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Imitation Modernism: Gertrude Hoffmann’s “Russian” Ballets

Recent critical work in theater and modernist studies has homed in on the problem of circulation: how a performance moves from one language, one country, one medium to another. A host of business interests made the international performance circuit a reality—from transatlantic shipping lines to the theatrical syndicates who sent producers overseas in search of new talent.[1] Mass media and the burgeoning culture of celebrity often paved the way, establishing expectations before a dancer or a show arrived.[2] Sometimes these performances followed unexpected paths. Cross-cultural adaptation can lead to (generative) mistranslation, as Carrie Preston discusses in her work on Japanese noh and the uses to which it’s put in English-speaking modernism.[3] I’d like to consider a form of circulation even more prosaic than mistranslation: copying. In A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism, Jacob Edmonds points to the prevalence of copying in twentieth-century world literature, discussing how it might help scholars rethink long-held beliefs about influence in the modernist canon. “Attending to repetition, reproduction, and copying as modernist practices,” Edmonds says, “undoes the privileging of originality, origins, temporal priority, and progress in commonplace accounts of modernism.”[4] Attending to the copy moves us away from concerns with authorial intention and truth claims. Instead of a centripetal analysis (where it came from), this critical position demands a centrifugal analysis (how it spread).

Early-twentieth-century American vaudeville and musical theater featured a host of acts that imitated, burlesqued, and engaged in what we would now consider copyright violation. These acts facilitated the transatlantic flow of avant-garde styles and strategies, in a phenomenon that I dub “imitation modernism.” A vernacular mode of understanding new theatrical practices, imitation modernism developed out of burlesque and became popular in the early twentieth century when mimicry was one of the most popular types of performance. By turns aspirational and parodic, it spread the innovations of European stagecraft and performance farther into the United States at a faster pace than the originals could move. Aided by mass media and transportation technologies, these imitation modernist performances took on a life of their own, and they often established the terms by which the originals were (eventually) understood.

Knockoff acts often served as an American audience’s introduction to European theatrical modernism. The Richard Strauss opera Salome ran for only a handful of performances when it debuted at the Metropolitan Opera, but its influence extended to every corner of the United States when solo female dancers clothed in Eastern garb swarmed vaudeville stages the following summer, a phenomenon that the press dubbed “Salomania.”[5] Max Reinhardt’s Arabian Nights-inspired pantomime Sumurun introduced the theatrical runway to the American stage, bringing the full cast in from the back of the auditorium and through the audience. This theatrical element, along with the thrust stage, was meant to disrupt the audience’s sense of separation from the cast, to break through realism’s fourth wall. American producers Lee and J. J. Shubert quickly reused that stage effect in their Winter Garden revue called Whirl of Society, where the performers who entered via runway were comely showgirls. In both cases, imitation worked as a form of transmission across continents and cultural hierarchies. Perhaps the most audacious act of imitation modernism took place in 1911 with a dance program called La Saison Russe. This full-scale, unauthorized production of three Ballet Russes dances toured the United States five years before Diaghilev’s troupe. The producer and star of La Saison Russe was vaudeville performer Gertrude Hoffmann.

Gertrude Hoffmann, Production Impersonator

Hoffmann began her career in San Francisco. She joined a touring theatrical company and traveled to New York City. There she worked behind the scenes as a stage manager and as the first credited female dance director on Broadway.[6] Hoffman then made a hit with an act that imitated popular stars of the day, including Anna Held and George M. Cohan. Susan Glenn has called this a “mimetic moment in American comedy,” one where solo female mimics were especially favored.[7] Because of her skills both onstage and backstage, Hoffmann went beyond imitations of a performer’s physicality or tone of voice. She performed “production impersonations,” imitating an act’s setting, music, lighting, and costumes as well.[8]

Hoffmann’s copying skills led to a job offer: producer Willie Hammerstein asked her to travel to London and observe Maud Allan’s dances at the Palace Theatre. Hoffmann could then perform an imitation of Allan’s scandalous Vision of Salomé at Hammerstein’s Paradise Roof Garden that summer, well before Allan’s contract was fulfilled at the Palace. Hoffmann’s act was billed as “an exact imitation” and “a life-like impersonation” of Maud Allan’s work.[9]

Gertrude Hoffmann as Salome, c. 1908.
Fig. 1. Gertrude Hoffmann as Salome, c. 1908. Image courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington D.C.

