Artist or Educator? Autobiographical Sketch 2

Artist or Educator? Autobiographical Sketch 2

Although my work has become known through my teaching, I do not consider myself an educator. I am a dancer who has become deeply involved in teaching because I have needed to share with others my great love of dance as a creative art activity.

I began dance in my childhood home where dancing, singing and playing the piano, painting, writing and acting were practiced by the entire family as ordinary daily life activitites. There was no radio or television, not even a record player because my father objected to "canned music". We never attended performances outside the home, with the exception of Ravinia Park.

Our home was in Hubbard Woods, Illinois, on the shore of Lake Michigan. Ravinia park, a pavilion for outdoor music (and mosquitoes), was only fifteen miles away. On summer afternoons, women would bring there sewing and sit on benches listening to music while their small children (I was on of them) played in the grass at their feet. The husbands, some of whom commuted to Chicago as my father did, would come out of the city on the Northwestern train to have a picnic supper at Ravinia with their families and attend opera that night. So I became familiar with Lohengrin, Aida, Carmen, and all the rest, through which I sometimes slept. Once we attended a dance performance by Ruth Page, a ballet dancer, at Ravinia. I found it intensely boring.
My father practiced neurology but was primarily a musician. He spent much of his time playing the piano. As far back as I could remember I would wake up and go to sleep to the sound of his music, always of romantic composers. I can still sometimes hear in the silence of the night the rich tones of a Chopin Nocturne or the Polonaise.

We never had lessons in dance or music outside home. I danced to my father's music as naturally as a bird flies, sometimes envying a friend who went to ballroom dance classes. My father taught us to play the piano.

There were two pianos in our home and father would bring home two - piano pieces easy enough for members of his family to play on the old upright while he played on the new grand. I was the youngest, so I was given the easiest. In retrospect I can see that my father was part dancer, because he was so concerned with the movement element of music. As I fumbled through my two part piano piece, he cared less about accuracy of the notes than of the rhythm. I had to be on the beat.

People like to hear me play the piano and to watch me dance, but I never thought of music and dance as performance for others. To me they were fulfilling activities. When my mother would say to me , "Won't you play or dance for my friends?", I would refuse and run away. This was not shyness. It was intuitive realization that my mother was more interested in the show than in the experience. A child knows nothing about theories of art but I could sense an over-emphasis on performance and instrumental technique whereas to me - then as now - dance and music were creative art works, valid whether or not they were performed for others.

In Sketch 1, I have written of my eight lost years in high school and college - lost because they offered me no opportunity to grow as a musician or dancer beyond the level which I had achieved in childhood. In addition to those described in the sketch the only dance experiences of that time I remember are the miseries of trying to dance at parties with young men whose dancing had no movement, no rhythm, no relationship to the music. The girl was supposed to follow her partner who, while holding her at a discreet distance, tried to walk around without bumping into other couples who were doing the same. The partners were expected to talk while they danced, but I wanted to move - freely, rhythmically, in union with the music.

Once out of college, I began to realize that dance was a field which could be studied seriously and pursued as a vocation. I knew that this was what I wanted but was told by everyone that I was to old to begin. While vacationing in Europe from a job on a magazine, I accompanied a friend who visited the Mary Wigman School of Dance in Berlin. It became immediately clear that I was not too old.

After coming home and rearranging my life, I went back to Germany and spent two and a half years at the Mary Wigman Central Institute in Dresden, completing the three- year professional course and receiving a diploma in June, 1933, six months after Hitler had been made chancellor. Returning to this country in the depths of depression, I opened my own studio in New York.

I wanted to dance, and I wanted to share the joy of dancing with everyone in the world - this had been the two-sided motivation of all my dance work. I am a child of Isadora Duncan,"I see America dancing". I am also an heir to the democratic philosophy of art in Germany during the Weimar Republic, when modern artists and educators were striking out in new directions to satisfy a popular demand for creative approaches to art.

Am I artist or educator? This is a question which seems to puzzle those who would like to categorize my role in modern American Dance. Must there be a separation? My need to dance, and my need to draw others into the dance experience with me, are inseparable.

I have always danced. At the Mary Wigman school in Dresden there were many opportunities to perform. While my studio was in New York City, I danced continuously alone and with my groups, for schools, colleges, museums, clubs and art associations, in neighboring states as well as in New York. Once I rented the Heckscher Theater. We were always "off Broadway" so I never received a review by John Martin, dance critic of New York, but he knew of my work and gave me encouragement.

At my New Hampshire school I gave weekly performances with my groups. Before moving to Arizona, I toured for six months down the East Coast and into the Middle West, performing and teaching in a group of five.

Since building my studio in Tucson the running of my school, in addition to teaching in various parts of this country and abroad, has limited my own dancing. I have often had to choose between myself and providing dance experiences for others.

If dance is, as I believe, the art of body movement and if movement is our most natural, universal language, it is imperative that we all do it. It must be cultivated, and who is to cultivate it if not dancers? The answer is obvious, but there is still more to be considered. The dancer who is to teach anyone and everyone must find common denominators of dance which offer opportunity for free creative movement expression to any individual or group.

Throughout my professional life I have searched persistently for these common denominators, without any help from the dance world other than the influence of Rudolf von Laban's work on our study program at the Wigman school. I have been an explorer, seeking basic elements of dance which can make the practice of it available to everyone. Truths which I have discovered and verified by continuous testing have shaped my own dancing and influenced the dancing of many others. I have found ways to liberate and cultivate the natural creative movement impulses which are latent in every human being and in every group, rejecting uncompromisingly every attempt to reshape natural human movement to conform to artificialities.

Very early in my iconoclastic approaches to performance, I had the spectators sit in a circle around the dancers, occasionally participating in the movement. After my New York period we never used music as a background; instead the dancers accompanied themselves and each other, not only with sounds of voice, hands and feet but also with any other kind of musical instrument which they could handle. At my New Hampshire farm school we danced in relation to the environment outdoors and indoors- a direction which we continued to follow.

There came a time when, in a burst of artistic insight, I realized that my groups and I should no longer practice composed dances. Rather, we should improvise. This was the most definitive turning point in my professional career. Until then I had approached improvisation merely as preparation for composition, as we had done at the Wigman school. From that moment on, I have put my major effort into developing the craft of improvisation. All our performances since then have been improvised.

I believe that the most creative moment of a dance is when it is first being created, and that improvisation is the surest way of evoking the unique creative dance potential of every individual and every group.

A peak in my creative dance work has been reached in performances of large group dance improvisation. In these I do not dance myself, but my groups improvise under my direction. I train the members, give them movement themes, and guide them critically through their dance creations. The film "A New Direction in Dance" shows my seventeen- member dance company improvise for an hour.

Who am I? An alien in my own land, dance? There are few who understand the meaning of my work. Movement is a language which always has a meaning, and I am more concerned with the meaning of the dance than with the display of technical proficiency. My book "The Nature of Dance" states clearly what dance means to me. It is for someone else to decide whether I am an educator or artist, if it is necessary to make a distinction between them.

copyright Barbara Mettler 1981

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