My Berlin: 1954
Slubslubslub the bus sidled up to the curb in Charlottenburg, Berlin, and stopped. A figure hurriedly descended the stairs from the upper level, and as the bus departed, stepped off and fell flat on the street.
With cries from passengers, the bus stopped and the driver descended. (in German): Why did you try to get off when the bus started? he scolded. Regaining my breath and opening my eyes, I stammered, This is my stop! I got up, dusted myself off, and walked toward the apartment building where I had rented a room.
This early memory of Berlin life recurs oftenof living among disciplined people on the politically free island of West Berlinhalf a city arbitrarily slashed in two in 1947, occupied by British, French, and U.S. forces in the Western Sector; the other half, East Berlin, under Soviet Russian military control
Because the Soviets, as Allies, liberated Berlin in 1945, they took the spoils. East Berlin occupied the center of the city: the beautiful Brandenburg Gate, Unter den Linden Boulevard, Potsdamer Platz, Humboldt University, Museum Island in the Spree River, the Berlin Opera, the Komische Oper, and the Schiffbauerdamm Theater where Bertolt Brecht and his wife, Helena Weigelupon returning to Germany after years of exile spent in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, crossing Russia in 1941 via trans-Siberian railroad to Vladivostok, then by boat to Los Angeles, where they lived for nine years in Santa Monica as unwilling participants in the German exile artist communitywielded their unique theatrical genius as playwright, director, and actor in their well-funded, solidly established, successful and politically Marxist Berliner Ensemble.
West Berlin had the fashionable residential neighborhoodsWannsee, Dahlem, Grunewald (where Isadora Duncan had opened her first European dance school in the beginning of the 20th century), Charlottenburg (with its partially destroyed castle but intact bust of Nefertiti on display in one of the guardhouses), half the tower of the Gedächtniskirche at the end of Kurfürstendamm (Kudamm) in the French sector, which was already acquiring fashionable shops selling clothing, perfume, ski clothes and trendy beauty shop makeovers near the Maison de France, where one could get dinner à la française, with a comely evening’s escort, male or female, if enough deutsche marks or an American Express card were handy. It was at the nearby Ritz, best restaurant in the West and a favorite of Marys, where a German waiter, in his best American accent, offered me desserts: oranges in Cointreau, ice cream, and our delicious horse sh_t. To my shocked face, he smiled and (in German) explained: We call this Pferdeäpfel (Horse Apples). And it was, indeed, deliciousa pile of individual small round cream pastries covered with chocolate, very like profiteroles!
I adjusted to the occupied city as an island of freedom surrounded by the Soviets, moving around via subway, bus, and an electric train (S-Bahn) that was controlled by the East. We walked a lot, to save time and coins for home- cooked meals in the many small bar-restaurants and for the delightful pastries sold in the bakeries among the ruins throughout the city. One could even order fresh rolls (Semmel) delivered daily to your door by 7:00 am! Wigman dancers who defected from the East lived in rooms with Kachelöfen (tiled stoves) that had been left intact in the destroyed houses surrounding Wigmans Rheinbabenallee Schoola mansion that survived the war, not unlike her Dresden studio on Bautzner Straße that also survived the bombing of Dresden.
Chilly damp fog surrounded us, few street lights existed, more than half the buildings in West Berlin lay in ruinsa contrast to my previous year as a student in Paris.
My Paris: 195354
Upon finishing college in 1953, I traveled to Paris with the Middlebury College French MA Program, financed by scholarships from the French government and a U.S. Fulbright Travel grant. (Thank God, when they surrendered the city in 44, the German army had not, as Hitler ordered, blown up Paris!) I studied politics at Sciences Po and contemporary literature at the Sorbonne, while taking extra-curricular weekly ballet lessons in French style (fast footwork, killingly difficult barre) and thrice-weekly modern dance lessons (technique and improvisation) in a Pigalle studio with Jerome Andrews, Jacqueline Robinson, and Karen Waehner. This American, French woman, and German girl had one common experience: STUDY WITH MARY WIGMAN. They revered her teachings the way young Polish nuns revere the catechism, quoting Mary often in class and improvisation.
As the year progressed, we gave one or two studio performances of our own works, and, to everyones surprise, mine were applauded and praised! Thereafter, my three fellow dancers began a campaign to convert me to dance as a profession and to send me to study with Wigman.
They succeeded. I enrolled in a two-week summer dance program with my younger sister, Marnie, at the Rigiblick Hotel in Zurich, Switzerland, took Marys classes, and asked permission to join her professional dance training program in Berlin. She told me that the first two weeks were provisional, a sort of audition, but that I should come in the fall.
