Mary Wigman: a dance pioneer with an awkward past….
Would this modern dance pioneer be better known had she not fallen in step with the Nazis?
As the debate gathers around the current imbalance between male and female choreographers, the names of pioneering women such as Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham and Bronislava Nijinska are regularly invoked to recall a golden age of female creativity and power. These women, all working in the early years of the 20th century, had a transforming influence on the language and practice of dance. And there is one more name that should also be added to the list: the German choreographer Mary Wigman.
Born into a comfortably bourgeois family in 1986, Wigman didn’t begin formal training until she was 24, but after just three years studying the rhythmic gymnastic system of Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, and working with Rudolf Laban, Wigman created her first solo Witch Dance. In that short work, she began exploring the elements that would define her style – including the conviction that dance could be performed without music and that it could have the courage to be ugly. From the surviving clip of Witch Dance above (a slightly revised version that was filmed in 1926), it’s clear that Wigman also proved a compelling powerhouse of a performer.
This short solo is a masterpiece of strangeness. Wigman aimed for state of ritualised trance as she danced, summoning up the dangerous spirit of her character, yet the detail and control of her movement is remarkable. The savage crackle of those first hexing gestures; the keening, ducking circle of her upper body and head at 0.20 (made all the more strange by the mask she wears); the slow, spooky opening of her knees at 0.29. Wigman’s witch is cousin to the troubled terrifying spirit of Max Schreck’s Nosferatu; hunching over herself as if drawing dark spells from her own body, then launching into a rocking and lurching trajectory towards her prey (1.25).
Wigman was part of the wider expressionist movement in Germany (among those who admired her was the painter Emil Nolde). But these other clips of her group piece Exodus and her 1929 solo Sommerdans also suggest a kinship with different elements of the zeitgeist: the more fluent, natural movement language popularized by Isadora Duncan, which keyed into an older pastoral spirit of German Romanticism.
Wigman’s own influence was, however, very broad. There are clear affinities between her style and the early work of Martha Graham (the eloquent use of the torso in the latter’s 1930 solo Lamentation is very close to the opening of Sommerdans).
Even more vivid is the debt that would be owed to Wigman by the legendary butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno: the mask-like face, the movement language and sense of inwardness in this extract from The Dead Sea all seem influenced by Witch Dance, below.
But even though Wigman’s style was disseminated through Europe and America by students such as Hanya Holm, and even though elements of it can still be traced in the Tanztheater of Pina Bausch, Wigman herself has slipped slightly below the radar. And one reason may be her relationship with the Nazi regime.
Wigman was far more complicit with the Third Reich than her fellow choreographer Kurt Jooss, who left Germany in 1933 (her mentor Rudolf Laban also cut links, but not until 1938). While her early choreography was not to official taste, she was sufficiently in step with the early Volk-inspired philosophy of the Reich to receive a commission to choreograph a mass Olympic Youth dance for the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. And while she was privately sympathetic to Jewish students in her Dresden school, she didn’t rebel against orders to remove Jewish dancers from her company.
However the 1937 edict by Goebbels that dance “must be cheerful and show beautiful female bodies and have nothing to do with philosophy” put a halt on her career. While she seems to have been personally protected by her relationship with a prominent arms manufacturer, Wigman’s company was closed, and when her protector died in 1942, so was her school. After the war, she became key to the modern dance revival in Germany, and for years effectively papered over her complicity with the Nazi regime. But today much of her influence has been forgotten, along with the full force of her extraordinary – if troubling – brilliance.