During a dance history class, Ecuadorian contemporary dancer Fabián Barba and his classmates laughed at a video of the famed modern dancer Martha Graham, prompting Barba to wonder what had changed in the world of dance to make an important piece seem comical to him and modern viewers.
Intrigued, Barba took on the project of reconstructing nine solos of German choreographer Mary Wigman, who originally performed them during her first tour of the United States in 1930. Barba’s authentic reconstructions were featured last Friday in the Museum of Modern Art’s presentation of “A Mary Wigman Dance Evening” as part of the museum’s “Performing Histories: Live Artworks Examining the Past” series.
Influenced by the ways in which Graham’s dancing and Wigman’s choreography felt familiar or strange, Barba began the process of reconstruction by doing more than simply learning the dances from videos. Of the nine solos he performed, only three had been preserved on video. For the other six, Barba relied on photographs, reviews, written records, technical knowledge, and sometimes music to recreate these lost works. More recreations than reconstructions, numbers spoke just as highly of Barba’s choreographic skills as they did of Wigman’s own.
Though the exact intricacies of Wigman’s choreography are lost, Barba tried to embody her person and spirit. He wore a recreation of her original costume for each piece–from a white nightgown-like frock to a sheer dress with a long tutu–and copied her bobbed hairstyle. To capture Wigman’s movement and quality, Barba studied with her former students, attempting to derive information about the past from the bodies of these dancers. The precision and subtlety of Barba’s movement revealed an acute understanding of the way Wigman moved.
Barba crafted a distinct visual connection between the dances he recreated and the photographs he used as references. The way Wigman posed in these photos was the only information he could rely upon, and often it was easy for the audience to identify her poses within a piece.
Barba’s interest in manifesting Wigman came across most obviously in his bows, which he developed by studying the movement within Wigman’s preserved dances and copying gestures from photographs of her performances. Although no video exists of Wigman bowing, each piece closed with a specifically choreographed bow, down to the tension in Barba’s hands and the articulation of his head. Barba repeated two of the pieces as an encore, and the bows proved to be identical to those initially paired with them.
Due to a lack of documentation of the original scores, Barba paired a great variety of music with Wigman’s solos. For several pieces, he only worked from a list of instruments Wigman used in the score. Choosing to pull the audio directly from the videos he had, Barba created a scratchy ambiance that transported the viewer to the past and allowed the audience to imagine a live performance by Wigman herself.