Laban's most famous student was Mary Wigman (1886–1973), who became the greatest dance artist Germany has yet produced. Much has been written about her, and I feel no need to cover the enormous terrain already traveled
in Hedwig Mueller's excellent biography of Wigman and Susan Manning's wonderfully detailed reconstructions of her dances in the 1920s.
Wigman matured rather slowly as a dance artist. After receiving unsatisfying instruction under Dalcroze at Hellerau, she studied with Laban in Munich, then in Zurich and Ascona, where she became friendly with the dada circle around Hans Arp, Raoul Hausmann, and Hugo Ball (Melzer 103–104). But dadaistic nihilism was not compatible with her disposition toward heroic gestures. She produced her first program of dances in 1914 at the Laban school in Zurich, and she contributed dances to various Laban programs until November 1917, when she presented, again at the Laban school in Zurich, a solo program of Ekstatische Tänze . By this time she felt she had nothing more to learn from Laban, but her next move was not clear. She retreated into monastic solitude in the mountains; with writer Felix Moeschlin, she made an alpine fantasy movie, Der Tanz um die Tänzerin (1919), which has disappeared (Dumont 53–54); and she put together solo dance programs in Davos and Zurich. The acclaim these received inspired her to test what she believed was a more demanding audience in Germany. The break with Laban had major repercussions, for over time the two came to represent opposing tendencies in German modern dance. By the mid-1920s, Laban perceived her as the dominant threat to his own ideology and worked subtly to discredit her, largely by omitting her achievements from his prolific pronouncements on dance and by building within German dance culture powerful political blocs that opposed her. The tensions were still evident at the dance congresses in Magdeburg (1927), which Wigman refused to attend when Laban managed to prevent her and her students from performing, in Essen (1928), and in Munich (1930).
A successful tour of north German cities in 1919 brought Wigman back to Dresden, where audiences displayed the most gratifying enthusiasm. With another Laban student, the Swiss Berthe Trümpy, she founded a school in that city, acquiring as students young women stirred by her bold dance performances. During the 1920s her performing ensemble expanded from four to eighteen dancers; she produced nearly one hundred solo and group dances, and her school prospered so much that by 1927 she had 360 students enrolled at Dresden and more than 1,200 enrolled at "Wigman schools" operated by former students in Berlin, Frankfurt, Chemnitz, Riesa, Hamburg, Leipzig, Erfurt, Magdeburg, Munich, and Freiburg. In 1931, Hanya Holm went to New York to establish a Wigman school there.
Once she had left Laban and completed her first tour in 1919, Wigman enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame. By 1924 no German dancer was as widely known outside of Germany as she, even though she had yet to make any of the great solo tours of central, eastern, and northern Europe that would later confirm her as the most important artist of modern dance on the continent. In 1921 Hans Brandenburg announced, "She is now herself a phe-
nomenon, and in her style perhaps the greatest the art of dance offers." She did not merely dance—rather, "with magic-demonic objectivity," she made the "absolutes" of dance, "space and movement, visible in themselves . . . for [in her] the dance impulse has become cosmic, movement an eternal hieroglyph and rune, the self an encircling center" (HB 202). The same year, Ernst Blass commented rapturously that Wigman was "a wilderness, barbaric and fecund"; her "path leads into the nordic-prehistoric, into wild intertwinings with dragon heads, horses' skulls. . . . Something nocturnal, black remains the most significant element of her consciousness. In her leaps and wild hurlings, she is often formless and consuming, inaccessibly remote" (34). In 1922 Werner Suhr, comparing her to Thomas Mann and Hans Pfitzner as representative of a "classic" German artist, explained that "Mary Wigman surrenders in the wildest frenzy to entirely explosive, overflowing movements, her arms fall with power through space, her hands are clenched, her feet stride and glide to the inner pulse, her body trembles—a swirling, unquenchable line!—in a singular, delirious forwards-upwards-push, uninhibited and untamed, for this apparent lawlessness of her dance reveals a higher law of the soul—her dance is a dionysiac festival, sensual-spiritual joy, ecstasies of body and brain" (WS 102). Nor was this sort of rhetoric confined to German commentators. In 1924 the Spanish weekly picture magazine La Esfera (11/538, 26 April, 11–12) described Wigman and her students in Dresden from a more classical-Mediterranean perspective: "The last drama of Wigman's performance . . . possessed something of the sacred drama of the Passion and of the Suppliants, as well as the Eumenides . . . the divine simplicity of Aeschylus . . . a terrific impression of the chorus of Furies."
