Hanya Holm, choreographer of musicals and dance

November 06, 1992|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK CITY -- Hanya Holm, a major choreographer of modern dance and Broadway musicals, died of pneumonia Tuesday at St. Vincent's Hospital here at age 99.

To theatergoers, Miss Holm was known as the choreographer of musicals that included Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate" and "Out of This World" and Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot."

To modern-dance aficionados, Miss Holm was the most significant choreographer and dancer to have come out of the Central European Expressionist dance tradition in Germany. Its most noted figure was Mary Wigman, and Miss Holm was her student. Her 1937 "Trend," a dance of social protest, is considered a masterwork of American modern dance. Miss Holm has been considered a member of a pantheon of American modern-dance choreographers that included Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman.

A funny, humane and uncompromising woman, Miss Holm encouraged her pupils to find their own individual ways of artistic expression. Her students included leading choreographers as diverse as Alwin Nikolais, Murray Louis, Glen Tetley, Don Redlich and Lucinda Childs.

Born in Worms, Germany, Miss Holm, who was originally named Johanna Eckert, pursued a career in dance against her family's wishes. She had been exposed to dance at the Dalcroze Institute of Applied Rhythm in Frankfurt in 1915.

The theories of Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, a Swiss composer and teacher who helped his music and dance students develop a sense of rhythm by translating sounds into movement, had at that point influenced a generation of German modern dancers, of whom the best known was Ms. Wigman. Miss Holm was dancing with Ms. Wigman's troupe by 1921 and taught in her school in Dresden. She remained a leading Wigman teacher and dancer for 10 years, creating roles in "Feier" and "Totenmal," which she helped Ms. Wigman choreograph. During this time she changed her name.

In 1930-1931, Sol Hurok brought the Wigman company to the United States for a transcontinental tour. Mr. Hurok had urged Ms. Wigman to found an American school, and she agreed, sending Miss Holm to America to direct it. Miss Holm arrived in New York City in September 1931, and for the next five years she devoted herself to teaching. She bought the school when its popularity began to decline after the first year, and in 1936 the school was renamed the Hanya Holm School of Dance.

The new style she was developing, she told her pupils, was based on the proposition that "emotionally the German dance is basically subjective and the American dance is objective." The distinction, she added, was "one of 'being' as contrasted with 'doing.' "

Miss Holm took on other teaching positions in important dance institutions, among them, in 1934, the Bennington College Summer School of Dance, the forerunner of the American Dance Festival, where the "Trend" was first performed. In 1941, she developed the influential summer dance program at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, where she continued to teach until 1983.

Part of the success of her teaching lay in her pithy instructions to students. "Keep the beat," she told them, "but undermine it." Another instruction was to "use the feet as if you would pick up a flower with your toes." Her students were familiar with the command to "feel it, children, don't schlep it."

Miss Holm became a United States citizen in 1939, the same year she received the Dance Magazine Award for "Tragic Exodus," a powerful dance of social commentary.

In 1939, she also became the first concert dancer to present her work on television in the United States, showing a shortened version of "Metropolitan Daily," a humorous depiction of a daily newspaper.

Miss Holm had abandoned modern dance for the Broadway stage by 1947, although she continued to create dances for her summer students and choreographed four well-received dances for the Don Redlich Dance Co. in the mid-1970s and mid-1980s.

Her honors included an award from the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies for her contributions to modern dance in 1958, the Capezio Award, the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award in 1984 and the Astaire Award in 1987. "It just happened," Miss Holm said of her career in accepting the Scripps Award, "and whatever has happened was with love, dedication, good will, gladly and well. I keep on doing it as good as I can and as long as I can."

Miss Holm's marriage to Reinhold Martin Kuntze, a painter and sculptor, ended in divorce.

She is survived by her son, Klaus, of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and three granddaughters, Karen Trautlein of Wilkes-Barre, Angela Holm of San Diego and Jessica Werbin of New Haven, Conn.

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