Bringing German expressionism to America

Hanya Holm in "Salutation," circa 1936

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.

RESOURCES

Book/Articles:

  • 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).

Films:

  • 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

 

Dance News
Getty Images

Dancers are resilient by nature. As our community responds to COVID-19, that spirit is being tested. Dance Teacher acknowledges the tremendous challenges you face for your teaching practice and for your schools as you bring your offerings online, and the resulting financial impact on your businesses.

Perhaps we can take hope from the knowledge of how we've managed adversity in the past. I'm thinking of the dance community in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I'm thinking of 9/11 and how that changed the world. I'm thinking of the courageous Jarrah Myles who kept her students safe when the Paradise wildfire destroyed their homes. I'm thinking of Jana Monson who rebuilt her studio after a devastating fire. I'm thinking of Gina Gibney who stepped in to save space for dance in New York City when the beloved Dance New Amsterdam closed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of the Academy for the Performing Arts

“Keeping agile" has taken on a whole new meaning for every studio owner and dance instructor since the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shuttered studio doors for safety's sake in March. Now is the time to show parents how you bring normalcy and positivity to their children's lives so you can retain tuition revenue until your doors reopen for business as usual.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Misty Lown delivers a seminar in Austin. Photo courtesy of More Than Just Great Dancing

Business leader Misty Lown convened (remotely) more than 700 dance studio owners to create an action plan in response to COVID-19 studio closures. ICYMI, here are the takeaways:

  • Studios can deliver value to customers with online content.
  • Owners can preserve enrollment with caring communication.
  • The federal stimulus package is a strong short-term safety net.
Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Photo by Jason Hill, courtesy of Disenhof

When dancer Katherine Disenhof found out her company, NW Dance Project, would be shutting down indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic (on Friday the 13th, no less), she immediately went in search of ways to stay connected and in shape.

At that point, a few virtual class opportunities had emerged, so Disenhof decided to aggregate them on an Instagram account called Dancing Alone Together.

She launched the account that Monday, and by mid-week she'd also created a website. Now, just a few weeks later, Dancing Alone Together has 22K followers—and virtual classes are more than just a growing trend, but a phenomenon that has reshaped the dance world at an unprecedented speed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo by Kyle Froman
Update March 31, 2020: This article was first published in Dance Teacher, February 2009.

One of today's leading ballet masters, German-born Wilhelm Burmann exerts a magnetic attraction on the professional students he teaches five days a week at Steps on Broadway in New York City. “Taking Willie's class" has become a tradition for many top dancers of both New York–based companies and those simply passing through town.

Standing ramrod straight at age 69, Burmann embodies the authority and skills he acquired during an extensive global career. He was a corps member of the Pennsylvania Ballet and New York City Ballet, a Frankfurt Ballet principal dancer, Stuttgart and Geneva company principal and ballet master, and ballet master for The Washington Ballet and Le Ballet du Nord, among others. After he retired from dancing in 1977, Burmann took up guest teaching and is still in great demand at prestigious American and European companies and schools: This year he will teach in Florence and Milan, Italy.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo courtesy of Courtesy Ahearn

Elizabeth Ahearn never imagined that she'd teach her first online ballet class in her kitchen. Adding to the surreality of the situation: Rather than give her corrections, her student, the director of distance learning at Goucher College, had tips for Ahearn: Turn the volume up, and move a little to the left.

Ahearn, chair of the dance department at Goucher, is among thousands of dance professors learning to teach online in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The internet may be exploding with resources for virtual classes, from top dancers teaching barre to free warm-ups courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Foundation, but in academia, teachers face many restraints. Copyright laws, federal privacy regulations, varying tech platforms and grading rubrics all make teaching dance online a challenge.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Talia Bailes leads a Ballet & Books class. Lindsay France, Courtesy Ballet & Books.

Talia Bailes never imagined that her ballet training and her interest in early learning would collide. But Bailes, a senior studying global and public health sciences at Cornell University, now runs a successful non-profit called Ballet & Books, which combines dancing with the important but sometimes laborious activity of learning to read. And she has a trip to South America to thank.

In 2015, before starting at Cornell, Bailes took a gap year and headed to Ecuador with the organization Global Citizen Year to teach English to more than 750 students. But Bailes, who grew up training at a dance school outside Cincinnati, Ohio, also spent time teaching them ballet and learning their indigenous dances. "The culture in Ecuador was much more rooted in dance and music rather than literacy," she recalls. Bailes was struck by the difference in education and the way that children were able to develop and grow socially through dance. "It left me thinking, what if dance could be truly integrated into the way that we approach education?"

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Choreographer Molly Heller with musician Michael Wall. Photo by Duhaime Movement Project

Love electronic music? Calming notes of a piano? Smooth, rich trumpet? Want music in clear meters of 3, or in 7? This week is the ideal time to check out musician Michael Wall's abundant website soundformovement.com. I myself have enjoyed getting to experience his music over the past five years—whether to use in a teen class, older-movers class or for my own MFA thesis choreography.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

On Wednesday, March 18, I was supposed to return to Juilliard and teach Pilates after a two-week spring break. Instead, I rolled a mat onto my bedroom floor, logged in to Zoom and was greeted by a gallery of 50 small-screen images of young ambitious dancers, trying to make the best of a strange situation. As I began class, I applied our new catchphrase: "Please mute yourself," then asked students to use various hand gestures to let me know how they are coping and how much space they have for movement. I asked dancers to write one or two things they wanted to address in the sidebar, and then we began to move.

This is our new normal. In the midst of grave Covid-19 concerns, dance professors across the country faced university closures and requirements to relocate their courses to the virtual sphere. Online education poses very specific and substantial challenges to dance faculty, but they are finding ways to persist by learning new methods of communication, discovering untapped pedagogical tools, expanding their professional networks, developing helpful new resources and unearthing old ones.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Getty Images

As Broadway goes dark and performances are canceled across the country, the financial repercussions of a global pandemic have gone from hypothetical to very real. This is especially true in the dance community, where many institutions are nonprofits or small businesses operating on thin margins, and performers rely on gigs that are being canceled. It's a scary and uncertain time.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Courtesy of Wroth

The effects of COVID-19 on college dancers might have been devastating. Performances were canceled, seniors trying to savor every last moment together were left without a graduation ceremony, students were encouraged to go home, and at each moment, a question has sounded: How can a student learn how to become a better performer when they are not allowed to perform?

Here at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, the ballet department rallied quickly and adapted its programming, choosing to see this hiatus as an opportunity to encourage reflection and self-improvement.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: We always seem to lose the most students after our recitals. How do I prevent post-show fallout?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox