Reproduced here is an early version of Wigman’s article devoted to Rudolph von Laban, in which she discusses the early periods of his work, including her experience with him in summer 1913 in Switzerland.  The manuscript was brought back by one of Joan Woodbury’s students who had studied with Wigman sometime during the 60s.  A much later and substantially different, edited version (most likely rewritten by Mary Wigman herself) is printed in What Is Dance?: Readings in Theory and Criticism, by Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen, Oxford University Press, 1983.

My Teacher Laban

By Mary Wigman

      Laban…he was my teacher, though never in the sense this word is generally used. He was the moving spirit, the guide who opened the gates to a world I had dreamed of, not yet knowing that it was dance I was seeking for. He was the one who showed the little path leading into the jungle, which, later on, I had to clear for myself so it might become my own place to live in and to spread out from.

      The early periods of Laban’s work are nearer to me than his later ones would be, as in time our ways diverged quite naturally. With his manifold tasks and interests, Laban needed a much broader field than I could have covered.

      To write about Laban’s beginnings, which to a certain degree were also my beginnings, would mean to open one of those closed cupboards where whole periods of my life were stored away and hardly ever looked at again, as the fully lived present never gives me the leisure to look back. It might be fun, though it might be a bit dangerous, to let myself loose on this picture of the past, their reflections having become too serene to match reality anymore. But is it not one of the privileges of age? Laban, the veteran, the venerable initiator of the new dance, would surely not mind, having long since grown above struggles, fights and ambitions, looking down from his Olympic height and smiling at the efforts of those who try to draw out the line of his life and work.

      Laban was always a great wanderer, who, after entering an unknown country and having found what he wanted or what happened to meet his need, would leave it for the next one to be explored likewise. But wherever he has stayed, even if it were for only a short time, he has left his traces. He has been forced to make detours and has probably enjoyed branching off the main road from time to time to investigate the more intimate sidetracks and bypaths. But the original direction of his research was never touched nor changed by this. The essential quality of his work might be caught in one word: movement.

      He told me once that it was the vision of a great work of art, a combination of dance, music and poetry, which started him on his way. But how was dream to become reality, when the chief instrument needed for the actual creation, The Dance Chorus, did not exist? The ballet dancer of that time was not fit for the dance as Laban visualized it. The modern dancer had not yet come into being. Laban had to build up the new instrument himself and find the means of doing so.

      His gymnastic system, based on the natural organic movement of the human body and the principles of tension and relaxation, was born out of his need for a new a style of dancing and a new type of dancer. Even the roots of his dance notation grew strong from [this] first big need, though it took him years and years of never ceasing work to lead the overflowing waters into the controllable channels of consciously limited harmony, so that it might become a speakable, a legible and a writeable language of its own.

      Summer 1913: Switzerland, the Lago Maggiore and the lovely country around Ascona. When Harold Kreutzberg danced there for the first time, he called out, “But, Mary, this is a dancer’s landscape!” I knew that and loved the spot for it. Open air, meadows surrounded by trees, a sunny beach and a small group of rather queer people: Nelly, the coloured girl with her beautifully shaped body and the movements of a half wild, half shy young animal; the dwarf-like little painter from Munich; and Wigman. How young we were! We moved; we jumped; we ran; we improvised and outlined our first simple solo dances and group sketches. To me it was meant to be a short summer course. It turned into a life’s direction.

      And there was always Laban, drum in hand, inventing, experimenting: Laban, the magician, the priest of an unknown religion, the worshipped hero, the Lord of a dream-like yet ever-so-real kingdom. How easily he could change from the gallant knight into the grinning faun! How kind, how humorous and friendly he could be—and how terrifying with his sarcastic smile and his ever-ready pencil, drawing the most vivid and often most cruel caricatures. Those were brilliantly done. Like a glaring flashlight they pointed out your own weak spots to you, and this was more direct and more convincing than any other criticism could have been. On facing and accepting them, one learned a lot about one’s own dear self.

      Laban, the painter and designer, showed us how to draw. In invoking our imagination by his own vivid fantasy his instruction always turned into a lesson in improvisation, and as a final result into dance.

