AN EXPRESSION...A SPEAKING OUT - Mary Wigman & Expressionist Dance
Updated: Dec 12, 2021
"A dancer must do two things always: play and dream."
When I awoke this morning, I realized why I can't yet tell you about my journeys with Cleopatra yet. Because, although I became interested in her during college as I studied her actual history and was first learning to belly dance, so many of the dances I've shared with her come from a timeline much farther down this road. We'll get back to one of my favorite villainous she-ros. All in good time.
Let us return now to the dance floors of my university in 1993. There were two main places we trained and rehearsed if we weren't on the actual stages. Sometimes, when the dance studio was occupied, we gathered on the amber-hued wooden floor of the dressing room downstairs from the auditorium stage. It had mirrors on both sides. Granted, not full length, as they were made for the seating at the makeup counters that spanned both widths of the room, but if you stood at the correct angle you could see your feet.
I learned the tap number for A Chorus Line down there my freshman year. I choreographed my junior year modern-belly-dance fusion trio in that warm echoey room, as well as my tap-belly-mambo-jazzy fusion for my senior year showcase.
I determined not to let being so new to official dance training stop me. Just because I hadn't gotten to take classes since I was three like my cousin, or since I was in elementary school like many of my classmates, just because I'd never had a vocal lesson in my life beyond that which any other student at my home school had received, just because I was a hick from the sticks, that was never going to stop me. During the day, there were many hours when the makeup studio was vacant, so I obsessively put it to use, just me, the music, and the mirror.
That was the legendary Donna McKechnie, who originated the role of "Cassie." This never-quite-shooting-star dancer and anyone who could knock her out of the park became my eternal inspiration for tenacity, grit, and powerhouse expression. Mary, my idol in the Theater and Dance Departments had played her, and I spent many hours watching her rehearse. Later, I would go downstairs and pretend that someday I'd be as incredible as Mary and Cassie were.
But when I recall Modern Dance and the things I was learning about expressing the depths of what I yearned to say through movement, I always picture hint-of-green concrete walls and sunlight slanting through the windows to create bright rectangles on the black marley floor of the dance studio.
Marley is the smooth, shiny vinyl they put on top of sprung dance floors. Some stages are covered with it, too, which can either be a blessing or a curse, depending on the depth of your calluses and your requirements for traction vs. spin. Marley is laid down with the intention of finding that perfect balance between the two. Because I have always had to create most of my dances on my home carpet, I often find it too slippery for my more robust, earthy, and wild dances. But it is heaven when I need to float and whirl.
AND NOW WE KNOW: Prior to finalizing a choreography for stage, always try to find out in advance what kind of flooring you'll be dancing on, because slip or grip can make or break your performance. CHECK.
In one corner of the dance studio, there was a square, wooden frame to hold talcum powder, mostly used by the ballerinas. In the opposite corner along the mirror was the sound system. It was one of those hefty, almost-black numbers with a dual tape deck topped by the fat amplifier topped by a much newer silver CD player. We used tapes most often though, because home-burning was not really a thing yet--at least not in our neck of the Northland woods. Instructors would record each section of the song with multiple back-to-back repetitions for less time rewinding.
Naturally, along the two side walls of the room, there were mounted barres. Another free-standing barre stood along the back wall under the windows when it wasn't in use in the middle of the floor.
We didn't use the barre for Modern. Neither did we wear ballet slippers, and most of us didn't use the powder either--that was the pointe. Har har. (Can't help m'self.) Because at its inception, Modern Dance was the ultimate rebellion from Ballet.
So was one of its birthmothers, Expressionist Dance.
In contrast to Modern Dance, which would develop into a collection of techniques, the Expressionists thought of themselves more as a movement (although they wouldn't call themselves that at the time.) Expressionism was part of the broad Modernist Period of the late 19th to early 20th Centuries. It arose predominantly in Germany as a reaction to the country's post-WWI isolation and trauma, and the dehumanizing impact of industrialization and urban expansion. It rebelled against objective realism in favor of subjective emotions and responses, spanning poetry, literature, architecture, painting, theater, film, and dance. (6, 7)
Fitting that Expressionism is difficult to pin down, as it overlapped with many other Modernist styles like Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism. The Expressionist slant addressed subjects like death, metaphysics, sexuality, industrialism, technological advancement, mental illness, depression, and a host of social, economic and political issues of the age. Coming out of the Great War, it was beginning to intertwine with what we now call the Horror and Film Noir genres, as seen in classics like Metropolis and of course, Nosferatu. (5-7)
This is the famous dance scene from Metropolis, the 1927 sci-fi drama of the German Weimar Period, (7) featuring some revolutionary special effects for its silent film era, and another dastardly silver screen belly dance-esque seductress, the robot False-Maria. She's been sent to stir up dissent and prevent a peaceful mediation between the ruling class and the oppressed workers who toil and die beneath the glittering Metropolis.
All this artistic expression of fear, angst, anger, horror, and rebellion in post-WWI Germany was squashed in its tracks by the Nazi regime--except for the ways in which those emotions could be turned against "The Appropriate Enemies." Hitler deemed the Modernists as "incompetents, cheats, and madmen." (6)
In 1937, providing a counterpoint opposite the Great German Art Exhibition, was the Degenerate Art Exhibition, aimed to educate the population against what the Reich considered the social ills of "decadence", "weakness of character", "mental disease", and "racial impurity".
