The Wigman Experience

By Joan Woodbury

I studied at the Wigman Schule in Berlin in 1955–56. I had applied for a Fulbright to study with her and heard in April that I had received the grant. Officially, my Fulbright was to study German at the Freie Universitate in Berlin because they did not have the Wigman Schule on their books, but the tacit
Front of Wigman Studio

Mary Wigman Studio at 35 Rheinbabenallee in 1955.
Note the bullet holes from WWII in the fence posts and building.
understanding from Fulbright was that I received the scholarship to study with Mary. By that time I was 4 months pregnant with my firstborn. I called the Fulbright committee and they said, “By all means, if you would like to come over, please do. We love to have families involved.” So, I asked Charlie if he would like to take a year off to go to Berlin with me, and he said it would be a great adventure.

We sailed on the MS Italia in August of 1955, arriving in Germany in September. Todd was born on September 21 in Haus Dahlem with a German physician attending. He spoke no English; I spoke no German, so it was an interesting experience. Within two weeks of Todd’s birth Mary Wigman and her assistant Nora had graciously come to my flat to visit, and I was in classes the next Monday at 35 Rheinbaben Allee, a beautiful gray building that served as the Wigman Studio.

Berlin was cold. I just remember freezing all of the time, no matter how many layers of clothing I wore. It was not fashionable for women to wear slacks then, and I had so many pairs of long stockings and underwear on under my skirts that I looked like a little toad as I waited for the Uban to take me from Ruedesheimer Platz to Rheinbaben Allee.

Classes started each morning at 9:00. Most of us arrived at 8:30 in order to change and not be late for class. The small dressing rooms were up a beautiful curving staircase and there were also showers. Most of the German students (many came over from East Berlin) took cold showers in the mornings and hit themselves with sticks to get the circulation going. I couldn’t even conceive of such a thing. Instead I huddled in my tights and leotard and long black skirt until the beginning of class.

We always did a warm-up first thing in the morning, and then never warmed up for classes after that. The warm-up was taught by Til Thiele, a very small woman who had had a great gymnastic background, or by Manja Chmiel, a sort of Gypsy dancer who had followed Mary to Berlin from Dresden. Manja was very “zaftig” while Til was slight and wiry.

Ulrich Kessler, Mary's accompanist

Ulrich Kessler, Mary’s accompanist; in the background,
Marion Yahr, Wigman’s close friend from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The warm-up was very much like the Nikolais warm up but not quite so organized. There was not a set sequence that we went through with Nik’s (or Murray’s) wonderful percussion. As I recall, Ulrich Kessler, the percussionist, didn’t come into the studio for the warm-up; he would arrive when Mary came at 10:00.

We began the warm-ups on the floor, often lying and stretching, then sitting and stretching, and finally graduating to standing exercises, which included footwork, pliés, wide stretching and gross body movement. We did forward rolls from a straddle position going across the floor, and I remember that I tore a muscle in my scapula on almost the second day, and had trouble with that muscle throughout the whole year. Even now, that is the place on my body that “gets it” when tension gets the better of me.

We would leave the room and go back upstairs to the dressing rooms for a few moments, and then precisely at 10:00 Mary would come in and strike the gong that hung just outside the large studio door. Very ritualistic and impressive! We all rushed downstairs for the Ubung (exercise) that was to happen that day.

The foyer of Mary's studio.

The foyer of Mary’s studio.  Each day she would sound the gong for her class to begin.  Student on the right is from East Berlin.

Mary taught the technique classes (she was 70 at that time). Gad, it was exciting. Each day presented a different subject matter: I can’t remember exactly which problems she would pose for which day, but one day would be Hand and Arm Day, the next day Space Day; perhaps the next day devoted to time and timing. Usually on Wednesday it was Drehung, Turning Day. This was the day I would expect to be in the bathroom most of the time throwing up. I would literally turn green, run to the john, throw up, and then come back in to get as much more of the class as I could before going out to throw up again. I think it took me almost five weeks of this before I realized that I had managed to get through a whole class. We would begin by just learning the articulation of the legs for turning: predominant leg turns out as the other turns in, rotating in one spot. Then we would graduate to the tilt of the body, the use of the torso, the articulation of the body parts while turning, turning across the floor, turning in levels, etc. I loved this class eventually and vowed I would learn to turn steadily for ten minutes before the year was out. I got up to six minutes; that was my limit.

Friday was Jump Day—all things for the legs and feet to prepare us to jump, spring, and leap. I guess this was my favorite class of all because I was really a jumper.

