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Dance Heritage Coalition

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Holm (Hanya) Papers, 1803-1984 (bulk 1931-1980)

- Biography


Hanya Holm - dancer, teacher, choreographer - is recognized as one of the four early pioneers of modern dance in the United States, as well as one of the 20th century's most sought-after choreographers of musical theater. She was born Johanna Josepha Eckert on March 3, 1893 in Worms-am-Rhine, Germany. Her father was a wine merchant; her mother was a housewife and inventor with successful patents to her credit. Holm's early education, at the Konvent der Englischen Fräulein in Mainz, was followed by music studies at the Hoch Conservatory and the Dalcroze Institute at Frankfurt-am-Main. In 1916, she graduated from the Dalcroze Institute at Hellerau and taught Dalcroze and music until 1921. These were difficult years as Germany was recovering from World War I and resources were scarce. It was also a time of great artistic activity. For Holm, it was a period of great personal change. Her marriage to painter and sculptor Reinhold Martin Kuntze ended; her son, Klaus, was born; and, she saw Mary Wigman perform. Holm had known she wished to dance professionally (Pavlova had been an early inspiration), yet it was seeing Wigman dance in 1921 which defined her direction. Wigman's Dresden school had been open only a year. The student body was small and the curriculum was informal, with a single class held daily in the living room of a private residence. Wigman's movement ideas were just developing, nourished by the ongoing exchange between teacher and pupils. Holm enrolled and was affiliated with the Wigman Central Institute from 1921-1931, becoming assistant instructor in 1922, receiving her diploma in 1923, becoming chief instructor in 1924 and Director in 1929. By 1931, the school was well established. Graduates underwent rigorous examination in a range of dance-related subjects and received advanced degrees recognized by the German federal government. Wigman's responsiveness to the personality of each class, coupled with the comprehensiveness of her curriculum, would become an enduring pedagogical model for Holm. Holm's performing career blossomed during her years with Wigman. She was an original member of the Wigman Concert Dance Group (1923-1928), touring Europe to great acclaim. She also performed in an early production of Max Reinhardt's The Miracle and danced the role of the Princess in Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat (1929). She was dance director and choreographer in the summers of 1927 and 1928 for the Star Congress in Ommen, Holland and was assistant director and co-dancer with Mary Wigman in Albert Talhoff's Totenmal, presented at the Munich Dance Congress of 1930. The following year, Holm was brought to the United States by Sol Hurok to open and direct a branch of the Wigman School in New York. As official representative of Mary Wigman in America, Holm was also sought for many outside lectures and teaching engagements. She taught regularly in Washington and Philadelphia and presented lecture demonstrations to educational institutions and arts organizations nation-wide. These presentations later developed into Holm's signature Demonstration Program, a choreographed manual of dance and movement theory performed to music by Harvey Pollins, with percussion accompaniment by the dancers, and a lecture by Holm. It was, according to Holm's 1950s publicity material, one of Holm's "great and unique accomplishments." Yet the New York school was Holm's main responsibility during her first years in the United States. In its initial year, student enrollment was high. By 1936, however, anti-Nazi feeling was strong in the United States and Wigman's name lost favor. Furthermore, Holm's movement theories had begun to diverge from her teacher's. With Wigman's consent, the school became the Hanya Holm Studio in 1936, renamed, in 1949, the Hanya Holm School of the Dance. Modern dancers and dance professionals of other styles flocked to Holm's courses for she offered a solid foundation in movement principles which transcended genre. Alwin Nikolais, Glen Tetley, Louise Kloepper, Valerie Bettis, Mary Anthony, Murray Louis, Claudia Gittleman, Bambi Lynn, Marge and Gower Champion, Annabelle Lyon - these were some of Hanya's students who were then, or were soon to be, among the leading dancers and choreographers of their times. Her own school closed in 1968 but Holm continued teaching into the 1980s at the Nikolais-Louis Dance Lab and at the Juilliard School. For much of the year, Holm's life orbited around New York City. In the summer, however, she departed for dance programs on rural campuses. Holm