Many people are only familiar with eurhythmy as a school subject taught in Waldorf schools. And although eurhythmy is indeed an integral part of anthroposophical education, eurhythmic expression is not limited to pedagogical purposes. Not only can it be used therapeutically (‘curative eurhythmy’), it is also a harmonious form of movement art. Imke Jelle van Dam has written a book about eurhythmy as an aesthetic performing art.
Imke Jelle: ‘By ferreting through old documents and reports, I discovered that Rudolf Steiner gave his very first eurhythmic lesson on the 1st of September 1912, to a nineteen year old girl named Lory Smits. While this date marks the birth of eurhythmy, the first session obviously did not just come out of nowhere. The first seeds for the development of eurhythmic training were sown about nine months earlier. In December 1911, Clara Smits, Lory’s mother, recently widowed, was looking for advice.
Like so many others at the time, she consulted Rudolf Steiner, whom she knew well. When she asked him what she should do to give her daughter a future, he answered her question with another question: ‘What does your daughter want to do?’ She told Steiner that her daughter wanted to do something with movement and art, perhaps something along the lines of Mensendieck therapy. In the ensuing conversation, Clara Smits, who was already fairly well-versed in anthroposophical theories, asked Steiner whether certain rhythmical movements might have a healing effect on the body. Steiner confirmed that this was indeed the case, and offered to instruct her daughter in order to further develop these ideas. Lory, who had been to Steiner’s lectures and trusted him completely, was very keen and immediately started to work on the exercises Steiner had suggested she should do. One and a half month later, Steiner gave her additional exercises to do at home. These exercises could not yet be regarded as eurhythmic moves, but served as a preparation for Lory’s first lesson that was to take place on the first of September 1912.
A few weeks after completing these instructions, Lory receives private tuition from Steiner. During a twelve-day training Steiner teaches her the principles underlying eurhythmy, while her mother takes detailed notes. At the end of the final lesson, Marie von Sivers, Steiner’s wife, who attended the session, suggests the name ‘eurhythmy’ for this new art of movement, based on two Greek words: eu , which can mean either ‘good’, ‘beautiful’, ‘harmonious’ or ‘healthy’, and rhythmy, which means ‘movement’. The name beautifully captures the essence of eurhythmy: good and healthy movement.
Lory is a dedicated student, who even asks her three younger sisters to help her do the exercises assigned to her by Steiner, and when Steiner meets her again in April 1913, he is very pleased with her progress.’
So what happened next?
‘On the 28th of August 1913, Goethe’s birthday, the first ever eurhythmy performance was given by a group of ten children and young adults for members of the anthroposophical society in Munich. The movements were still quite rudimentary and static. Right then, Steiner, who was very happy with the performance, predicted that this evening would be the beginning of something with a great future ahead.
After that, everything happens very quickly; in the autumn of 1913, a small number of eurhythmists start giving courses throughout Germany. At first, it’s just speech eurhythmy, that is to say, movements reflecting individual letters; it is not until 1915 does Steiner add instructions for music, which makes for the development of tone eurhythmy. In 1919, Zürich provides the stage for the first public eurhythmy performance at which Steiner himself is present. Before the programme, which consists of short pieces, texts and poems, kicks off, Steiner warns the eurhythmists: ‘If everyone waxes lyrical about your performance, there is something quite right! Eurhythmy simply has to provoke resistance. The majority of the people in the audience will think eurhythmy is horrible.’
The fact that eurhythmy may not be to everyone’s liking became abundantly clear when a group of eurhythmists trained in Dornach, the centre of the anthroposophical movement in the world, gave several performances in the Netherlands in February 1921. All four performances (in Hilversum, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague) were completely sold out – after all, you shouldn’t forget that Steiner was very famous at the time. The reviews, however, ranged from the euphoric “[…] over and again, we were given an impression of beauty. We saw gracious movements, beautiful poses and arrangements, and felt a rhythm that proved the perfect accompaniment to the stylized presentation and the music, charming us on several occasions” (Het Vaderland) to the downright scathing “[…] the moves of this eurhythmy, which, if we are to take its name at face value, ought to be an art of beautiful movement, were, for the greater part, ugly, exaggerated, non-descript.” (Telegraaf).
Meanwhile, a group of recently trained Dutch eurhythmists started giving demonstrations in towns and cities all over the Netherlands. All kinds of initiatives were launched in the two decades preceding World War II, including the introduction of eurhythmy as part of the curriculum for pupils attending the first Waldorf school in the country founded in The Hague in 1923.’
Anthroposophy was banned in the Second World War. What repercussion did this have for eurhythmy during those years?
‘The buzzing Dutch eurhythmy scene suddenly ground to a halt during the war years. It is only secretly, in small back rooms, under wretched circumstances and having to exercise great caution, that small groups of ladies-with-a-mission continue to practice eurhythmy After the end of the war activities gradually started up again. The first initiative to establish a Dutch eurhythmy training centre in The Hague was taken in 1966. Soon afterwards, Werner Barfod was invited to come to the Netherlands to take the lead. It was also Barfod who founded the Nederlands Eurythmie Ensemble (Dutch Eurhythmy Group). In the seventies and eighties, eurhythmy was thriving. There are dozens of performances, which usually sell out, with audiences up to 1,000. In the mid-seventies, eurhythmy was at the peak of its popularity, and in 1975 eurhythmist Else Kink puts on a performance Orpheus and Eurydice at the Holland Festival, for an audience outside the circle of people already familiar with eurhythmy – the first performance for a truly wider audience.
But after this golden age interest wanes, and at the end of the eighties, the number of people attending performances has dropped dramatically, worldwide. There is criticism from different quarters. Some say that eurhythmy is too uniform, that every move is interchangeable and merely a question of imitation, too much outer appearance and too impersonal. A few young eurhythmists respond by taking a radically different approach. They start to experiment with instructions written down by Steiner and face a great deal of criticism from the older generation of eurhythmists. People walk out of performances: ‘This is no eurhythmy!’ It doesn’t stop eurhythmists like Melaine MacDonald, Bettina Grube and Gia van de Akker from going their own way.
And what about now?
‘More and more, eurhythmists, both individual performers and groups, are opting for more innovative approaches and dare to let go of fixed ‘rules’. People increasingly recognize the value of the personal in a performance and allow room for personal aspects. Eurhythmy has been given a stage nationally and internationally, and professionals are being hired to design the set and costumes and to take care of the lighting. And more and more people attending performances or taking part in eurhythmy themselves are discovering that the initial resistance they experience makes way for effervescence and a healing power.’
Text: Petra Essink
Photographs Gia van den Akker: Laurent Ziegler
100 jaar Euritmie in Nederland
(‘100 years of eurhythmy in the Netherlands’)
by Imke Jelle van Dam
For further information: www.euritmie.nl/org
The history of Eurhythmy as a performing art – an interview with Imke Jelle van Dam
When I ask Imke Jelle if he can tell me a little bit about the history of eurhythmy his eyes start to sparkle. Of course! With an enthusiasm that is contagious he starts to unfold the story of a hundred years of eurhythmy in great detail: