Bringing German modern dance to America
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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
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