Mettler Studios Archival Photo

If you have been to a National Dance Education Organization (NDEO) conference recently, you might have seen information about the Mettler Studio. Behind the brochures, you’d find a friendly woman ready to answer your questions – Mary Ann Brehm.

The images and concepts displayed stopped my steps at first glance, the way you might react to catching sight of a family portrait while strolling through an art gallery. Black and white photographs showed children dancing freely, wearing short-sleeved leotards and bare legs. Creative dance, materials of movement, exploration and discovery – all rang like familiar music to my ears.

I knew this had to be part of my Dance “Family Tree!”

It’s all about the roots.

I was fortunate to have been steeped in the growing roots of modern dance in the 1960s – early 70s, taught by cutting-edge innovators in creative movement and modern dance pedagogy. When I encounter another dancer (or musician, teacher, other artist) who resonates with me, I trace back the roots. Invariably, we connect. (It all goes back to Mary Wigman.)

I had never heard of Barbara Mettler, but I stopped by to chat with Mary Ann. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became.

On the Mettler Studio website, her work is defined as a “continuous search.” It begins with focus on self-discovery of and through dance concepts. Dance technique can then develop organically from that experience. Like the Jaques-Dalcroze philosophy, this approach works from the inside out.

Befitting its founder’s philosophy and life story, Mettler Studios is extraordinarily generous with its resources. My casual conversations at conferences, “eBay research,” and site perusal provided further information, but I had more questions. Mary Ann Brehm graciously allowed me to interview her for this blog!

Mettler with cymbals

Photos © Mettler Studios

The Interview

MD: Is Barbara Mettler’s approach to creative dance used today mostly with adults or children, musicians or dancers – both, neither?

MAB: All of the above. Her approach is adaptable to almost any situation.

MD: It seems teaching dance was her focus even more than choreographing or performing, and especially the process of teaching people through dance. Is that right?

MAB: I think what she wanted is to “be an instrument” for something larger than herself. She did choreograph dances as well as perform improvisations, she did perform both on her own and in groups and directed dance companies. But her focus was bigger than that. She felt that dancing as a creative art experience would help the world.

MD: I admire that sense of purpose. She wrote that she felt discouraged from pursuing music as a career, but she also believed she was too old to begin a dance career by the time she considered it. She was in her early 20s when she first saw Isadora Duncan’s dancers. Had she already had some dance and athletic training before that?

MAB: A significant predecessor to her dance training was moving and dancing on her own as a child.

MD: That sounds familiar!

MAB: A teacher came to her high school in Illinois who had studied with Margaret H’Doubler at the University of Wisconsin. The dance classes were taught as part of Physical Education, I believe. Barbara said she enjoyed them, but others poo-pooed them calling it “flitting”. She recalled seeing someone later, who asked her, “Are you still flitting?”

She also took a little dance in college, but they had her dressed up in a Green Frog Costume—that was so humiliating that that was the end of that. This story is told in an autobiographical part of Dance as an Element of Life.

The Connection

MD: Her teaching sounds a lot like my childhood classes in creative dance at Connecticut College and the American Dance Festival. It was about exploring concepts of dance – levels, weight, force, speed, shape, line, rhythm, improvisationally. Later we learned Labanotation and basic modern dance technique. It seems there’s some connection here.

MAB: Yes, it does. Barbara’s work is grounded in exploring the elements of dance such as those you mention. Barbara also recognizes the influence of Laban on her work, both via his influence on Mary Wigman and his presence in the zeitgeist of the times in Germany while Barbara was there.

MD: I read that she visited the Wigman School in Berlin with a friend in 1930, and when she returned to study it was in Dresden, is that correct?

MAB: Barbara studied at the Wigman School in Dresden, 1931-33.

MD: I think it went to Munich after that. She wrote: “I danced in performances outside the school, played percussion instruments over the radio, accompanied children’s classes at the piano, and was sometimes called upon to teach dance classes.” That’s remarkable.

MAB: This shows the high regard they had for her at the Wigman School.

