Mary Wigman

Choosing expression over technique

Wigman’s radical style didn’t go over easy: She was once booed off the stage in Berlin.

Mary Wigman was a radical modern dance pioneer who rejected formalized technique and instead focused on expression of emotion. The use of dance improvisation as a tool for movement development has its roots in her work, as does Tanztheater, best exemplified today by the work of the late Pina Bausch.

Wigman (1886–1973) was born in Hanover, Germany, as Marie Wiegmann (her teacher, Rudolf Laban, would later convince her to change her name). Growing up, she studied music; it wasn’t until Wigman was 24 that she first became attracted to dance, after seeing a performance by Émile Jaques-Dalcroze. She soon began attending his school for eurhythmics, or gestures set to music to promote coordination.

Three years later, she joined Laban and his students at their arts community in Switzerland, and she quickly became a disciple. During the five years she spent studying under Laban, she choreographed her first solo pieces, Witch Dance I and Lento. She left the arts community in 1918  to enter a sanatorium: World War I, being diagnosed with tuberculosis and her professional split from Laban had all taken a toll on her.

In 1920, she established the Mary Wigman School in Dresden, Germany. Branches soon popped up all over Germany, and Wigman student Hanya Holm opened one in New York City. Classes were divided into two parts: technique and class lessons. The technique section was not a codified regimen but rather more of an improvisation. “Class lessons” referred to dance composition and criticism.

Over the next decade, Wigman created more than 70 solos and performed them throughout Europe. She toured in the U.S. three times between 1930 and 1933. The first two were wildly successful, but the last was a disaster because she brought 12 of her students to perform with her, and audiences were disappointed not to see her solos.

Wigman chose to remain in Germany during World War II, becoming increasingly conservative in her work; any art that wasn’t deemed reflective of Nazi ideals was censored. When she choreographed for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, many Americans called for a ban on her work. Postwar, Wigman staged operas and quietly continued to teach, until near-blindness and old age forced her to retire in the late 1960s. DT

Movement Vocabulary

Ausdruckstanz “Expressive dance” in German; Wigman used this term to mean dance that is a full and free expression of the choreographer’s emotions. It is very exaggerated, often visually jarring and has no specific technique.

Style

Wigman thought of her body as a channel for her subconscious drives, and she was one of the first choreographers to experiment with her relationship to empty space. Wigman rejected classical music and instead worked with composers to create percussive sounds for her rhythmically complex movement. Occasionally, she would wear a mask when performing, to blur the line between masculine and feminine.

The Work

Monotony Whirl (1926) This solo involved repetitious spinning to highlight the stillness that exists at the center of motion.

Witch Dance II (1926) For this solo, Wigman wore a mask and an ornate robe. She stomped her feet, twitched her torso and crouched to drums, gongs and silence.

Shifting Landscape (1929) This series of seven solos was more on the lighter and lyrical side of Wigman’s repertory; American audiences responded to it well.

The Legacy Lives On:

Perhaps Wigman’s most famous student was Hanya Holm, who studied and performed with her throughout the 1920s and eventually opened up a Wigman school in New York City, where her pupils included Alwin Nikolais and Glen Tetley. Harald Kreutzberg was another of Wigman’s students.

Wigman’s work paved the way for the development of Tanztheater in Germany—a hybrid of dance and theater founded by Kurt Jooss.

Resources:

Print:“Mary Wigman: Early Modern Dance Pioneer,” by Rebecca Rossen, Dance Teacher, April 2007.

Mary Wigman, by Mary Anne Santos Newhall, Routledge, 2009.

The Makers of Modern Dance in Germany: Rudolf Laban, Mary Wigman, Kurt Jooss, by Isa Partsch-Bergsohn and Harold Bergsohn, Princeton Book Company, Publishers, 2003.

 

Photo courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

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Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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