This form of copying differed from her imitations of fellow Broadway stars. Most audience members would not have seen the original dance, and so would only have still images and tabloid stories as points of comparison. When Allan played Carnegie Hall in January 1910, critics found her choreography a bit bloodless, more pretty than passionate, compared to their memory of Hoffmann.[10] Her imitation Salome, then, established the framework by which the original was read.

Hoffmann performed this imitation on tour with the Shubert revue The Mimic World through spring 1909. She then traveled to Paris with her husband and son, where they saw Serge Diaghilev’s company perform the first season of Russian ballet at the Théâtre du Châtelet. She was enraptured by these dances, concluding that it was her “special task to introduce this new and most brilliant form of terpsichorean art to the American people.”[11] Hoffmann immediately wanted to bring the production to New York City. She went backstage to try to convince members of the company to perform their work in the United States. She “couldn’t get Fokine,” she noted, because the choreographer had committed to working at the Coliseum in London after the Paris season. She had better luck with Theodore Kosloff, who committed to train her in the Russian style. Overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the production and perhaps frustrated that she couldn’t get the company to come directly to New York City, she noted that she “almost stole music off of rack, & costumes” because she was “so mad about it.”[12] She would have to bring the Russian ballets to the United States another way.

Imitation serves both pragmatic and idealistic purposes here. Hoffmann couldn’t get the originals, she was skilled as a mimic, and she had copied another European performance already. Like Hoffmann’s earlier production impersonations, this was another instance of what Robert Spoo calls “lawful piracy,” which does not figure into our current models of intellectual property but nevertheless fell within business norms of the time.[13] Yet along with the practical thinking, we can also read some fleeting emotions of cross-cultural desire and identification.[14] “For two years,” Hoffmann writes, “I studied patiently under foreign masters, not that I might dance with the Russians but that I might do my share of the work” (“How the Russian Ballet”). Hoffmann’s unauthorized Ballets Russes afforded her a long-term apprenticeship as an artist.

The Russian Season

Hoffmann co-produced La Saison des Ballets Russes with her manager Morris Gest.[15] Gest’s biographers describe the planning for the show: “To forestall rivals, all negotiations for personnel and repertory were conducted sub rosa—contracts and bonds for the dancers, who were responsible only to the Czar; arrangements for Marie Muelle to execute the costumes and scenery in Paris from the Leon Bakst designs, etc.”[16] Notably, this description elides who precisely was making these arrangements. In letters to the biographers, Hoffman mentions that she saw the plates with original designs that Bakst had produced. She met with Marie Muelle, the costumer who produced the open-work harem pants and fringed, beaded tops for Schéhérazade. Indeed, her notes betray a deep frustration with the division of labor between herself and Gest.[17] Unlike Gest’s relatively silent producing partner F. Ray Comstock, Hoffmann had artistic ambitions and resented being treated merely as a source of funding. Hoffmann’s writing about the production show that she understood the Russian ballet as a total work of art, one where “these gorgeous stage settings, these unique costumes and color effects” were just as important as the dancers. Hoffmann was once again working as a “production impersonator,” since she knew that the artistic impact of the performance depended on all the pieces working together in the same way. The copying of the costumes was, in a roundabout way, an act of fidelity to the original performance.

After serving as Hoffman’s tutor in the Russian style of dance, Theodore Kosloff was granted sole credit as the production’s “directeur chorégraphique.”[18] Kosloff trained the dancers to perform uncredited imitations of three Fokine’s ballets: Cléopâtre, Les Sylphides, and Schéhérazade. Hoffmann and Kosloff danced together in Schéhérazade as well—she as Zobeide the sultan’s favorite wife, he as the “golden slave” famously played by Vaslav Nijinsky.

