I was invited to write this article for Le Rythme, an annual international journal of FIER. This year’s theme was L’interprétation corporelle – the idea of reflecting music in movement. Once a guiding force in modern dance, ‘music visualization’ might have lost its purpose 75 years ago or might remain vital today, depending on who you ask. The process of creating such works in the context of Jaques-Dalcroze studies, however – a process termed plastique animée – explores a timeless connection between sound and space.
American Modern Dance, Music Visualizations and Plastique animée
Is the thing seen or the thing heard the thing that makes most of its impression on you at the theater. How much has hearing to do with it and how little. Does the thing heard replace the thing seen. Does it help or does it interfere with it. – Gertrude Stein1
Whether we call it “music visualization,” “plastique animée,” “l’interprétation corporelle” or “the interpretation of music in a physical performance,” it is a thing of many dualities. It has existed in two disciplines – music and dance; it may serve two purposes – educational process and performance outcome; and its use has changed from its origin a century ago to today.
Early in the 20th century, visualization of music was a goal of significant modern dance pioneers, influenced to a great degree by Jaques-Dalcroze’s work in Hellerau. As they abandoned the trappings of concert dance to that point, choreographers found in music a structural foundation that allowed them to focus on movement vocabulary for its own sake, apart from storylines, characters and elaborate costumes.
Today, however, very few choreographers aspire to embody and reflect composed music. Once freed of the strictures of music, dance was able to focus further on its own independent idiom. Once music became a backdrop, it stayed there.
In the polarity of process vs. product, music visualization has two roles. As a music analysis, the process of constructing movement to embody music is a vital component of Dalcroze education. Performance of that product may also provide value to students, but audience preferences, educational practices and other factors have limited its popularity as a performing art.
Isadora Duncan and Emile Jaques-Dalcroze
When dance onstage meant vaudeville entertainment, tinged with an aura of disrepute, dance as an art form fought for its place in concert halls alongside music. American dancer Isadora Duncan was the foremost pioneer in that effort.
She accomplished it by several means. First, she emphasized nature, art and beauty with overtones of spirituality, and turned to Greek art and sculpture for the ideal representations of the human form. These classic works offered a way to see bodies onstage as legitimate art.
Moreover, Duncan danced with music already well known and loved in concert halls. This was a departure from classical ballet’s use of commissioned music composed specifically for dance. Here dance came afterward as an “interpretation,” and the term “interpretive dance” has been used to describe early modern dance’s intention to portray a mood, story and/or music composition.
Duncan danced to Schubert, Chopin and Gluck, and hints at music as the core of her work. In praising Wagner in 1921, she wrote:
He was the first to conceive of the dance as born of music. This is my conception of the dance also, and for it I strive in the work of my school.2
She conceived of dance as a quasi-religious experience, created by the soul, not the mind. With that philosophy, she disapproved of Jaques-Dalcroze’s work as being overly systematic and controlled by mental powers – the same criticism she had for ballet.
Although she achieved her fame as a performer, Duncan embraced the idea of dance as a personal experience first, rather than a design for the stage, especially within her school. As she described it:
…I have seen the little children of my school, under the spell of music, drop all materiality and move with a beauty so pure that they attained the highest expression of human living. But to attain that height, the dance cannot be thought of as an amusement or as an exhibition on a stage before and audience avid of sensations. 3
This aligns with the idea of music visualization (and plastique animée) as a study rather than a performance. Although Duncan’s choreography responds to musical phrasing and rhythm, she followed her natural instincts without attempting exact representation of the score.
Two books on dance offer a contemporaneous view with suggestions of music visualization. Dancing and Dancers of Today (1912) discusses Duncan’s dance as a natural outgrowth of music’s impulse toward movement.
