Review: Dances of Vice, Horror, & Ecstasy

Dances of Vice, Horror, & Ecstasy
By Anita Berber and Sebastian Droste
Side Real Press
300 copies

Thanks to the wonderful and unique Side Real Press, one of the seminal artifacts of Weimar decadence is back in print after 90 years. I’ve written about Anita Berber here before, but I never expected to see a reprint of her notorious book, Dances of Vice, Horror, & Ecstasy, co-authored with her dancing partner/husband/partner-in-debauchery Sebastian Droste. The original booklet was probably sold at their performances and surviving copies are rare and expensive, if they can be found at all.

Fortunately for anyone with an interest in Ms. Berber, naked dancer and pioneering celebrity bad girl, Side Real has recreated the booklet in a glorious new edition, translated into English by Merrill Cole and including the original photographic and artistic illustrations. Side Real continues to be one of the most interesting small presses, and I am very honored to have been featured in one of their books, Delicate Toxins, a collection of short stories inspired by Hanns Heinz Ewers, notorious author of dark fantasy and horror stories in the decades before World War II. One of Droste’s poems name checks Ewers, so it’s safe to say that Berber and her lover either knew the author or admired his work:

Villiers de l’Isle Adam
Edgar Allan Poe
E. T. A. Hoffman
Hans Heinz Ewers
And 1922
Rooms long left
Tapestries
Suicide, by Sebastian Droste

The poetry is honestly pretty awful stuff, but it may have been effective when recited over two near naked bodies writhing in an Expressionist dance against hallucinatory backdrops. Alas, I don’t think there is much surviving film of Berber and certainly none from the performances where this exceedingly dark little book was offered for sale. We are left to interpret exactly what the  numbers Cocaine or the Byzantine Whip Dance must have looked like.

My favorite part of this delightful little volume is the section of color sketches at the end, showing concepts for sets and costumes. These drawings, even more than the photos of Anita and her grotesque lover, are windows into a world we will never see, but that we can touch in our own flights of erotic imagination.