Wigman, Mary (1886–1973)

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Wigman, Mary (1886–1973)

German dancer who helped create the art form of modern dance with its emphasis on movement as an articulation of personal expression, emotions, and profound truths . Name variations: Wiegmann. Pronunciation: VEEG-mahn. Born Mary Wiegmann on November 13, 1886, in Hannover, Germany; died on September 18, 1973, in Berlin; daughter of a businessman and Amalie Wiegmann; attended secondary school at Hohene Töchterschule in Hannover, and boarding schools in England and Lausanne, Switzerland; never married; no children.

Enrolled for dance training in the school of Emile-Jacques Dalcroze in Dresden-Hellerau (1910); attended summer dance school taught by Rudolf Van Laban in Ascona, Switzerland (1913); made choreographic debut (1914); left Laban school to open own studio (1919); established dance group (1923); made first tour of U.S. under direction of Sol Hurok (1930–31); with Gret Palucca, Harald Kreutzberg and Dorothee Günther, choreographed "Olympic Youth" under Nazi supervision for the Berlin Olympics (1936); retired from performing (1942); served as teacher and choreographer until the closing of her school in West Berlin (1942–67); received Great Cross of the Order of Merit (Grosses Bundesverdienstkreuz) of the German Federal Republic (1957).

Works choreographed:

Witch Dances Without Music (1914); Seven Dances of Life (1922–23); Ecstatic Dances (1919); Scenes from a Dance Drama (1924); Shifting Landscape (1929); Choric Movement (1929); Totenmal (1930); Dance of Silent Joy (1934); Farewell and Thanksgiving (1942).

At the start of the 20th century, Mary Wigman eschewed the principles of ballet to expose the unformulated, natural expression of the human body, and thereby became one of the preeminent founders of the German form of modern dance known as Ausdruckstanz. With her arresting face, framed by sharply tilted eyebrows and a square chin, she brought a seriousness to her performances that intrigued as often as it offended. Dancing with masks, and bringing movement to abstract idea, she aroused public adulation with her riveting solos and innovative choreography, but her greatest legacy was perhaps in the role of mentor. Yvonne Georgi, Gret Palucca and Harald Kreutzberg, all crucial to the development of German modern dance, were students of hers, and yet another Wigman student, Hanya Holm , conveyed her style and methods to America and became an influence on the careers of Alwin Nikolais, Murray Louis and Don Redlich. In the course of her career, while creating a new means of movement that embodied the emotional thrust of German expressionism, Wigman also maintained an ambiguous relationship to Nazism, enhancing the mystery of this woman who danced with masks and gave physical movement to abstract ideas.

She was born Mary Wiegmann on November 13, 1886, in Hannover, Germany, the eldest of three children in the family of a prosperous businessman. After the death of her father when she was nine, her mother soon married the twin brother of her late husband, who had also been his business partner, so the circumstances of the family were not greatly changed. Wigman's education included language study at boarding schools in England and Lausanne, Switzerland. She wrote poetry, read literature, and took lessons in comportment and social dance, but she was not encouraged toward the academic requirements of a gymnasium school, which would have prepared her for a university.

In 1908, at age 21, Wigman saw a performance in Hannover of Grete Wiesenthal and her sister Elsa , dancers who represented a break then underway, in rebellion against the confined technique of classical ballet, toward freer forms of dance movement. But their performance lacked the more substantive originality Wigman saw later that same year in the works of another dancer, Emile-Jacques Dalcroze, which inspired her to take up dance training at a relatively late age. In 1910, she was 24 when she enrolled in the Dalcroze School in Hellerau, a town outside Dresden, and began to learn the system of eurythmics formulated by Dalcroze, which emphasized musical principles through movement.

Mary Wigman">

Without ecstasy, no dance! Without form, no dance!

