On the 100th birthday of eurythmy

By Michael Leber, Matthias Jeuken, December 2012

At the start of the twentieth century, there were a series of dance artists and educationalists who tried to go new ways in movement and dance performance. They experienced the forms of classical ballet as too rigid and wanted to provide new expressive opportunities for the human soul. These impulses are still associated today with the names Isadora Duncan, Rudolf von Laban and his pupil Mary Wigmann.

© Charlotte Fischer

Rudolf Steiner had other intentions: “Can you dance that?” he asked the young painter Margarita Woloschin in 1908 after a lecture on the prologue of the gospel of St John where it says: “In the beginning was the Word...”. Steiner linked his artistic impulse with the spiritual power of the word and the differentiated physical, soul and spiritual nature of human beings. In her memoires, Margarita Woloschin writes that Stei­ner had eurythmy in mind when he asked her this question – and regrets not having recognised his intention. 

A new opportunity did not arise until 1911: in a conversation between Clara Smits and Steiner they spoke about Lory, Clara Smits’ eighteen-year-old daughter. She wanted to embark on a training course as a gymnast or, better still, a dancer. Her mother did not appear very enthusiastic about this idea. But she had the question whether certain movements could not activate healing forces in the human being. Now Steiner was able to build on that. Gladly he declared himself willing to give instructions on developing such movements. He immediately gave initial practical exercises to Mrs Smits to take with her to give to her daughter.

To the great regret of Lory Smits, who kept asking, Steiner did not find time until September 1912 for the first lessons. It quickly became clear that the new art was not just to consist of dance: as soon as in the first eurythmy lesson Steiner choreographed a form which was intended to help children who easily become dizzy. Even as it was being created, performance, educational and therapeutic aspects came together in eurythmy. On the last day of the course there was some discussion as to what this new thing was to be called. The story is told that Marie von Sievers, who later became Steiner’s wife, spontaneously called out “eurythmy” (Greek: “eu” = beautiful, graceful; “rhythmos” = movement).

While Lory Smits herself was still practicing the new movements, she started to teach eurythmy to a group of children. New fellow campaigners joined her: at the first performance in August 1913 in Munich as many as six eurythmists presented the new art form. A lively teaching and performance activity subsequently developed. The young eurythmists were still themselves practicing the new elements – while teaching children and adults at the same time. It was not until 1922 that the first man joined. Steiner intensively supported this development. Whenever possible he spoke introductory words for the performances and gave further instructions while attending rehearsals.

The year 1919 was a special one for eurythmy. After almost seven years of intensive work and many internal performances, eurythmy was presented to the public in performances in theatres in Zurich and Winterthur. Many public performances followed in a short period of time. The new art form was overwhelmingly given a positive reception but critical and hostile voices also, of course, made themselves heard. During Steiner’s lifetime still, European tours were organised in Germany and Switzerland which often filled large state theatres and opera houses.

In 1919, when the first Waldorf school was founded on the Uhlandshöhe, eurythmy became a regular school subject.

Eurythmy in the Waldorf school

Eurythmy was integrated into the range of subjects as a matter of course. Steiner expressly declared eurythmy to be a compulsory subject, an honour which was only accorded to eurythmy. He gave the following special piece of advice to one of the first eurythmists: “If you have a pupil before you who makes six mistakes, or whatever, do me a favour and only point out the seventh one to him.” There were, of course, also problems. In such things Steiner dealt as flexibly as possible with eurythmy: with one boy, who clearly could not be controlled at all in eurythmy lessons, he advised allowing him to participate by letting him draw what the other pupils were doing.

Steiner intensively supported the Waldorf school and eurythmy until his death in 1925 and was satisfied with the way that eurythmy was developing. In lectures on Waldorf education, which he gave in many places, he repeatedly spoke positively about the school and explained how naturally, but also beneficially this unusual subject functioned in the curriculum. Sometimes pupils accompanied him on journeys and showed what they had achieved in eurythmy lessons.

