There's an abyss between you and me with no bridge to link us. I could humbly bow my head before you. But my longing drives me into another direction, finds its way on uneven roads
. [Mary Wigman writes in her diary of watching a performance by classical ballerina Anna Pavlova.]
We moved, we jumped, ran, improvised our first simple dances. Dance. It was just inside us, surrounding us and everywhere!
You don't need a light body, no tender feet, no supple spine to be a modern dancer. You won't follow a certain pattern, but travel the empire of dance with your body.
[The English language quotations, both above and below, are taken directly from the DVD in their sometimes idiosyncratic subtitles.]
Hitler, as we all know, was a regular visitor to the Bayreuth Festival and a great fan of Wagner's music. His strongly traditionalist views of how to stage opera meant that anything even remotely avant garde
was, if not actually verboten
, at least liable to generate a warning visit from a couple of persuasive gentlemen in leather overcoats. Likewise, composers, painters and sculptors all had to comply with the FŁhrer's highly subjective opinions on what constituted "art".
However, as far as I'm aware Hitler had no interest at all in dance. That may have been one major reason why a decidedly iconoclastic figure such as Mary Wigman was allowed to survive untouched by his regime. It also helped that her innovative and superficially primitive style of "New German Dance" appeared to fit in rather well with the attempts of Nazi pseudo-historians and pseudo-anthropologists to connect to a mythical Aryan and pagan past. Wigman's most famous creation was, after all, her Witch dance
of 1926 (see here
She is such a generally forgotten name nowadays, that Wigman's career is worth outlining even to MusicWeb International’s knowledgeable readers. Born in Hanover in 1886, she took up dance as a serious occupation at the relatively late age of 25. After a brief period at …mile Jacques Dalcroze's progressive school at Hellerau, where she was rapidly disillusioned by "rhythmic" classes that she found too restricting, she found a more conducive atmosphere at the Monte Veritŗ artists' colony in Switzerland. There she encountered not only a range of newly fashionable anti-establishment fads that included nudism, vegetarianism and free love, but also the dancer and choreographer Rudolf Laban who encouraged her to develop the "character dance".
Practising outdoors, naked and barefoot, Wigman moved freely and without either music - which she considered unnecessary for dancing - or a formal structure. "She wanted", explains dance historian Norbert Servos, "to create a dance that could stand for itself and would not be a mere illustration of music ... It was about intensely living everything that you're going through, be it suffering, grief, loss, loneliness or happiness and enthusiasm. All that had to be drawn out of the unconsciousness and transformed into a conscious experience."
Early public performances proved disastrous. Dancer Suzanne Perrottet recalls Wigman's debut in Zurich: "The reaction was: "Well... That woman is heavy. She is not beautiful. She's not light, she doesn't wear a nice costume." The audience was used to seeing female dancers as lovely, sweet appearances.". Gradually, however, her charisma, which I have to say is not exactly obvious on surviving film or photographs, is said to have won audiences over until by the end of the 1920s she was widely recognised as the "high priestess of dance" - or at least her own form of it. A triumphant tour of the USA in 1930 confirmed her status as the modern dancer de nos jours
After returning to Germany, she quickly found times and tastes changing, however, and, following a final solo public performance in 1942, she concentrated on teaching until her death in 1973.
This DVD tells Wigman's story well and makes a good case for seeing her as one of the real founders of modern dance. The producers have collected testimony from some impressively authoritative names - including leading contemporary choreographer Sasha Waltz - and it's clear that Wigman's spirit and influence lives on among her surviving students and those whom they, in their own turn, have taught.
Unfortunately, however, some if them find it difficult to express their thoughts about an art form as intangible as dance in words that are accessible to the rest of us. As a result, the sight of professional - and often distinguished - dancers and Wigman enthusiasts attempting to explain her philosophy to the lay audience at whom this film is targeted can be somewhat painful. An otherwise unexplained concept such as "the mental level of movability" will appeal primarily, I imagine, to devotees of Private Eye
magazine's regular feature Pseuds' Corner. In fact, the clearest description of what Wigman was about comes not in the main documentary itself but in one of the DVD's extra features, where one of her last students, Helmut Gottschild, offers his recollections.
Apart from the sometimes awkwardly translated English subtitles, there's also an annoying mismatch between the script's use of the historic present tense and the interviewees' understandable tendency to speak in the simple past tense. The historical background to Wigman's life is also sometimes presented condescendingly at primary school level. Although the main feature itself is only just over 50 minutes long, there are 40 minutes or so of extra features including interviews with both Helmut Gottschild and Sasha Waltz.
Those comments from undoubted experts may well be informative and useful. However, I can’t help suspecting that, for a general audience, the reaction to Mary Wigman’s dancing offered by no less than Albert Einstein might well be provide a more useful summation: “I am impressed,” he said, “yet totally out of clue.”