Transatlantic Currents in Dance Modernism: Mary Wigman’s Letters to Hanya Holm

A Panel Discussion at the Bruno Walter Auditorium,
New York Public Library of the Performing Arts, January 13, 2004

by Liz Higgins

On Thursday night, January 13, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts presented “Transatlantic Currents in Dance Modernism,” featuring Claudia Gitelman, author of Liebe Hanya: Mary Wigman’s Letters to Hanya Holm. Joining Ms.Gitelman were panel participants, Wendy Perron, who now serves as editor-in-chief for Dance Magazine, following a 30-year career as a dancer, choreographer and teacher; and her mother, Dorothy Perron, who worked in several fields including dance, anthropology and environmental medical research, and earned a doctorate in gerontology at the age of 72.

Drawn out on this unusually balmy night, the audience spanned several generations. There were young students, who were, perhaps, hearing about Mary Wigman and Hanya Holm for the first time, as well as dance greats from the first generation spawned, including Murray Louis and Mary Anthony, who were directly connected to these legendary figures.

Ms. Gitelman introduced us to Mary Wigman and Hanya Holm by depicting their lives, careers and personal connections. A series of stunning images accompanied her lecture and brought the words to life. She traced the lineage, explaining how Hanya Holm served as a representative for Mary Wigman in the United States. Holm launched a school, bringing Wigman’s innovative philosophies of dance from Germany to America. Influenced by her newfound culture, Holm melded Wigman’s principles with American aesthetics, and became a major figure in American dance during the 20th century.

However, their relationship transcended the distance between Europe and North America through their consistent correspondence. In a time that preceded technologically advanced communication, Wigman and Holm steadfastly communicated through their letters. These letters were vital and personal, and preserved a critical part of their legacy. Through extensive research, Ms. Gitelman compiled the letters in her book, Liebe Hanya, and meticulously framed them by providing historical context.

After her introduction, Ms. Gitleman invited Wendy and Dorothy Perron to serve as the voices for Wigman and Holm, bringing the words of Liebe Hanya to life. As the letters were read aloud, the audience was transported to another time by the emerging images of Wigman and Holm’s personal and professional struggles and successes.

At the conclusion of the presentation, a lively and somewhat heated discussion ensued regarding Mary Wigman’s continued work in Germany under the Nazi Regime. Her place in history is precariously perched as she is scrutinized for adhering to government demands to exclude Jews from her company.

A former student of Wigman’s was in attendance at the lecture. As a Jewish woman she spoke in Wigman’s defense, as she recollected an invitation to dinner at Wigman’s home. She claims that invitation was open to all the students who studied at the school. Panelist Wendy Perron, also Jewish, voiced her own misgivings in perpetuating the legacy of Mary Wigman, and her apprehensions when Ms. Gitelman had invited her to participate in the evening’s event. From the audience, Murray Louis responded passionately, proclaiming the importance of preserving Wigman’s legacy and contributions to dance, despite the convoluted historical context.

As the evening drew to a close, the audience was left to reach their own conclusions. Eager to purchase Liebe Hanya, interested readers waited patiently as Ms. Gitelman was gracious enough to sign each copy.

See also A Review of Leibe Hanya, by Ruth Grauert.