Mary Wigman (actually Marie Wiegmann) was born in Hannover in 1886. She received her first lessons in dance from Grete Wiesenthal and Jacques Dalcroze, becoming the latter's pupil in 1911, much to the consternation of her parents. In 1913, she became the pupil, later assistant, of Rudolf von Laban with whom she became acquainted through the painter Emil Nolde.
At the time, Rudolf von Laban lived and worked with his pupils in Ascona and was engaged in establishing his theories on dance as an art-form independent of music as well as his thoughts on group sequences and movement drama – all of which ideas were received and finally realised by Mary Wigman. It is no coincidence therefore that she went on to call him her most influential teacher.
After three years of prolonged illness and professional failures, Wigman was able to found her own dance school in Dresden in 1920, an institution which was to play a decisive role in the development of Modern Dance. Two branch-schools were founded soon after in Munich and Berlin, where Harald Kreutzberg, Gret Palucca and Yvonne Georgi among others received their dance education. She toured extensively through Germany and Europe, either as a soloist or with her dance company. Between 1930 and 1933, Wigman annually toured as a soloist in the USA. After 1933, being described by the Nazis as 'international’ and 'foreign', eventually, Wigman was banned from further performing in public, and her schools were closed.
After the war, Wigman was successful in reopening a school in Leipzig. During the season of 1946/47, she was commissioned with the staging Gluck's Orpheus und Eurydike, after which production she continuously worked as a guest stage director for some of the most prestigious West-German theatres of the time. In 1949, Wigman founded a new dance studio in Berlin-Dahlem together with Marianne Vogelsang. The fame of Mary Wigman, who was still actively teaching dance at 80 years of age, expanded well beyond Germany's borders. Guest appearances in Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, as well as in London and Paris were enthusiastically received. In the USA, she was hailed and celebrated as the creator of 'New German Dance'. A new Wigman-school under the artistic direction of Hanya Holm was founded in New York.
The most well-known of her soloist works are Schwingende Landschaft, Herbstliche Tänze and Opfer. Her most famous group choreographies include Totentanz, Raumgesänge, Die Feier, Frauentänze, Chorische Studien, Sieben Tänze des Lebens, Dreieck, Helle Schwingungen, Mondlied, Zwiesprache, Vision, Klage and Tanzmärchen. Wigman also recorded her ideas and hopes pertaining to dance in a series of literary documents, for instance in Die Sprache des Tanzes, published in 1963.
Both the Händel-opera Saul and Carl Orff's Catulli Carmina and Carmina Burana, staged and choreographed by Wigman in 1954 for the National Theatre of Mannheim, took the audience by storm. In 1957, she successfully directed the Strawinsky-ballet Le Sacre du printemps which was shown during the Berlin Festival Week – a production for which she received Standing ovations. The following year, she directed Gluck's opera Alcetis for the National Theatre of Mannheim. She was also the driving force behind the Frankfurter Tanzwoche of 1961, and still performed with extraordinary vivacity even in 1961 during the Ruhrfestspiele in Recklinghausen.
Mary Wigman received several awards during her lifetime; the Schillerpreis of Mannheim (1954), the Große Bundesverdienstkreuz (1958) and the Tanzpreis des Verbandes der deutschen Kritiker (1961). In 1955, she became a member of the Academy of Arts in Berlin.
Mary Wigman died in Berlin at the age of 86. In 2013/2014 her version of Le Sacre du printemps celebrated its revival in the extraordinary cooperation of the Bavarian State Ballet with the Stadttheater Osnabrück and Bielefeld, being funded by the KSB Berlin.