Technique and Music

MD: She also mentioned classes of “routine exercises” at the Wigman Institute – which I assume were technique classes – based on ballet or Laban. They were accompanied with piano improvisation, but later Mettler herself did not use piano music, as I understand her work. Did she teach exercises in modern dance technique, apart from her creative approach?

MAB: She did have directed exercises that she taught. And she has a big book called Basic Movement Exercises. The format was very different than a technique class. For her, the point of doing the exercises was to provide a form that the mover could do for the purpose of gaining kinesthetic awareness of that movement. Viewed from that lens, you can look at these as early somatic movement patterns. I don’t know the source of these movements.

MD: Can you give examples?

MAB: She taught lots of different swinging movements and was very exacting on them. I remember one swinging movement that crossed the arms in the front and then opened them. (They made a figure 8 pattern). She mentioned she did this in the Wigman school and it was called Scattering and Gathering—these are Laban terms.

MD: Interesting! I think Dalcroze students will recognize the same movement, used as a technique toward a musical purpose. My own childhood dance classes mixed modern dance technique with conceptual, creative work in Laban-based frameworks. How do you remember Barbara balancing technical exercises with creative exploration in her classes?

MAB: When she first started teaching, she generally had about an hour of working on exercises before going on to creative studies. When I studied with her, the schedule was not that set —there was more emphasis on creative studies. When I was in her dance company, we were expected sometimes to take the Basic Exercises Book and work on some of the exercises on our own. Sometimes in her summer classes, she would assign one of her assistants (I was one of them) to work with individuals with specific exercises if they needed instrumental help (improving how their body moved).

Social Conscience

MD: I find Barbara the person as interesting as Mettler the method! I understand she was the daughter of brilliant parents who gave her and her sister freedom to thrive as children. She wrote:

“There was boundless freedom and creativity in our home. Everyone was expected to follow his or her own inclinations, with only one rule: moral accountability.”

That jumped out at me, and I thought of it again when I read about what she did as soon as she returned from her studies with Wigman in Germany. In New York City, at age 27, she didn’t choose to follow Graham or Humphrey, or to join a school in Wigman’s image as Hanya Holm did. She chose to be independent.

MAB: She was an extremely independent person.

MD: And a person of the social conscience and ‘moral accountability’ her parents gave her, it seems! One of my favorite passages in her writing is this one:

“After being rejected by many landlords who feared that my drumming might be incompatible with Mayor LaGuardia’s anti-noise campaign, I persuaded Carnegie Hall to rent me space in an old building which they owned at 139 West 56th Street. There my school of dance was opened in the fall of 1934, offering expensive daytime classes for the rich and free evening classes for the poor. I was driven by a conviction that the practice of dance as a creative art activity is everybody’s right and that it should be made easily available to all.”

MAB: Yes, and many of the students at her summer courses were on scholarship.

MD: She described later moving to an old farm in the foothills of New Hampshire with her husband, “three of our dancers and our musician.” Was this a performing group, or did she have in mind creating a school there?

MAB: She created a school. I don’t know from where she drew her students. She also commuted to Boston during this time and had a studio at a Y there. They had weekly performances (sharings) in the barn studio. Somewhere there is a description of them.

MD: I was going to ask how she could afford to do all she did between 1942 and 1953, including providing summer students free room and board! Did it stop when her husband died because he was her financial support, or did she feel not up to continuing without him?

MAB: Her husband was a refugee from Germany. She met him in the US when she returned from the Wigman School. He was in the country illegally. I have never heard that he provided support but don’t know the details of that. Her father was a doctor and they had a lot of land, so she may have received some support from her family. I don’t know the details of the finances at that time.

MD: What did she do after that period?

MAB: After her husband died, she focused on two things: In 1954 she took a small group (herself, two other women, and two men) on tour down the east coast and through the mid-west. These gave improvised dances performances and taught classes. At the end they made films in Florida. There are a lot of clips of those films on YouTube. The dancers are wearing red. The other thing she did during that time is write her book, Materials of Dance as a Creative Art Activity. It took her from 1954 to 1960 to write it.

About Mary Ann

MD: What about you? What were your early dance – and music – experiences?