Gertrude Hoffmann and Theodore Kosloff in Schéhérazade.
Fig. 2. Gertrude Hoffmann and Theodore Kosloff in Schéhérazade. Hoffman Photograph MS608_3_4_001, Gertrude and Max Hoffman Photograph Collection, Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Special Collections and Archives, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem.

Kosloff’s rehearsals with the company were kept secret for many reasons. One seems clearest in retrospect: the producers wanted to forestall criticism about “borrowing” Michel Fokine’s choreography (Hohman, Russian Culture, 82). The secrecy also helped the dancers maintain an aura of exotic foreignness. While some members of the cast had trained with the Imperial ballet, others may have been American dancers who took on Russian and French stage names.[19] Here we can see how imitation modernism shades into the lowbrow ethnic comedy of the vaudeville stage. American dancers were not only imitating the steps danced by Russian and French performers; they were expected to take on their attitudes as well.  

Like Hoffmann’s imitations of Maud Allan, these dances were pitched as acts of faithful transatlantic reproduction. Another tour might promise original cast members or the same program. These dances, the advertisements read, would be performed “exactly as done in Paris at the Chatelet Theater and at the Grand Opera House, and at La Scala in Milan.”[20] In one sense, the language is accurate: since Hoffmann took care to copy the costume and set designs from the Paris productions, her shows promised to be as faithful as a copy could be. By invoking not only the European cities but the theaters in which the Ballets Russes played, the language seems to extend its reproductive logic to the audience as well. To see this show in New York City’s Winter Garden Theater, it implies, is as if you’re seeing it while on a Grand Tour yourself.

La Saison Russe demonstrates the interplay of embodied craft and mechanical reproduction in imitation modernism. Consider the souvenir booklet printed by the Gertrude Hoffmann Company in 1911. As with the reproduction of costumes from Bakst’s original plates, the reproduction of the program points to the fidelity and the artifice, the combination of mindless mimicry and skilled technique, at work in the recreation of these ballets.

Cover of Saison Russe Album Souvenir, collection of the author.
Fig. 3. Cover of Saison Russe Album Souvenir, collection of the author.

The new program takes design elements, layouts, and illustrations from the 1910 program for the Russian season at the Chatelet Theatre. The booklet was likely produced using a transfer lithography process. The original production’s program would have been traced and altered, with the new image subsequently transferred to a smooth stone for printing. The costume and set designs could be reproduced from Leon Bakst’s original plates, but the outfits were still hand-sewn and the sets hand-painted. Aside from the composers, Muelle is in fact the only artist whose name appears on both the original Theatre de L’Opera program and the Winter Garden copy. Similarly, some anonymous artist altered the program, integrating “Miss Gertrude Hoffmann Announces” into the heading using the same pink and gold as the original lettering. We might say the same thing about Kosloff’s choreography that “mechanically” reproduces Fokine’s. The artisanal modernism of the Paris program is reproduced and adapted, but even mechanical reproduction requires skill and technique on the part of the copiers.

The booklet is a fascinating palimpsest that retains the traces of the Paris productions, from design to publicity. The illustrations and page borders first appeared in a 16-page color supplement to the June 15, 1910 issue of Comɶdia Illustré, a biweekly illustrated magazine that did much to publicize the early performances of Diaghilev’s troupe.[21] The front cover of the supplement featured “a brilliantly coloured design by Leon Bakst depicting the character of King Shahyrar from Scheherazade”; this image was bordered by a blue and gold border designed by Lucien Vogel (Davis, Ballets Russes, 49). Extant copies of the Hoffmann program feature the same image, albeit in slightly less saturated colors. The Vogel border is also reproduced, though it’s realigned so the bottom edge prints at the edge of the page. Conveniently, this cuts off the part of the Comɶdia Illustré where the original artists’ names appear: “Aquarelle originale de BAKST” printed in red is followed by “L. VoGeL” in gold.[22] Similarly, the central pages of Hoffmann’s Album Souvenir display lavish illustrations of Scheherazade costumes without any descriptive information at all (fig. 4).

