German Expressionist Dances of the 1930s

Written by debbie pollitt
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German Expressionist Dances of the 1930s
Expressionist dancers favoured bare feet over traditional pointe ballet shoes. (dance shoes image by Richard J Thompson from Fotolia.com)

German expressionist dance, known as ausdruckstanz in German, was a new art form in the 1920s and 1930s. A reaction against the perceived confines of traditional ballet styles, it refers to an expression of reality that's distorted in shape and colour. The artist offers her own interpretation of nature instead of copying it. An influential protagonist of expressionism was Rudolph von Laban, who taught the famous dancers of the period and defined the basic characteristics of modern dance.

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Totenmal (1930)

"Totenmal" was a German expressionist dance from Laban student and expressionism pioneer Mary Wigman, the so-called high priestess of ausdruckstanz. Wigman taught and performed expressionist dance in Germany and, building on the success of her Dresden dance school, she sent her student Hanya Holm to open another place in New York City in 1931. The dance "Totenmal" was a collaboration between Wigman and Swiss poet Albert Talhoff and mourned the loss of lives in World War I. It was a dark and introspective dance that typified Wigman's style and revealed a strong inner frustration about the futility of war.

The Green Table (1932)

Kurt Jooss, like Mary Wigman, was a Rudolph Laban student and composer of this award-winning 1930s expressionist dance piece. Echoing the theme of Wigman's "Totenmal," "The Green Table," with music by Frederick Cohen, expressed the dramatic fears war provokes and the horrors it brings to bear. Jooss personifies Death and The Politician in this dance and uses them to illustrate the effects of personal greed. "The Green Table" contains a well-known scene featuring masked politicians negotiating around the eponymous table.

Trend (1937)

"Trend" was the first major dance by German expressionist choreographer and dancer Hanya Holm. A favourite student of Mary Wigman, Holm opened the New York Wigman School on Mary's behalf at the start of the 30s, and she bought the school herself in 1936 and renamed it the Hanya Holm Studio. Holm had a distinctive technique that influenced future generations of modern dancers. She incorporated the essential characteristics of ausdruckstanz, or Wigman technique, and the American technique of free dance made famous by Isadora Duncan. The theme of "Trend" was social criticism. According to an article in the New York Times, it was a "monumentally scaled allegory of social decay and reconstruction."

Tragic Exodus (1939)

Another work by Hanya Holm, this piece won a Dance Magazine award for group choreography and was one of two created in response to the war crisis in Europe. Along with "They Too Are Exiles," these dances continued her theme of social destruction and the effects on human life. Holm's earlier, more lighthearted piece, a newspaper satire entitled "Metropolitan Daily" (1938), was the first dance to be televised on American television.

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