The Other WitchTuesday, April 20th, 2021
My Time with Hexentanz: Reimagining and Breathing a New Dance Entitled The Other Witch.
(Before you start reading this blog please take time to breathe in and out deeply into your belly for several rounds.)
In 2019 I was selected as a Chicago Dancemakers Forum Lab Artist, supporting me in the creation of a new dance work entitled The Other Witch. This dance was inspired by Mary Wigman’s iconic piece, Hexentanz, but reimagined for a new time and context.
First of all, I want to share that I am not a dance historian; Hexentanz was “first composed in 1914, but danced in changing forms over many years.” Yet, as a dancemaker, I like embodying history through past dances. Throughout my long career in dance, I have been interested in inhabiting/experiencing historical dances in my body – kinesthetically. When I embody dances from the past I feel like I am time traveling. Remembering the past in the body leads me to anticipate the future. I learn by existing in the space between past and future.
Someone once said to me that the future ahead of you largely depends on what you care to remember. Milan Kundera wrote that remembering is a form of forgetting. Past and future preoccupy us because we try to control things. However, being in the present necessitates the openness to the unexpected.
The unexpected is also where you reside when you are creating a new dance. What I encounter daily in the studio and throughout my process is a place of being and swimming in the dance of the unknown. The creation of a new dance is an act of stepping into the unknown and being comfortable and trusting that it will lead to the next moment.
With this project, I also encountered other unknowns outside of the studio. I encountered my first ever pandemic and first ever lockdown in the middle of my rehearsal period. I encountered my performance schedule being cancelled. Everything came to a halt, a pause, a reconsidering of time, of my place, the space I inhabit, where I am, where I was and where I could be. Where I could dance and where I could not perform. Who I could be with and who I could not be with.
That said, prior to this experience of reimagining Hexentanz, I have embodied many historical dances of the Modern Dance and African American Modern Dance cannon during my time as a dancer with the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble and Dayton Contemporary Dance Company. I embodied dances from a wide range of artists such as Katherine Dunham, Dianne McIntyre, Talley Beatty, Eleo Pomare, Donald McKayle, Ron K. Brown, David Rousseve, Bebe Miller and many more. After leaving the dance companies and venturing on my own as an artist in the early 2000s, I continued reconstructing historical solo works. These included Chaconne by José Limón with Sarah Stackhouse, Angelitos Negros by/with Donald McKayle, Hopper by/with Eleo Pomare and Terpsichore by/with Barbara Gardner who was a student of Wigman. She had created a piece in memory of Wigman’s death in 1973, which she reconstructed again on me in 2011.
I am not only interested in reconstructing but also in reimagining historical dances. For example, Salome’s Daughters is a feminist reimagining of the dances of the 7 veils which I created for the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble in 1997. My solo, De/Reconstructing Mata Hari, created in 2006, was a weaving of past and present. In recent years I also danced an homage to Chicago choreographer Nana Shineflug through remembering/reimagining Lois Fuller dances.
And this is where The Other Witch also resides. The Other Witch is a reimagining of Mary Wigman’s iconic piece Hexentanz (Witch Dance). I was first introduced to Mary Wigman’s work in 1986 when I was still in high school in Germany. For Wigman’s 100th birthday anniversary, the Akadmie der Künste in Berlin organized an exhibit and a conference to celebrate her life and work. I was fascinated by the power and strength Wigman expressed through her photographs and how the resting points between movement were so alive. The resting points between breathing is how I entered the work and let it inhabit me. The resting points between the movements was the lens in which I opened the door to reimagining the work. My daily rehearsals began with breathing, deeply in and out.
Breathing also became a necessity to ground myself and find peace with the unexpected situation. I was in the middle of a pandemic, on lockdown, the future unknown, breathing with other people in a space possibly lethal. But I kept breathing and asking: How to continue moving and breathing through this period during these challenging times? For several months my mind was blank and I could not find inspiration, but my body kept breathing. Breathing with each movement, breathing with each new space I would find myself rehearsing. And finally, one day I found the stillness — the stillness between movement and pause. Each inhalation and exhalation connected me to the still points, connected me to the wisdom inside of me. Slowly, the edges of my body softened and I found myself tapping into the wisdom of the past. It’s interesting to me that the word inspiration comes from the Latin word inspiratus meaning “to breath into.”
After I finished creating the piece, I continued my breathing practice and I discovered that an interest in breath control was also a feature of Mary Wigman’s work. Especially on the necessity of lengthening the inhalation and exhalation, ‘as well as the pause between.’ Did my body tap into the wisdom of the past or was I remembering the past by anticipating the future? And then I read that Joseph Lewitan, the editor of Der Tanz, wrote that Wigman’s “expressive intensity” was residing in “the resting positions, between the movements.” These “resting positions,” or pauses, formed a crucial element in Wigman’s dance philosophy and played a key role in her dance. And this is also how I entered the work in my rehearsals daily inhaling and exhaling. And breathing was how I softened the boundaries between the past and the future of creating and reimagining the work. Did I breathe the past into the future?