Wigman class at 35 Rheinbabenallee (Joan Woodbury in front of Kessler at the piano)

The one difficulty in all those classes was that just when all of our bodies finally got warm enough to raise the frigid temperature in the studio, some hardy Berliner would run to the windows to throw them open, with the approval of everyone in the room—except me! God, it felt good to be warm for at least a few moments.

We would have one hour for lunch, and then the afternoon would be improvisation, choreography, or Lehreprobe (the study of teaching). For Lehreprobe she would let whichever one of us wanted to teach do so, and she would crit. It took me almost half a year before I felt confident enough to try that.

In improvisation we (about 30 students that year) would all sit at Mary’s feet at one end of the long studio, she would set the problem for improvisation, and we would go out one by one to try to solve it. It seemed to me that most of the problems were of a psychological and/or dramatic nature, although we had to decide which element was the strongest in our work—the timing, the space, the energy, or the design. She didn’t use the word “motion” to my recollection. Only the German word Bewegung. Her problem solving might be trying to get through a maize or being twisted and attempting to untwist. Or you might be a creature or a person in a specific place, or have some small drama to solve. I don’t remember her problems being quite as abstract as Nik’s, such as a purely spatial problem (though on the other hand I do recall a simple directional problem, or a stop-go problem).

Mary with students during an improvisation session (obviously something was funny).

I wish that I had kept better records. I vowed each day to write down everything we had done that day, but when I got back to my flat, I had my baby and husband to attend to, and I took that very seriously as well.

I do remember that Mary taught all of her classes, and she made most of her critical comments in German. Sometimes she would look at Betty Bowman and me and give the problem very quickly in English for us. But by the end of the year my understanding of dance in German was terrific, and I could speak about dance as well. Nothing like having only Germans to talk to to make you learn a language—it was great.

We probably had improvisation three times a week. Then we had choreography classes, and they were very exciting. Mary would talk a lot about her own choreography, and often this was the way she would conduct a class. She would take half of the class onto the floor and begin a choreographic work. It might be something like the Wailing Wall, which she had previously choreographed, or something she was just beginning from scratch. You would watch her grouping, the tenor of the dancer, the quality, and gestures she was using. She might make one or two minutes of choreography and then turn to you and say, “Now, you finish it.” Good grief, to be adding to a work begun by Mary Wigman was a sobering event. But, what a wonderful way to work! It took several weeks for all of us to be in tune enough to make a few bold moves with her work, and to see what she was getting at concerning transitions, development, thematic use, etc. I don’t know why I never taught that way. Perhaps it was because I was not confident enough in my own work to have it be the basis for students’ manipulation.

These classes lasted about 1½ hour, and then we had the Lehreprobe (teaching) two to three times a week.

Saturday’s classes were only in the morning. Since the Wigman Schule was certified by the City of Berlin (or the German government), the school had to offer classes in ballet and folk dance. Most of the dancers had jobs in the city, either performing in folk dance companies or cabarets or in small ballet companies. Quite a few dancers came over from the East (the Wall was not yet there, but there was a huge barbed wire fence separating East and West) and these dancers did not pay because they had no money. I don’t know how they supported themselves in the East. Some good dancers came over.

I think Til taught the ballet, and someone else taught the folk dance. Most of the West German dancers received certificates of graduation after three years.

Mary Wigman demonstrating an old woman
in an improvisation class

If you wanted to choreograph, you could sign up for a studio after classes were over in late afternoon, or in the evenings. Nora kept the schedule. If you wanted Mary to come to critique your work, you made arrangement for her with Nora, and you paid for both the studio and for Mary’s critiques. When Mary came in, usually evenings around 7:00, she would sit in her large chair (it looked like a throne) at the end of the room and watch the work. Then her comments would be “What are you doing here with your feet?” or “Should your hands be involved?” “What image do you want us to have?” Always questioning, never telling or suggesting. She just made you think about what you were doing, and why.

During that year I choreographed two solos, Besides Myself and Furucht, both with piano scores by Ulrich Kessler. I also did a trio with Betty Bowman and Nahami Abel (an American woman who had been studying at the school for some time). I wanted to use East German dancers, but they couldn’t stick around to rehearse in the evening, and this was the only time I could work. Ulrich was such a hoot. He was a great accompanist and percussionist, but he wanted to write piano scores for my work, so he would come in while I was working and watch, and then begin to play. I would let him know if I felt he was on the right track, and we would build the dance together. He would play and play and then say, “Viel schoen!” (How beautiful!). I loved his scores and later did a solo concert in Cedar City with my mother playing for me.

