Beverly Blossom at the Wigman School

By Beverly Blossom

      I was in Germany from September 1957 to late spring 1958. I had a Fulbright grant to attend the Wigman School (I was officially enrolled in the American University in West Berlin and did attend some classes in German language, but it was really a pretext for my study at the Wigman studio).

      The studios, which were in an old residential building, were quite small, but everyone carried on nonetheless. The curriculum was very set in order to meet the requirements of the state for certification of graduates to work as performers in the state-supported opera houses, and as teachers etc. I also remember that in connection with that there was free lunch every day for the Wigman students.

      Mary (Frau Mary, as they called her) taught only one of the classes. She was in her seventies then and rather frail. That was the year Wigman visited New York, so she was gone part of the year I was there. Also, I spent two of the months (spring break) in Spain traveling with other American student friends, where it was a thrill to work briefly with some gypsies in Seville on flamenco (jondo dancing).

      I remember that the first class of the day was early in the morning, taught by Til Thiele. It was called gymnastik but was actually a body-conditioning class, physically very tough, to build strength, flexibility, and alignment, much like Pilates and Yoga exercises. It was, however, a separate class, about an hour long.

      Then there would be a technik class, taught by Manja Chmiel, which consisted of dance combinations moving through space, very lavish and swooping and complex. It was taught in German so I just imitated and followed visually, usually not knowing what Manya said. She was Slavic, a very emotional and passionately expressive person. I remember, for instance, a passionate argument she had with a student during class: she slapped him in the face and he hit her back. The students were very colorful and eccentricity abounded, but I missed a lot of it because of not really knowing German.

      When Mary was in town she would teach the next class, often teaching in three languages — French, German and English. She spoke perfect English, in the style of an actress, very clear, no accent. Her classes were intellectual, dealing with “movement of the hands” or “orchestration,” a kind of choral movement, ideas that seemed remnants of the German Expressionist Movement, emphasizing intuitive aesthetic decision-making, honest expression, qualitative artistry, artistic purpose, and integrity. She always had a piano accompanist. Her critiques to students were very personal. She did a lot of one-to-one critiquing. Her criticisms to me, for instance, were things like (in regard to a composition I was working on), “Well, what you have is a ‘kept’ improvisation; now you have to begin to compose the piece.” There were discussions about editing, structuring the piece around an essence, etc., as well as very thoughtful and deep considerations about meaning and intention.

      The school also included in the curriculum ballet class (taught in French with a German accent), Spanish flamenco class, and composition showings.

      I performed two dances of my own on a program of Wigman School in East Berlin. I saw Mary Wigman’s Rite of Spring (Stravinsky), performed at the Opera House in West Berlin, with Dore Hoyer in the lead role. I also went to East Berlin many times with American friends (there was no Berlin Wall yet) to see the Bertold Brecht plays performed by the Berliner Ensemble, which Brecht himself had directed before he died. This was the most significant theater I had ever seen in Europe. Also, on day trips to East Berlin we had a pure experience of socialist style and realities.

      I really did not feel any connection between the experiences with Wigman and the experiences with Nik. When Mary returned to Berlin after her visit to the USA, she told all the students they should go to the USA because that is where things were happening. Of Nikolais’ work, she said, “It was beautiful—and the COSTUMES!”