Center spread from Saison Russe Album Souvenir, collection of the author.
Fig. 4. Center spread from Saison Russe Album Souvenir, collection of the author.

Elements of the page that appeared in the original program disappear in the new version, including the header crediting Bakst for the watercolor illustrations, the two brief paragraphs describing the ballet and Bakst’s career, and even the character names next to each sketch. These costume designs are removed from any clear relation to the ballets, instead becoming purely decorative in the same manner as the Vogel borders. Hoffmann’s program is less interested in Russianness per se than it is in a decontextualized orientalist pantomime, painted in vivid colors. In a sense, the program imagines modernist design without designers.

First-night critics marveled at the show’s décor, costumes, and music. The dance and pantomime were well-received; Hoffmann’s performance was not. Charitable reviews noted that she did little dancing and looked beautiful; the less kind ones noted her clear lack of skill compared to the Russians.[23] George Jean Nathan, who along with H. L. Mencken served as a snarky intellectual doyen of American culture in the 1910s and 1920s, panned Hoffmann’s performance in grandiose terms:

Picture to yourself a comic supplement cartoonist for the Hammerstein roof giving an exhibition of his craft in the Louvre. Picture to yourself a Casino show girl acting as a partner in the dance to a Rita Sacchetto. Picture to yourself a Keith and Proctor quartet tenor wrestling with “Aida.” Picture to yourself any of these and you will gain a competent idea of the indecent bravado of Miss Gertrude Hoffmann, who injected her unclothed body and ante-vitagraph “art” into the sacred, definite, authentic and most exalted art of the most picturesque nation in the world.[24]

The indignation is palpable. Hoffmann is a popular entertainer daring to place herself among true artists. Nathan asks the audience to picture any number of imaginary violations that might substitute for her own; like an act on a vaudeville bill, she can be swapped out. Presumably, though, the other performers he gives as examples would never dare cross that line. A newspaper cartoonist may perform in a variety theater, as Little Nemo in Slumberland creator Winsor McCay did in this era, but he knows his work doesn’t belong in a museum. A tenor in a vaudeville quartet knows he’s supposed to sing “Sweet Adeline,” not opera. Hoffmann’s indecency here is not a direct result of her nakedness. Instead, it’s the “indecent bravado” of suggesting she belongs on the same stage as classically-trained Russian dancers. Mimesis itself is not indecent: Rita Sacchetto, mentioned above as a positive example, was a ballerina who danced in tableaux vivants-like performances inspired by familiar paintings.[25] No, the indecency occurred when popular artists asked to be taken seriously for their mimicry. While imitation modernism spread across the United States in the 1910s, cultural critics like Nathan took great pleasure in distinguishing between the imitation and the real thing.

The Highbrows and the Roughnecks

Hoffmann posed a problem for critics of the era who were invested in this distinction because she was so clearly interested in dance with both artistic and popular appeal. Indeed, she treated them as equivalents that could appear on the same bill. The production was a critical success, but on the first half of the tour it lost money. The huge cast had to be paid, and complicated settings meant the show could not stop for one-night stands in smaller theaters. Hoffmann came up with a solution inspired by her recent work in vaudeville: she interpolated her imitations and dances between the Russian ballets. She appeared third in the evening, after Cléopâtre and Les Sylphides, but before Schéhérazade.[26] Hoffmann’s Cleopatra and Zobeide were placed in the same pantheon as modern divas Anna Held, Eva Tanguay, and Valeska Suratt. Even more daringly, she performed two straight dances among her imitations, Allan’s “Spring Song” and Ruth St. Denis’s “The Cobras.”

