Bringing German expressionism to America
In 1931, a tiny German woman disembarked from an ocean liner onto a Manhattan pier to open a modern dance school based on principles of German expressionist dance. It was a risky move during the Great Depression, especially with America’s growing anti-immigrant sentiment. But the intrepid Hanya Holm would prove triumphant, becoming one of the most influential teachers of American modern dance.
Holm’s approach sprung from her work in Germany with Mary Wigman, a student of Rudolf von Laban. To them, dance was an expression of human emotion; it started from within and was not technically based. But Holm transformed the German expressionist principles of modern dance to fit her new life in America—the intensity of Wigman’s dances became freer and more abstract.
Holm was one of the first choreographers to bring her modern dance roots to Broadway, and in addition to her own studio in New York, she taught at The Juilliard School, Bennington College and Colorado College, and she inspired a future generation of artists, including Alwin Nikolais, Glen Tetley, Mary Anthony, Don Redlich and Valerie Bettis. Holm’s broad curriculum, offering more than just technical training, set the groundwork for what would later become the standard for college dance departments.
Born Johanna Eckert in Worms, Germany, in 1893, Holm studied dance at the music-oriented Dalcroze Institute. While watching a 1920 performance by Wigman, Holm found her calling. She spent the next decade performing with her.
In 1931, Holm was invited to establish the Mary Wigman School in New York City. Holm led classes in composition, pedagogy, anatomy, improvisation and notation. But with Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, the school’s stature suffered because of its association with Wigman, who lived in Nazi Germany. So in 1936, Holm and Wigman decided that it was best for Wigman to remove her name, and it became the Hanya Holm School of Dance.
Holm’s school in Manhattan garnered much attention, and in 1934 she was invited by Martha Hill to serve on the faculty of Bennington School of the Dance during its inaugural year, along with Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. Holm, however, taught differently than her peers. Instead of a codified warm-up to train dancers in her own movement style, Holm concentrated on the use of space, while emphasizing individual artistry. “You are your master and student,” Holm advised dancers. “You must search within your own body.”
It was at Bennington that Holm choreographed her landmark 1937 piece Trend, which won The New York Times award for best choreography. It was made for 33 dancers, and unlike Wigman’s emotional subjective works, Trend was a symbolic piece about social conformity and oppression. Students represented a Greek-style chorus, while six soloists, including Holm, symbolized individualism.
When World War II affected resources for Bennington’s summer program, Holm started her own summer school out west. From 1941 to 1983, she directed the Colorado College Dance Festival, a six-week summer program that had a curriculum similar to her NYC school that emphasized training the body and mind.
Technique classes began with floor exercises that Holm designed with physical therapist Joseph Pilates to help develop strength and flexibility, says Holm scholar Claudia Gitelman, who studied with her in Colorado. Yet Holm remained steadfast in her expressionistic principles. “If I see one more leg extension, I’ve had it,” Holm said in 1984. “There is security in a major leg extension. But it means nothing. The simplest thing is to shun the emotions and emphasize technique. But you become like a nice stove that doesn’t give any heat.”
Holm was one of the first modern dance choreographers to embrace Broadway. Though her own troupe of dancers folded for budgetary reasons in 1944, Holm continued creating work. She choreographed a section of Ballet Ballads, in 1948, and this musical’s acclaim brought her to the attention of more prominent Broadway producers. She worked on many theatrical productions, including Kiss Me, Kate (1948), My Fair Lady (1956) (which was nominated for a Tony Award for outstanding choreography) and Camelot (1960).
Holm drew upon her roots and used unconventional methods for musical theater, such as improvisation and collaboration with her performers. She also brought the use of Labanotation to her Broadway projects. In 1952 she made history by having her choreography in Kiss Me, Kate legally protected. Holm copyrighted her notated score with the Library of Congress, making it possible for future shows to be staged—with her permission—without her presence.
Holm died in New York City in 1992, one year shy of her 100th birthday. Though her work is not often performed today, her legacy exists in college dance departments across the country, where she not only laid the foundation for their curricula, but also championed the lecture demonstration. She received the 1978 Capezio Award, the 1984 Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award and a 1990 Dance Magazine Award to commemorate her lifetime achievement. DT
Hanya Holm Dance Company
Hanya Holm opened the Mary Wigman School in New York with financial backing from the impresario Sol Hurok. After training her dancers for five years, she created the Hanya Holm Dance Company in 1936, and they toured the Midwest as well as performing in New York. Her satiric Metropolitan Daily (1938) became the first modern dance work to be televised in America. In 1939, she was honored by Dance Magazine for her work Tragic Exodus, inspired by the plight of the Jews under Hitler. Though Holm folded her troupe in 1944, Don Redlich commissioned, from 1975 to 1985, five new works by his mentor for his company. Among them was Holm’s Jocose (1983), which entered Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project repertory in 1994.
- Aschengreen, Erik. “Hanya Holm.” International Encyclopedia of Dance. 2004.
- Gitelman, Claudia. Dancing with Principle: Hanya Holm in Colorado, 1941-1983. Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2001.
- “Hanya Holm: The Life and Legacy.” The Journal for Stage Directors and Choreographers. Vol. 7 No. 1 (Spring/Summer 1993)
- “Hanya Holm: A pioneer in American dance.” Choreography and Dance, an International Journal. V. 2 Part 2 (1992).
- Hanya Holm: Portrait of a Pioneer (1988). Dance Horizons.
- The Vagabond King (1956). Paramount Pictures.
Rachel Straus teaches dance history at The Juilliard School.
Photo: Hanya Holm in Salutation, circa 1936; by Harry Rhodes, courtesy of American Dance Festival