MAB: I took piano lessons and have sung in choruses since high school. I have a pretty good sense of beat. But no specific training in it, other than through Barbara Mettler. I took dance classes in my small town from 1st through 8th grade. After that, my father had died and I wasn’t able to continue the dance classes. However, this likely was a boon to my future dance endeavors, because then I just made up dances in my living room with my friends.

MD: I am convinced that there is something to these childhood “living room dances” so many of us remember! Maybe they prepared us for later experiences in making up dances.

MAB: I had some wonderful experiences making up dances in college in the Modern Dance Club and decided to see if I could pursue dance after college. I wanted to be able to understand how to build on the experiences I had and also be able to teach from that experience. I went to both NYU School of Ed. Dance Department and took classes at SUNY Brockport while I pursued elementary education certification. I began teaching 2nd grade near Bennington, VT and I started integrating dance into my curriculum, although I was still very unsure of the theoretical background for doing it.

MD: How did you first encounter Barbara Mettler?

MAB: As I recall, my first exposure to Barbara Mettler was through a very early book, Creative Dance on a College Level, which I used as a guide for an assignment in teaching some children I had from a class at SUNY Brockport. I pretty much forgot about that book. But in 1976 I took a 1-hour workshop at a VT Educators Conference in Burlington from someone who had studied with Barbara Mettler. I can still remember the experience doing growling movements and sounds! Later that year I had a conversation at a break at a contra-dance with someone who had studied with Barbara, who urged me to go to Arizona. I thought, “I’ve just encountered Barbara Mettler twice now, I’d better go study with her.”

MD: And what happened?

MAB: My first summer was in 1977 for 7 weeks. I returned for many summers, including a summer dance company. I eventually moved to Tucson in 1990 to be in her final dance company and teach at her studio.

MD: What was it about Mettler’s approach that resonated with you? What lit a spark where other teachers or dance forms had not?

MAB: The first thing that resonated with me about Barbara was the clarity of her thinking and the way she organized material. This is what had been missing for me in the other creative approaches I had studied.

MD: It’s hard for many people to be organized with creative material without becoming rigid in their processes.

The Work

MAB: But something else that I wasn’t looking for struck me and that was the power of group dance improvisation. Once I felt that power, I wanted to learn more about it. And Barbara’s work provides many specific ways to gain skill in this area. Each day was something new. I remember sitting in the bus that took us to the studio and wondering – what new experience will I have today?

MD: Yes! I remember that excitement about formative classes in my youth. Has this changed over time?

MAB: As I have studied Barbara’s work over the years, the thing that I have come to more fully appreciate is the depth and meaning of her understanding of the art experience of dance. Her concepts of beauty and expression of formed feeling sum that up. That experience is what had motivated me as a young woman to begin the searching which brought me to her way of work.

In her 1978 Summer Course, she said:

“We feel here that all this beauty is everywhere, and we are kind of tuning in on it. And if you are really a dancer or an artist of any kind, you’ll just want to tune in on it. And you’ll want to reveal; you’ll want to be an instrument and show forth some of the beauty that’s there.”

MD: I love the idea of art as a conduit of something universal, even spiritual. I especially appreciate Mettler’s goals described as searching, rather than arriving or achieving. What are some of the most challenging aspects, or greatest benefits, of Mettler’s work for a ballet dancer, or a classical musician, or someone with no experience in either?

MAB: The greatest challenge for someone who is highly trained in something like ballet or any dance style is to be able to let go of their learned movement pattern and find authentic, natural movement expression. And, of course, that is the greatest benefit. One of the first steps in this is to cultivate relaxation both while resting and in movement. Relaxation helps “wipe clean” habitual tensions that can get in the way finding new movement experiences in the present. Relaxation also is a good step in allowing a person to kinesthetically feel the movement. The process of finding new authentic movement expression is one of following the feeling of the movement while making movement choices.

MD: That is a beautiful explanation. I know exactly what those challenges can be like. How do most musicians respond to Mettler classes?

