Who was Mary Wigman?
Mary Wigman was a German dancer and choreographer, considered as one of the most noteworthy pioneers in the history of modern dance. Her contributions to the genre are remarkable and she is regarded as the founder of modern dance movement. Born as Karoline Sophie Marie Wiegmann, she came of age during World War I and learnt the art of dancing through her sheer dedication. She realized that dance could act as a powerful medium to express human passions and aspirations. After developing her unique expressionist or ‘absolute’ style of dance, she established a dance school in Germany which quickly became known as a center for modern artistic innovation. She attracted a number of disciples, and conducted international tours with her troupe during the 1930s. Her approach was certainly unique at the time as she turned to distant cultures for sources with which to interpret her choreography. Her dancing style made use of non-Western musical instruments such as gongs, drums, and bells which effectively created an edgy, contemplative, and gloomy atmosphere in her performances. Despite the ‘dark’ compositions, her performances were entrenched with a hint of delight and warmth in them. She emerged as a major influence on American modern dance.
Childhood & Early Life
She was born on November 13, 1886 in Hanover, Germany in a bourgeois family. She received her secondary education from the schools in Germany, England, and Switzerland.
While on a visit to Amsterdam, she attended a dance performance by three students of Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, a Swiss composer who evolved his own system of movements called ‘eurhythmics’. She was fascinated with the way the performers portrayed dance as an expression of life.
She developed a keen liking towards dancing and decided to become an expressive choreographer. Therefore, in 1911, she got enrolled in the Jaques-Dalcroze's school in Dresden-Hellerau. As she was passionate about dance and its various aspects, she felt uncomfortable when she was instructed to perform as per predefined norms only.
In 1913, she traveled to Ascona, Switzerland to register for the summer course given by Rudolf von Laban, one of the pioneers of modern dance in Europe. She attended the summer and winter sessions in the Laban School for the next few years, also serving as Laban’s assistant for a brief period of time.
In 1919, she left the Laban School and secluded herself to develop a unique style of dancing—movements which are independent of any musical notes and are capable enough to communicate with the audiences directly. She called this dance style ‘New German Dance’, which was able to express human emotions.
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In 1919, she conducted her first professional solo concert in Berlin, followed by performances in Breman and Hanover. Although these shows did not receive positive acclaim, she continued to perform and was finally able to receive appreciation for her works in Hamburg.
In 1920, she opened her own dance school ‘Dresden Central School’ in Dresden. She taught expressionist dance form to her students and experimented with choreography.Some of her pupils were Hanya Holm, Yvonne Georgi, Gret Palucca and Harald Kreutzberg.
In 1923, her dance troupe gave its first dance performance and she conducted international tours with them in the later years. In 1928, she made her first trip to U.K. followed by a tour to America in 1930. Between 1931 and 1933, she conducted two more tours of the U.S.
During this time branches of her dance school spread all over Germany. One of her students, Hanya Hola, helped in the establishment of modern dance schools in America too. In addition to it, educational authorities also prescribed her dance training for the public schools.
In the 1930s, her works as an innovative choreographer became an inspiration for communist dance troupes in America. At the same time, she was officially honored by the German government for her significant contributions.
Her school operated until 1942 when the Nazi authorities considered her to be a leftist and her dances to be decadent. They closed down her school but when she obeyed the government rule and fired all the Jewish dancers from her schools in Germany, Nazis permitted her to teach in Leipzig during World War II. Her last work as a soloist was ‘The Dance of Niobe’ (1942), in which she danced the title role.
Even after the Second World War ended, she continued teaching at Leipzig for next few years. In 1949, she fled to West Berlin where she opened a school and also took up the job as a guest choreographer. From 1950 until her death in 1973, she taught in West Berlin.
Some of her most important productions for German opera houses included Handel's ‘Saul’ (Mannheim, 1954), Orff's ‘Carmina Burana’ (Mannheim, 1955), and Stravinsky's ‘Sacre du Printemps’ (Municipal Opera, Berlin Festival, 1957).
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1918, she experienced a nervous breakdown and while recovering from it, she choreographed her first group composition, 'Witch Dance', which cemented her dance style and paved her way for a successful career.
On September 18, 1973, she died in West Berlin, West Germany, at the age of 86.