Olga Antonie Sellin, born November 2, 1890, shared a home with thirteen brothers and sisters. At the age of fifteen, she left her family and joined a theatre act in London. In 1906 she attended the Marie Seebach School of the Königliches Schauspielhaus Berlin. In 1906/7 she joined a group of artists including Lovis Corinth and appeared as Venus during the group's nine-month tour at the London Pavilion where they put on "plastic representations." They were permitted to perform nearly nude provided they kept still, and used a curtain to hide them when they moved between scenes.
In Berlin she co-founded the Association for Ideal Culture and gave shows called "living pictures" in which she posed after the manner of ancient classical works of art. Upon returning to Berlin, she changed her name to Olga Desmond, working with Adolf Salge. She began to create her own show, and would dance with a veil. Eventually she switched to a long mediaeval-style belt. The more she posed, the more she realized that she wanted to move on stage. She wanted to bring nudity to life. These so-called "Evenings of Beauty" (Schönheitsabende) were prohibited on more than one occasion starting from 1908, because the actors usually posed nude or wearing only bodypaint. She defended them by comparing them with the classical Greek ideal of nudity. Variety reported in 1909 that she had been ordered to cover up when performing at the Crystal Palace, Leipzig, where she was earning $200 per night, but the police in Frankfurt did not stop her performing there. She also introduced solo dances between the tableaux and a new performance piece, Der Schwertertanz [Sword Dance] performed between two upward pointed spearheads set on the stage floor. This led to invitations to appear around Germany and in St Petersburg.
Visit to Russia
The "heroine of living pictures," Olga Desmond became one of the first to promote nudity on the stage in St. Petersburg, Russia, when in the summer of 1908 the German dancer arrived there with her repertoire of performance. Olga Desmond's Evenings of Beauty quickly became the subject of a great debate in the Russian media. At least one of the representatives of official "justice" wanted to haul Desmond into court for "seduction."
Olga Desmond herself persistently defended her right to appear naked. She told the Russian press:
Call it daring or bold, or however you want to describe my appearance on the stage, but this requires art, and it (art) is my only deity, before whom I bow and for which I am prepared to make all possible sacrifices ... I decided to break the centuries-old heavy chains, created by people themselves. When I go out on stage completely naked, I am not ashamed, I am not embarrassed, because I come out before the public just as I am, loving all that is beautiful and graceful. There was never a case when my appearance before the public evoked any cynical observations or dirty ideas.
Olga Desmond raised the prices of some of her shows so that only people who respected her kind of art would be seeing her shows. In addition to raising prices, many of her performances were only open to members of other dance societies so that people on the street could not see her performances.
Asked whether a stage costume would interfere with her, Olga Desmond answered: "To be completely graceful in a costume or even in a tricot is unthinkable. And I decided to throw off this needless yoke." Objecting to the claims that she excites "base instincts" of the public, the dancer said: "I purposely set a high admission charge for my shows so that the street would not get in, for it has little understanding of pure art, but so that people with broader demands for it would come, people who will look on me as a servitor of art."
The authorities in St. Petersburg paid little attention to the explanations offered by the dancer from Berlin, and her first appearance in the imperial Russian capital was also her last: further shows were forbidden by the mayor. Many artists in the capital took the side of the authorities. For example, Konstantin Makovsky sharply denounced what he called the "cult of the naked body," saying that "beauty, like much else in life, must have its hidden secrets, that we don't even have the right to expose."
Return to Berlin
Olga Desmond was no less the subject of controversy in her own country. In 1909 her appearance in the Berlin Wintergarten was the cause of such a scandal that it became a subject of discussion even in the Prussian State Assembly. But "scandalous" also meant well-known, and as a result of her renown, there were cosmetic products that carried her name. She traveled through Germany on numerous tours until 1914, when she married a Hungarian large landowner, and went off with him to his estate.
From 1916 through 1919 she appeared in various films including Seifenblasen (Soap Bubbles), Marias Sonntagsgewand (Maria's Sunday clothes) and Mut zur Sünde (Courage for sin). In the latter film she played opposite the later well-known German actor Hans Albers. In 1917 she separated from her husband and returned to the stage. Her first appearance took place on 15 April 1917 at the Theatre of the Royal University (Theater der Königlichen Hochschule) in Berlin. In the same year she appeared in a performance of Carmen in Cologne. She presented dance evenings and other things in Warsaw, Breslau (now Wrocław), and Kattowitz (now Katowice).
Desmond was an advocate for teaching as well. In 1919, she published a pamphlet, Rhythmograpik, which included a new method of writing down dances and transcribing the movements into special symbols. The pamphlet included images of her in see through gowns and nude women dancing within floral patterning Olga understood the precision that went into dancing. Her pamphlet helped other female dancers in a new and interesting way. Thereafter, she made fewer public appearances and from 1922 devoted herself entirely to teaching. Among her best-known students was Hertha Feist, who later became a member of the dance group of Rudolf von Laban.
After the First World War she married her second husband, Georg Piek, a Jewish businessman with a studio for stage equipment, decorations, and special fabrics. After 1933 Piek left Germany.
