Interview with Hanya Holm

By Susan Buirge

The interview took place in Hanya Holm’s apartment in New York City on October 15, 1978.  The following is an excerpt that concerns Hanya’s experience with Mary Wigman.  Here Susan asks Hanya to talk about her roots:

Hanya Holm with Phyllis Lamhut in 1978

Susan:  What I would like to know is what your roots were.

Hanya:  That is very difficult to say, Sue, because I grew up way back before Wigman. It has to go back like that.

Susan:  That is what I would like to know. How did you come to dance?

Hanya:  Well, through the music. You see, I studied music first, and I was not a good musician.

Susan:  What instrument did you study?

Hanya:  Piano. I even taught piano. I was raised in the Lititchien method. I worked with various people. Among them was an American who invented a little machine to exercise your fingers with weights. It was a very complicated thing and for no other reason than that I was interested. As always, I was interested in experiments. That is a natural thing. I cannot help it. It is partly heritage from my mother. She was that way and she had several what you call patents herself. She was an inventor, also, in her own way. I mean she was a housewife, but she did that, invented things, in her leisure. It didn’t bring her any money, but it brought the satisfaction of being accepted. That goes back to a long heritage in the family.

     I had a wonderful music teacher who taught me piano. She told me that I was not the sitting type. I could not sit at the piano for five or six hours at a time. She told me that there was in Frankfort a Jacques Dalcroze who taught movement and suggested that I try that. So my mother gave her permission and I went to Frankfort.

     I enrolled and studied the actual eurhythmics—which is basically something so important for anybody in movement. So without background in dance I noodled on like one who goes up a ladder. I found if you go up one rung, you want to go up the second. The Dalcroze people asked you to physically do things, yet they didn’t give you the means of doing them. They did not spread out the actual handicaps one had to overcome, such as—well, call it inhibition, or call it a physical phenomena that you are tighter than someone else or you were too loose. They didn’t give you the means to do what they asked you to do. So there was much unhappiness. Then it happened that I saw Wigman.

     Meanwhile I was married and had a son, and then that whole thing went to pot. When I saw Wigman, I remembered and I said, “That is what I want to do.”

Susan:  Where did you first see Wigman?

Hanya:  In Dresden. I studied the Dalcroze method in the Dalcroze School in Dresden and passed my examinations there. Wigman gave her first performance in 1918 or 1919 as far back as that. Claus was born in 1920. In 1921 I was in the Wigman School.

Susan:  So you had a baby with you.

Hanya:  That was interesting, how we figured that out. You see I had to make ends meet. We were only about five or six students—that small a class.

Susan:  Was that when she first opened her school?

Hanya:  I think she first opened it not as a real school, but she gave classes. There was Gertrude, she was a Swiss, and that was in some kind of a back room. The first ones were Palucca, then came Georgi, then Claudes brother Bernard, and then I came. And then all of a sudden she bought a house, or somebody bought the house and donated it. Her classroom was approximately what we have right here, but it was empty—there was no furniture. It wasn’t quite so deep; it was minus the little alcove. If I were to see the space today I would think, oh my god what did we do in that small space? How did we do it in that little space of maybe twenty feet? Then she had a house with a garden and then from the garden a piece was taken away and a regular studio with good proportions was build in the garden, which was not higher than the studio. That was already expansion. From then on she really could work on programs because she could get a perspective.

Susan:  Do you remember the first dances you saw Wigman dance?

Hanya:  I can’t quite remember any more…it was called Wolf, and she was in silver pants, and then also she had Hungarian Suite, and she had Monotony. These were all solos because she was alone. Then she started quartets, because she had Trimpi, she had Palucca and Georgi and herself. Then there was another girl, Lisa—I don’t know if she is still alive or not.

Susan:  When did she begin the quartets?

Hanya:  That was about the second year, around 1922. Time wise that should all be written down somewhere. . . . Then we grew along from that. After the first year we were very analytical.

Susan:  Analytical, in what sense?

Hanya:  Finding out what’s what. You see what she presented us with—we started really balletic. We started with five positions.

Susan:  Oh yes?

Hanya:  Oh yes, that was all there was. We started with battements; we started with arabesques, but in bare feet.

Susan:  Did she do warm-ups?

Hanya:  Yes, swinging, not much stretching, some kind of Achilles stretching by leaning on the wall and pounding out the backsides of the leg—things like that. We used, for instance, a chair like that and practiced backbends over it. Well it was rough, I tell you. And besides that, you see, I entered then into a gymnastic class—it was a Swedish lady.

Susan:  Gymnastics?

