No one embodied the restless ambitions of American stage dancing during the first decades of the 20th century like Gertrude Hoffman. Emerging from the vaudeville song and dance tradition, she toured in a comic girl duo with Etta Pearce where she developed a love of engaging with her audiences. Her interest in characterization by gesture as well as voice (she attracted Florenz Ziegfeld's attention as an impersonator), blossomed into a fascination with novelty for its own sake, an appreciation of physical comedy, and an ambition to push the limits of what might be expressed.
Statuesque of figure, blessed with a naturally dignified face, Hoffman had a natural penchant for exhibitionism that would be greatly amplified by her reading in the tracts of the physical culture movement. She was particularly enamored of that feminist streak in the movement, embodied in the lectures of Annette Kellerman and Isadora Duncan, that viewed the revelation of the natural female body as an assertion of power.
Unschooled in classical dance, Hoffman developed her body language out of the acrobatics of the physical culture motion regimens, the flexible torso dancing of stage dancer Bessie Clayton, and the gestural expansiveness of Loie Fuller. She first gained a public for her agile dancing in Ziegfeld's Anna Held vehicle of 1907, "The Parisian Model." She won equal fame for her impersonations of famous persons.
The next year began Hoffman's personal experiment in making herself a cultural celebrity, performing a Salome dance on Hammerstein's roof garden in "the briefest feminine costume on record since the fig leaf became passe." Performed to Richard Strauss's notorious dance from his opera "Salome" (already a scandal in New York artistic circles), Hoffman staged "A Vision of Salome" with exquisite attention to lighting, decor, and choreography, thereby making the dance an arresting exercise in expression.
Though Maud Allen had made a similar dance a sensation in London, Hoffman's employed her own gestural language. It created precisely the sensation she had hoped, eventually, when enough newspaper ink has been expended to make it famous across the continent. The Shubert brother's hired Hoffman to a management contract to perform the dance throughout the country. It and a second, barefoot Grecian dance to Mendelsohn's "Spring Song" would be incorporated into the revue "The Mimic World." Various local prohibitions against performing the dance, or insisting the dance be performed in shoes, kept Hoffman's dance in the news through 1909.
As publicity began to flag, the New York police performed the boon of arresting her for indecency. The trial proved precisely the kind of publicity coup that Hoffman hoped, with the arts community, high society (who began staging Salome dances at parties), and literati coming out solidly against decency crusader Anthony Comstock, the police, and the evangelists. The trial was dropped and Hoffman released, triumphant in October of 1909.
In 1910, when Maude Adams made Rostand's animal play "Chantecler" the talk of New York art circles, Hoffman added a Chantecler dance to her repertoire and a red chicken costume to her wardrobe. Gathering a troupe of 23 dancers, Hoffman premiered the new dance on the vaudeville stage, headlining at Keith's in New York. Her vaudeville act revived her experiments with impression, yet the mimicry expanded from theatrical celebrities such as Ethel Barrymore and George M. Cohan to dancers Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Eva Tanguay, Anna Held, and Annette Kellerman.
In the spring of 1911 she added another orientalist confection to her repertoire, "Cleopatra's Nights" and strengthened her troupe by the addition of a contingent of Russians - Lydia Lapoukova, Alexis Kosloff, Alexis Boloakov - in order to stage a version of "Sheherazade." Her "Saison de Ballets Russe" banked upon the extraordinary success enjoyed by the Diaghilev troupe in Paris and London. Husband Max conducted an orchestra that did well with the pastiche (Arensky, Glazunov, et. al.) of Cleopatra music and Rimsky-Korsakov, but clumsily with an orchestration of Chopin's "La Sylphides."
Hoffman embraced wholeheartedly Fokine's ideal of the choreographed pantomimic narrative. Critics tended to respond favorably. One benefit of her contact with the Russians was a greater appreciation of the role of decor and costuming in the creation of a stage gestalt. Continuing in her role as dancer-manager, Hoffman in 1912 organized a dance revue entitled "Broadway to Paris," contracting with the Ballet Russe's Leon Bakst for costumes and background ideas. She imported Ned Wayburn, the chief conceptualist of American stage dancing, for choreography, inserted a renovated version of her own "Spring Song," and concocted another hit touring revue. At Wayburn's suggestion the acts were more episodic, comic, and vocal. The score included one pop dance number, "The Gertrude Hoffman Glide," and a half dozen novelties, including "Everybody Loves a Chicken" and "Come to Me, My Chimpanzee." When she took the show on the road, she expanded the dancing portions with "Garden of Girls" and "The Dance Dracula," the latter playing on the burgeoning popular fascination with vamp vampirism.
In 1913, seeking a respite from the responsibilities of running a troupe, Hoffman put herself under the management of Morris Gest who toured her with Lady Constance Richardson and Pollaire in an evening of talented women dancing, and in the case of Hoffman, performing impressions as well. She also began crusading for hydration and physical exercise for women, publishing syndicated columns on health and physical culture.
In winter of the 1913-14 season she revived and expanded her company to tour another revue, including a contingent of Chinese acrobat magicians, and featuring a Duncanesque Grecian dance entitled "Zobeide's Dream." Hoffman in her revues of 1913 and 1914 played with the scale and content of the vaudeville mini-revue, injecting the edgy, the queer, and the sexy in the name of artistic distinctness. She bet on the audience's taste for novelty and played to standing-room-only crowds.
In 1915-1916 Hoffman embraced the vision of another expert in the presentation of visual novelty, Max Reinhardt, staging an American version of his "Sumurum," a pantomime oriental allegory. Playing the role of "the beautiful slave of fatal enchantment," Hoffman shared oversight of the troupe with Reinhardt's disciple Richard Ordynski who saw that the decor, lighting, and music remained true to the creator's conception.
In 1917 Hoffman rejoined Florenz Ziegfeld injecting dances in "The Century Girl" and performing a mini-musical comedy "Dance and Grow Thin" for the Dillingham-Ziegfeld partnership until a dispute over lighting caused her to break and take the show to vaudeville. It was at this juncture that she added an eight-foot snake to an oriental dance in her show, inventing a cliche of 20th-century burlesque. Hoffman's work in the 1920s centered on choreographing choral stage dances for young women - her Gertrude Hoffman Girls. Featured in the Shubert brothers girlie shows of the late 1920s and early 1930s, her troupe was known for its bohemianism, casual attitude toward clothing, and interest in avant garde choreography. David S. Shields/ALS