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Hanya Holm

Hanya Holm

Hanya Holm (born Johanna Eckert; 1893-1992) successfully moved from Germany to America, from modern dance to the Broadway musical in a unique rise to prominence.

Hanya Holm was born Johanna Eckert on March 3, 1893, in Worms, a small town near Frankfurt am Main in Germany. She spent her first 12 years of schooling at a Catholic convent. In those years she learned respect for knowledge and creative ability, a belief in perfectionism and discipline. At the age of 10 she studied piano, and after graduation from the convent she attended the famous music-oriented Dalcroze Institute.

Seeing a dance recital of Mary Wigman in 1921 became decisive for her life. She immediately joined Wigman's company and soon advanced to the position of chief instructor and co-director of the Mary Wigman Central Institute in Dresden. During the 1920s Holm danced many parts in Wigman's company, culminating in Das Totenmal (Death Monument) in 1930.

Holm was a petite person with fair skin and blonde hair. There was a distinct delicacy and an expressive lyricism in her dancing. She developed an impressive fleetness and strikingly quick footwork. What also distinguished Holm's dancing was her intimate relationship with music, which strongly motivated her. In 1929 she danced the princess in one of the early productions of Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier's Tale), her first major solo part for which she did her own choreography. At that time she was not yet quite sure whether to become a dancer, choreographer, or teacher. Destiny decided for her when she became the head of the Mary Wigman School in New York.

In settling down in America in 1931, she did not immediately rush into creative work. During the first six years she traveled south, west, and north and lectured, taught, and demonstrated at more than 60 colleges and universities, creating real interest and helping tremendously to expand the scope of modern dance. She left bridgeheads at logistically important places which she soon secured with some of her best students who continued to teach and perpetuate Holm's concepts.

Her lecture-demonstrations, which explored the space and tension on which her teaching was based, were almost dreamlike in their lyric molding of space and mood. The distinctive movement of her students had a light and lyric air. Holm knew how to fuse her principles of the old world with the vitality, the energy, the swift spirit of the American dancers.

When she created for the concert stage, her dances were emotional responses to life. In 1937 she showed her first major work, about which she said: "The idea of Trend grew upon me, it was not a sudden inspiration. The theme issued from life itself." In New York Times John Martin called it "a colossal theme … Miss Holm opens up a new vista for the production of great dance dramas."

At one point the small company she held together for a few years became a financial burden, and she had to dissolve it. Then for some time her major activity was teaching, but this changed in 1948 and changed her destiny completely. The lyricist John Latouche asked her to choreograph the third episode of his Ballet Ballads: The Eccentricities of Davey Crockett. It was an emphatic success, an event of great consequences. John Martin and another critic, Walter Terry, agreed that Holm "has done a magnificent job, " that she had supplied the show with "witty and imaginative movement throughout."

Shortly thereafter Holm was acclaimed with even louder critical kudos when she choreographed Kiss Me, Kate. With this show she had become an established choreographer for Broadway musicals. John Martin summed up her accomplishments in January 1949, stating, "Nobody could have stepped more gracefully into a new field than Holm has done in her transition from the concert dance to show business."

Her most significant success came in 1956 with the musical My Fair Lady, based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, with such stars as Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, and Stanley Holloway. It was the biggest hit Broadway had seen since Oklahoma!, and it turned out to be even bigger. Everything in this show, and particularly in what Holm had to contribute, was flawless. My Fair Lady was called "a whale of a show" by the publication Variety and "sensational" by all the critics. One could feel Holm's hand in every effective entrance, in the grace with which the actors danced, or rather acted as if they danced. It was the overall pattern of motion which ran through the entire show.

In the final analysis it was theater that seemed to fascinate her. She ventured into directing plays and she staged a couple of operas. Her great success with the operatic musical The Golden Apple (1954) brought her to Hollywood, where she filmed The Vagabond King, based on the poet François Villon's life, for Paramount in 1956.

Holm had many firsts to her credit. Her Metropolitan Daily, a newspaper satire, was the first modern dance composition to be televised by the National Broadcasting Company (in 1939). The entire score of the choreography for Kiss Me, Kate was recorded in Labanotation and was the first choreographic work to be accepted for copyright at the Library of Congress in Washington.

She won a long list of honors, among them a Drama Critics' Award for Kiss Me, Kate and a Critics Circle Citation for The Golden Apple "as the best musical of the season" in 1954. She was nominated for a Tony for My Fair Lady in 1957 and received an honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts from Colorado College in 1960. Holm was still active as a teacher until her 92nd year, and before her failing eyesight forced her to retire she received the highly endowed Squibb Grant.

In 1990 the Dance Magazine Award was bestowed upon her for her unique contribution to dance in America, a vital force that brought new vision to the most ephemeral of all art forms. Holm died on November 3, 1992, in New York City.

Further Reading

Hanya Holm. The Biography of an Artist by Walter Sorell (1969, paperback edition 1979) was the best source for information on Holm's life and work. Hanya Holm published the following essays: "The Dance, the Artist-Teacher, and the Child, " in Progressive Education (1935); "The German Dance in the American Scene, " in Modern Dance, edited by Virginia Stewart and E. Weyhe (1935); "Mary Wigman, " in Dance Observer (November 1935); "Dance on the Campus—Athletics or Art?" in Dance Magazine (February 1937); "Trend Grew Upon Me, " in Magazine of Art (March 1938); and "The Mary Wigman I Know, " in The Dance Has Many Faces, edited by Walter Sorell (1951; new revised edition, 1966). Her obituary appeared in the November 4, 1992 edition of the New York Times.

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