In 2013, the artist Donna Huddleston reinterpreted German Expressionist choreographer Mary Wigman’s 1914 ‘Witch Dance’. The following is an extract from a chapter bearing the same title from The Other Side: A Journey into Women, Art and the Spirit World by Jennifer Higgie, who was invited to participate in Huddleston’s performance – via ‘a piece of music for the triangle’.
Donna Huddleston told me she thinks of influence as ‘a necessary guide that chaperones and magnetises you’ – an apt summary of her version of Witch Dance, which was performed in a small London East End gallery. Over thirty-eight minutes, her performance embodied how the art of the past morphs and mutates in its journey to the present. The origins of ‘glamour’ pulsated throughout the work. Originally, it was a word that alluded to sorcery, witches, occult knowledge and magical spells; now, it’s been diluted to describe a person who is good-looking and elegant; someone who might put a spell on you. The original meaning of ‘fascinating’ is relevant here. The word derived from Pliny the Elder, who described a group of people from ‘faraway places’ (he was possibly referring to the Balkans) who had two pupils in each eye and who could kill with a single glance. Pliny called their power ‘fascinatio’: its meaning also alluded to spellcasting or possibly enchantment.
"the art of the past morphs and mutates in its journey to the present"
Donna’s cast of eight female dancers formed a chorus, protagonists, ghosts and a wandering woman whose sharp style wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Weimar nightclub. Wigman’s spirit mingles with veiled allusions to a group of radical artists, writers and filmmakers, dead and alive, who share a belief that minds and bodies should be free to do whatever they see fit. In particular, the legacy of that great critic of everyday fascism, the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, haunted Witch Dance. Fassbinder redefined glamour as a political tool; his female actors repeatedly communicate through movement and gesture. He also adored Hollywood, something Donna referenced. She directed her witches to click their fingers like the dualling gangs in West Side Story and to tap their canes like the troupes of dancers in so many of the movies from the golden days of cinema.
"Scenes unfolded as if in a trance"
Scenes unfolded as if in a trance; a mise en scène in which time and place were as vague as each other. Against a projection of a full moon and a wall of painted plants, young women – fashioned in simple dresses from different eras, some with gloves, and one with a cape – moved in and out of light and through smoke. At times they struck poses that echoed Wigman’s long-ago gestures: hands splayed in an evocation of terror, tension or power, fingers pointing to the sky, arms raised in supplication. The least movements seemed loaded with significance, but what, precisely, they signified was unclear: sometimes mystery is an end in itself. (‘Why,’ Donna asked me, ‘should we explain everything?’) Five fake porcelain vases, like a very old still-life painting made flesh, slowly rotate on a platform; eventually, a dancer, directed by a priestess in silk gloves, smashes four of them as furiously as if she were shattering the past itself. When she slams the final vase into another dancer’s back, the shock is palpable. That the violence is enacted to my piece for the triangle – which I accompanied with a simple, repeated phrase on a basic Casio keyboard – made it a curiously intimate experience.
One of the most cryptic aspects of Donna’s Witch Dance is the ponderous actor she employed to sit on a large rock as if to oversee the proceedings: a stand-in for the writer J.G. Ballard – a critic of the worst excesses of humanity. In his prose poem ‘What I Believe’, he declares that the role of the imagination is ‘to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen’. Who could argue with that?
"sometimes mystery is an end in itself"
Witch Dance ends with a jolt: the trance-like atmosphere blown apart by the blasting of Led Zeppelin’s cover of an old blues tune about a flood, ‘When the Levee Breaks’. Each of the women – in silk dresses, leotards, gloves and bustiers – echo Mary Wigman’s movements before finally dancing alone. As they gradually disappear, a line from the song rings out starkly: ‘When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move’: an apt motto for art, as well as life.
Fast forward eight years. Donna is working on a new exhibition of drawings. She texts me photographs of her work in progress. I gaze at the images on my phone, tiny in the palm of my hand, but containing worlds: a piano beneath an eclipse; a woman draped in flowers, another flanked by crows; a necklace formed of two crystals, suspended like tears in a cleavage. I don’t know precisely what any of this means but I am drawn to its strange joy. Like mediums, this is what artists do: they conjure images from the air and the earth, and then send them into the ether, gifts for anyone willing to receive them.
Cover image: Donna Huddleston, Brighter, 2021. This drawing adorns the cover of Jennifer Higgie's new book.