After World War II, Desmond lived in the eastern part of Berlin. In her late years, forgotten by the public, she worked as a cleaning woman. To make a living, she also sold vintage postcards and other memorabilia from her time as a renowned dancer. Olga Desmond died on 2 August 1964 in East Berlin.
Desmond’s work continues to be exhibited. For example, in 1993 a photo of her 1908 'Schönheitsabende' performance featured in Mike Kelley's The Uncanny. In 2009 she was the subject of Olga Desmond 1890-1964 Preußens Nackte Venus. She was included in Dance of Hands: Tilly Losch and Hedy Pfundmayr in Photographs 1920-1935 which ran at Museum des Moderne Salzburg in 2014 and at Das Verborgene Museum in 2015–2016. Otto Skowranek’s series of photos of Desmond’s sword dance is held at Deutsches Tanzarchiv Köln.
- 1915 : Seifenblasen
- 1915 : Nocturno
- 1917 : Postkarten-Modell : Wanda
- 1917 : Die Grille
- 1918 : Leben um Leben : Aglaja
- 1918 : Der Mut zur Sünde
- 1918 : Der fliegende Holländer : Senta. Directed by Hans Neumann.
- 1919 : Göttin, Dirne und Weib
- Desmond, Olga Rhythmographik. Tanznotenschrift als Grundlage zum Selbstudium des Tanzes Edited by Fritz Böhme, Leipzig, 1919
Performance artists in similar genre
Early photographers working with similar genre
- "Desmond, Olga 1890–1964". Das Verborgene Museum. Retrieved 12 June 2022.
- Walsdorf, Hanna (2015). "Nudes, Swords, and the Germanic Imagination: Renditions of Germanic Sword Dance Narratives in Early Twentieth-Century Dance". Dance Research Journal. 47 (3): 27–50. doi:10.1017/S0149767715000340. S2CID 194197889.
- Dickinson, Edward Ross. Dancing in the Blood: Modern Dance and European Culture on the Eve of the First World War. Cambridge University Press. p. 112.
- Toepfer, Karl (2012). "Aesthetics of Early Modernist Solo Dance in Central Europe". In Gitelman, Claudia; Palfy, Barbara (eds.). On Stage Alone : Soloists and the Modern Dance Canon. University Press of Florida. pp. 73–118.
- Toepfer, Karl Eric (2003). "One Hundred Years of Nakedness in German Performance". TDR: The Drama Review. 47 (4): 144–188. doi:10.1162/105420403322764089. S2CID 57567622.
- "Wie Gott sie schuf". Der Tagesspiegel Online. 31 March 2009.
- "Diet members see sensational dance: Deputies make personal investigation of entertainments complained of in Berlin – "Beauty Evenings" barred". The New York Times. 29 November 1908.
- "Beauty Dancer Defiant: Declines to enlarge cosume and is barred from Berlin stage". New York Times. 6 December 1908. "The Prussian Ministry has now definitely forbidden Fräulein Olga Desmond to hold any more "beauty evenings" in Berlin of the sort described in these dispatches last week. Fräulein Desmond was allowed to appear on Monday evening of this week on condition that she wore clothing of a non-transparent character, but her costume proved so exceedingly abbreviated that the police censor decided to bar further public performances. Fräulein Desmond will hereafter do her dancing before invited guests of the Society for the Propagation of Beauty, and it is probable that the box office receipts will be only slightly less than at the public performances."
- Dickinson, Edward Ross (2013). "Modern Dance Before 1914: Commerce or Religion?". Dance Chronicle. 36 (3): 297–325. doi:10.1080/01472526.2013.834538. JSTOR 24252550. S2CID 143968343.
- "Olga Desmond, real naked dancer". Variety. 20 March 1909. p. 10.
- Wortelkamp, Isa (2021). "Scratches, Holes, and Spots: Decay and Disappearance of Early Dance Photography". Forum Modernes Theater. 32 (2): 254–263. doi:10.1353/fmt.2021.0022.
- Toepfer, Karl (1997). Empire of Ecstasy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture. University of California Press. pp. 27–28. ISBN 0520206630.
- Dörr, Evelyn, (2008). "Rudolf Laban: The Dancer of the Crystal", Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, page 99-101.
- Smith, Valerie (2013). "Something I've wanted to do but nobody would let me: Mike Kelley's 'The Uncanny'". Afterall. 34 (1).
- "Olga Desmond 1890-1964 Preußens Nackte Venus". Das Verborgene Museum. 2009. Retrieved 13 June 2022.
- "Dance of Hands". Museum der Moderne. 2014. Retrieved 13 June 2022.
- "Dance of Hands". Photography Now. 2015. Retrieved 13 June 2022.
- Ochaim, Brygida M.; Balk, Claudia (1998). Variéte-Tänzerinnen um 1900. Vom Sinnenrausch zur Tanzmoderne, Ausstellung des Deutschen Theatermuseums München 23.10.1998-17.1.1999. Stroemfeld, Frankfurt/M. ISBN 3-87877-745-0.
- Glezerov, Sergei (10 January 2003). "XX vek nachinalsya s obnazhenki [The 20th Century began with strippers]". Komsomol'skaya Pravda, Sankt Peterburg.