At the end of 1956 three of us women shared a concert, hired a hall somewhere in Berlin, and performed our dances. I performed my two solos and in my trio, and in one of both Betty and Nahami’s dances. Mary came to the concert and was very pleased, so we were happy campers. That is what most of the dancers in the school who wanted to perform did, hired the hall, sent out the invitations, and danced.

I saw several performances that year. Manja Chmiel gave a concert and I thought she was remarkable. (She was the gypsy I mentioned earlier who had followed Mary to Berlin.) She was zaftig and wonderful, and her rhythms always came out as 13/8, 17/4, 21/2. She never had an even-counted measure or phrase in her repertory. Her technique classes were always complicated body rhythms, and were very tricky to do. Her solos were weighty and powerful and always surprising. She used to say, “I am heavy and this is who I am and this is how I dance!” And she had great power on stage. As I recall, she went to the U.S. to study with Merce Cunningham, whom she had heard about. I remember someone saying to me that after she finished with Merce, she went back to choreographing but never had again the same power and uniqueness. Sad.

Probably the most impressive performance I saw during that year was that of Dora Hoyer. She was a self-taught dancer who had early studied with Wigman. She worked totally as a soloist and had developed her body to the extent that it looked like a man’s—wide shoulders, no boobs, small waist, no hips, and long muscular legs. She gave a solo concert that knocked my socks off. In Mechanique, Lieder’s Song,and Dreung Tanze she was so unique in her movement that I felt as though I had never seen anything like it. Nik would have loved her. I was sitting by Mary in the concert in which Dora did a turning dance to Ravel’s Bolero. She literally turned on one spot for fifteen minutes, with different configurations and speeds of the body and its parts. When it was over I turned to Mary and said “Isn’t she fantastic?” Mary looked at me with her knowing eye and said, “Mary Wigman did it better in her day.” And I am sure she did.

I do remember feeling that my training had all been somehow coming from the same tree. I began at the University of Wisconsin with Louise Kloepper. As time went on and I got smarter, I realized that her training had, of course, come from Mary and Hanya. Then I worked with Hanya and Nik and began piecing together the similarities. I always felt that Nik took it much further theoretically and practically than Mary or Hanya had done. When I studied with Mary I began to see some of the sources—the concepts and principles of turning, or circling, of special directions, of the icosahedrons of Laban. We worked with these points in space every week—forward, sideward, diagonal, up, down combinations. The turn, the relevé, the fall. Also, we learned to use high and lows level while turning. We concentrated specifically on how to use the Körper (the body) in relation to space as well, how it make its subtle adjustments to various spacial changes clear, and how the hands, the arms, feet, and legs also have their own behaviorisms to help define the space.

As Nik began to codify his thinking, he began to put things in perspective, sequencing the many facets of how to work with the body as an instrument—how to work with space and what the spatial elements were. This was being done in classes at the Wigman School but not articulated so clearly. But Mary worked very directly with space as well, in all facets. I think that this was one of her significant contributions to the field—her understanding of space. I don’t believe that either Mary or Hanya defined shape in quite the same way Nik did, and I know Nik argued with Hanya about shape. As I said, Mary used the word Bewegung; there is no German word for motion in the sense that Nik used it.

So, with Nik you began with very simple words in the choreographic process: time (and all of its concomitants), shape (with the myriad of problems he would present), all of the spatial problems, and of course, motion. I find that Nik didn’t use the word “energy” very much except as it was defined in the motion studies.

Mary’s course construction was not nearly so organized as Nik’s, but perhaps it was the year I came, and the fact that I was only there for one year and didn’t quite understand what the two-year and three-year students had already experienced.

This was just ten years after the end of the war. Money was tight and there weren’t too many frills. I feel that the studio was just trying to make ends meet. The charges for tuition at the studio were ridiculously low, and so Charlie and I decided to pay her twice what the fee was, and even that was too low. I don’t know why the figure $20 per month sticks in my mind. It had to be $20 a week, but this was 45 years ago and so perhaps now the $20 per month was correct. The Fulbright gave us only about $2,000 for the year, so we were stretching it to try to make it all work out.

Mary was quite wonderful and warm to her students, especially the foreign students. I remember being invited to her home several times during the year. The most wonderful time was Christmas—I shall never forget that Christmas. Live candles on the tree. Mary loved presents, and there were always lots of gifts from her former students and admirers and, of course, all of us who were studying with her at the time. When I left Berlin I never forgot to send a big box of assorted presents for Mary and Hesschen, remembering how delighted they were with the process of opening them. We kept in touch with each other until her death, and I know that she wrote to many, many people all throughout her life, attested by the recently published Liebe Hanya: Mary Wigman’s Letters to Hanya Holm, edited by Claudia Gitelman. They are treasures.