Expressionistic Dance


Mary Wigman

Mary Wigman's first solo, Witch Dance (1914; second version 1926), seems to owe something of its eerie, powerfully contorted beauty to the ghosts and witches of nõ dramas and other non–Western dance forms. Wigman performed most of the dance seated on the floor; her costume was a drape of silk brocade and a mask of her own face, which, modeled after nõ masks, gave her a remote, Asian look; the music was naked percussion. Wigman described this dance as "a rhythmic intoxication." (see a clip of dance by clicking on one the players under picture on the right.)

Wigman was fascinated by non–Western instrumentation—flutes, bells, gongs, and drums from India, Thailand, Africa, China. Often the musical accompaniment for her dances was primarily percussion, and some dances were performed in silence. Other masks, like that for Moloch in Totenmal (1930), seem to have been influenced by tribal art. And both the ecstatic spinning and the languid passivity that sometimes structured her dances have non–Western roots as well.

Like St. Denis, Wigman was preoccupied with a mystical quest for spiritual transcendence. She wrote that as a young woman, she "look[ed] even toward the Orient for a mystic answer to a wordless riddle." [ 11 ] But her dances emphasized a different aspect of that quest the struggle with evil and the acceptance of death. Her movements--crouching, crawling, or simply lying-clung close to the earth. Or she whirled until she fell. The American critic Margaret Lloyd wrote that "Wigman's was largely an ecstasy of gloom, stressing the demonic and macabre, as if to exorcise through movement the secret evils in man's nature." [12] Wigman's style—related to the intense style of acting developed in the "shriek–plays" of German Expressionist theater, the telegraphic, percussive poems and dialogue of Expressionist writers, and the angular, distorted shapes of Expressionist painting and film—reflected the sense of apocalyptic despair and revolutionary zeal unleashed in a Germany suffering from war and its aftermath and felt by its younger generation to be rapidly disintegrating. She believed that dance could express not only emotions but the entire inner life of humankind. Like other artists of her generation, she was not only fascinated with the pressure and threat of implosion in current society but also expressed hope for a regeneration of humanity. She made dances of death–like Dance Macabre (1923), Dance of Death (1926), Totenmal (1930), Sacrifice (1931), and Lament for the Dead (1936)—but she also made dances of life: Festive Prelude (1926), Celebration (1928), Maternal Dance (1934), and Rejoice, My Heart (1942).

from Twentieth-Century Dance by Sally Banes. The Great Ideas Today 1991, pp. 72-73.


"Mary Wigman . . . became the most important exponent of the central European style of modern dance, which came to be known in Germany as Ausdruckstanz (expressive dance)."

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Harald Kreutzberg

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Pina Bausch