

From Australia’s Jewish Past:

Gertrud Bodenwieser

founder of the Bodenwieser Ballet

First published in J-Wire May 9, 2022

Peir, Clif. 1950, Portrait of Gertrud Bodenwieser
Peir, Clif. 1950, Portrait of Gertrud Bodenwieser NLA

Her ballet company was described as “the first truly influential modern dance company in Australia”.

Gertrud was born on 3 February 1890 in Vienna, the younger daughter of Theodore and Maria Bondi, a wealthy Jewish couple. She turned to dance under the pseudonym Gertrud Bodenwieser and was celebrated in Vienna as a sensation. Her style was based on classical ballet of which she was originally taught by Carl Godlewski from 1905 to 1910, who, at the turn of the century was appointed as a dancing master to the Court.

She had a new style of dance that was welcomed by the audience, critics and young students with much enthusiasm. She was inspired by the works of Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. One of her greatest successes was “Demon Machine”, a dance performance, in which a group of dancers turned into machines.

Gertrud was appointed professor of dance at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. In the concert hall’s basement, she ran her own dance studio. Her pupils went out on tours throughout Europe as Tanzgruppe Bodenwieser (“Bodenwieser dance group”). Among her students was well-known Australian dancer – Peggy van Praagh. 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. 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, Gertrud soon provided instruction at her private school which she set up in 1919 and at the Neues Wiener Konservatorium.

In June 1920 in Vienna, she married Friedrich Jacques Rosenthal, a theatre director. They had no children. She travelled extensively to give guest performances and in 1931 was awarded the first prize in Florence, Italy. In 1934 she toured Japan, also using it as an opportunity to publicise Austria: with the Viennese Waltz invariably being performed at the end of each program. She retired from dancing in 1934.

In 1938, when the Nazis invaded Austria, the ballet was forced to leave Europe and Gertrud fled with a handful of students to Colombia and her husband Jacques went to France, where he was apprehended by the Gestapo, and interned and he died in the concentration camp at Auschwitz, on 31 August 1942. In Bogota, Gertrud gave a guest performance as part of its 400-year celebration. She was even able to fill a bullfight arena with enthusiastic spectators. Her 1944 dance, “The Masks of Lucifer”, showed intrigue, terror and hatred as personifications of political totalitarianism and became famous as the embodiment during an ominous time.

photo of Bodenwieser Ballet on tour in New Zealand
Bodenwieser Ballet on tour in New Zealand, 1947 Raine, W. Hall. 1947, NLA

On 23 August 1939, Gertrud arrived in Sydney where she was met by her main dance group who 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 in 1940. She founded the Bodenwieser Ballet on her arrival in Sydney and this ballet company was described as “the first truly influential modern dance company in Australia”. 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, always dressed 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). She 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. Gertrud choreographed group dances, solo dances, dance dramas and comedies, and 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 completeness of human experience.

From 1940 to 1954, the Bodenwieser Ballet (as it was known) 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 entertainment to remote areas. She took her company on tours to New Zealand, South Africa, Rhodesia and India.

Her dancers took part in the film, Spotlight on the Australian Ballet in 1948, and two of her comedy ballets were televised by the ABC.

Gertrud died of a heart attack on 10 November 1959 at her Potts Point flat and was cremated. She explained her artistic origins in her posthumous book, The New Dance (published in 1970). Her significance has been acknowledged in the establishment of the Bodenwieser Dance Centre and the Gertrud Bodenwieser Archives in Sydney.

From Australia's Jewish Past is written by Ruth Lilian OAM for AJHS and published weekly in J-Wire. ​