Biography of Hanya Holm

Hanya Holm

One of the 20th century’s major choreographers of American modern dance and Broadway musicals, Hanya Holm was a legendary teacher. Hanya introduced Labanotation, theories of spatial dynamics, and rigorous improvision to the American dance scene. Although she was a strict disciplinarian, Hanya inspired her students to use their instincts.

The Makings of Greatness

Daughter of Valentin Eckert, a German wine merchant, and Marie Morchel, an amateur scientist who held several patents, Hanya developed a love for music at an early age. While she spent the first 12 years of schooling at a Catholic convent, Hanya started studying piano when she was ten years old. She developed her love for music through education at the Hoch Conservatory of Music and the Dalcroze Institute, where she obtained her teaching certificate. Petite, fair skinned, with blond hair, Hanya was articulate and keenly intelligent with a witty sense of humor. Hanya married a painter-sculptor named Reinhold Martin Kuntze in 1917. They divorced in February of 1921 and Hanya retained custody of their son.

Born To Dance

In 1921 Hanya joined Mary Wigman and became a part of the development of “German Expressionist Dance. She toured for ten years in Europe as a principle dancer and she eventually became the chief instructor at Wigman’s Central Institute in Dresden. Hanya danced with the original company from 1923 to 1928. She choreographed and directed Euripides’ Bacchae in Ommen, Holland in 1928, Igor Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat (1918) in Schauspielhause, Dresden in 1929, and Totenmal (1930) created for dance congress in Munich, in May of 1930.

Land of Opportunity

After receiving an offer from impresario Sol Hurok to finance a Wigman school in America, Hanya came to America and started teaching in September 1931. For the first six years she traveled south, west, and north and lectured, taught, and demonstrated at more than 60 colleges and universities. Along the way she secured some of her best students and in 1936 she debuted her trained company. Hanya had developed her own theories and created a modern style that emphasized freedom. Her style had a flowing quality for the torso and back, yet it remained firmly based on universal principles of motion and the laws of physics. There was a distinct delicacy and an expressive lyricism in her dancing. Hanya fused her principles of the old world with the vigor, the power, and the expeditious spirit of American dancers. The dancing was lyrical, witty, and open; just like Hanya herself. This style earned her accolades and she was regarded as one of the “Four Pioneers” of American modern dance.

Hanya’s illustrious teaching career includes: Hills College in California (1932), Perry Mansfield, Colorado (1933), Bennington Summer School of Dance (1934 1941), Colorado College, Colorado Springs (1941); she founded her influential summer program and she taught it herself for 43 years.

In 1939, Hanya Holm became an American citizen. She broke ties with Wigman (the school had come under suspicion of Nazi affiliation) and she put her own name on the school and the company. Hanya disbanded her dance company in 1945.

The Creator

Hanya began creating for the stage with Trend in 1937, which was commissioned by the Bennington Festival; New York Times Award for Best Dance, Metropolitan Daily(1938); National Broadcast Company (NBC) first live telecast of modern dance, Dance of Work & Play (1938), she created in 1939 They Too Are Exiles and Tragic Exodus; Dance Magazines Award for Best Group Choreography, From This Earth (1941), Namesake (1942), in 1948 Ballet Ballads and Kiss Me Kate; New York Drama Critics Award as Best Choreographer and she had the first complete choreography to be copyrighted, the Labanotation score in 1952.

Hanya Holm, Broadway, Film, Television, and Opera

In the 1950s Hanya broadened her scope as a choreographer/director with musicals. These include My Darlin’ Aida (1952), The Golden Apple (1954), My Fair Lady (1956); which earned her a Tony Award Nomination, Camelot (1960), Anya (1965). Her film/television creations comprise of The Vagabond King (Paramount, 1956), The Dance and the Drama (CBC, 1957), and Dinner with the President (CBS, 1963). Hanya even handed her talents to the world of opera. She directed Douglas Moore’s opera The Ballad of Baby Doe at the Central City Opera House in Colorado in 1956 and she staged Christoph Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Euridice in Vancouver and Toronto in 1959.

The Don Redlich Dance Company became the chief repository for Hanya’s concert dances in the 1970s. For its 1985 season the company presented Ratatat (1982), Jocose (1983), and Capers(1985).

In the End

Hanya received an honorary degree, Doctor of Fine Arts from Colorado College in 1960 and she received the highly endowed Squibb Grant in 1990. In 1956 she had purchased a town house on West 11th Street, where she lived until her death on November 3, 1992 from pneumonia. She was 99-years old. As an honored guest at the American Film Institute in the Kennedy Center Hanya is noted for saying, “You will find out that one life is not enough. You will want to have several lives in which to discover what there is to be discovered.”