The German Choreographer Who Danced Too Close to the Nazis

Mary Wigman was one of the biggest influences on modern dance, but fell into disrepute after being accused of collaborating with the Nazi Party. A new biography seeks to redress the balance.

Gaby Levin
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Pupils in Mary Wigman’s dance studio dancing on the banks of the Rhine, 1910.
Pupils in Mary Wigman’s dance studio dancing on the banks of the Rhine, 1910.Credit: Harlingue/Roger-Violett
Gaby Levin

“Mary Wigman believed that everyone was a dancer and that dance emanates from the self – unlike classical ballet, which she rejected as outdated, hierarchical and subject to external laws of harmony and symmetry that conform to an ideal model,” says dance critic Gabi Eldor of the German choreographer-dancer, who was her country’s ambassador of dance between the two world wars.

A Hebrew translation of a 2007 book about her was recently published (“Mary Wigman,” Asia Publishers). It was written by choreographer Mary Anne Santos Newhall, who sheds new light on Wigman and dispels claims that she collaborated with the Nazi Party.

Wigman was born Marie Wiegmann in 1886, to a conservative, bourgeois Hanover family. She rebelled against convention and chose art – and not just any art form, but one considered to be scandalously avant-garde at the time. Newhall writes that Wigman’s decision to “turn her body into the medium through which she expressed her opposition to the expectations of her family and the society she came from” marked not only her embarking on a battle to earn her freedom, but also an explicit declaration about the place of the body and its inner landscape at the core of her art. At 24, which is considered old for a dancer, she started specializing in “expressive dancing.”

After becoming exposed to the eurythmics method – developed by Swiss musician mile Jaques-Dalcroze for the purpose of applying gestures and movements to musical elements – she met German-Danish expressionist artist Emil Nolde. He connected with the essence of her dancing and her pathos- and expression-filled movements, which matched perfectly with expressionism. Nolde introduced her to Austro-Hungarian choreographer Rudolf von Laban and she joined his Monte Verita dance school in Switzerland.

The school served as an arena for innovative and exciting artistic activity. Artists such as Paul Klee and Jean Arp, Dadaist writer Hugo Ball, as well as Hermann Hesse, James Joyce and poet Rainer Maria Rilke, all engaged in artistic creation through enriching dialogues. This was a radical and avant-garde community that aspired to create a culture of absolute artistic and sexual freedom, also characterized by feminism and a return to nature. In effect, it was a hippie commune ahead of its time.

In her writings, Wigman described a typical exercise in spatial harmony that was practised at Monte Verita: “The dancers placed themselves in a valley under a steep cliff. I climbed to the top in order to improvise a wild witch’s dance.” In February 1914, she created the first version of “Witch Dance” – perhaps the most important of her works. She presented it in Munich, together with another solo dance called “Lento.” Later that year, World War I broke out and many artists converged on neutral Switzerland.

In Zurich, the Dada movement flourished. Its motto of “absolute poetry, absolute art, and absolute dance” was eagerly adopted by Wigman and Von Laban. They linked up with Dadaists, who in 1916 established the movement’s flagship, Cabaret Voltaire. It featured dancers wearing abstract masks designed by Marcel Janco. The Dadaists rapidly exited Wigman’s world, since they turned their backs on expressionist dancing, whereas her themes were ecstatic, extroverted and brimming with mysticism and emotion.

“Germany at the beginning of the last century was the global center of modern dance,” explains Eldor. “On this stage, Wigman was one of the most creative ‘mothers’ of expressionist dancing who aspired to absolute dance, liberated dance.” And she wasn’t alone: alongside her were Gret Palucca, Kurt Jooss and, especially, Von Laban.

Despite the economic and political precariousness of the postwar period, Wigman established a dance school in Dresden, with other branches subsequently opening up across Germany as well as the United States. In those years, ecstasy served as her main inspiration for composing and implementing her dances.

“Dance is the unification of expression and function, illumined physicality and inspirited form. Without ecstasy no dance! Without form no dance,” she wrote in 1933. Despite successfully carrying the seeds of expressionist dancing across the Atlantic to the United States, her creation “The Road,” which she performed in New York in 1932, was met with indifference.

Mary Wigman during a performance in Berlin, 1934.Credit: AP

In 1936, rumors swirled that she was a Nazi sympathizer. In a press interview, she had said Germany was her homeland and she therefore had to share her fate with it. That year, at the opening of the Berlin Olympic Games, she performed her dance “Lament for the Dead” (to the music of Carl Orff). But a year later, the Third Reich saw her as an antiestablishment figure and decadent artist, proceeding to close all her schools. Her hesitation to create a dance in honor of Hitler that year only deepened the rift between her and Nazi party leaders.

“One can’t present Wigman as a supporter of the Third Reich,” argues Eldor. “One shouldn’t judge or define the stance of artists in that era. It’s true she didn’t use her reputation or come out openly against the regime, continuing to work – albeit in limited fashion – during the war years. There was another way. Kurt Jooss, Von Laban’s pupil, expressed his opposition to the regime by escaping to England. He returned to Wuppertal in Germany in the 1950s, becoming the teacher of Pina Bausch.”

Wigman continued to create and teach after the war in Leipzig, under Soviet occupation and later in West Berlin. She died in September 1973.

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