      What a wonderful improviser he was himself! And what a wonderful time we had watching him when he was in one of his humorous moods! With a flicker of an eye he seem to take in every funny detail of the moment, a picture, a person or a given situation, and combining them with a few characteristic gestures change anything and everything into burlesque. We could not get enough of it.

      There was, for instance, his interpretation of an Austrian military march. It needed no more than a bunch of keys, a heel knocking against wood, a quick movement of the head, and a military salute to produce the exciting atmosphere to create the typical situation of an Austrian infantry regiment parading through the streets of Vienna with the civilians falling into the marching rhythms and shouting their enthusiasm. Laban made us hear and see it all so vividly that we started marching and singing too.

      We danced with music and without it. We danced to the rhythms of poetry, and sometimes Laban would make us move to words, phrases, and little poems that we had to invent ourselves. Though those experiments did not and could not lead to a definite artistic form, they opened up another part of the magic land and helped us deepen our emotional background.

      One of those “poetical” improvisations I remember quite vividly, and while trying to write it down, I can’t help shaking with laughter. It was meant to become a Song To The Night. Eight or ten of us had formed a circle facing each other, concentrating, waiting. Then a face was lifted, the gesture of an arm followed and a voice, deepened by emotion, could be heard:

“The night is dark…”
a second movement
“dark is the night…”
“and blue”
Then the chorus shifting to the right
mesoforte, “blue night…”
to the left
“dark night…..”
coming to a standstill,
all faces and arms lifted up
pianissimo, “beautiful…”

      Anybody watching this improvised performance must have thought us a bunch of silly idiots. But of course to us it meant one more exciting adventure and dance experience.

      Laban had the extraordinary quality of getting you free artistically, enabling you to find your own roots, and thus stabilized, to discover your own potentialities, to develop your own technique and your individual style of dancing.

      He had built up his gymnastic system. But otherwise there were as yet no limits, no theoretical lines drawn, no strict laws to be followed. What years later was to become his dance theory and was called his dance philosophy was at that time still a free country, a wilderness, an exciting and fascinating hunting ground where discoveries were made every day. Every new phenomenon was looked at with equal curiosity only to be jammed into one big bag where it had to stay to be studied, to be analyzed, to be worked on later.

      Laban hardly ever criticized or corrected us. Sometimes, while watching a class, he seemed preoccupied with something else, working, maybe, on a new idea, a new outlet for his ever so busy and creative mind. But, if you needed his help, he never failed you. His judgment was infallible. If he said, “yes” to what you had done, it was yes, and the future proved it to be and so [it stayed] yes. It was the same with the ever-so-dreaded “NO.”

      After Laban had approved of the sketch for my first Hexentan, I was so overcome with joy that I jumped all over the studio, sprained my ankle and could not move for a whole unhappy fortnight. But the witch dance was brought to life and went on living. It became part of my first solo program. It had to undergo many changes and pass through many different stages of development until twelve years latter it got its definite artistic form.

      I had worked hard on another study called The Dance of the Straight and Curved Lines and was deeply convinced that I had accomplished something really beautiful. But Laban only shook his head. “No, Wigman, no good at all.” What a shock! What a disappointment! I simply could not face it, and trying to fight the terrible death sentence I worked myself into such a fury that, barefooted as I was and dressed in my short dance tunic, I stormed out of the room and climbed the rocky hill behind the house to hide my shame, to howl my sorrow into the warm and comforting soil. It did not take me long to find out that the dance I had cherished so much was a still born child, to [be] buried as quickly and as quietly as possible. Of course, I mourned it deeply, but I also discovered that I had not worked in vain, because I learned many things about spatial harmony and its technical approach.

      Many of those first dance sketches and studies had to suffer the same fate. Laban seemed to be without any compassion. He left me alone with my emotional battles, my technical troubles and the never-ending struggle for a clear and convincing dance form. And this was the best of all, and perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical achievements: to be given, not only one’s artistic independence, but also to be forced into absolute self-responsibility. I can never thank Laban enough for having given me this.

      Now, that I have let my memory loose on those bygone things, long forgotten stories, pictures, situations turn up again: happy, funny, burlesque, sad and tragic ones, Laban being the center of them all.

