1901 – 1977
Gertrud Kraus, the “first lady” of modern expressionistic dance in Israel, was born in Vienna on May 5, 1901. Her father, Leopold Kraus, was born in Bernatice, Bohemia in 1870. Her mother, Olga (née Neubauer), was born c. 1876. They married in Prague in 1899. The couple had four children, all born in Vienna: Robert (1900), Gertrud (1901), Margarethe (1902) and Victor (1903).
Kraus studied piano at the State Academy in Vienna but after graduating decided that what was really to be her chosen area of artistic creativity was dance. Therefore she enrolled again at the State Academy, this time in the modern dance department which surprisingly, already existed as early as 1921, under the direction of Gertrud Bodenwieser. After graduating once more, Kraus joined Bodenwieser’s dance company as a dancer.
A few months later, Kraus decided to strike out on her own. Following the accepted mode of modern dance work at the time, she opened a studio and began creating and rehearsing solos to perform by herself. Her first independent recital took place in a large and prestigious hall which she hired. Friends tried to warn her of the risk involved, but she responded by saying: “If it’s going to be a flop, at least it will be a spectacular one!”
However, her recital was a huge success, establishing her as a leading modern dancer not only in Austria but also in the rest of Central Europe. Some of her solos, such as Vodka or Guignol, became the basis of her repertoire, which she performed until the mid-1930s all over Europe and later also Palestine/Israel, where she lived from 1935 until her death.
Her style was what was in the 1920s called expressionistic dance, or even “German Dance.” Based on self-expression, the technique was individual for each dancer, developed by her or him for him/her self, according to the demands of the particular dance.
In 1930–1931, an impresario invited her to perform in what was then mandatory Palestine. Her tour was so great a success that she was asked to return the following season to repeat it.
In 1933 her company performed her group-work Die Stadt wartet (The City Waits), presenting the modern metropolis as a fascinating place fraught with danger. Based on a short story by Maxim Gorki, it depicted the journey of a youth arriving in a modern city and his adventures there. On the night in 1933 when Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany, Gertrud and her dancers performed this dance-theater piece on the open-air stage in the garden of the Burgtheater—the most prestiged state theater in the city.
With Kraus as choreographer, her group became internationally acclaimed when she and her dancers performed at an international dance congress held in Munich, Germany in 1930, in which all the great artists of modern dance (including Rudolf von Laban, Mary Wigman and Ted Shawn) participated. Gertrud Kraus presented her cycle Ghetto Songs (music by Joseph Achron), which was in its way, at that time and in this place, a kind of political statement.
Both as a person and as an artist, Kraus was very much aware of social and political issues. She became a Zionist and at the same time held progressive socialistic opinions. Both Zionism and socialism were for her expressions of moral issues and ways to bring humanity nearer to the ideals of freedom and justice.
For several years, Gertrud Kraus was chief assistant to Rudolf von Laban, who was in charge of the annual trade unions parade—a political manifestation, with dance and music, held in Vienna on Labor Day, May first.
In 1933, while she was in Prague to perform during the Zionist Congress being held there, she received a mysterious invitation to a clandestine meeting, which turned out to be a discussion with the leaders of a Czech communist “cell”. The Czechs told her that, as a performer, she had an unusual power of persuasion at her disposal and that she should use it to further her political beliefs. Gertrud’s instant response was that, if so, she should use it to help her own people in Palestine. Next day, she went to the Palestine Office (an unofficial embassy of the Zionist Movement and the Jewish Agency) in Prague, and requested the forms she needed to apply for a certificate of immigration to Erez Israel.
Arriving in Tel Aviv in 1935, she first lived with friends and then rented a basement which became her studio. Soon she had a group of her own, which during World War II became the permanent dance company of the Tel-Aviv Folk Opera. At that time, it was probably the only modern-dance opera ballet in the world.
Towards the end of the 1940s, with the foundation of the State of Israel, dancers from the USA arrived and brought with them the new ideas and technique of Martha Graham and her generation. Realizing that this development could not be ignored, Kraus requested and received a scholarship to travel to the USA in 1949, in order to become acquainted with the newest trends in modern dance.
In 1950-1951, she made a final effort at accommodating the American- oriented up-to-date trends by founding a publicly run company, The Israel Ballet Theatre, of which she became artistic director. However, due to financial difficulties, the new company ceased performing a year after its premiere. Kraus herself retired from performing, concentrating on teaching as well as painting and sculpture.
In 1968 she received the most prestigious accolade for Israeli artists, the Israel Prize.
Until her death in 1977 she served as adviser to several companies in Israel. Surprisingly, her age did not deter many young Israeli dancers and choreographers from seeking her company and her advice.
Ingber- Brin, Judith. “The Gamin Speaks—An Interview with G.K.” Dance Magazine, March 1976; Manor, Giora. The Life and Dance of Gertrud Kraus. Tel Aviv: 1978; Manor, Giora ed., Gertrud Kraus. Tel Aviv: 1988; “Gertrud Kraus—20 Years after Her Demise”, Special Supplement, Israel Dance Quarterly, issue no. 12, 1997.