was one of the founding faculty members of the now famous Bennington School of the Dance in the summer of 1934, along with Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. She taught each summer until 1940, finding time to also teach at the University of Iowa and in Colorado at the Perry Mansfield summer camp. The beauty of the Colorado landscape appealed to Holm and in the summer of 1941, she founded the Colorado College Summer School of the Dance, returning annually as director, teacher and choreographer until it closed in 1983. Her twenty-fifth and fortieth anniversary summers were celebrated in grand style, with special performances, articles in the local Colorado press, and gala events. Holm's American concert career developed more gradually than did her teaching, yet this was precisely according to plan. Holm had given herself five years to acclimate to her new country, to make pieces that grew out of her experiences, and to train a cohesive group of dancers to perform them. Her first American concert was at the Broadway Theater in Denver, Colorado in 1936. Her New York debut followed in December, 1937 with the historic production of Trend at the Mecca Temple. Trend was a work of social protest, made in collaboration with scenic designer Arch Lauterer and composer Wallingford Riegger, with a section, each, set to Ionization and Octandre by Edgard Varese. The fifty-five minute piece was conceived on a massive scale, with seven dance soloists and thirty ensemble members moving through a landscape of graded platforms and ramps. Dance critic John Martin, gave Trend the New York Times Award for "best dance composition of the year." Despite such critical acclaim, Holm was no longer able to support a company. When the company folded in 1947, she had choreographed thirty original pieces to almost as many commissioned scores. Among these are: Dance of Work and Play (1938), Metropolitan Daily (1938), Dance of Introduction (1939, 1941), Tragic Exodus (1939), They Too are Exiles (1940), The Golden Fleece (1941) and Namesake (1942). Afterwards, she continued creating concert dance during the summers at Colorado College, and, in the 1980s, for the company of her former student, Don Redlich. But Holm's choreography began to be more widely seen on the commercial stage. Holm's prolific output in the fields of musical theater, opera, film and television began with Eccentricities of Davey Crockett, created for the cooperative Ballet Ballads in 1948. Later the same year, Holm collaborated with Jose Ferrer on The Insect Comedy, and by year's end, Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate was in previews with Holm's choreography. In the following years, Holm was choreographer or movement director for more than twenty theatrical productions, including The Golden Apple (1954), My Fair Lady, (1956), Where's Charley? (1957), and Camelot. (1960). Long New York City runs were often followed by national tours, London productions, and revivals, for which Holm often selected the dancers and restaged the dances. She received the New York Drama Critics' Award for the choreography of Kiss Me Kate, a Critics' Circle Citation for The The Golden Apple, and a Tony Award nomination for the choreography of My Fair Lady, . In 1952, Holm was granted a copyright for her dances from Kiss Me Kate, making her the first choreographer of a Broadway show ever to receive such protection. Her choreography for My Fair Lady, is also copyrighted. In the field of opera, Holm has won praise for her direction, staging, and choreography. Douglas Moore's Ballad of Baby Doe (1956), produced at Colorado's Central City Opera House, was Holm's first operatic venture. Her Orpheus and Euridice followed, with productions at the Vancouver Festival in 1959 and at the O'Keefe Center in Toronto in 1960. In the 1970s, Il Cavaliere Errante, A Soldier's Tale, Gianni Schicchi, and Iolanthe were among the operas which Holm either choreographed or directed for the Colorado Opera Festival. Holm's son, Klaus, was her frequent collaborator on these productions as scenic and lighting designer. Holm received numerous honors and awards for her work. In addition to those mentioned above were Honorary Doctorate Degrees of Fine Arts from both Colorado College and Adelphi College, the Colorado Governor's Award for Arts and Humanities, the Dance Magazine Award for Tragic Exodus, the Award from the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies for "outstanding contribution to the Modern Dance Movement in America," the Capezio Award, the Astaire Award, and the Samuel H. Scripps Award for Lifetime Achievement. Holm was naturalized in 1939. She died in New York City on November 3, 1992.

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