MAB: I often find that musicians take to this work readily. This is especially true of people who are trained in Eurythmics. So many musical concepts have a direct correlation in dance because sound and movement are so intertwined. So, a conceptual approach such as Barbara’s allows a musician to embody the music.

MD: That is what we’re after.

The Teaching

MD:One question that comes up is to what extent we should teach as our founder did, or as distant authorities now enforce. As a teacher of Mettler’s approach, do you aim to teach exactly as she did?

MAB: NO! Barbara was very concerned that her students have a full kinesthetic dance experiences and full understanding of the principles involved and then make the work their own. She did not want people to just copy her. We follow that model. This is one reason we don’t use the term “Mettler Dance” but call what we teach “Mettler-basedDance. This may seem paradoxical as I have spent a lot of time editing videos of her teaching so that people can see how she did present studies and how her students fulfilled them. But for me, being able to still witness her teaching is for the purpose of deeply understanding it.

MD: How do new teachers balance their individuality with adherence to the principles of her work?

MAB: The key for keeping the work fresh and an expression of one’s own teaching is to carefully look at the people you are teaching—their needs and the limitations and potential of the setting. Then from your understanding of Mettler-based dance principles you can construct lessons and find the appropriate tone and timing of presenting them. Often new ways of presenting or applying a study learned from Barbara will present itself in this new situation. And that is great fun.

MD: That makes perfect sense to me. What is the teacher-training like in Mettler-based Creative Dance?

MAB: Usually our Teacher Training workshop is offered for two weeks in mid-July at the studio that Barbara built –the Tucson Creative Dance Center. My colleague Griff Goehring and I teach that workshop. It is an immersion experience. We cover the basics in Week One with creative studies and also directed exercises. In addition to the dancing, each day has morning and afternoon discussion periods where we review how the lesson was constructed and the principles involved. The second week builds from the first. There is a progression in each topic from individual to group work. At the end of the workshop, we offer the opportunity for participants to present a short Mettler-based lesson.

Then throughout the year, we have a follow up mentoring program for those who are interested in our suggestions for constructing lessons and a study program. We work with people via email, phone, and video chat. We also encourage our participants to share what they are doing with the other students from the workshop. Many people come back to study with us several times. We also have an international outreach program and have had many students from Indonesia and Vietnam study with us.

Our Teacher Training is in transition. During the pandemic, we have offered it online through Zoom, as well as other workshops. We are hoping to get back in in-person classes soon, but are also continuing to offer Zoom classes now and into the future. Next year we hope to offer the workshop for three weeks with more opportunity for practice teaching and experiences in theme development in group dance improvisation. We also offer other dance workshops where our students can deepen their artistry in Mettler-based dance.

MD: Mettler seems to have had a true appreciation for music. Can you say more about the philosophical reasons that music as sound – whether made by students, played by teacher or accompanist, or recorded by a string quartet – isn’t used in her creative dance work?

MAB: It is used, but not as something imposed from the outside. It has to do with the unity of sound and movement. So any sound comes from the dancers or musicians that are fully a part of the dance.

View Video Here.

MD: When percussion instruments are used, is this to supply rhythms, pulse, or signals?

MAB: We dance and play the instruments at the same time. Also, sometimes we accompany the dance with instruments. Sometimes the sound follows the movement (the musicians match the movement impulses of the dancer), and sometimes the dancer follows the sound.

MD: It seems carrying on Mettler’s work and legacy has become the focus of your own work. What do you most hope you are able to accomplish, by keeping this approach to creative dance alive?

MAB: I would like for as many people as possible to be able to have the kinds of wonderful experiences that I have had through this approach to dance. These experiences lead to a richer more meaningful life. Also, the understanding of how to dance together in a group, I think, answers a contemporary need.

MD: Your hope for a student to take away from Mettler classes or workshops would be…?

MAB: Enough understanding of the work to make it their own, and to share it with others.

MD: Where can interested people find out more?

MAB: The best resources on the work are the Mettler Studios website – www.barbaramettler.org – and the International Association for Creative Dance at www.dancecreative.org.

Many thanks to Mary Ann Brehm for this interview, and for her patience in the time it has taken me to post it.