      The Monte Verita, where he held his summer courses in 1913 and 1914, was a beautifully situated vegetarian sanitarium where all sorts of people came for a somewhat mysterious treatment. The more or less healthy guests joined our courses and got a lot out of the work. But not only those! I never quite understood how Laban did it, but he worked miracles on the seriously sick ones. He was a very good-looking man and, if he wanted to, could be irresistible. But I could not possibly have been his personal charm alone, nor could it have been his easy approach to human nature in general. There must have been something else, a quality even unknown to himself, a super sense of knowledge about the healing powers of movement, which enabled him to help where others had failed.

      I wish I were a writer, so I could tell the story of “the floating kidney” the way it should be told with all its sad and touching, its humorous and human details. “The floating kidney” was a very sick looking lady to whom we, irreverent as we [young dancers] were, had given the name of the disease she was suffering from. She was condemned to a wheelchair. One day Laban told me that she wanted to take solo lessons with him. I gasped for breath. “You can’t do it, Laban. It is dangerous.” And he, with a broad grin, “Wait and see!”

      The next morning Madam was wheeled into the studio, accompanied by her maid. Very carefully she was led to a chair, the maid standing behind her, Laban in front of her, and I next to him. He had asked me to demonstrate during the lesson, and not even guessing what was going to happen, I expected the worst. Well, he just made her relax her head, move her shoulders, her arms and her beautiful but rather dead looking hands. Later on he went so far as to make he lift her legs and move her feet. The result was incredible. The sad face lighted up again. She dared to move and discovered that she could move. After a while she was even able to walk,

      The lesson finished, Madam would summon her maid, who opened a delicately embroidered bag and dropped a silver coin into my hand, five Swiss francs!! A lot of money at that time! And we were poor. If Laban threw the silver piece into the air, it was a sign that he was going to spend the money with us. When darkness came and with it the most beautiful atmosphere of the “dancer’s landscape”, we would walk along the hills and through the woods, passing fairy-like meadows, where thousands of glowworms were floating in silent dancing.

      Dance…it was there, in us, with us, around us, sweet and cruel, beautiful and ugly, mysteriously calling.

      After [we took] possession of the courtyard of the shabby little country inn, the silver piece was thrown on the table; the big bottle of red country wine was brought and emptied to the last drop. We danced, we sang, we yelled, and became silent again, when, upon walking home the stars were sparkling, speaking to us of that other world of the dance, the cosmic, the eternal one.

      If it happened that two of the precious silver coins survived, Laban took us to a small Italian restaurant in Ascona, where, to our greatest delight, we were fed a real bloody steak, for once to recover from the tasteless vegetarian food, the “hot grass” as we used to call it. The electric piano was put into action. We danced for hours.

      Or we went for a picnic in the hilly country above Ascona. Ferns and the wild growing broom were cut and quickly made into primitive dance costumes. Silhouetted against the darkening sky we improvised on the top of a steep rock while our audience watched from the bottom.

      Laban was always there, dancing and improvising with us, encouraging even our sometimes rather primitive and childish ideas. Did he enjoy himself as much as we did?

      Happy times, never to be repeated! None of us worried about the future. We did not yet think of dancing as a profession. And when Laban said to me, “You are a dancer; you belong to the stage,” I did not even believe him.

      The name of Laban had become known. His experimental work was no longer ridiculed. The number of students had increased. Plans were made and took shape — Dance Theatre! The waves of enthusiasm flowed high. But the disenchantment came over night.

      The First World War broke out and left Laban stranded in Ascona. One after the other of the students and artists who had gathered around him left. I was the only one who stayed on. There was a queer feeling of emptiness, of insecurity, growing in everything and everybody. Even the landscape seemed to have changed, revealing for the first time threatening features behind the mask of its glowing beauty. I occupied a big, bare room in an isolated house overlooking the lake. And it still makes me shiver when I think of those restless nights when I lay awake, frightened, and overwhelmed by the idea of the war going on, all alone in that silent house which seemed to be haunted by ghosts.