As is the case of many artists, understanding the work of Mary Wigman (13 November 1886 – 18 September 1973, Germany) is easier if we relate it to the historical and geographical context in which it happened. Wigman started her choreographic research around the imminence of World War I and Expressionism. Expressionism, as an artistic trend, was spreading in Germany and Europe with the focus on the ugly, the disfigured, and the grotesque as a reaction towards the tragedy of the time. The work of influential groups like Die Brücke (visual arts) or from musicians like Arnold Schönberg (Verklaerte Nacht), created an experimental climate from which Wigman’s creativity emerged. Die Brücke are considered the originators of German Expressionism, formed in Dresden in 1905 as a bohemian collective of artists in opposition to the older more established bourgeois social order of Germany. Their art confronted feelings of alienation from the modern world by reaching back to pre-academic forms of expression including woodcut prints, carved wooden sculptures, and “primitive” modes of painting. So, was I breathing into the past to anticipate the future of what’s to come?
In her approach to dance that was reflective of the Expressionism movement that was taking over Germany, she was looking back to primitive modes of moving. And in some ways, she too was breathing life into the past to rediscover the relationship between human beings, the cosmic forces, and the forces of nature. For her, the dancer is a medium functioning as a trance practiced by ancient societies and integrated into community through ritualized forms.
She also opposed the notion of ‘representing’ something while dancing, in search for a truthful experience: dance should not represent; dance should be. “We don’t dance histories, we dance feelings,” she said. One of her famous quotes says: “Strong and convincing art has never arisen from theories.” So, was she also breathing into the past to imagine the future?
Mary Wigman’s Hexentanz had long fascinated me because the dance has a power of its own. It feels more like a channeling or embodying of this unknown force that comes through when inspiration takes over. It feels like the piece was breathed into her through an inspired moment.
It is also interesting to me that her piece was created during a tumultuous time of World War I and the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic. It is almost as if she was channeling the fears of the collective unconscious or tapping into the dark forces of nature. And like Wigman, my witch also inhabited me during a tumultuous time of unrest and pandemic. The period of creation almost foreshadowed what was to come. So did I connect to Hexentanz because I was anticipating the future? Did I breathe into the past to anticipate the future? The German poet Rilke once wrote that the future inhabits us way before it arrives in the here and now.
When I am in the process of creating a piece, that process is rarely linear. Often things happen in layers. Sometimes I read, see or hear something that triggers a physical response and part of the piece is influenced by this visceral response. Other parts are triggered by memories or response to the moment. And sometimes the context changes and it shapes the direction I am taking. It’s all part of the paradox of creating. When I open myself to the moment, I tap into a wisdom beyond the understanding of my own thinking brain. It almost feels like I am thinking with my entire body. On one hand, there is the conscious act of focusing on creating something and on the other hand there is the unconscious creating that happens through when I am in a flow state. Breathing into the moment. Softening the edges and connecting to the here and now. Consider time in a creative process: There is physical time, internal time, historical time and musical time. Each has their own rhythm. Each has a rhythm of the space, of the community, of collaborators, of one’s own breathing, of the context…Layers upon layers we breathe life into an idea.
Throughout the process I was reflecting about the role of the witch and why it was making a comeback. There is the archetype of the witch that relates to the violent and cruel nature of Earth made manifest in a person. But there is also the Healer, the Shaman (who in ancient cultures were considered the original witches) and who, through embodying the fears of the collective into a dance, song and ritual, creates a path for the community to heal.
During my rehearsal process, I asked myself, What is my political/cultural context? What does the witch of today look/feel like and what fears of the collective unconsciousness does the witch embody? Why is the witch making a comeback? What does this mean to my witch dance? And what is the reflection of society around this archetype? Throughout the encounter of the dance rehearsals in the studio, I reflected on our times and how a rapid change of communication technologies and access to a massive amount of information both diffuses the power of that information and provides us with (mis)information. Everything feels fragmented and chaotic. And so, my witch is fragmented. She doesn’t have a face. She is constantly shapeshifting and seducing us with her Gestalt.
I have other layers that might not be so apparent. For example, in the beginning the fragmented-text spell the audience hears, I am combining 4 different languages into one. I attempt to make it sound like a spell. And I use the format of a Turkish fairytale style which starts each tale with “once upon a time there was and there was not.” Ultimately, I give the listener/viewer the choice of believing what they hear/see or not believing it. Breathing in and breathing out life into the moment.
I want to end this writing by breathing life into Wigman’s own words describing the encounter with her witch. I encourage you to read it out loud in German and see what inspiration comes through.
“Als ich eines Nacht‘s völlig aufgelöst in mein Zimmer zurück kam, traf mein Blick den Spiegel. Was er zurückwarf, war das Bild einer Besessenen, wild und wüst, abstoßend und faszinierend. Die Haare sehr wild, die Augen tief in ihrer Höhle gesunken, das Nachthemd verschoben und den Körper fast unförmig erscheinen lassen und da war sie die Hexe – das erdwurzelte Wesen, in hemmungsloser Triebhaftigkeit, in unersetzlicher Lebensgier, Tier und Weib zugleich ….es graut mir von mir selber, vor der Preisgabe dieser Seite meines Ichs, der ich mich in solch unverhüllter Nacktheit noch nie ausgeliefert hatte.” – Mary Wigman
“When I came back to my room one night completely distraught, my eyes met the mirror. What it threw back was the image of a woman possessed, wild, and desolate, repulsive and fascinating. The hair very wild, the eyes sunken deep into their sockets, the nightgown shifted and the body appeared almost misshapen and there she was -The Witch- the earth rooted being, with unrestrained instinct, with irreplaceable lust for life, animal and woman at the same time… I dread myself, giving the self to this side of myself, to which I had never surrendered the I in such nakedness.” – Mary Wigman