Hanya Holm

Bringing German modern dance to America

Holm in one of her earliest works,
Salutation, circa 1936

Hanya Holm was a catalyst in America’s early modern dance scene, first ushering in her teacher Mary Wigman’s German expressionistic dance and later bringing modern dance concepts to Broadway choreography. Holm is known as one of the “Big Four” of modern dance, along with Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman.

Born Johanna Eckert in Worms, Germany, in 1893 (she adopted Hanya Holm as her stage name when her professional career began), she studied rhythmic gymnastics at the Dalcroze Institute as an adolescent. In her late 20s, Holm saw Mary Wigman perform in Dresden and soon became a disciple, studying and performing with Wigman for the next decade.

In order to capitalize on Wigman’s growing fame as a leader in German modern dance, Holm moved to New York City in 1931 to establish the first American branch of the Wigman School. She taught classes in composition, pedagogy, anatomy, improvisation and notation. The school was renamed the Hanya Holm School of Dance five years later, when Hitler’s rise to power left many Americans wary of Wigman’s politics.

Holm was invited by Martha Hill in 1934 to teach at the Bennington School of the Dance in its first year. Seven years later, Holm directed the first summer of the Colorado College Dance Festival. Over 42 summers, she attracted many dance professionals and teachers to her Colorado Springs dance outpost, even when arts hubs apart from the East and West Coasts were rarely taken seriously.

Her own performing troupe folded in 1944 after eight years for financial reasons, and Holm soon branched out to the Broadway scene, where she choreographed the musicals Kiss Me, Kate, My Fair Lady and Camelot. Unlike typical Broadway choreographers of her day, Holm used improvisation and collaboration with her performers to create movement.

Well into her 80s, Holm got a second choreographic wind and created several modern pieces for the company of former student Don Redlich. Mikhail Baryshnikov and Mark Morris’ White Oak Dance Project toured one of these works, Jocose, in the 1990s. Holm died in NYC at 99.

The Work

Trend (1937) Holm’s ambitious piece for 33 dancers with ramps, stairs and platforms premiered at the Bennington School of the Dance festival and won The New York Times award for best choreography. It was only remounted once (at New York City Center the following year), at least partly because of the complicated set.

Kiss Me, Kate (1948) Holm made history with this Broadway musical by copyrighting her notated score with the Library of Congress.

My Fair Lady (1956) Nominated for a Tony Award for outstanding choreography, Holm traveled to London for inspiration in the movements of people in the early-morning markets.

Style

Upon her arrival in the U.S., Holm’s goal was to adapt Mary Wigman’s mystical style to the younger American modern dance movement. Though she refused to create a specific technique of her own, she always began class with floor exercises designed to develop strength and flexibility. Holm liked to concentrate on more abstract concepts, such as individual artistry and use of space. Her classes were often exploratory: She could spend an entire class on a single element, like turning or port de bras.

The Legacy Lives On

Many of Holm’s students, like multimedia dance theater choreographers Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis, contemporary ballet choreographer Glen Tetley and early Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater member Joyce Trisler, went on to have successful companies of their own. Though her dances are rarely reproduced today, Holm’s Demonstration Programs—early versions of the lecture-demonstration, during which she’d introduce audiences to her movement approach—paved the way for choreographers to talk about their work in public forums.

Fun Fact

When she arrived in New York by boat in 1931, Holm—the protégé of international dance star Mary Wigman—was already a celebrity. Excited students and reporters greeted her on the pier, eager to hear her plans for an NYC branch of Wigman’s school.

Resources

Print:

“Hanya Holm: Bringing German Expressionism to America,” by Rachel Straus, Dance Teacher, June 2012

Dancing With Principle: Hanya Holm in Colorado, 1941–1983, by Claudia Gitelman, University Press of Colorado, 2001

Hanya Holm: The Biography of an Artist, by Walter Sorell, Wesleyan University Press, 1969

WEB:

Dance Heritage Coalition: “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures”: danceheritage.org

Photos from top: by Harry Rhodes, courtesy of American Dance Festival; by Marcus Blechman, courtesy of American Dance Festival

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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