By 1929 Wigman had reached a creative impasse with her performance group, so she disbanded it, returned to a cycle of solo dances entitled Schwingende Landschaft , and collaborated with Albert Talhoff on the largest and possibly most controversial production of her entire career, the huge multimedia spectacle Totenmal , which premiered at the Munich Dance Congress of 1930. Then she embarked on the first of two grandly acclaimed solo tours of the United States (1930–1931 and 1931–1932). However, a third (1933) U.S. tour, this one with an ensemble, was not so successful. She resumed creating new choreography for groups with Frauentänze (1934) and Tanzgesänge (1935) and participated in the organization of the mass Olympic dances of 1936, but otherwise all of her choreography until after World War II consisted of solos for herself. Her last public performance, of Abschied und Dank , took place in 1942.
In 1930, Wigman sought a respected outsider who could serve on the board of directors for her school and reinforce its credibility with potential funders. Hanya Holm introduced Wigman to her boyfriend, Hanns Benkert, an executive engineer with the Siemens electric manufacturing
corporation. Not only did Benkert serve on the board, he and Wigman became lovers for over a decade. As a high-level industrial planner, he exerted serious influence among the Nazi elite. Benkert could protect Wigman from Nazi distrust of her, but he could not overcome Goebbels' emphatic distaste for her aesthetic, and by 1942 she found herself alone, without a company, without a school, and without her home in Dresden. After the war she attempted to revive her school in Leipzig, but she sensed that West Berlin offered a more congenial atmosphere for her art, and there she remained from 1949 until her death, teaching, choreographing opera performances (including The Rite of Spring in 1957), and gradually becoming more remembered than anticipated.
Unlike Laban, Wigman believed that a superior value for dance depended on the ability of dance performances to move audiences, not on a theoretical perspective that transcended dancers and dances. She had no interest in establishing an alternative system for institutionalizing body culture, and pedagogical objectives for her always remained subordinate to the task of discovering and perfecting her own artistic expression. She did not question the spatial contexts designated for dance before World War I, even in such a complicated production as Totenmal; indeed, all her dances fit well on the most conventional municipal stages. They also toured comfortably because Wigman did not favor elaborate scenographic effects, although her powerful dramatic sense entailed a very imaginative use of costumes. But she and Laban did have some beliefs in common. Like her former teacher, Wigman linked a superior value for dance to a heightened condition of abstraction established through movement, not body type, music, or narrative convention. She shared with Laban an inclination toward mystical signification, but she did not veil her feelings, as he did, in foggy crypticity. Wigman was great because she brought to dance an unprecedented magnitude of tragic feeling. For her, modern dance had to go well beyond the naive expressions of joy, innocence, and decorative idealism the public had come to expect since the heyday of Isadora Duncan: she tied conditions of ecstatic liberation to conditions of heroic sacrifice. The dance art of Anita Berber explored dark and violent regions of feeling, but Berber lacked the capacity or concentration to cultivate a tragic aesthetic, for her sense of dramatic conflict never extended beyond the image of innocence lost or desecrated in an inescapably sordid world. Wigman could appropriate the domain of the tragic because her morality was ambiguous. She saw the body as the site of great, conflicting urges, neither good nor bad but equally redemptive and equally strong: the experience of ecstasy entailed the sacrifice of conventional notions of life, communal unity, and bodily harmony. For her, dance was not a release from death but an exposure of it. As Hedwig Mueller has observed in relation to Ekstatische Tänze (1917), movement toward freedom implied for Wigman a tragic "transformation of the physi-
cal into the metaphysical," a heroic condition that achieved its most dramatic signification through the power of bodily movement to represent the immanence of death, "the unity of desire and destruction" (Mary Wigman 186). Movement made us see what was otherwise hidden: namely, that life is in death rather than opposed to it.