—Mary Wigman

Dalcroze, essentially a music teacher, devised physical movements for particular sounds to help students gain an understanding of rhythm. While Wigman earned a lifelong attentiveness to music under his tutelage, she eventually rebelled against the idea of movement derived from music, as well as the more traditional forms of dance. In 1913, responding to advice from the German Expressionist painter Emil Nolde, Wigman enrolled in a summer dance course in Ascona, Switzerland, given by Rudolf van Laban, another founder of Ausdruckstanz. Laban's approach emphasized more structured movement but also encouraged expressiveness, freeing Wigman from the strictures she had felt in pantomiming music. Concentrating on space and form, Laban found ways to make these visible through dance as an aesthetic principle, particularly in the construction of large group works. He brought an underlying philosophy to Wigman's inchoate leanings toward expressive movement, imparting a focus to her experimentation that would shape virtually all of her work thereafter.

On April 28, 1914, shortly before the out-break of World War I, Wigman made her choreographic debut at the Laban school. She would remain there, at Monte Verita, an artists' colony in the Swiss Alps where she eventually became Laban's assistant, until the end of the war in 1918. By that time, Wigman was chafing under Laban's influence and wanted to open her own studio. But the recent death of her stepfather, the return of her brother from the war with an amputated limb, and the end of a love affair invoked stress that resulted in a nervous breakdown. In the winter of 1919, after a six-month stay in a sanatorium, 33-year-old Wigman returned to dance, making her first professional appearance at the Berlin Philarmonie.

But Wigman's performances were an assault on the expectations of audiences prepared for soothing visual splendors of movement, and reviewers decried her first concerts as too serious, abstract, and intense. Ecstatic Dances (1919), for example, was jarring in its lack of music. Both critics and audiences soon began to come around to the challenges she presented, however, and the thoughtfulness of her experiments was recognized, establishing her reputation as an innovator of an entirely new form of dance.

One distinction reviewers were quick to note was the dramatically different significance of women in Wigman's works. In the early 20th century, women outnumbered men in all performances of dance, but their appearances were determined by men offstage, producing, directing, and selecting who performed. Wigman played a large role in reversing this trend, establishing women as the directors, choreographers, and performers of modern dance. Replacing the romantic, piquant swans and sylphs of ballet with stark and forceful gestures of hands and bare feet, she also challenged the image of femininity on stage, highlighted by her remark that appeared in an interview in the German magazine Die Weltwoche in 1926: "My students must give such an impression that every man should enthusiastically call out: 'I would not like to be married to any one of them!'"

Aakesson, Birgit (c. 1908–2001)

Swedish dancer and choreographer . Name variations: Birgit Akesson; called "the Picasso of Dance." Born in Malmo, Sweden, around 1908; died in Stockholm in March 2001; studied with Mary Wigman in Dresden, 1929–31; children: Mona Moeller-Nilesen.

Birgit Aakesson, who made her debut in Paris at the Vieux Colombier in 1934, gave recitals in Sweden and in many European countries. She appeared in the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in the United States (1955); staged Sisyphus for the Royal Swedish Ballet, her first production with a professional troupe (1957); staged The Minotaur (1958), Rites (1960), and Play for Eight (1962); and choreographed Icaros (1963). Aakesson, while a member of the artistic council responsible for the policy of the Royal Swedish Ballet (1963 on), conceived many of her ballets in collaboration with Norwegian pianist Kaare Gundersen . Considered the founding mother of Swedish modern dance along with Birgit Cullberg , Aakesson was awarded the gold medal of the Swedish Academy in 1998.

In 1920, Wigman opened a school in Dresden that served as her home base and provided the stability necessary for such creativity. Over the next decade, she would create 70 new solos and 10 major group works. By 1923, the dance group that had developed among her students gave her the opportunity to begin choreographing

the larger works, and by 1926 the school boasted 360 students, including Birgit Aakesson . Many, including Kreutzberg, Dore Hoyer, Palucca, Georgi, Kurt Jooss, and Holm, would go on to international fame. In the late 1920s, Wigman began touring, first to London and then in the United States, under the management of Sol Hurok. American tours from 1930 to 1933 solidified her reputation, preparing the way for her student Hanya Holm, who emigrated to New York and established the Mary Wigman School in 1931.

As Nazism burgeoned in Germany in the early 1930s, the aesthetic concepts Wigman had long propounded began to take on a fascistic tone. Her persistent interest in group works that combined principles of space and form now began to address the contingent realities of moving many people in patterned relation to one another. In Deutsche Tanzkunst, published in 1935, she wrote:

We German artists today are more aware of the fate of the Volk than ever before. And for all of us this time is a trial of strength, a measuring of oneself against standards that are greater than the individual is able to fathom. The call of the blood, which has involved us all, goes deep and engages the essential.