Must we listen to music with our eyes shut and look at dancing with our ears stopped? This question seems to be banal, but it was the subject of many of the criticisms which greeted Isadora Duncan’s first appearance in New York. And truly it would seem that in developing their musical taste some musicians have entirely neglected all the other arts… So much does stillness seem to be their one ideal, that it is a wonder they permit the musicians to move their arms so vigorously
So the musical pundits were shocked. It was a desecration of music to associate with it so “primitive” an art as dancing; too much, possibly, like opening a cathedral window and letting nature’s freshness blow through the aisles and vaulting. It ruffles the hair of the worshippers and disturbs the serene detachment of their reveries.
From their standpoint quite possibly the pundits are right. They have trained their ears at the expense of their eyes, and have accustomed their brain to respond exclusively to aural impressions.4
A similar idea is expressed in The Dance: Its Place in Art and Life (1914), noting the sensory elements of music visualization:
For present clearness let it be known as music of the ear. Because, the very same mental sensations produced by rhythm and sound variously juxtaposed and combined, acting through the medium of hearing, are susceptible of stimulation by means of rhythm and line, in suitable juxtaposition and combinations, acting through the medium of vision. It follows that dancing, in effect, is music of the eye.5
Both Duncan and Jaques-Dalcroze wrote of reforming and restoring dance, and envisioned ideal dancers in a future where their work would be in full effect. They both discussed the importance of nature, rhythm and Greek philosophy. Duncan wrote about the Greek chorus as a choreographic model, and similarly, Jaques-Dalcroze’s large-scale festivals featured simple group choric movement. Despite their commonalities, the two did not fully agree with each other’s work, and apparently they never met.
Emile Jaques-Dalcroze and Music Visualizations
By its nature, the Dalcroze Method is rooted in the physical realization of music. This is evident in the piano pieces Jaques-Dalcroze composed for teaching Eurhythmics. The Marches Rythmique and two subsequent volumes of Esquisses outline a logical progression of music concepts for physical study integrating ear, mind and body.
As an outgrowth of eurhythmics, Jaques-Dalcroze’s plastique animée (or “moving plastic”) brings skills, knowledge and artistry to music analysis. Musicians improvise in movement, coordinate and refine ideas, and thus devise choreography, ultimately creating a musician’s embodiment of a music composition.
Jaques-Dalcroze’s school in Hellerau had a profound influence on the development of modern dance, particularly through studies and performances of music-based choreographies.
One example was the 1913 performance of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (Gluck was another shared interest of Jaques-Dalcroze and Isadora Duncan.) for which Jaques-Dalcroze’s student, Annie Beck, directed the choreography.
American writer Upton Sinclair recalled the performance in “Music Made Visible,” the first chapter of his novel World’s End. It describes 13-year-old Lanny Budd enjoying an idyllic summer in Hellerau, using this as an optimistic scene to contrast the destruction wreaked by World War I.
The spirits stood upon a slope within the entrance gates of Hell; tier upon tier of them, and in the dim blue light of infernal fires their naked arms and legs made, as it were, a mountain of motion…
… The mountain of motion burst forth into silent song… Rapture seized the limbs now shining in bright light; they wove patterns as intricate as the music, portraying not merely melody but complicated harmonies. Beautiful designs were brought before the eye, counterpoint was heightened through another sense. It was music made visible…6
George Bernard Shaw also saw the production, and described the work in a letter of 1913:
All the pupils at the school, heaped on the floor in a dim light and tossing their arms and legs about looked like heaps of snakes in hell…7
Music Visualizations and American Modern Dance
Doris Humphrey, dancer and choreographer, was a pivotal force in bringing plastique animée from Hellerau to America, significantly impacting modern dance. Although she did not study in Hellerau herself, she learned from teachers who had: first, Lucy Duncan Hall and Andreas Pavley in Chicago, and then Marion Kappes at the Denishawn school in California.
Denishawn Music Visualization
Founded by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, Denishawn is widely considered the foundation of American modern dance. Humphrey arrived as a student and soon joined the Denishawn Dance Company. Musician Louis Horst had been working with the group, and welcomed Humphrey’s skills and insights.
The music visualizations of the Denishawn group were a departure from their earlier dances. Music visualizations were modern dance works that stripped away ornate costumes, pseudo-ethnic exoticism and narrative plot designs. Wearing the simple tunics of Duncan, the focus was on choreography designed to match the music, synchronizing the aural and visual experiences of the audience.
