I had planned to write about a few music videos and the interesting choreographic work that had come out of Pop Music but after trawling the web for what felt like an age, it dawned on me that I was massively uninspired by the many YouTube clips I was watching and (as pleasant and entertaining as they are) music videos do not, in fact, interest me to the extent where I would want to spend time writing about them. So with gratitude that I have completed that previous too-long sentence and with a small sigh of relief – I turn my attention to Mary Wigman, German pioneer of modern dance and probably most famous for her work, Hextentanz or Witch Dance, a piece I’ve been meaning to write about for a while now.
She is another historical figure who I remember clearly from my first year Dance History classes. I always preferred Wigman to her gloomy American counterpart, cross old Martha Graham, so solemn and studied (the Americans have made a big deal out of their ‘Founding Mother of Modern Dance’). Wigman seemed to have more edge and spunk. I remember watching that short surviving clip of Hexentanz – it blew my mind. Her movements are sharp and strange, determinedly eerie as she sits childishly on the floor with legs crossed, managing still to be utterly fearsome. Even now I get nervous, watching her slowly open her legs, looking down between them. Such a simple and provocative gesture that is timelessly terrifying.
Wigman was a student of both Dalcroze and Laban, she founded her own school in Dresden around 1920. (I think that old Nazi, Laban, was threatened by the success of her work and her school, they seemed to approach dance and philosophies regarding movement quite differently). Although her aesthetic was disliked by Goebbels and she was mistrusted by the Nazis, she was still operating under the Nazi regime for a large part of her career and fired all Jewish dancers from her company, a garish issue that I’m not quite sure what to do with.
I am uncertain as to the exact dates of Witch Dance, I believe it was first performed in 1914 with no music, she was one who believed that dance could exist quite legitimately on its own although she did work with music, too. The short film that has made it to the internet I thought was from 1926 but some sources say 1930. She’s a bit of a slippery character, who (unlike Laban and Graham) did not leave behind a specific technique or theory that could be sold and spread. The University of California’s EBooks Collection kindly let me read bits and pieces of Karl Toepfer’s book Empire of Ecstasy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture 1910-1935. And I quote from there:
“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.” (p. 110)
She seems like the kind of lady who just Did Her Thing, even if it was something as ugly and bizarre as Witch Dance and that, I think, might just be more valuable and interesting than pondering how exactly Michel Gondry made the music video for Kylie Minogue’s ‘Come Into My World’. Which is what I was going to write about, but am glad I didn’t. (Even though its a super groovy video that you should definitely watch and enjoy.)
You can also watch and enjoy the sexy Vimeo version I found of Hextentanz (preceded by a short clip of another work by Wigman, Somerlicher Tanz) which is much better than any one you will find on YouTube. It is also a part of a Really Brilliant Playlist of modern dance videos, definitely worth taking a look at.