Mary Wigman at 70

By Joan J. Woodbury, University of Utah

Dance Observer 23 (8), October 1956, pp. 117–118

Seventy years ago, in the town of Hannover, Germany, a tiny girl child was born to Herr and Frau Wigman. No miracles occurred at that birth: no clashing of thunder, no chiming of bells, no extraordinary phenomenon were recorded as having been seen by the people of Hannover on November 13, 1886.

Mary Wigman at 70

Mary Wigman at seventy


And yet, somehow, a small miracle had occurred. A miracle which was not to show itself for some years, but when it did spark and glow, would burn into a flame so strong that it would influence the lives of people all over the world. For Mary Wigman, as this child was named, was imbued at birth with the gift to dance. Dance she must and dance she would . . . through the frustrations of long years of study to develop a new dance expression; through the discour­agement of audiences hostile to this “modern” dance; through the hardships of two wars, one in which her type of dance was banned as being too intel­lec­tual; through the poverty of after-war years in Germany. Still she danced. Still she taught. Still the artistic fire would not let her rest. Her life has always been, and will always be, devoted to her art.

To those who love the dance, the name Mary Wigman and her manifold contributions to the field of dance and theater are very familiar. Yet, because she was considered to be the founder of the Modern Dance in Europe, per­forming in this country as early as the 1930’s, and also because of lack of information about her during and immediately after the war, many people do not realize that this woman, who will become seventy years old on the 13th of November, is still one of the most vital, honest, inspired teachers of modern dance today.

She brings to her classes straightforwardness, freshness and simplicity that one often misses in many formalized modern classes of today. She has a subtle way of leading the students into making their own movement discoveries so that the body seems born anew. The old and commonplace techniques are no longer familiar. They become foreign and challenging under her direction. One is not satisfied with mere technical perfection in Mary’s classes. It becomes a struggle for perfection of mind, heart and body . . . the soul is called into being. Dormant nerve endings, long since dulled by lack of use, are revived and life becomes a dance.

In improvisation classes every imaginable experience becomes dance-able . . . the falling of the golden autumn leaves, the first quiet snow flakes, a Halloween ghost, the click of a typewriter, itching feet. Ideas come so quickly that there seems no place to begin, but anything goes. Improvisation is an experience of the moment . . . a free flow of unhampered ideas.

It is when one begins serious composition that all of Mary’s experience and genius become evident. For then she is there with her infallible judgment, quietly searching and probing to help formulate a meaning, and a reason for, in place of uncertainty. There is an insistence upon logic and thoroughness. Nothing can be left to chance. Each gesture, each motion must be the perfect expression of the idea. “The beginning and end of a dance are always easy” she reassures, “but it is in the middle where the work begins.” She has this to say of composition:

      “Whatever the dancer has to say and wants to express, he has to make it visible. I would even like to say; he has to write it out in time and space so clearly and so distinctly that it becomes readable. I can tell you out of my own and very personal experience, that this is the hardest part of the battle the dancer has to fight during a creative process. As long as you are led by the artistic idea, by the motive you have chosen for your dance composition, as long as you are carried away by the emotional flow awakened by this motive, it is all very wonderful. But the inevitable moment comes when you have to stop dreaming and have to face reality. A peculiar reality this is indeed! Sometimes you are nearly torn to pieces, the pressure between two poles, your own artistic idea and the artistic deed you want to achieve. becoming so strong, that you hardly know how to face, how to harmonize and how to master it.

      You have not only to make visible what you feel. . .you have to find the adequate dance form for your own artistic idea. And if you feel that this form ought to be accompanied by music, you have to search and find the right one. You have to combine the two artistic languages . . . dance and music . . . until in character, mood and style they communicate and become one . . . two voices singing together, living out of one breath, calling for the same spirit which lies at the depth of them both. You have to measure, to count and to regulate the intricate rhythms of your feet . . . you have to direct and to control the fluid gesturing of your arms . . . you have to fix even the tiniest movements of your fingers . . . you have to coordinate all the different facets, parts and particular details, until they join, until they become a unity, never to be separated, never to be changed again. . .until they reach that climax of harmony that final completeness which we call a Dance Composition.

      And while you are working, you must keep close to the original idea of your dance, never letting it escape, always watching over the delicate flame of inspiration, that it is not blown out by the naked reality of the work itself. And when you have done it all, you must start all over again, that is; You have to learn your own work by heart and after that and only then: you have to dance it. 1

During the past year, 1955-56, I was privileged to study with Mary Wigman as a Fulbright Scholar, and it became very evident to me why so many American dancers are finding their way to her studio. Not specifically to receive technical training, which is so adequately taught here in the states, but instead to receive inspiration for the development of the creative spirit. A phase of any artist’s life which is admittedly equally as important as technical proficiency but which many professional studios leave entirely to chance. Dancers go to Berlin to revive their imaginations, to develop the power of expressing this newly awakened imagination, and to be in confidence in themselves and their ability for self-direction. To receive help with composition, where time is allotted for composition, rather than merely front and back extensions. To be led into making their own discoveries and thus gain a more complete awareness of self. To be reassured, Miss Wigman says that a dance is “Life . . . caught up in a work of art,”2 and therefore one’s own broadened life experiences can have meaning and worth as the raw material for dance.