Compared with what had gone before, music visualizations were abstract. They allowed American dance to develop in its own right. Dancers no longer had to portray princesses, sylphs or fairies – they could simply dance who they were.
Humphrey continued to create music visualizations after she left Denishawn in 1928. Others worked in the same genre, but the concept went out of favor after the 1930s. A variety of factors probably contributed to its demise. First, critics like John Martin, perhaps even more than audiences, criticized the approach. In 1936, he wrote:
Through a complete misunderstanding of Isadora, music became some thirty years ago, the chief and indispensable medium of the dance, and that weird anomaly known as interpretive dancing swept into the world.8
Stating that American dance’s “attitude to music is far and away its weakest point,” Martin avers:
… (N)obody in any part of the world is any longer justified in dancing music interpretations under the impression that he is being modern. Music is entirely secondary in any self-respecting form of dancing; it is an accompaniment, a background, not to be listened to for itself any more than a stage setting is to be concentrated upon after the actors come on to the scene.9
Although we may think of the Dalcroze approach as free, natural and liberating, in dance circles it was seen in the opposite way – as a rigid, analytical, confining system. Years after Isadora Duncan contrasted her work with his, Jaques-Dalcroze came to represent anti-artistic anathema among many American dancers.
Stephanie Jordan makes the point in her book Moving Music, noting that even choreographers heavily influenced by Jaques-Dalcroze’s work later claimed distance from it, including Bronislava Nijinska, Fyodor Lopukhov and even Doris Humphrey. Jordan explains:
Equivalence between the arts became an irrelevance, the modern dance pioneers after Duncan and Denishawn considering it reactionary to hold on to the principle of music leading dance. Whereas music was once considered a liberating mechanism, it was later viewed with suspicion: it could limit the development of choreography. Autonomy for dance was sought, alongside new structural relationships between music and dance.10
As modern dance grew, possibilities arose for commissioning works of music rather than creating choreographic interpretations of music that already existed. This made it easier for choreographers to follow their own interests in concepts of space and energy, and to develop new movement vocabulary, dance constructs and choreographic forms apart from music.
The belief that dance for its own sake required freedom from external confines, including music, may further have eroded its emphasis in dance study. Disinterest and inability can feed each other. Where music was once seen as a distraction to avoid, “the tyranny of music” has become a common phrase among dancers.
The divorce of music from dance may have found its pinnacle in the partnership of choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage in the 1950s. In deconstructing elements of space, time and sound, the new moderns turned away from natural instincts of rhythm and dance toward more cerebral ideas about art for art’s sake.
This was part of a general trend toward abstract art. Experimental work examined assumptions and traditions, seeking new possibilities. Visual art focused on elements like line, color and texture apart from any external associations; music broke down constructs of form, tonality, and process; theatre removed barriers between authors, actors and audiences; and all arts made their way into new physical environments.
Post-modern work, even in the 1950s, embraced the notion that concepts alone could supersede their actualization. Ideas and materials of the arts were questioned at length, not only as a process of inquiry toward creative discovery, but also as artistic presentation in and of itself. Thus continual repetition became a theme in dance, itself repeated many times; John Cage gave us 4;33; and, for example, an audience might arrive at an empty studio to experience the space where the performer had previously rehearsed (ostensibly an investigation of spatial environments across time, or an exploration of the disparate roles of performer and audience, or an experience separating the creative process from the act of performance, etc.).
The prevalence of that post-modern, cerebral counter-aesthetic has grown, even if its audiences have dwindled. Early modern dance work is now considered classic, and it is studied as part of historic “dance literacy.” Nevertheless, it still enjoys relative popularity at box offices.
In American universities however, choreography in close connection with music is considered not only old-fashioned, but also less educational. Music can invite student choreographers to mimic its superficial aspects, a practice that dancers call “mickey mousing.” In silence, students can develop movement ideas concerning space, weight, direction, level, speed, etc., and thereby create thematic material without needing to coordinate with music in any way.