In the early years of the Third Reich, volk (folk) was not only seen as a way of grouping all Germans together, but also bespoke the Nazi belief in an enduring, absolute German essence. The Nazi cultural ministry, seeking a dance form that utilized ballet and modern dance but would be more accessible to these volk, provided Wigman with support in the form of commissions, and touted her as the bearer of authentic German expression in dance that manifested the potent combination of artistic genius and the appeal and participation of the masses, the keystones of Nazi rhetoric.

In 1936, Wigman's collaboration reached its pinnacle when she joined Palucca, Kreutzberg and Dorothee Günther in choreographing "Olympic Youth" for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Adolf Hitler wanted the Olympics and the accompanying International Dance Festival to be a spectacle of Aryan superiority and Germanic force. Olympic Youth realized his goals in orchestrating 10,000 young Germans through patterns eerily showcasing a unified mass. In New York, after dancers with leftist political leanings arranged a boycott of the Mary Wigman School because of Wigman's seeming acquiescence to Nazism, Hanya Holm renamed it the Hanya Holm School of Dance and even dropped "choric classes" in favor of focusing more on individual technique than the group work that was so instrumental to Wigman's ideas.

In Germany, meanwhile, Wigman's penchant for individual expression could not be contained by Nazism's predilection for art shaped to served its political goals. Soon after the Olympic spectacle, the cultural ministry stopped contributing to her support, although she continued to be recognized as the leader of modern dance in Germany. Between 1936 and 1942, Wigman supported her school through money raised from her solo tours, which reiterated the importance of individualism and the freedom of the artist.

In 1942, at age 56, Wigman ended her performing career with her appearance in Farewell and Thanksgiving, a dance expressing the inevitable loss a dancer faces in leaving the stage for good. But the "renunciation without resignation" that she hoped the number would also show already foreshadowed the inimitable energy and dedication she was to apply to choreography and to teaching for the next 30 years. That year, Wigman moved from Dresden to Leipzig, where she became a guest instructor at the Conservatory for Music and Dramatic Art. After Allied bombing of Leipzig destroyed the school in 1944, Wigman taught in her apartment, even as the bombing continued. In 1947, after the war had ended, she took on the role of stage director and choreographer for a production of Orfeo ed Euridice, the opera by Christoph Willibald Gluck. During the 1950s, she choreographed other operas as well as the ballet for Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps in 1957, for the Berlin Municipal Opera. That same year, she received the Great Cross of the Order of Merit (Grosses Bundesverdienstkreuz) of the German Federal Republic.

But the end of World War II had left Leipzig under the control of Russian authorities, which Wigman found too restrictive. In 1949, she moved to West Germany, and opened a school in West Berlin. During the 1950s and 1960s, as ballet gained renewed interest in Germany, Ausdruckstanz became less popular, while Wigman's style of dance and its association with absolute Teutonic principles came back to haunt her. At a time when German artists in general deliberately moved away from the Expressionist styles formed earlier in the century, she was continually forced to refute claims that she had supported Nazism, and she struggled financially to keep her school alive. Insolvency forced its closure in 1967, and Wigman suffered in her last years from ill health. She died on September 18, 1973, at age 87.


Manning, Susan A. Ecstasy and the Demon: Feminism and Nationalism in the Dances of Mary Wigman. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993.

Sorell, Walter. The Mary Wigman Book. Ed. and trans. by Walter Sorell. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.

Wigman, Mary. The Language of Dance. Ed. by Walter Sorell. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1966.

suggested reading:

Jowitt, Deborah. Time and the Dancing Image. NY: William Morrow, 1988.


Correspondence, articles, photographs, and videos located at the Dance Collection, Performing Arts Library, New York Public Library.

related media:

"Mary Wigman 1886–1973: When the Fire Dances Between Two Poles" (50 min.), documentary by Allegra Fuller Synder and Annette MacDonald, 1991.

Julia L. Foulkes , University of Massachusetts at Amherst