To amplify the tragic expressivity of bodily movement, Wigman linked movement to more concrete significations of feeling than either Dalcroze or Laban had. She moved the center of kinetic energy from the legs, thighs, and hips to the torso, which had the effect of dramatizing a struggle with gravity rather than an ethereal escape from it. Indeed, she often brought the body close to the dancing surface: one could dance while kneeling, sitting, crawling, reclining, or squatting. Arms and hands, she believed, should dance as much as the legs and feet. Much of the "Seraphisches Lied" section of Schwingende Landschaft has the dancer lying on her side with only her right arm and hand (and fingers) moving arabesquely (see also Bach, plate 9). A favorite device of hers was to have one arm reaching, imploring, or summoning while the other arm clung to the body, caressed it, or moved in a contrary direction to indicate energies withheld at the very moment they are released. A similar effect might occur when the dancer crossed her arms over her breasts while advancing toward the spectator but spread out her arms while turning her back to the audience; or both arms might beckon or implore but the hands remain inwardly cupped. She would make much of rotating the hands from palms straight down to palms straight up—or palms pressed against the air and the audience before her. No one better understood the dramatic potential of exposing the palm or the back of the hand or concealing the hand altogether in the armpit, behind the back, or under the other hand. The hand shifted from being clawlike to featherlike; it swept out from the body, then clenched into a fist; it hovered, then soared or plunged. Sometimes arms and hands burrowed into the belly or breasts, as if digging out a recalcitrant strength. Wigman also made unusually expressive use of the head, especially the eyes. She frequently danced with her eyes closed or half-closed, then opened them suddenly, briefly, in a deep stare generally cast to her right or left (rather than forward) and away from the direction in which she moved, as if the moving body were drawn to what it could not see rather than to what it did. Wigman (1929): "The dancer's glance is a visionary gazing. . . . The eye is the focal point of the dance event" ("Der Tänzer," 12–13). She liked having the head at an odd tilt, with the chin up, not vertically perpendicular to the ground, as in ballet.
She did not neglect the feet and legs. She loved slow arcing, gliding steps, which she might integrate with slow march steps on tiptoes while the rest of the body remained statuesquely poised. Nearly always barefoot, the dancer very often signified both caution and boldness by having one foot solidly
planted on the sole and the other on tiptoe, moving in this fashion by shifting the solid foot to the tiptoe position with each step. Wigman was fond of having the dancer advance toward the spectator in small steps, on tiptoe usually, with each step directly in front of the previous and with the body dipping on the step. She liked to bend and coil the body and seems to have appreciated curvature as much as angularity, but she avoided the balletic tendency to straighten out or elongate the body. Her dancers shifted abruptly from small, stalking steps to lunging strides and glides. Wigman also made dramatic use of sways, teeters, and tremblings, especially in relation to rhythms of inhalation and exhalation. Although she tended to favor slow, groping, or sometimes languid tempos, the dancer constantly surprised the spectator by shifting rhythms within movements, so that even the steadiest configuration of movement contained within it unexpected discharges of energy. Wigman was a master of stillness and the pause. In the first part of Hexentanz II (1926), for example, the dancer crouches on the floor, head sunk between her knees, in stillness; suddenly an arm shoots straight up, then down; the head rears up and stares, immobile; then the whole body rocks from side to side before the head sinks again between the knees—pause!—then one foot stamps, then the other; then in a great, cyclonic whirl, the dancer spins around stamping and stops. Movement was unstable, unpredictable, as if the body coiled within it circulating springs of "convulsion," as some commentators put it. Death manifested itself partly through degrees of stillness, languor, gravitational pull, inclination to the ground.
Wigman believed that dance must free itself from music to establish its unique expressive power. Her first full-length concert of dances, in 1914, contained no musical accompaniment at all, and she produced several other unaccompanied dance cycles, including Ekstatische Tänze and Die Feier (1921). Thereafter she integrated silent dances into larger structures involving accompaniments. Like many other dancers of the era, Wigman preferred an orchestra of percussion instruments—drums, gongs, and cymbals, usually handled by a single player—and all the sound composed specifically for her dances until 1939 was written for percussion instruments by Klaus Pringsheim, Willi Goetze, and Hanns Hasting, the last two being her resident music directors from, respectively, 1923 to 1929 and 1929 to 1939. By employing percussive sound, Wigman stripped music of its power to destroy or weaken visual perception of movement and at the same time showed the authority of movement to provoke emphatic auditory response to it, for the percussion followed the dancer rather than the other way around. She did produce some dances to conventional romantic music (Bizet, Granados, Dvorak, Saint-Säens, and especially Liszt), but modernist developments in music apparently had little impact on her perception of either the body or movement.