That is not to say that music is not used, however. It is added afterward. To keep focus on the dance, music becomes a backdrop of sound, perhaps offering a contextual allusion to a specific era, or setting a general mood or atmosphere, but not connecting directly with the movement.
Imagine a composer today creating a piano concerto in Mozart’s style surpassing the master’s best work. Would contemporary critics, academians and audiences embrace it? Likely not, because no matter how brilliant it might be, the piece would not be new, and thus would be considered inauthentic. If the same manuscript were found in a Viennese attic and sourced to Mozart himself however, the reception of the music would be quite different. In that sense, judgments about art itself concern being new within one’s own time.
Those who harken back to earlier times may enjoy a niche with little room for others. While critics may hear composer John Rutter’s music as “sugary,” and view Mark Morris’s choreography as “mickey mousing,” audiences still enjoy their work (and Mozart’s, and 19th-century ballets) perhaps more than something so abstract it doesn’t resonate with the viewer’s human experience. After all, human experience involves more than just the brain.
As a performance art, choreographic embodiment of music is at sea. When dancers work in this vein, they often reflect superficial aspects of the music, reinforcing what is easily heard. Musicians may create more subtle and sensitive choreography, but without the physical technique to bring it to an audience as a musical-visual art form.
American Modern Dance and Eurhythmics: Studio and Stage
Here we come full circle, back to the classroom or studio. Education and experience are the seeds of what we see on the stage. A century ago, music and movement united in an educational sphere and grew into co-equal parts of one art form. Plastique animée and modern dance grew from Jaques-Dalcroze’s innovations in making music physical.
It was not the first time or place music and dance were ever addressed as a single art form. In other parts of the world, they have always been conjoined, but western culture has a peculiar habit of prying them apart into two specialized camps.
If 20th century music visualizations took root and developed in educational settings, they have left the same way. Spaces where movement and music thrive as equal parts of one art form are extremely rare in today’s U.S. For individuals steeped in this intersection, I can say from experience that it is virtually impossible to avoid a choice between “dance” and “music,” except a choice to pursue both in parallel but separate careers.
As I understand it from Jaques-Dalcroze traditions, musicians come to plastique animée after years of experience in eurhythmics classes that focus on the nexus of music and movement. These classes must develop advanced skills in movement technique, aural perception, movement improvisation, music analysis, group integration, and more.
Those skills, developed through eurhythmics, are the raw materials that allow the creative process to unfold. Over time, they become automatized, refined and focused to permeate the subtleties of music well beyond its surface. The process is invaluable for musicians and dancers alike.
Once musicians move beyond their own experience in a classroom and prepare to provide a satisfying experience to a viewing audience, additional layers of knowledge and ability must come into play.
In theatre and cinema, a character may sometimes address the audience directly, as though outside the play. Breaching boundaries of the three-sided stage is called “breaking the fourth wall.” In a similar way, when musicians create plastique animée for performance, they need to address the external view of the stage from the audience’s perspective on the other side of that fourth wall. Factors to consider include stage dynamics, visual balance, lines and shapes, focus and direction, etc. The plastician must integrate all of these for maximum musical effect.
The visual domain is outside the realm of music. Dance, on the other hand, is a visually perceived art form. Dancers learn their craft with mirrors, memorize movement sequences while also memorizing kinesthetic sensation of the images they see in the mirror. This is not inherent in the study of Eurhythmics, where the focus is on the kinesthetic sensation itself, rather than its external appearance. For plastique, it is a sense that must be cultivated.
The paying public has aesthetic opinions and expectations for movement performance. Just as expectations for music performance include hearing well-tuned instruments, well-tuned bodies in motion are also a consideration for artistic value and commercial success. This is but one reason plastique is largely relegated to the school studio, and not promoted as a viable art form.
UMBC Dance Students
For dancers, the plastique experience is a valuable way to develop aural perception and understanding of music in sound along with its relationship to movement. The process engages ear, conveys knowledge and makes music literature accessible and relevant.
