Saturday, December 12, 2015

Mary Wigman’s Vibrato

Leaving behind processes of transmission, we are now approaching a very literal understanding of vibratory energy. It was Wigman, and not Laban, who actively took possession of vibration, turned it into a practice, and introduced it as an actual mode of movement into her choreographic vocabulary. If, as Dalrymple-Henderson shows, painters had started to draw vibrations, dancers caught up and started to perform them. The most extensive description of the initiating moment of Wigman’s engagement with vibration can be found in a series of interviews that were commissioned in 1972–1973 by the GDR Academy of the Arts, conducted by Gerhard Schumann. Looking back at the development of her movement technique, Wigman recounts: "I would like to tell you about a discovery of which I thought that it had been my own; but I learned very soon that it was an age-old discovery of dancing humankind, I called it vibrato. I had torn a muscle and could not dance. And I wanted to resume my work, but I could not jump any more. My ability to jump was gone. It would never come back... . I was not desperate, I always used to try all sorts of things to maintain control of my body. One day I discovered that I was actually in a constant state of quiet, up-and-down vibration. My entire body was in this state, from my feet up to my head. I thought: how beautiful! How wonderful! What is this? An invention? It was exactly this which replaced my ability to jump, and which I developed in its stead. ... the vibrato emerged. It possesses this unbelievable wealth of possibilities, because it allows for differenciation. The most detailed details! ... Later I suddenly saw an African ballet which included it [the vibrato, L. R.], they could do it in such magnificent manner that I almost went green with envy and I thought to myself: you are so deluded! You are priding yourself on inventing something."

While acknowledging her kinetic participation in something bigger than her own idea, Wigman is still keen on emphasizing the personal creative process that made her discover vibration. Less interested in physics and physiology, and further away from the occultist spirit of the beginning of the century, she is fascinated by the kinetic possibilities of the quality that she recognized in the African dancers whose performance she witnessed. Choosing the musical term vibrato for her find, it is clear that her mind was set on playing her instrument well. Considering the translation into dance of the “rapid and minute fluctuations in pitch” that characterize musical vibrato, Mary Anne Santos Newhall writes that Wigman’s vibrations were achieved through a buoyant vertical bounce of the body, sometimes slight and at times more vigorous, either with the whole body or with a single body part. The vibration usually was done travelling across the floor, with many variations, from a light, lifted vibration on the balls of the feet to a deeper bounce with the whole foot placed firmly against the floor. The vibration was achieved through a release in the ankles and a resilience in the knees and hips that was supported by a resonating, lightly panting breath.
To return once more to the visual arts and their occultism-inspired engagement with vibration: if some painters were driven by the belief in the “clairvoyant” potential of art to make visible the invisible, Wigman relates the vibrato not to an urge to see, but to sense more, approaching this sensing in a thoroughly embodied (and less metaphorical) fashion than Laban. When her interview partner suggests that the contained bouncing may have something to do with the wish to transcend gravity despite her injury, she speaks instead of “[a]n ever increasing sensitivity down to the fingertips, to the tip of the nose, everywhere ...”. Wigman pupil Hanya Holm describes the acquisition of the movement quality as extensive kinesthetic exercise: We found the answer to it while sitting on a sofa a whole night, with the springs helping us to bounce back. Then, on our feet without any outward help, the demands of the momentum carried us gradually further until the repetition of the movement finally broke down any mental opposition, and vibration became a true experience for us. 

Documents and testimonies show that the vibrato entered Wigman’s teaching, and also her choreographies, for instance the 1926 version of Witch Dance, where it seems to have occurred during the second half. Rudolf Bach describes a “sustained tremor”, “flapping” of fingers, and “wild shaking” of the arms. Around the same time, Böhme calls Wigman’s dances a “world of movement born out of inner vibration”. Vibrato also makes striking later appearances, most prominently in Wigman’s 1957 production of Le Sacre du printemps, which includes powerful sequences of a seated type of bouncing. The choreographer might have taken her cues here from the original 1913 version of Sacre by Vaslav Nijinsky, who famously, and for the first time in the history of Western concert dance, put vibrating bodies on stage. A brief excursus on Nijinsky’s vibrations provides a foil for further carving out the specificities of Wigman’s vibrato.


  1. The growth environment is also significant to Wigman. Her learning ground was at Swiss, Carolina town where was a European avant-garde artists colony Utopia in the early 20th century, between the mountains and rivers, the people advocated nature, sun and health, they used the body as a material to resist being capitalism alienation of humanity, thus the dance became a way of body movement to treat the heart failure.

  2. this post introduce the environment effect to Wigman, also introduce the way he creat her own dance style. in the video i can feel her motion by the movement, and also feel her mind in the creative dance.

  3. Fascinating report on her 'vibrato' and interesting connection to Africanist dance aesthetics.

  4. Fascinating report on her 'vibrato' and interesting connection to Africanist dance aesthetics.