In costumes, she persistently displayed a taste for archaism and exoticism. She swathed herself in flowing capes, mantels, and shawls; she delighted in bizarre hats and headpieces, austere hoods and cowls. She mostly performed in long dresses of shiny gold or a strong monotonic color, but she seldom appeared in black (the "Schicksalslied" section of Tanzgesänge  and Niobe  are interesting exceptions), and she seemed much more hesitant to bare her legs than her arms, although her legs were quite as beautiful. She liked occasionally to appear in silky, luxuriously patterned Oriental gowns for grotesque-macabre pieces (Hexentanz II ) or more melancholy works (Szenen aus einem Tanzdrama , Tanz der Brunhild ). In Tanzmärchen (1925) she experimented with a bizarre intermingling of clownlike, or zanni , costumes: extravagantly exaggerated skirts, gold wigs, and romantic dresses. Eerie masks appeared on dancers in Totentanz (1926), Hexentanz II , and Totenmal , for these were instances, she explained, when the "formal transformation of the dancer demands of the dancer an effacement of the personal in favor of the typical and the intensification of the typical to the superpersonal" (HM 131). In Totenmal , Wigman was the only figure to appear without a mask; all the other dancers, large male and female speech-movement choirs, wore, as in Totentanz , masks bearing practically the same ominous expression. All the costumes for her dances strongly evoked a medieval or biblical atmosphere, and she never employed costumes that clearly situated the dance within the present. Yet images of her dances always seem modern, for it was the movement, the positioning of bodies, that placed the image within the context of modernism. With the body veiled in archaic costumes, its movement became more visible but also more abstract; and, of course, abstraction was the most pervasive sign of modernity (Figures 29–31).
Wigman introduced further abstraction into the structure of her dances. She did not produce a program of discrete dances designed to show the diversity of her technique and expressiveness; she produced cycles of dances that explored in depth a particular emotional state, metaphor, or allegorical vision. Thus, Ekstatische Tänze was a cycle of six dances: "The Nun," "The Madonna," "Idolatry," "Sacrifice," "The Dervish," and "Temple Dance." Die sieben Tänze des Lebens contained dances of "Longing," "Love," "Desire," "Sorrow," "The Demon," "Death," and "Life," whereas Szenen aus einem Tanzdrama entailed "Summoning," "Wandering," "Circle," "Triangle," "Chaos," "Change," "Vision," "Encounter," and "Greeting." Opfer (1931) comprised "Swordsong," "Sun Dance," "Death Call," "Earth Dance," and "Lamentation." In Die sieben Tänze des Lebens , she impersonated a single character who moved expressionistically through different phases of life, but in other cycles she incarnated a powerful feminine spirit that resisted confinement within the notion of "character." One may say that these incarnations were simply different, archetypal aspects of her personality—but
the perception remains that she built narrative unity out of formal abstractions of emotions rather than out of psychologically motivated logic. Her narrative sense was more musical than literary; emotions generated distinct movements and actions, regardless of their context in a particular character or body. Dance cycles therefore became structured around dramatic contrasts between light and dark dances, between quick and slow, grotesque and monumental, cool and warm, lyrical and geometric, and various combinations therein. By exposing abstract relations between mood and movement and by freeing the body from the conventions of characterization, Wigman helped push dance into the realm of montage sequencing of action, which defined much of modernist film and literature of the 1920s. She was by no means alone among dancers in pursuing this strategy.
In her group dances, she applied on a larger scale the devices with which she had expanded the expressivity of the dancing body. Her perception of group and community was more complex than Laban's, for although she liked to press bodies together in polyrhythmic, tangled clumps, as he did, she was much more imaginative in developing dynamic spaces between bodies. She allowed the group to cover a larger portion of the performing space, and she displayed a strong sense of the group's spreading out, encircling, and converging on the solo dancer (inevitably Wigman herself): she saw communal movement as a dynamic force that explodes and implodes around the magnetic ambitions of a leader. As Manning has repeatedly observed, Wigman revealed considerable ambivalence about the relation between group and leader. Dancers often disclosed greater individuality or expressivity within the group than when they briefly stepped outside of it for a solo, a suggestion of tension between individual and community. Yet the leader rarely came out of the group, was always identifiable within it, and was never seriously challenged or confused with anyone else for the role. In Frauentänze (1934) and Tanzgesänge (1935), Wigman made elegant, monumental use of abstract geometric group symmetry, with spacious, cinemascopic choir movements built around uniform gestures of prayer, invocation, imploration, and offering. But in some of her group dances, perhaps especially Im Zeichen des Dunklen (1927), the dancers seemed unaware of each other, were wrapped up within themselves, moving to different rhythms, gazing in different directions or even keeping their eyes closed, yet they remained within a group insofar as they followed the leader.
