Mary Wigman’s Witch Dance (1914/1926) is perhaps the most famous dance solo no one has seen—at least not in its entirety. A short clip of the beginning of the artist’s second version of the piece, made in 1926 and featuring the addition of a Noh mask and highly percussive music (Wigman first danced the solo in silence), exists on YouTube. One certainly gets a sense in watching the excerpt of the bewitching aura and gestural expressiveness that made Wigman, and this signature dance, such a captivating solo artist and a leading practitioner of Weimer-era Ausdruckstanz, or “expressive dance.” However, what the piece looked like in its entirety per force remains incomplete.
Not that this has prevented generations of dancers, using contemporary newspaper accounts and the archival research of scores of dance scholars, from attempting to reconstruct and/or reimagine the work. Belgium’s Pedro Pauwels is the latest. Working with fellow choreographers Carlotta Ikeda, Josef Nadj, Robyn Orlin, and Jérôme Thomas, Pauwels asked his collaborators to use Wigman’s Witch Dance as a basis for delving “into the roles of rhythm, energy and movement when dedicated to bewitching, spells and passion” and, in the process, “to build their choreographic vision of today’s sorcerer or sorceress.” The result is Sors, which opened The Dance Centre’s 2013-14 Global Dance Connections series last night.
As interpreted by Pauwels, the piece is divided into five parts, beginning with a fairly faithful recreation of the clip of Wigman posted to YouTube. Masked and seated on the floor, Pauwels claws at the air with his arms and pushes his bent legs to the ground, just as Wigman does. But, not least because of the absence of the familiar percussive music, this opening feels less like an orienting homage than a decidedly disorienting ghosting, with Pauwels here (and throughout the piece as a whole) conjuring a version of the uncanny that is as much about emphasizing unlikeness as likeness. This perhaps helps to explain the next section, in which Pauwels rolls about the floor with his head partly inside a brass bell, a prop I took as less a mimetic reference to a witch’s pointy hat than a Labanesque eukinetic allusion to the body’s internal resonances (more on Laban below). In the third movement Pauwels is mostly vertical, darting diagonally across the stage with outstretched arms in a long grey wrap that he wears back to front, and reminding us why, at least in her first tour of America, Wigman was both hailed as the next and panned as a derivative Isadora Duncan.
The fourth section of the work is the longest and, from my point of view, most interesting. It begins with Pauwels, now stripped to his underwear and outfitted with a body mic, back seated on the floor à la Wigman, as at the outset of the piece. However, he is also now in possession of an electric toothbrush, which he proceeds to use, and which we hear amplified via his mic. Soon he is brushing not just his teeth, but other parts of his body: the inside of his nose, his legs and feet, his armpits, his crotch. This purification ritual precedes—and then proceeds along with—a spoken-word bit in which Pauwels first channels Wigman’s voice by quoting from her letters and then her very bodily being by calling for assistance from the audience and a stagehand named Hans to aid him in his cross-gendered transformation, donning lipstick, pantyhose, and high heels and shimmying briefly to some hip-hop coming from an audience member’s iPod. Lithe and sexy, the feminine Pauwels is certainly bewitching. However, the references to Laban, the Nazis, and the 1936 Olympics in his recitation of Wigman’s correspondence are an important reminder that the poetics of Wigman’s dance sorcery are necessarily shadowed by politics, with her pioneering explorations of individual bodily expression always needing to be historicized in terms of the social movements out of which they emerged, and towards which they were conscripted.
And, so, because I have been doing some research of my own into this particular period of dance history, permit me to open a long contextual parenthesis:
As avant-garde origin myths go, one cannot get much better than Wigman, in the summer of 1913, climbing up Monte Verità in Ascona, Switzerland in search of a visionary artist whom she had heard held similarly radical ideas about movement. What Wigman and Rudolf von Laban shared was an antipathy toward the traditional dance vocabulary inherited from ballet, folk dance, and pantomime, and that as an expressive form was always subservient to music. Rather, they were both interested in the body as the primary instrument of movement and in developing dance that emerged directly and organically from the body’s everyday dynamic and rhythmic relationships with space. However, beyond this common core principle, Laban’s and Wigman’s theories were quite different, not least in terms of how each characterized the relationship between motion and emotion. For Laban, movement was emotion, and in his theories of space harmony (choreutics) and effort (eukinetics) he would attach the names of different affects (sadness, joy, anger) to simple bodily movements and positionings. This informed his idea of movement choirs, mass groupings of people, most without professional dance training, who could be taught basic combinations of everyday movement that they would then repeat in unison, transmitting rhythmically and kinesthetically the set of affects attached to that movement.