Thats how I happened to be in Berlin, riding a bus from 27 Rheinbabenallee in the U.S. sector to Charlottenburg in the British sectorand falling flat on my back from the upper level.
Learning from Wigman 1954 → 1959
Classes at the Wigman Schule were tough. Fifty-minute sessions began at 9 am and ended at 1 or 2 pm, with 10 minute intervals between. We began the day with strenuous gymnastic exercises and went on to explore the familiar aspects of dance training: technique, dance qualities, improvisation, composition, music (drumming, accompaniment), ballet (with a rather weak teacher), dance history (primarily Kurt Sachs auf deutsch), a few national dances taught by practitioners of Spanish, Bharata natyam, German folk forms such as ¾ time Ländler and Waltzer. For a complete description of the movement training, please refer to Joan Woodburys article in the Bearnstow Journal .
Fortunately, we were free to pursue our own choreography in the afternoons, signing up to use the studios for free. Often Ulrich Kessler, composer and pianist, and Wolfgang Wölfer, a young pianist/composer, were available to create music for our choreographic attempts. Both were extremely helpful collaborators (and of course, we paid them extra for their time.)
While in Berlin, Kessler wrote music for three of my dances: Lady Macbeth, Cathedral (based on several trips to Chartres in France), and something about a chair. A young U.S. G.I., David Porter, wrote music for two e.e. cummings poems that he sang while I danced. Later a young U.S. violinist, Carl Nashan, improvised Bluegrass fiddle sounds for my Agnes DeMilleinspired hoedown piece, and two poems by Emily Dickinson that I recited while dancing. A special triumph was creating Orpheus Descends to the Underworld, a group improvisation assigned for my Tänzerische Reifeprüfing (dance performance exam) in spring 1956. Live musical and percussion accompaniment enhanced the Wigman experience.
My first year at Marys school was spent getting to know my own body, learning how to open up to training the dance instrument. I clearly remember her first admonitions to us as dance students in Berlin:
The shock was great! No dance teacher had ever suggested that I accept my body, much less love my own body as is and then work toward improving my abilities. Too many negative dance words had come my way, from teachers who, though well-meaning, undermined my incentive to progress, encouraging fear of failure.
Absorbing this lesson and putting it into practice took a year. A full year. It compensated for Marys constant hammering on my back and bellowing in class: Bend your back, Junior! Not so stiff, give! Curve the body into the movement! Give yourself to it! And after my correction,Ja, Ja, besser. [okay, better]
The Dance, Not the Dancer
Mary saw the dance rather than the dancer. Our task was to subordinate our individuality to movement. That is, your body instrument was intended to dig deep into your own feelings, then create movement, sculptures in space. As you moved, it was the movement that counted, not the individual doing it. By training the body to understand space, one could speak through gesture without words, without sound.
This was difficult and demanded that we understand spatial relationships in a quasi-architectural way and acquire individual skills to relate them through our bodily attitudes while traveling through space. If ones body were inharmonious, then only disharmony was conveyed; if ones body were harmoniouswith no elbow sticking out here, hip resisting tracing a curve, head falling heavily in the direction of a fall rather than resisting descent as a counter-weightthen the movement achieved understanding.
While training, I took yoga lessons from Herr Weening. A Buddha-like gentleman in his 50s, he had seen Wigman perform in her hey-day. She had a harmonious body, said he. I do not think she was capable of moving inharmoniously, even in her dark dances. Later in life, I understood his remark. If one looks at her pictures, they convey absolute harmony even when projecting dark themessuch as Hexentanz.
Mary Wigman, Hexentanz, 1926
While dancing, the performer is never alone. Space (Raum) is with you. Always. Mary insisted that we recognize this entity. From your first wobbly bow, to the proud Verbeugung of the experienced soloist, you are making others aware of the realm where your innermost being is revealed. Your intent must be clear to you, even when it means something totally different to your audience.
Agitprop theater did not interest her unless it moved beyond delivering a message, toward sincere theatrical self-expressionas was the case with Bertolt Brechts Berliner Ensemble, particularly in movement-driven productions like Mutter Courage, staged with the camp-following mother pulling a cart in circular movements on a round revolving stage, or The Caucasian Chalk Circle
This basic principle informed my later work in theater, music, and dance: Train in space, be aware of the matrix in which you function. Create your message in this transformed spacethat you make me, the spectator, share with you.