Hanya:  Where we would bounce on the boom, and where you had all sorts of instruments to fold yourself over and under and go through, and balance on it, balance barres, and all sorts of things. And that is where I augmented, you see. And from then on I became more and more aware of what the body can do and what it cannot do. And when the demands came for dancing, and I felt that the body couldn’t do it, then the fantasy started working—what can we do in order to make the body fit for dancing—then the system of stretching was introduced by my own inventions as good as we could at that time. Then the members of the company would say, “How do you do that? Would you show us?” You know how it starts. It really starts with a kind of nosiness—curiosity. It was a small town, Dresden, and we all lived in the neighborhood.

     Then came a bad time when we had no heat, no anything. And we got together and there was a fad that when people made a present, they laid in the present a little Russian lucky bird. That was a little bird with a beak way up. They were made of wood, very thinly slivered and you could get a whole box full and the colors, which went with them, and it was described how you would do. So we went there and we got boxes of these and we got together. Each one brought a brickette. Do you know what a brickette is?

Susan:  Something to light a fire with?

Hanya:  No, something to hold a fire—pressed coal. And we had these little stoves—there was no general heating. The room might be warm, but in the halls it would be cold. So each one brought a brickette and we were five or six sitting together painting the little birds in a warm room, and talking dance. And through this we could really venture into our own observations and shortcomings, and you see how that culminates. Then somebody said, “Gee I found out something, but I wonder how that is, what is that, what makes that whole thing?” That is how vibrations was born. We got together and that was another occasion when it was warmer. We sat on a sofa smoking and talking when all of a sudden somebody started to do this. [Hanya demonstrates bouncing] “Oh, how marvelous, lets do that”. So we hooked arms and did that all night. Next day we went to Mary and said, “Mary, we found something—we can vibrate.” Then finally we emancipated ourselves from the sofa. We stood up on our feet and tried to get that same feeling. That is how that [vibration series] was born. Then came Laban...

Susan:  When was this about vibrations?

Hanya:  About 1923. These were bad times we had to go through. We had nothing much to eat, not much money, the evaluation went way down. The mark was down to zero. I gave my first summer course in 1923. I started the summer course with [the tuition at] 60,000 marks—half to be paid at the beginning and the balance of 30,000 marks to be paid at the end. But when we were halfway through the summer I had to tell them we couldn’t do it. They would have to double up (the tuition for) the last half because, you see, the mark had no value. We had all sorts of people coming [to the summer course]. We had Margareta Delamond coming who had American dollars; we had people from Russia and Holland, and they paid in foreign currency. I dared not keep the currency more than an hour because the value sank so rapidly. I had to keep some of it until tomorrow because we had to live tomorrow too. Then I had a very good friend Trudie Tuesens in the first company. We were very good buddies. Her parents sent somebody a magazine with two pages pasted together and in there was a Norwegian Kroner. She said, “Well, I got a Kroner again.” We inquired what the value was that day, how much [how many marks] could we get. That was at eleven o’clock. At twelve o’clock it had doubled in price [value]—that fast. We sat there with our list of wants and then we dashed to the bank with a basket. We got a whole basket full of German marks. An 800-mark note was already stamped one million. We quickly ran then one to the butcher, another to the baker, and then we got some vegetables. We had to be fast because when the stock market was in session it went ’pst’, up like that. Well, that was a bad time to be sure.

Susan:  Was this summer course given in the Wigman School?

Hanya:  Yes, but she was away. She was really tired, because if you give solo performances all year you have had it. She was invited by relatives in Switzerland to visit.

     She had no money to pay at a hotel. I moved into her house and stayed there, so that was all very skimpy. No money was saved. No money was made. When all that money was paid at the end, Mary and I divided it. We each got 20 Norwegian Kroner as earnings. That was all for six weeks, plus we had to live. I had Mary’s old housekeeper, who had to eat too, and there were certain things which we had to pay, and that was all that was left after the summer. That is beside the point, but it shows the difficulties that were involved at that time. That did not hinder us from going on, but we were not—

Susan:  You had to keep your feet on the ground as well.

Hanya:  Besides I had a little boy to take care of, who I had in a kindergarten home for young children, which was run by friends outside of Dresden. I knew it was a very good place, and it was warm. I couldn’t keep our place warm enough for a little child, and that was the reason he got a terrible cold and I was afraid he would get pneumonia. I knew in this home he was securely warm and had other kids to play with—and I could function because it [taking care of him] took me more than all day long. In those not easy times we had something more to think of than just giving a performance. We also had to live. I must say that it was hard, but I am thankful for it, because it gave me more than just to say, “This is due me.” Life owed me nothing; it owed me only what I could make out of it under the circumstances. You see, this you cannot buy, Susan. You cannot teach this.

Susan:  I know, I know. That is why I am glad for the moment in France that things are not too easy.

Hanya: Well it shouldn’t be. It hasn’t been easy here either, but the difference is that the difficulties are different. The difficulties lie, I would say, practically entirely in money raising. Well, that problem we never had—there simply was no money.

