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Gurdjieff's Dances and Movements

by James Moore

Of Gurdjieff's many roles - ideologue, man of action, author, 'physician/hypnotist', etc. - he arguably most rejoiced in being a 'rather good teacher of temple dances' (B9).  Such dances professedly served two vital functions: the harmonious evolution of the dancers themselves and the transmission of esoteric knowledge to remote generations.  Today his 250 or so ensemble dances termed 'Movements' (or 'exercises' pre-1928), represent to many Gurdjieffians the Work's immaculate heart - a spiritual legacy of incalculable significance.

With the important caveat that Gurdjieff did not encourage choreographic analysis, seven categories, more or less discrete, emerge: rhythms (harmonic, plastic and occupational); the six preliminary exercises or 'Obligatories'; ritual exercises and medical gymnastics; women's dances; men's ethnic dances - 'dervish' and Tibetan; sacred temple dances and tableaux; and the thirty-nine Movements of Gurdjieff's last, partly enneagrammatic, series.  The predominantly Central Asian provenance of Gurdjieff's ethnic, temple and ritual dances is conveyed in programme notes he sanctioned.  Yet these three categories are not simply Dances trouvés; no contemporary Central Asian geographer or anthropologist reports such structured dances.  As to the evolutions based on the enneagram symbol, they seem, despite some Pythagorean redolence, unprecedented.  Evidently then, Gurdjieff's Movements - creations and adaptations alike - bear the stamp of his own genius as a Master of Dance.

Manifestly Gurdjieff is not in debt to classical ballet, nor to any Western schools of dance, eurythmics or movement.  The reverse possibility - of Gurdjieff's (unintentional) influence on modern ballet - cannot be dismissed so easily.  Diaghilev pressed Gurdjieff, unavailingly, to include the Sacred Dances as a novelty item in one of his Ballets Russes seasons.  Lincoln Edward Kirstein, founder (1934) and director (1940) of the prestigious School of American Ballet, was a Prieuré pupil from 1927, and apropos his work with George Balanchine, outspokenly acknowledged Gurdjieff's sovereign influence (in dedicating his book Nijinsky Dancing, Kirstein writes: 'As in everything I do, whatever is valid springs from the person and ideas of G. I. Gurdjieff'; see also his Letter to the Editor, Times Literary Supplement, 27 Jun. 1980.)

Gurdjieff's didactic recourse to dance was lifelong.  On 13th November 1914 he advertised his 'ballet' The Struggle of the Magicians, and in March 1918 in Essentuki actually began teaching (F 372). Over an early five-year period he had economical recourse to public demonstrations, notably Tbilisi (June 1919), Paris (December 1923), New York (January-February 1924).  Here his chief purpose was evidently to plunge participants into intense and formative experiences, his secondary aims being to 'nourish the times' and attract suitable pupils.  During Gurdjieff's decade of authorship (1925-1935), his Movements were sustained in different mileaux by gifted women pupil-teachers (notably Jeanne de Salzmann, Jessmin Howarth, and Rosemary Nott).  In August 1936, with recourse to the Salle Pleyel studios and Jeanne de Salzmann's Sèvres group, Gurdjieff entered his last richly creative teaching period, sustained and developed throughout the Second World War.  He gave his final Movement (No. 39) on 11 October 1949, only eighteen days before his death.

Gurdjieff's dance licenses no 'expressionism', euphemistically ascribable to inspiration or intuition.  Each Movement's external form is 'mathematically' predetermined from beginning to end (cf. Japanese Kata).  Every posture, gesture, rhythm has its appointed place, duration and weight.  Reliance on habit, reflex functioning and symmetry is minimal; the participants arms, legs and head must often conform to independent contrapuntal rhythms; interior exercises in sensation and counting in canon may be added, and silent or spoken prayer.  These diverse demands are reconcilable only by the dancer's mobilized attention equipoised among intellect, feeling, and body.

Gurdjieff held (B476) that millennia ago Sacred Dance was essentially a mode of communication, a universal language with its own grammar, vocabulary, and semantic usage.  Each dance was a book, each sequence or rhythm a phrase, each gesture or posture a word.  The success of Gurdjieff's heroic attempt to rehabilitate this usage is difficult to gauge.  Certainly the enneagrammatic Movements are intellectually penetrable (commensurate with one's grasp of the symbol) to an extent probably unique in dance.  Yet no agreed Gurdjieffian vocabulary of gesture (cf. mudra) promotes understanding of other categories.  Doubtless the individual dancer is more permeable to meaning than are academics, still less voyeurs; and such individualistic gleanings arguably remain reconcilable with claims to universal objectivity whenever they coalesce and the class understands as one.

By 1922 Alphons Paquet, a German Quaker, had published in Delphische Wanderung (Drei Masken Verlag, Munich) the first brief adventitious description of Gurdjieffs Sacred Dance.  The public demonstrations of 1923-4 generated many journalistic cameos.  In general, writers viewed the dances as exotic entertainment, evincing negligible insight into their true function and meaning.  Only one philosophic charge of any substance emerged: that Gurdjieff had plucked sacred dance from its proper devotional framework and had degraded it to the level of a Nietzschean system of self-development, which recognized no Higher Power.  These critics, not having participated in the Movements, must be excused their failure of intuition.

Transmission of the Sacred Dances is direct, from teacher to pupils: no text-book exists, nor could usefully exist.  Articles have been sparse, belated, and uneven.  A substantial, independent, and inevitably misinformed piece is Mel Gordon's 'Gurdjieffs Movement Demonstrations: The Theatre of the Miraculous'. Drama Review, XXII(2), June 1978, New York, pp. 32-44.  Altogether more illuminating and sensitive, though slight in technical and historical detail, is Pauline de Dampierre's 'Sacred Dance: The Search for Conscious Harmony', interview with Jacques Le Vallois, American Theosophist, vol. 73, no. 5, May 1985.  James Moore's 'Katherine Mansfield and Gurdjieff's Sacred Dance', Katherine Mansfield: Centennial Essays (Louisiana State University Press, 1991) offers a specific historical cameo.  The rationale of Gurdjieff's œuvre is finely evoked in 'Movements, Sacred Dances and Ritual Exercises', the programme note to the public demonstration at the Fortune Theatre, Drury Lane, 18 and 19 May 1950.  A significant effort of the traditional Gurdjieff groups since his death has been to create, and preserve for the future, a visual record.  At a considerable expense of time, effort, and money, nearly ten archival films have been made in Paris by the French, English, and American groups, collaborating together under Jeanne de Salzmann's supervision.  The only fragment so far publicly available is the last ten minutes of Peter Brook's film, Meetings with Remarkable Men (1979).


© James Moore 1991
First published in Gurdjieff: the Anatomy of a Myth
and reproduced by kind permission of the author.

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