Many artists who were banned, book-burned, painting-burned, and labeled as "degenerate" refused to capitulate to these new policies and went into exile, whether abroad or at home, whereas others found ways to keep working within the Nazi ideology: loyalty, struggle, self-sacrifice, discipline. (5-7)
Alongside Ruth St. Denis, Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, and other early 20th Century dance rebels who eschewed the pointe shoes and rigid structures of Ballet came the German innovator, Mary Wigman. (1-4) Like me, she came to dance later than many of her contemporaries--she was 24. In 1911, she enrolled in the Dalcroze rhythmic gymnastics school but it was far more focused on music than movement, so she left and joined one of the male Modern Dance pioneers, Rudolf von Laban. (7) Hailed as Germany's "Founding Father of Expressionist Dance", he was also a forerunner in movement theory and notation. Wigman worked for him as an assistant through World War I.
Upon her departure from his school, she retreated to the mountains of Switzerland to develop her own Expressionist style, which she named New German Dance, and was one of the pioneers of dance therapy. Her dancing was an expression of human desires, passions, and inspirations, and she was fascinated by the mystical relationship between humans and the cosmos. To her, dance didn't need strict codification. Any movement could be considered dance if it expressed a true human emotion.
As such, she believed that dance could be performed without music, and that it could have the courage to be ugly. Her dance journey was influenced by both the World Wars, and by Germany's economic crisis between them, so there was plenty to be expressed. (2, 5, 7)
"I was once completely confused and unhappy. I locked myself in the guest room of my parents' home and in great consternation I sobbed and cried, because I did not know anymore what to do with my life. There, on the spot, I discovered suddenly that in all my unhappiness, I was moving. And I was moving in such a way, that I had never moved before. And also, suddenly this moving became an expression...a speaking out."
~Mary Wigman, from the film When the Fire Dances Between the Two Poles by Allegra Fuller Snyder, narration taken from her books The Language of Dance and The Mary Wigman Book translated by Walter Sorell (3)
This is a revised version of her first solo, the masked "Witch Dance," which she created after being struck with an artistic vision while looking at herself in the mirror one morning. Some say it was created in 1914, others say 1920:
She didn't only express the darker aspects of emotion. This is her 1929 "Sommerdans," part of a series she choreographed at a time when she apparently had fallen in love:
In 1930, she toured the United States with her company and inspired countless dancers on this side of pond, including one of the main pioneers of American Modern Dance, Hanya Holm. (1, 7)
Wigman was also officially honored by her own country, but the rise of the Nazis changed everything. She was one of the many artists that they labeled "degenerate" and they put an end to her school. They eventually allowed her to continue teaching, but she had to fire any Jewish dancers, and she had to restrict the vocabulary to that which helped to "shield and purify" the German population against any stances and movements from foreign influences. There was a period in which her school was completely closed, but then after WWII she was able to continue her artistic work. (1, 2, 5-7)
Here is a collection of modern interpretations by UW's Chamber Dance, including an interview discussing Wigman's time under the Third Reich, her movement theories, and the process of recreating her dances:
The question has been raised if Wigman's capitulating response to the Nazi edicts is the main reason why she is a lesser known figure in the Modern Dance hall of fame. For certain, the rise of her career and creations were halted in 1937, when the Goebbels edict declared that dance “must be cheerful and show beautiful female bodies and have nothing to do with philosophy.” She did help reignite the German Modern dance revival after the war, but her name is often forgotten alongside her more famous contemporaries. (2)
Even so, many of her philosophies, her explorations into dichotomy of movement and emotion, her use of Counter-Direction, and the importance of hand work--all these filtered through into my Modern Dance training and took deep root within me, blossoming into some of the most potent and distinctive aspects of my dance.
"There I stand in the center of space, eyes closed, feeling how the air presses down on my limbs. One arm is raised, timidly groping, cutting through the invisible space, thrusting forward with the feet to follow. Direction established. Then, as if the space wanted to reach for me, it pushes me backward on a newly created path: Counter-Direction. A play of up and down, of backward and forward, a meeting with myself, battling for space within space. Dance…soft and gentle…vehement and wild."
~Mary Wigman (3)
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: EXPOSING HIDDEN SECRETS: Mary Wigman & Expressionist Dance 2
--OR: One of my not-so-pretty dances that often disturbs people, which was its point, since it's about intimate partner abuse and domestic violence: DEMOLITION
--OR if you missed the start of my dance adventures and my other studies in collegiate dance, you can find all those tales HERE.
SOME MORE LINKS FOR YOUR GEEKING PLEASURE:
1) Mary Wigman
3) When the Fire Dances Between the Two Poles, a film by Allegra Fuller Snyder, narration taken from her books The Language of Dance and The Mary Wigman Book translated by Walter Sorell
4) Mary Wigman's Books, uploaded by the Weslayan University:
5) German Expressionism: The Legacy of the Horror Dance Killed by the Nazis
7) THE WIKIS TO GET YOU STARTED DOWN RABBIT HOLES: