Obituary: Karin Waehner

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The Independent Culture
KARIN WAEHNER was not widely famous, but she exercised a far- reaching influence and enabled others to become famous. She came from Germany, but worked in France, where along with two Americans - Alwin Nikolais and Viola Farber, who was also of German origin - she was instrumental in breaking the monopoly of classical ballet and establishing contemporary dance as a vigorously creative and highly visible force.

Part of American modern dance evolved out of Germany and Waehner shared a common style of movement with Nikolais, whose teacher Hanya Holm had been taught by the seminal Mary Wigman. But she was closer to its roots, having studied in Berlin with Wigman herself.

Waehner was born in 1926 in Gleiwitz in Germany (now Gliwice, Poland). In 1950 she moved to Buenos Aires, where she taught modern dance until 1953, when she met the mime Marcel Marceau. He inspired her to leave for Paris and to study mime with Etienne Decroux. In Paris she also opened a dance school and choreographed. She appeared with Jerome Andrews as Les Compagnons de la Danse, co-founded the experimental Theatre d'Essai de la Danse in 1955 and started her own touring Ballets Contemporains Karin Waehner in 1959.

She choreographed some 40 pieces and wrote a treatise, Outillage choregraphique, analysing the components of creating movement. But it was as a teacher that she had her most lasting impact. Angelin Preljocaj, France's most prominent contemporary-dance choreographer, whose own company has played several successful seasons in London, trained with her at the Schola Cantorum in Paris where she initiated contemporary-dance teaching.

"I had already studied ballet and she opened my eyes to contemporary dance - to its passion for creation, improvisation and new forms," he says. "Coming from the Wigman expressionist tradition, her movement had a generosity, a way of going to extremes. Expressionism signifies something emerging from the inside and there was in her style a maximum of amplitude and sincerity."

Karin Waehner also possessed those qualities as a person and selflessly battled for her pupils. "She spurred you on. When your morale was at its lowest ebb, she would urge you back on to your dance track," says Preljocaj. She organised a grant for him because he couldn't afford her classes. "She was a spiritual mother, she nurtured me in dance."

Karin Waehner, dancer, choreographer and teacher: born Gleiwitz, Germany 12 March 1926; died 17 February 1999.