      It was during this period that Laban started to work intensely on his dance notation. As there was no one else, I became the mostly docile, and occasionally obstinate, victim of his theoretical research.

      Dear Laban, Do you remember how, every morning, you used to knock at my door? “Here comes the choreographer!” How you would empty your bag, and how your papers, covered with hastily scribbled notes and signs, from crosses to tiny human bodies and back again to crosses, stars and curves, were spread all over the room, leaving me only a small place for the practical demonstration? I can see you sitting there, writing, drawing, thinking, brooding, and critically observing my movements, my efforts to grasp your intentions and follow your instructions. Nothing could stop you; no failure ever discouraged you.

      The result of this hard struggle was the development of his scales of movement (Schwungskalen). The first of these scales consisted of five different swinging movements leading to a spiral line from downward to upward. The organic combination of there spiral directions and their natural three-dimensional qualities led to a perfect harmony. The different movements did not only flow effortlessly from one to the other, they seemed to be born out of each other. To point out their dynamic value, they were given names like pride, joy, wrath, etc.

      It was hard work for me too! Every movement had to be done over and over again, until it was controlled, until it could be analyzed, transposed and transformed into an adequate symbol. I have always had a pronounced sense for rhythm and dynamics, and my belief in “living” a movement and not just doing it was strong. Therefore, my individual way of expression and reaction must have been as much torture to Laban as his indefatigable attempts to achieve objectivity were to me.

      It needed no more than hearing the word “wrath” for me immediately to go into the most wonderful rage I could get out of myself. The endlessly repeated movement having become more of less mechanical, I was simply delighted to do it for once in a different, in a “personal” way. You ought to have seen Laban’s reaction! His wrath was even stronger than mine. Only it had nothing to do with his work. Like a hailstorm it came directly down to me. He called me a clown, a grotesque dancer, and reproached me for my total lack of harmony. He moaned about disturbing his theory by my super-self-expression, declaring that the movement itself was wrath and needed no individual interpretation.

      I did not understand at all why he was so upset. Not then! I believe that I even hated him at that moment. Did he not try to kill something in me, even the best I had? Inexperienced as I was, I could not know that I was given a really great lesson, one of the most important in my artistic life, never to be forgotten again.

      I believe that the foundations of my career as a dancer as well as a dance pedagogue were laid in those short moments. Objectivity and responsibility, patience, endurance, and self-discipline! How I needed them when I worked on my solo programs, when my enthusiasm, my impatience, my passion for expression carried me away; when I was tempted to ignore all rising difficulties and complications; when it was so easy and seemed so right to jump over empty spots, to glide around dangerous corners, or to fill unexpected holes with hastily improvised movements, so I might go on and lose no time on the necessary but often so tiresome transitions. Or, when I was working with a group of young dancers, fascinated and absorbed by the dance idea I wanted to work out with them, their far too individual reactions and interpretation, their misunderstanding of my intentions, even their spontaneous enthusiasms made me lose the track I was following in my mind. If I got impatient or lost my temper, they were terrified, did not react any more, and I could not go on with the work.

      Only then I understood Laban’s fury and my own terror of it, and understood the young dancers too, who believed that they were doing their best, just as I had done and felt when I was Laban’s pupil. What a struggle! What an inner fight! But what a wonderful, what an adorable fight from beginning to end! And I had learned my lesson. I knew that, without killing the creative mood, I had to keep balance between my emotional outburst and the merciless discipline of a super-personal control, thus submitting myself to the self-imposing law of dance composition.

      I stayed with Laban for seven long and hard years (1913–1919). Looking back at them, their hardship is forgotten; they seem to have been very beautiful, very adventurous, and incredibly rich. When we parted, Laban knew as well as I did that henceforth I would be able to fight the battle of life alone, that beloved battle which has been and still is…Dance.

      After many failures my new solo program given in the Civic Theatre in Zurich became a great success. Laban came to congratulate me. He smiled and suddenly bent his knee. “Dear Wigman, though there was only one really harmonious movement in your whole program, I admit that you are a dancer, a great one even.”

      That was Laban, and that was more than thirty years ago. Today I would like to bend my knee before him and thank him for what he has been to me, for what he has given me.