Of course, direct reflection of music is not the only valid approach to choreography. As a partner in dance, it is akin to dancers’ relationship with each other in choreographic work. Choices arise: is this dancer aware of the one behind her? Is one a memory, an echo, a different dimension of the other? Or is it simply an abstract relationship of line, space, speed, direction?
Similarly, choreography might show the dancer’s conscious awareness of the music, or not. She may represent it, seem to cause it, or respond to it in a dramatic sense. For example, the choreographer might choose the interplay of rhythmic counterpoint to a Bach suite. Or, with a strong, chaotic phrase of music, the dancer might respond with small contractions as though stabbed, rather than meeting each accent with an equally strong movement.
These are not the kinds of choices made in plastique animée or music visualization; rather, decisions involve which aspects of the music to make physical, and how. It may seem simple, but true plastique is deceptively difficult. It is all too easy to fall into “mickey mousing,” especially when the music is well known and/or predictable. If something in the music is already quite obvious to the audience, an exact rendition of it in movement can quickly become tediously cute. Even worse is making fun of familiar music of the masters, with an air of superior insouciance toward the past. It’s easy to do, but nearly impossible to do well.
Conversely, plastique is often at its best when it reveals something beneath the surface of the composition – harmonic rhythm rather than rhythmic note values, the ebb and flow of dynamics within phrase structures, or patterns of dissonance and consonance, for example. Movement remains free to take less obvious forms, such as galloping with shoulders only, or using gradations of muscle tension as a music palette, or imagining the space as having multiple planes of gravity or force fields. Imagination is a critical ingredient to embodying music in a way that communicates to an observer.
Perhaps the most important way to preserve and practice plastique animée is to stay true to its purpose and its process. The distinguishing feature of plastique is its connection to eurhythmics. Its tools are the skills that eurhythmics study develops, including aural perception, quick reactions, and the spirit of improvisation. These are what differentiate plastique from the music visualizations of dance.
Although the outcomes of plastique animée and music visualization may look much the same, their purposes and processes differ. In fact, the divergence of the two has increased as the chasm between the two art forms has widened. Where one is a choreographer’s vision, the other is fundamentally a visceral method of music analysis.
As an experience for dancers and musicians, both remain valuable today, and are perhaps more needed than ever. Plastique animée has been called “the applied music of the eurhythmician.” For the Jaques-Dalcroze community, it represents a historic treasure from the past and a rich opportunity for future generations. We need only preserve the legacy.
1 Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America, 1935; republished in Last Operas and Plays (reprint, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), xxxiv.
2 Isadora Duncan, The Art of the Dance (New York: Theatre Arts, Inc., 1928), 105.
3 Ibid., 119-120.
4 Troy and Margaret West Kinney, The Dance: Its Place in Life and Art (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1914), 60.
5 Caroline and Charles H. Caffin, Dancing and Dancers of Today: The Modern Revival of Dancing as an Art (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1912), 46.
6 Upton Sinclair, World’s End (reprint, New York: Simon Publications LLC, 2001), 11-12.
7 Alan Dent, ed., George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell : Their Correspondence (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1952), 137.
8 John Martin, America Dancing (New York: Dodge Publishing Company, 1936), 95.
9 Ibid., 98.
10Stephanie Jordan, Moving Music: Dialogues with Music in Twentieth-Century Ballet (London: Dance Books Ltd, 2000), 19.
Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, Rhythm, Music & Education (1921; reprint, London: The Dalcroze Society, 1980).
Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, Eurhythmics, Art & Education (reprint, Salem, NH: Ayer Company Publishers, 1985).
James William Lee, “Dalcroze by Any Other Name” (Texas Tech University, Ph.D. 2003).
Selma Landen Odom, “Chicago, 1913: Eurhythmics Entering American Dance” (American Dalcroze Journal, Vol. 11 No. 1, Fall 1983), 1.
Jane Sherman, The Drama of Denishawn Dance (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1979).
Janet Mansfield Soares, Louis Horst: Musician in a Dancer’s World (Durham, NC: Duke University Press).