Whether working with dancers restaging court choreographies from Italian dance manuscripts written in the trecento, or actors in Australia creating a WWI tank crew deserting the battlefield to save their lives by going into hiding, or performing Tea with Kammy, a contemporary modern dance piece by Shelley Cushman of North Texas University, featuring a refined lady who strips off her long gown to perform a sexy bump- and-grind parody while chatting unperturbedly with her genteel companion, I focused on Marys teachings of Raum.
Movement is organic and universal. (Eat your heart out, post-moderns.)
We all have the same instrument: one head, two arms, two legs, and a torso. Generally, all joints move the same way. MWThen Mary would lead us in a dance hour of improvised composition, with inspired focus on the five-fingered appendage usually hanging at our sides, or outstretched as an arm extension sideways, perpendicular, or balled into a protesting fist. Subtleties were explored individually, leading to movement diversity and rhythmic exploration. Fast, medium, slow. The sessions with her were mesmerizing, with dancers caught up in continuity that lasted the entire hour. Group dancing called for differentiated movement; choral dancing required synchronized movement, synonymous but often not identical. One danced in all her classes—“technique is only what you can do well.”
Learn to breathelearn to movelearn to use movement memory so you will not always have to THINK about the next gesture, it will come vom selbst. MW
In the early days of my UCLA teaching, I focused on how to teach dance history through movement, with a Western Civ orientation. (My class fulfilled this requirement alongside upper-division classes in the History Department taught by Eugene Weber, my role model in lecturing, who had also attended the Sorbonne and Sciences Po in Paris.) This meant learning as much as possible about early dance through pictures, music, and symbols from hieroglyphics to dance descriptions and notations. I had performed in Marys staging of Carl Orffs Carmina Burana in Mannheim in 1956 and was fascinated by early dance & music. I began seeking out Renaissance and Baroque dance mentors. Many musicians had analyzed and interpreted the music and a handful of dance scholars were busily correcting their oft misguided interpretations. Musicologists did not know the dance steps or how to merge them with the music.
I spent hours in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris reading Italian manuscripts from 1440 to 1490 to decipher the courtly dances described. Here, Marys lessons about the body, how it moves naturally, where it is in space, and how it conveys meaning were invaluable.
One foot goes down, takes weight, and the other follows. Step by step. Hop. Skip. Jump. Leap. MW
Her principles allowed me and my student conspirators (collaborators?) to find the meaning in the movement. Some examples from Domenicos ca.1440 ms: Tuscany, Italy: In Leoncello, a gentleman pursues a lady and captures her as part I ends; in Part II she pursues and ensnares him in return. In Mercantia, one lady dances with three men, selling her charms by dancing flirtatiously with each in turn. In Sobria four men capture a woman inside a square and tease her, plucking at her hair and whispering salacious teasings in her ear, allowing her to escape only as the dance ends.
These dances provided entertainment on long evenings indoors or on the meadows outside the palace even earlier than recorded in Boccaccios il Decamerone in 1448. Dance games persisted and became a part of courtly protocol, then theater and opera, eventually setting the format for modern symphony music (fast, slow, fast). Wigmans principles helped me work out how to bring these dances wieder auf die Beine (to life; literally, on two legs again). All my students participated in dance labs throughout the term, movingwith skill, or with sheer diligenceas instructed in the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.
There is a dance in every body. ELT
The principles learned from Mary Wigman have supported my work throughout my dance life, whether performing, teaching, lecturing, choreographing, directing, or writing. Enumerated below are some of my own concepts, inspired by her and by my personal and professional activities with the theater works of Bertolt Brecht, Heiner Müller, and Robert Wilsonoften collaborating with Polish-American professor and theatre critic, Andrzej Wirth.
Train in space, be aware of the matrix in which you function. Create your message in this transformed space that you make me, the spectator, share with you.
Learn to breathelearn to move learn to use movement memory so you will not always have to THINK about the next gesture, it will come vom selbst.
My tool is the human body, which must acquire awareness, be comfortable with the being that inhabits it, and become open to interpreting dance material by doing it. Performing it. Living it. Commenting on it in motion. Making it real. Allowing it to live again. Today. Now. Immediately.
Read text with movement eyes. It is not words on a page, but thoughts and feelings and actions that need to be tried out. Theater is a living medium.
Edit. Discard excess in all parts of the message. Concentrate on the crux of the matter [den Kern der Sache]. Intensify rather than spinning out.
Rehearsal is a learning process; use trial and error, interpretation, revision, shortening, d r a w i n g o u t , playing with pauses, breath, rhyming, joking in movementallow the self to come out within the context.
Process constantly changes and evolves in performancelet it.
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