     But we had to live and that was another problem. Our other problem was that students who came had their own difficulties, which gave us a variation of resistances [obstacles] as life presents it. These were probably man-made, or circumstantial. We don’t quite know what these things are, but after all, if we are interested and dedicated, it has to come together, because, you see, Susan, if you separate these things, you can be sure that one destroys the other, but if we are able to make the best out of the misery, then we come out on the other side. You see it is as simple as that and as difficult as that and you cannot teach that. If people don’t have these hurdles to jump, they don’t want the hurdles any more. They want to go around. And we had to go over. We had no choice. Maybe if we had a choice we would have gone around too, but fortunately the circumstances were hard, but we certainly enjoyed when we came out the other side.

Susan:  How long did this difficult time continue? Are we talking about 1923?

Hanya:  I think the whole problem of money trouble ran to 1925, 1926. I think 1925 was when we first went to Berlin where we had Wigman’s first big group pieces.

Susan:  Big, meaning how many people?

Hanya:  Seven—no men, you see men came much, much later.

Susan:  About the thirties

Hanya:  I don’t think we had any men while I was there, and Wigman disbanded her original group in 1928. Then we had other working companies, but not her own group any more—that kind of a group with which she traveled, well, they were kind of grown to her. We were her extensions. I mean what a solo couldn’t say any more had to be said by more people… You see we were all musically trained; we all played percussion. We had to learn it, and we learned it in a practical way; there were no classes, we had to find it out ourselves.

Susan:  Was there any relation? Did Laban come into the school?

Hanya:  Not when I was there. I never met him. We were told about the theories of Laban, which in a way, if you are at all nosey, as I am, you found it out yourself.

     But it doesn’t work. It is a theory only. It needs a heck of a lot of translation and application, because what is on the paper, you see, if you draw an octahedron and you find also in the dimensions in the planes and the levels and you make it physically there, but without any physical statement to apply it so that it is an understandable media in which you work, which has to do with space, but I mean it is not on paper. [Here Hanya alludes to the depiction of Laban's space analysis. The drawing of an octahedron that includes the planes and levels in all dimensions that the diagram implies, has no meaning for a dancer until it is translated by that dancer into his own physical space.]

Susan:  You were in the Wigman School therefore from 1922 to 1931. I have heard several different dates about when you left.

Hanya:  I was with Wigman in her last big performance. That was Totenmal in 1930 in Munich. When that was played, Mr. Hurok came over and he was so impressed that he hired Wigman in the fall of 1930 and organized a tour for her. She was solo. Those were her first performances in America. That was with Hanhasting and Kreidelcort. The girl was her percussionist and the boy played the piano. These three came over and while she was here we received a phone call—there was so much interest in America in her approach. People who wanted to could not all come to Germany. Could or would somebody come over here and teach.

Susan:  Was this much at the initiation of Ted Shawn?

Hanya:  That I wouldn’t know. No, that was Mr. Hurok. He was a business man. Did you know him at all?

Susan:  No, but I have heard a lot about him.

Hanya:  He was the last great impressario. He could kill you, but he could also make you. He could lose money on you, but, if he lost money on somebody he didn’t see any hope for, he could let them fall down the mountain so fast, so quick, never mind. But I like him.

Susan:  So it was at his initiation—

Hanya:  Well, he called and said that two were to come. That was in the winter of 1930–1931. There were two to go. There was Mary’s sister Elizabeth, who was never in her company; she was never a dancer per se. She was heavier, a motherly type, but she was a very good basic human being, who helped a lot [in] searching [for] young people, not so much technically but really in all other aspects which sentimental Germans sometimes need. She said, “No I won’t go.” So I said, “I will go,” because by that time I had heard the rumor of Hitler.

Malcolm's Hanya

Portrait of Hanya
by Malcolm MacDonald, 1980

Susan:  Ah yes, in 1931

Hanya:  1930 that was, in Munich.

Susan:  What did you hear as the rumor?

Hanya:  Well, for instance, that big Totenmall; there were hundreds of people in it…I was Mary’s assistant, so I had to rehearse with these people, had to work with them and there were quite a number of…

Susan:  How many people were in it?

Hanya:  We had 25 men, 100 speakers; also we must have had 50 dancers. Oh, it was a big thing. It was specially constructed for the purpose and we performed for a whole month. So I said I would go. Wigman came back from her tour. Hurok came back and visited again. He said alright in the fall of 1931.

[In the fall of 1931 Hanya Holm did come to New York to open a studio under the aupises of Hurok. The remainder of this interview is concerned with Hanya’s transition from Germany to the USA. Hanya remained a Wigman “person,” using many of the movement studies that Wigman had developed, e.g., the vibrations, turns, and circle studies, although she adapted Wigman's theory of dance to her new environment.]