Although Harald Kreutzberg and Max Terpis studied briefly under Wigman (and she had several other male students), all of her performing groups contained only female dancers. Only after the war, when she began working with opera companies, did she really start thinking about the male dancer, most notably in The Rite of Spring (1957). Apparently she experienced some sort of intense anxiety toward the male body; in any case, she felt no inclination to explore the expressivity peculiar to it. In Tanzmärchen ,
women impersonated explicitly male figures, and in Totenmal , which memorialized soldiers killed in the war, the members of the male choir were all zombielike figures of the dead, and the only male dancer, masked, was Death.
As a teacher, Wigman exerted tremendous influence in the classroom. But she was not much of a theorist, and her authority outside of the classroom depended on her success in dance performance. Her great appeal for students lay in her promise to maximize the individuality of the student through dance: "The longing for self-expression so characteristic of our age is driving today's girls to seek satisfaction through dancing" (MWB 104). However, this attitude had significant limitations. Her first, and possibly best, ensemble broke up in 1924 because Berthe Trümpy, Yvonne Georgi, and Gret Palucca had developed such strong personalities that they had to leave in quite separate directions to fulfill their ambitions. Moreover, the improvisational "technique" Wigman used to accommodate diversity of personalities was difficult to transfer outside of the cultic atmosphere in the Dresden studio, with its gold and red walls and with Wigman, swathed in luxurious gowns, veiled in cigarette smoke, gazing with hawklike intensity and presiding on a throne in the corner as a mysterious priestess. Trümpy's effort to establish a Wigmanesque pedagogy in Berlin encouraged Rudolf Lämmel to compare the discipline and accomplishments of her faculty and students unfavorably with those of the Estas school in Cologne.
Occasionally Wigman published brief articles in dance journals. In these pieces her language remained consistently metaphorical and polemical rather than analytical. Her views on dance composition (1925) and dance curriculum (Deutsche Tanzkunst ) were even cloudier than Laban's at their most cryptic: "Whether the dancer moves as a soloist in his own creations, or plays his instrument in the orchestra of moving bodies, he always is, above all, servant to a work of art. This is the only and eternal law under which the dancer lives his entire life" (MWB 129). Yet language, both written and spoken, was very important to her in creating her dances and her cult. She wrote out scenarios for her dances and incorporated into the manuscripts sketches, marginal comments, and cryptic movement notations, sometimes employing different colored inks and pencils. She was fond of drawing pictures that included words in the imagery; for example, a sketch she did of New York City in 1931 consisted entirely, in collage fashion, of words from signs she saw in the streets of the city (HM 173–175). She kept extensive diaries and was definitely at her best when she wrote autobiographically, when she connected attitudes toward dance to specific events in her life. Apparently she "saw" the dances and dance cult she created through a process of inscription. The image of language gave her the image of movement (KT). In rehearsal and in the classroom, she was not content to watch and comment nor even to interpret the performance by
her commentary; she liked to talk to the dancers while they danced, telling them, in highly metaphorical language, not what movements to make but what feelings they should release, what effects they should produce. The urge to speak compelled her to enter the dance, but she would shout out isolated words and phrases rather than complex or even complete sentences (film documentation in Snyder). But even though her own language to explain the meaning or theory of dance remained enshrouded "in the sign of darkness," so to speak, never reaching much beyond stern and somber exhortation, she differed strongly from her teacher, Laban, in supposing that the real "language of dance" was not an elaborate system operating independently of dancers or dances but a physicalization, a supreme materialization or extension of language as the controlling phenomenon constructing difference, identity, personality. But the key to her system was not her attitude toward language; it was the idea that the student does not ultimately succeed until she confidently differs from her teacher.