Gertrude Hoffmann performing Ruth St. Denis’s dance “The Cobras,” surrounded by members of the Royal Cingalese Troupe.
Fig. 5. Gertrude Hoffmann performing Ruth St. Denis’s dance “The Cobras,” surrounded by members of the Royal Cingalese Troupe. Hoffman Photograph MS608_3_4_009, Gertrude and Max Hoffman Photograph Collection, Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Special Collections and Archives, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem.

Gest reportedly worried that this would spoil the integrity of the artistic program, to which Hoffmann replied, “Wait and see!” (Sayler and Barkentin, “On Your Toes,” 25). Her additions earned the second half of the tour far more money—and press coverage—than the first half. But adding Hoffmann’s vaudeville act to the bill came with a cost. Russian dancers Lydia Lopokova and Alexander Volinine left the company, objecting to the ways comic imitations cheapened the dances that shared the program.[27] As a San Francisco critic wrote of the Saison des Ballets Russes when it arrived on tour, “[Hoffman] has a punch in both hands—one for the highbrows and one for the roughnecks.”[28] The reception of Hoffmann’s Russian ballets depended on the assumptions the critic held about artistic cohesiveness. For audiences accustomed to the variety structure of a vaudeville bill, Hoffmann’s act made sense. Indeed, it points to the lack of internal consistency in the Russian ballets, which were after all three short pieces with different settings and styles. When we consider the originals through the eyes of an imitator, we can recognize aesthetic gaps in our interpretations of those originals as well.

Hoffmann succeeded in introducing Russian ballet to America, but her critical reputation as a producer and performer suffered. I’d suggest that this has to do with her move from comic to serious imitations. Comic imitations tweaked the originals and showed the skill of the imitator; serious imitations place the performer in a submissive position in relation to the original, either as an acolyte or as a mere entrepreneur. Nevertheless, comic and serious imitations alike served as engines of cultural circulation on the world stage.

Hoffmann’s Russian ballets should be considered within the broader realm of American popular modernism. Like cubist fashion displays in department store windows and Gertrude Stein parodies in mainstream magazines, popular performances of the 1910s and 1920s imported European modernism into new venues and introduce it to new audiences.[29] In this way, imitation modernist performances like Hoffmann’s participated in the larger pedagogical project of “smart” culture in magazines like Vanity Fair and the New Yorker.[30] Revues such as the Ziegfeld Follies and the Shubert Brothers’ Passing Show series filtered the avant-garde into the mainstream through parodies that flattered the audience by suggesting they were sufficiently familiar with the original material. Current work on modernism and celebrity culture points to the many ways that copies meet the audience where they live in a way that the originals seldom could. We should attend to the ways that the popular stage brought European modernism closer to American audiences—the proximity of a runway through the audience, of a ballet performed in a vaudeville house.


Notes

[1] See “Networking the Waves: Ocean Liners, Impresarios, and Broadway’s Atlantic Expansion” in Marlis Schweitzer, Transatlantic Broadway: The Infrastructural Politics of Global Performance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 36–68.  

[2] This is especially evident in Michelle Clayton, “Modernism’s Moving Bodies,” Modernist Cultures 9, no. 1 (2014): 27–45.  

[3] See Carrie J. Preston, Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 24.

[4] Jacob Edmonds, “Copy,” in A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism, ed. Eric Hayot and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 96–113, 107.

[5] Marlis Schweitzer, “The Salome Epidemic,” in The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Theater, ed. Nadine George-Graves (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 890–921. For a monograph that attends to Wilde’s Salome and its afterlife in a broader timeframe see Petra Dierkes-Thrun, Salome’s Modernity: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011).

[6] Hoffmann’s career was first discussed in detail in Barbara Naomi Cohen, “The Borrowed Art of Gertrude Hoffman,” Dance Data 2 (1977): 2–11.

[7] For a genealogy of female solo performance in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, see Carrie J. Preston, Modernism’s Mythic Pose: Gender, Genre, Solo Performance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[8] Sunny Stalter-Pace, “Gertrude Hoffmann’s Lawful Piracy: ‘A Vision of Salome’ and the Russian Season as Transatlantic Production Impersonations,” Theatre Symposium 25, no. 1 (2017): 37–48.

