Christmas Eve with Mary Wigman
Berlin, Germany 1955

By Joan J. Woodbury

Dance Observer 23 (3), March 1956, pp. 39–40

     At 8:30 on Christmas Eve we were ushered into a small room, so enchantingly decorated that everyone was left speechless. Myriads of real candles were burning and the tiny flickering lights and Christmas greens made us warm with the Christmas spirit. In one of the two small connecting rooms stood a wonderful tree, on which hung brightly colored bulbs, red-red apples and glowing white candles. All around the other room evergreen branches and smaller potted Christmas trees were placed in corners and on low tables; red roses, pink carnations and hyacinths were arranged here and there, and always the magic glow of the burning white candles. The room had brightness and mystery, and we felt like children in fairyland for the first time.

Christmas at Mary Wigman's home

Left to right: two unidentified students, Nahami Abel
(a perennial student from U.S. at the Wigman Studio),
and Betty Bowman, a U.S. student

     There were twelve of us . . . Mary Wigman and Hess’chen (her companion and housekeeper of many years), eight students studying at the Wigman School, and two husbands. For most of us it was the first Christmas to be spent in such a fashion, but one or two had experienced the fest in previous years as it is Mary’s custom to open her house to her foreign students who have no other place to spend Christmas Eve. We were all struck with the thoughtfulness, generosity and effort expended to make it an especially pleasant occasion.

     Mary was simply dressed in black, with a string of white pearls at her throat, and she beamed with pleasure at our obvious delight. She came to one particular corner in which several of us stood “oohing” and “aahing” and said, “This is the European Corner.” On the shelf stood a small, candle bedecked tree, a wooden bas-relief manger scene and around the scene, as if in worship, many little carved wooden angels, animals, holy Madonnas and Christmas figures for which Germany is so famous. Then, turning, she said “And one might call this the Oriental scene.” There stood small, delicately carved figures from China and Japan, surrounded and enveloped by the ever present white candles and Christmas greens.

     When we looked further around the room we discovered that for each was a gaily decorated Christmas plate, filled to overflowing with cookies, candies, apples, oranges and sweet little miniature candleholders, or a Christmas angel, or scented soap. One felt like standing in the middle of the room and turning slowly round and round to firmly impress the sight in his memory. All of the lonely feelings that come when spending a Christmas far away from home had vanished, and in their place was a peaceful contentment.

     When the excitement subsided so that we could allow ourselves to sit, we touched glasses and drank a toast to the holidays . . . Mary ceremoniously ringing crystal with each of us. Then, kicking off her shoes, as is the custom with all dancers, and lounging back into a comfortable chair, she sighed, “Now we can relax.” And then, as is also the custom with dancers, we ate. There was all and more than one could manage of meat salad, a delicious German meat loaf, white bread, and sweet pastry “kuchen.” Hess’chen kept a watchful eye, and empty plates remained so not long.

     After unbuttoning skirts and letting out belts, we settled back and listened to violin music of Bach. We chatted quietly, almost as if hypnotized by the atmosphere. There was little need for conversation as we were content with the quiet companionship of each other’s company. Mary became warmly reminiscent and related, among other experiences, the story of the fur coat . . . that “elegant mink coat,” which went with Mary on many a dance tour, carried her through the cold, miserable winters of the war and finally, through the action of an unscrupu­lous furrier, ended up, ingloriously, in a Berlin pawn shop. It was a story full of mirth, told as only Mary could tell it, and yet it was rather tragic, as one became aware of the plight of this figure. Wrapped in a tattered fur coat, struggling to keep sanity, courage, and warm during the winters of the war. “For many months that coat never left my back, and I felt as though I had really grown hair.”

Christmas at Mary Wigman's home

Left: two unidentified students, Joan Woodbury,
two unidentified, Nahamie Abel, and Betty Bowman

     We laughed with her, and yet marveled at the courage and determination of such a woman, to come back and begin again when she had seemingly lost all during the war. But the dance genius cannot die so easily, as one can see in her vibrant and creative personality.

     As the evening progressed, one by one the candles burned low and were snuffed, and when the mechanical age forced its influence into the room with the turning on of electric lights, moods became gayer and less reflective and the talk eventually turned to dance. Mary spoke then of the plans for a summer dance course to be held in Berlin at the Wigman School. In the concen­trated three week course, from June 25 to July 14, three dance classes will be given daily, consisting of gymnas­tics, technique, improvisation, composition, pantomime and, as the desire is expressed, rhythms, percussion, and history of music, dance and art. Each day’s schedule will vary. Mary Wigman herself, will serve as the chief teacher, assisted by Til Thiele and Manja Chmiel. Ulrich Kessler is the school’s chief musician. The cost for the full three weeks is 100 Dlvi or 40 DM for one week. Translated into dollars it comes to the unbelievably low cost of 25 and 10 dollars respectively.

     Other than the exciting experiences of being in Europe, and especially in Berlin, the summer course can be recommended on the basis of the stimulating dance experiences now offered at the Wigman School, 35 Rheinbabenallee. Classes begin at 9:00, and one hurries through dark Berlin streets to be sure to arrive on time. At that hour the sun is still sleeping and students are also sleepy eyed, struggling to put on tights and leotards in the dim light, stretching occasionally to prepare for the hours of gymnastics and dance technique. After two hours of strenuous work, by 11:00, everyone is wide awake, muscularly warm, and anxiously awaiting the dong, dong of the Chinese gong which announces the beginning of Mary’s class, the one no one would think of missing. We file down the stairs to be greeted by a handshake and “Guten Morgen” from Mary (always dressed in black) and then move eagerly into the studio to begin class. Some days the emphasis is upon turning or jumping; others on exciting foot rhythms or dramatic ideas; still others are gliding days, or “Zwieback mit butter tage” as Mary calls them. But always the results are the same . . . a room full of excited, satisfied dancers, lost in the experience of the moment. And Mary, small in stature, is nevertheless the giant in the room . . . darting here and there to help, adding just the right words of praise or criticism at the proper moment, laughing and then serious, boisterous and then quiet, dramatic and then comic, her intense being permeating every corner of the room and adding to the ecstasy of the moment.

     These qualities, which make Mary a very alive and interesting person, quickly endear her to anyone who meets her. On Christmas Eve, when spirits were high and she was especially entertaining, we were loath to leave her company, but as it is not the custom in Germany to stay up late on Christmas Eve, the time to part came all too soon. Mary uncorked two bottles of champagne, a gift from friends in America, and after toasting and handshaking, we said farewell to a memorable Christmas.