By contrast, Wigman insisted that movement expressed emotion, and her early solo practice explored movement patterns and gestures that evoked individual felt experiences and interior states of being, and on attuning those “inmost feelings to the mood of our time” (The Mary Wigman Book, 107). This also explains why Wigman, unlike Laban, remained wary of conscripting movement to other interpretive ends, as in the theatre. Writing in 1927, she distinguished the pure movement of her “absolute dance” from the larger “’scenic’ event” and “total” synthesis of expressive forms that characterized what Laban first called “stage dance [Tanzbühne]” and then Kurt Jooss (who had replaced Wigman as Laban’s disciple) termed dance-theatre (Tanztheater). “The absolute dance … does not represent, it is,” Wigman claimed, before positing her own version of kinesthetic empathy: “its effect on the spectator who is invited to experience the dancer’s experience is on a mental-motoric level, exciting and moving” (The Mary Wigman Book, 108-109).
Nevertheless, Laban’s and Wigman’s aesthetic philosophies were sufficiently allied as to attract mutual notice by the Nazis, whose theories of Aryan racial superiority were buttressed by the gymnastics and body culture movements then proliferating in Germany, and who were of course equally adept at employing mass choreographed movement and stylized gestures to solicit collective emotional identification with their cause. Even before the Nazis officially came to power Jooss had made his own political position clear, creating his most famous piece, The Green Table (1932); this exemplary early work of dance-theatre is an explicitly anti-war ballet, anticipating Brecht’s Mother Courage in using bold costumes, masks, original music, and a libretto by Jooss, alongside expressionistic choreography developed over seven episodic scenes, to allegorize the horrors of armed combat. Hounded to fire the Jewish members of his company, including his composer, Frederik Cohen, Jooss decided to decamp Germany for Holland soon after returning from The Green Table’s premiere in Paris, eventually setting up a new school in England.
However, Laban and Wigman equivocated (whether naively or opportunistically, depends on one’s perspective). Both accepted the patronage of the Nazi Party, and both bowed to pressure to dismiss Jewish company members or students, before separately running afoul of Josef Goebbels over their participation in the 1936 Olympic opening ceremonies, ironically a stage ideally suited (as it continues to be) to the transmission of affect through mass movement. Yet what was to have been Laban’s grandest movement choir, Vom Tauwind und der neuen Freude (featuring 1000 amateur dancers from across Germany), was scuttled after Goebbels deemed the dress rehearsal insufficiently adulatory of Nazi ideology. This made inevitable Laban’s eventual departure from Germany, first to Paris and then, with Jooss’s aid, to England. As for Wigman, she displeased party officials by demurring on a commission celebrating the leadership of Hitler, though she was allowed to contribute another group piece, Totenklage, instead, and she continued to teach, first at her school in Dresden, then in Leipzig, until the end of the war.
Wigman’s career extended past the war, with her notably creating a version of Le sacre de printemps in 1957 that the dance scholar Susan Manning sees as having an influence on Pina Bausch’s own take on the Stravinsky libretto 18 years later (see Susan Manning, Ecstasy and the Demon: Feminism and Nationalism in the Dances of Mary Wigman, 245). However, Ausdruckstanz’s transformation into Tanztheater in post-war Germany necessarily involved a careful negotiation on the part of choreographers like Bausch and Reinhild Hoffmann (who both studied with Jooss) with expressionist forebears like Wigman, emphasizing the universality of German dance-theatre’s bodily affects at the expense of its local political history.
This, finally, brings me back to Pauwels’ Sors, and its final section. It begins with Pauwels, now once again fully clothed and entering upstage right with his back to us, magically unfurling a seemingly endless length of sheer plastic from what at first appears to be his mouth but was no doubt the top of his shirt. Lifting and twirling and running with and rising and falling underneath the sheet, Pauwels weaves a gorgeous final visual spell that is certainly vivid and memorable in its emotional expressivity. However, I couldn’t help thinking it also worked to contain and bracket off the politics of the preceding section.