      However, Miss Wigman, for all of her encouragement, does not feel that everyone is, or can be, a concert dancer, any more than anyone who has a nice voice and likes to sing is a concert singer. She feels that to be or become a dancer means something very different than just loving to move.

“There has to be what we call the special artistic gift, the Talent. And this talent cannot be chosen. It cannot even be educated. It is given or it is denied by nature. And the sometimes very bitter truth is, that, if you want to become a dancer you have to be born to it. The only instrument the dancer has and needs is his body. And the only material he has to work with is the movement of his body. But neither instrument nor material are perfect when the young dancer starts to work on it. Long years of hard work and intense study lie before him. He cannot allow himself to relax as the ever growing demands of his work force him to increase his efforts from day to day, from year to year. But here again nature is wonderful. Never in all my life have I met a real dancer who did not love the hardship of his profession, adoring it even in the moments of his greatest bodily exhaustion. Like the sculptor works on his raw material . . . stone, metal or clay to, transform his inner vision into the final artistic form, so the dancer has to work on his material, moulding and modeling his bodily movements until they become the lucid image of his inspiration, and at the same time strengthening and ennobling his dancing body, until this becomes what the dancer wants it to be; the perfect and masterfully played instrument of the dance.” 3

      As proof of this belief one only needs to look at Miss Wigman’s dance career to see that she has been the embodiment of her philosophy. Mary was in her early 20’s when she began her study of rhythmic gymnastics and methods with Jacques-Dalcroze in Hellerau. But his measured rhythmic movements did not fulfill the vision that she held of a truly expressive dance, and so in 1913 she went to Asconna, in southern Switzerland, to study with Rudolf von La-ban. “What was to have been a short summer course turned into a life’s direction.”4  All during the war years until 1919 she worked with von La-ban as student and co-worker. Wigman says that von Laban opened the gates of the world she had dreamed of, not yet knowing that it was dance she was seeking. The two worked long and hard together on this new dance. In the later years he worked principally on his system of dance notation and she worked on her own philosophy and composition, laboriously finding her own way to her art. Finally, in 1919, she gave her first solo concerts in her native land and they were ridiculed and called “idiotic,” but she would not be discouraged, and ended by completely captivating her audiences. In 1919 she established the first German modern dance school in Dresden, and then until 1942 students from all parts of the world came to study with her, and she in turn toured and gave dance concerts all over the world.

      During World War Two all of the intellectuals and anti-Nazis found themselves in extreme disfavor in Germany, and since Miss Wigman fell into this category she was forced to abandon her school in Dresden and fled to Leipzig. From 1942 until the end of the war she gave occasional guest classes at the School for Dramatic Arts in Leipzig, trying to keep body and soul alive. When the war was over the slow, painstaking process of beginning anew began, and at the age of 60, she began classes in her own apartment, in Leipzig, accepting anyone and everyone who wanted to dance. The penniless, the homeless flocked to her and the dance had a new birth. With the coming of the Russians into Leipzig Miss Wigman was not satisfied. She had lived under the Nazis and knew what they had done to creative freedom, so, in 1949 after much planning and waiting, she escaped into West Berlin and once more established a studio where she has been teaching ever since.

      During her life Miss Wigman has composed over 45 large group dances and 133 solo dances. Most of her dances were composed before 1942, when she retired from public performance, but in 1946 in Leipzig came the first of her works since the war, done with groups of very young and inexperienced students. Some of the titles of the studies are indicative of the feelings prevalent at that time. Studies to the theme From the Distress of our Time. . . In Flight, Searching and Also for Us the Bells Will Ring Again. In 1947 she staged the opera Orpheus and Euridice for the Leipzig Civil Theater with a chorus of 40 dancers. After her studio in Berlin was established she continued creating group works and between 1952/53 came Ecstatic Rhythms to music by Honegger, Menadic Rhythm, and a cycle of choruses, including The Prophetess, The Temple, The Street, to music by the studio composer, Ulrich Kessler. In 1954 she staged Saul, by Handel, as a scenic oratorium with singers and dancers for the Mannheim National Theater, and again the following year she staged Catulli Carmina and Carmina Burana, by Carl Orff, for the same theater.

      The dance genius of Mary Wigman cannot be stilled. Her life has been one of complete, uncompromising devotion to her art. She has not let herself be swayed from her endeavors by any social, economic or political pressures, and because of this, the dance, in all of its various expressions and styles, in all the world, has received new creative impetus.

  1. Taken from a speech given by Miss Wigman to a group of American women in Berlin. (Return to document)
  2. Notes taken in class. (Return to document)
  3. Op. cit. footnote 1. (Return to document)
  4. Mary Wigman, “My Teacher Laban” (Unpublished Manuscript) (Return to document)

Dance Magazine photo

The elite of dancers and teachers in Central Europe at friendly meeting in Switzerland during last summer’s session in Maglingen.  Left to right:  Rosalia Chladek, Kurt Jooss,
Harold Kreutzberg, Mary Wigman, Mme. Nora (who teaches in Paris), and Hans Zullig.

(From DANCE MAGAZINE, Volume XXVI, Number 1, January 1952)