Mary Wigman was a radical modern dance pioneer who rejected formalized technique and instead focused on expression of emotion. The use of dance improvisation as a tool for movement development has its roots in her work, as does Tanztheater, best exemplified today by the work of the late Pina Bausch.
Wigman (1886–1973) was born in Hanover, Germany, as Marie Wiegmann (her teacher, Rudolf Laban, would later convince her to change her name). Growing up, she studied music; it wasn’t until Wigman was 24 that she first became attracted to dance, after seeing a performance by Émile Jaques-Dalcroze. She soon began attending his school for eurhythmics, or gestures set to music to promote coordination.
Three years later, she joined Laban and his students at their arts community in Switzerland, and she quickly became a disciple. During the five years she spent studying under Laban, she choreographed her first solo pieces, Witch Dance I and Lento. She left the arts community in 1918 to enter a sanatorium: World War I, being diagnosed with tuberculosis and her professional split from Laban had all taken a toll on her.
In 1920, she established the Mary Wigman School in Dresden, Germany. Branches soon popped up all over Germany, and Wigman student Hanya Holm opened one in New York City. Classes were divided into two parts: technique and class lessons. The technique section was not a codified regimen but rather more of an improvisation. “Class lessons” referred to dance composition and criticism.
Over the next decade, Wigman created more than 70 solos and performed them throughout Europe. She toured in the U.S. three times between 1930 and 1933. The first two were wildly successful, but the last was a disaster because she brought 12 of her students to perform with her, and audiences were disappointed not to see her solos.
Wigman chose to remain in Germany during World War II, becoming increasingly conservative in her work; any art that wasn’t deemed reflective of Nazi ideals was censored. When she choreographed for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, many Americans called for a ban on her work. Postwar, Wigman staged operas and quietly continued to teach, until near-blindness and old age forced her to retire in the late 1960s. DT
Ausdruckstanz “Expressive dance” in German; Wigman used this term to mean dance that is a full and free expression of the choreographer’s emotions. It is very exaggerated, often visually jarring and has no specific technique.
Wigman thought of her body as a channel for her subconscious drives, and she was one of the first choreographers to experiment with her relationship to empty space. Wigman rejected classical music and instead worked with composers to create percussive sounds for her rhythmically complex movement. Occasionally, she would wear a mask when performing, to blur the line between masculine and feminine.
Monotony Whirl (1926) This solo involved repetitious spinning to highlight the stillness that exists at the center of motion.
Witch Dance II (1926) For this solo, Wigman wore a mask and an ornate robe. She stomped her feet, twitched her torso and crouched to drums, gongs and silence.
Shifting Landscape (1929) This series of seven solos was more on the lighter and lyrical side of Wigman’s repertory; American audiences responded to it well.
The Legacy Lives On:
Perhaps Wigman’s most famous student was Hanya Holm, who studied and performed with her throughout the 1920s and eventually opened up a Wigman school in New York City, where her pupils included Alwin Nikolais and Glen Tetley. Harald Kreutzberg was another of Wigman’s students.
Wigman’s work paved the way for the development of Tanztheater in Germany—a hybrid of dance and theater founded by Kurt Jooss.
Photo courtesy of Dance Magazine archives