Why are eurythmy lessons indispensible?

That eurythmy pupils can dance their name is not an end in itself. In eurythmy, the eurythmist does not speak or sing with his or her voice but makes his or her form and movement into the instrument. The content, but to a much greater extent the soul moods and inner pictures are artistically formed in consciously made forms and gestures. In kindergarten and class 1 that starts with little stories told in movement. The children slip into the characters of the individual parts, move as a princess, a bear or pony. The pupils in the following classes develop movement and expressive skills in a variety of rhythmical and geometrical exercises comprising gestures and shapes in space. They train their perceptual abilities through the pieces and exercises, but also through their fellow pupils and their own movements. Eurythmy contributes to musical and linguistic as well as social sensitivity and to self-confidence. In doing so, it provides a comprehensive repertoire of movement which can be used for differentiated creative expression like the sounds in language. In the upper school classes the pupils are capable of being independently involved in the process from the selection of the pieces to the eurythmy performance.

Steiner on one occasion explained the effect of eurythmy lessons to parents of pupils at the first Waldorf school: “Thus eurythmy acts in turn on the cognitive abilities and capacities of will – oriented towards agility, interests and truthfulness – as well as on the mind as it is situated between cognitive abilities and capacities of will. Such a huge amount depends on human beings seeing themselves as a whole through eurythmy and not having the body on the one hand and the soul and spirit on the other.” Those have remained high ideals for eurythmy lessons to the present day: helping the children to feel comfortable in themselves, to turn their body into a suitable and pleasant “house” for their soul. That also includes bringing knowledge and action together: how often do pupils, but we adults also, find it difficult to do what we have recognised as being the right thing. To take the initiative for our own impulses but also for our fellow human beings and the environment. These qualities can be practice in studying a piece of music or poetry artistically, in achieving our own expressive possibilities and in using our creativity in eurythmy lessons. How much practice is required, how many repetitions are necessary, how many agreements must be reached (and kept) until a piece is ready for performance? That, integrated into artistic activity, is training of the will and power of initiative.

Eurythmy in 100 years ...

Are eurythmy lessons still useful and relevant? Many different performances, lectures, publications, but also flashmobs and videos in the anniversary year document the self-confident way in which eurythmy is experienced and presented.

Two trends are in evidence. For the further development of eurythmy it will be important to deepen it through understanding and practice – and to individualise it at the same time. A series of current research projects and publications on eurythmy can help to alleviate the communication difficulties which face many eurythmists. State-recognised and accredited courses will continue to give eurythmy greater social acceptance. But its existence is at risk if it can no longer be perceived as a performance art. Because the real deepening occurs in active practice, in reciprocal presentation and perception of what has been achieved, and in the joint struggle for comprehension. For that it needs and audience and performance venues – and that is where Waldorf schools have a special responsibility. The diversity and vitality of eurythmy has been demonstrated in recent months by a series of initiatives by pupils and young eurythmists: young people attempted to demonstrate their access to eurythmy. National and cultural barriers were swept aside.

The Brazilian group of pupils “terranova euritmia” already undertook their third international tour in 2012 .

The ninth “Eurythmy Forum” was held in Witten: more than 500 participants from twelve countries, groups of pupils, students, eurythmy ensembles and soloists showed each other over four days what they had been working on. At “what moves you?” pupils performed Beethoven’s fifth symphony: in eurythmy! They went through an audition and met in Berlin over the summer for rehearsals. The young people worked with seven experienced eurythmy choreographers. At the end they presented their performance with orchestral accompaniment at the Kreuzberg Free Waldorf School.

All these initiatives make one thing clear: young people are asking about the impulses of eurythmy like they did 100 years ago. Eurythmy is 100 years young!

About the authors: Michael Leber is director of the Eurythmeum in Stuttgart; Matthias Jeuken is lecturer of eurythmy at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart

Further information about the initiatives:

www.forumeurythmie.de | www.euritmia.br | www.whatmovesyou.de


No comments

Add comment

* - required field