[9] Mary Simonson, Body Knowledge: Performance, Intermediality, and American Entertainment at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 34.

[10] “Maud Allan Does ‘Salome’: A Milder Siren Than Her Vaudeville Rivals,” The Sun, January 30, 1910, 6.

[11] Gertrude Hoffman, “How the Russian Ballet Was Brought to America,” New York American, June 25, 1911, Box 11, Folder 6, Gertrude and Max Hoffman Papers, Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Wake Forest University.

[12] Details of Hoffmann’s backstage visit to the Chatelet Theatre are taken from “Act II, Article Transcripts and Notes on Polaire and Gertrude Hoffman, 1913, Undated,” Series I: Morris Gest Papers, Box 2, Folder 5, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.

[13] Robert Spoo, Without Copyrights: Piracy, Publishing, and the Public Domain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 3.

[14] See Preston, Learning to Kneel.

[15] Gest is perhaps better known as producer of Nikita Balieff’s Chauve-souris and the Moscow Art Theatre’s tour in the 1920s. But this was his first foray into transatlantic theatrical production. See Valleri J. Hohman, Russian Culture and Theatrical Performance in America, 18911933 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 88–95.

[16] Oliver M. Sayler and Marjorie Barkentin, “On Your Toes—America!: The Story of the First Ballet Russe,” Dance Data 2 (1977): 20–27, 22.

[17] She wrote indignantly: “I told about Muel[le]—costumier—Pages + pages of directions” while he “was seeking a play for his father— Belasco” (“Act II, Article Transcripts and Notes”). Gest was married to Reina Belasco, daughter of famed realist producer David Belasco.

[18] “Saison Ballet Russes—Original and American; Tableau de La Troupe-Programs,” Box 13, Folder 5, Gertrude and Max Hoffman Papers, Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Wake Forest University.

[19] See Cohen, “The Borrowed Art,” 11.

[20] “Winter Garden Advertisement,” New York Times, June 11, 1911, X3.

[21] For further information on the Comɶdia Illustré and its representation of the Ballets Russes, see Mary E. Davis, Ballets Russes Style: Diaghilev’s Dancers and Paris Fashion (London: Reaktion Books, 2010).

[22] Ballets Russes and Léon Bakst, eds., Les Ballets Russes: Saison Russe á l’Opéra, Ballets, 1910, Souvenir Program (Paris: Comoedia illustré, 1910).

[23] Robinson Locke, “Gertrude Hoffmann Scrapbooks,” Robinson Locke Collection, Reel 24,  Series 1, V.273. New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Billy Rose Theatre Collection, 89.

[24] George Jean Nathan, “Trying it on the Dog Days,” Smart Set 35, no. 1 (1911): 145–52, 148.

[25] See Simonson, Body Knowledge, 112.

[26]  See “Act II, Article Transcripts and Notes.”

[27] See “Russian Dancers Quit Miss Hoffmann: Lydia Lopoukowa and Alex. Volinine Object Introduction of a Vaudeville Review,” New York Times, September 20, 1911, 13.

[28] “Unsorted Clippings,” 6, Box 11, Folder 6, Gertrude and Max Hoffman Papers.

[29] For cubist fashions, see Elizabeth Carlson, “Cubist Fashion: Mainstreaming Modernism after the Armory,” Winterthur Portfolio 48, no. 1 (2014): 1–28, doi.org/10.1086/675687. For Stein, see Karen Leick, Gertrude Stein and the Making of an American Celebrity (New York: Routledge, 2009).

[30] See Faye Hammill, “In Good Company: Modernism, Celebrity, and Sophistication in Vanity Fair,” in Modernist Star Maps: Celebrity, Modernity, Culture, ed. Aaron Jaffe and Jonathan E. Goldman (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010), 123–35; Daniel Tracy, “Investing in ‘Modernism’: Smart Magazines, Parody, and Middlebrow Professional Judgment,” Journal of Modern Periodical Studies 1, no. 1 (2010): 38–63.