AN EVENING OF MOVEMENTS & EXERCISES
An Evening of Movements and Exercises
A Review by John Robert Colombo
Toronto is a metropolitan area with a diverse population of 3.3 million people and is very well named. The aboriginal meaning of “toronto” is “place of meeting”. Assuredy it is a meeting place if only because every second Torontonian was born outside Canada. In keeping with this sense of diversity, I like to note that the city has one Anthroposophical Society, two Theosophical Societies, and three Gurdjieff centres.
That statement is true enough, but it would be more truthful to say that it has not three such centres, but four Gurdjieff centres, taking into account the growing number of people in the city working in the line of J.G. Bennett. Followers of Bennett were out in force last month when the city hosted the “All & Everything Conference.” This marked the first occasion that the fourteen-year-old conference, devoted to the study of G.I. Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales” was held in Canada. It may not be the last time because the conference attracted numerous Canadians from across the country, including some followers of Bennett.
“An Evening of Movements and Exercises” had nothing to do organizationally with Bennett or his supporters, for it was sponsored by the Gurdjieff Foundation of Toronto: Society for Traditional Studies. This is the premier group of those recognized by the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York City.
It is hard to believe that this Toronto centre has been active since 1954, so it is only one year younger than the New York Foundation. It boasts an illustrious founder: Madame Olga de Hartmann, wife of composer Thomas de Hartmann, as well as an illustrious, long-time leader: Mrs. Louise Welch, both of whom, as they say, “knew Gurdjieff.”
The Toronto group has standing in the international world of Work for the activities of its publishing imprint, Traditional Studies Press. Among its publications is the invaluable and pioneering “Guide and Index to ‘All & Everything’” (1971, 2003). Under the long-time direction of David Young, the avuncular former museum curator and retired highschool teacher, this group sponsors semi-public events – a lecture or book launch here, a concert somewhere else – every six months or so. There has not been a public (or semi-public) demonstration of the Movements in Toronto since 1984.
“An Evening of Movements and Exercises” was held Sunday, May 3, 2008, 7:00 p.m. The venue was the Toronto Dance Theatre, 80 Winchester Street, in the area of the city known as Cabbagetown, where two social classes meet: those professionals who live in renovated brownstones and the occupants of the few remaining rooming houses in the district.
Here the innovative Toronto Dance Theatre has occupied a renovated church building since 1968, where it operates its own theatre for experimental dance performances and its school for training in dance. The edifice is historic St. Enoch’s Presbyterian Church; the congregation was founded in 1878. It is interesting to note that a venue dedicated to avant-garde and non-traditional dance should be the stage for the most traditional of dance-forms, the Gurdjieff Movements.
There is no need for me to describe these movements or their history here, or to characterize the contribution of the composer Thomas de Hartmann, who of course was no stranger to the city. As for the aim of the movements, rather than attempt to describe that, I can do no better than to quote the following, quite eloquent passage from the Toronto group’s website:
“We realize in the movements that we are rarely awake to our own life – inner or outer. We see that we always react in a habitual and conditioned way; we become aware that our three main centres – head, body and feeling – rarely work together or in harmony. We begin to try to move always intentionally – not mechanically – and we discover in ourselves many hitherto unexpected possibilities. We find that one can collect one’s attention; that one can be awake at times and have an overall sensation of oneself; that a quietness of mind, and awareness of body and an interest of feeling can be brought together. This results in a more complete state of attentiveness in which the life force is felt and one is sensitive to higher influences. Thus one has a taste of how life can be lived differently.”
The author of those words is work leader Jessmin Howarth. Here is another passage, an excerpt from the writings of composer and pianist Laurence Rosenthal:
“What can we consider to be the purpose of Gurdjieff’s music? Perhaps it is related to man’s work on himself, what Gurdjieff called ‘harmonious development.’ He offered food for the growth of a man’s being through the different sides of his nature: ideas for the mind, special exercises and dances for the body and mind together, and music as a way to awaken a sensitivity in the feelings, to arouse in the deeper level of the listener’s interior world questions and intimations beyond words. And perhaps, in dissolving the barriers created by associations and conditioning, these sounds could bring the listener into closer contact with his own essential nature.”
It was a sold-out house. Tickets were only $15 for general admission, $10 for students and seniors. The 130 or so raked seats were occupied by a youngish group of sloppily dressed people who nevertheless paid rapt attention. I would judge that two-thirds of the audience had some familiarity with the Work, the other third being curious about. There was no stage per se, but there was a large rehearsal area that served the occasion quite well. The proceedings were videotaped.
A few minutes after seven-thirty, David Young, who was seated in the audience, stood up, stepped onto the rehearsal area, faced the audience, and made some general announcements: no recording devices permitted, turn off cell phones, no applause. He greeted “old friends and new faces” and stated that the exercises that would be seen and heard were dances, rites, prayers, etc., “based on cosmic laws as expounded in Gurdjieff’s teachings.”
He emphasized that the twenty-five or so “dancers” were students of the Work, not professional performers; they were drawn from various levels of classes. Their ages ranged from the twenties to the seventies. The reason for the request to refrain from applause is that this is not a “performance” but “work.” Addressing the audience directly, he said, “We have a part to play. They need your attention.” They audience willingly granted it.
The dancers were both male and female and all wore white tunics with cummerbunds, black trousers, and black slippers. The cummerbunds came in a rainbow of colours. The musicians were similarly attired. At the keys of the baby grand piano sat Casey Sokol, a professor of music, who must be the ideal pianist for the Movements, given his sharply defined stroke and his strong sense of rhythm. There were also two younger violinists, one of whom also played the drum, Kousha Nakhaei and Ivan Ivanovich. When Sokol joined the dancers, which he did periodically, his place was taken by the dancer Lindsay Smail who played the piano with very rich emotion.
David Young in his yellow-orange velvet jacket, classy tie, and black trousers, exhibited genuine authority as in effect he acted as director from his seat in the centre of the first row. I wish I could identify the thirteen compositions that were performed, but there was no printed program, and Mr. Young, on purpose I guess, did not identify the names of the movements and the music compositions by G.I. Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann by name. The result is that there seemed to be a progression, not from simple to difficult, as each exercise is difficult in its own way, so much as an increase in intensity, so that by the end of the evening, two hours later, the sounds and sights seemed more deep and more subtle.
The dancers performed expressionlessly, tirelessly, blinking from time to time on their own but otherwise doing everything as a group. I thought of the troupe of Whirling Dervishes from Konya who performed in Toronto about ten years ago. I also remembered those “stiff-arm” Irish colleens of “Riverdance” who bring to their routines an immense energy. Mostly I thought about Tai Chi exercises which, without the rhythm of music, require individual effort and group identification. Yet the Movements are performed with musical compositions that are captivating all on their own, though the dancers seem to regard them as clocks that tell them the time and set the tempo and require their individual movements to be performed without any other direction or cue.
Between some of the performances, Mr. Young would read a passage from A.R. Orage, Gurdjieff, or Madame de Salzmann. The group unhurriedly but deftly reformed for each “number.” There were no “star” performers. I remembered studying some of the exercises myself more than fifty years ago. They were as demanding then as they are today. One I remember quite clearly: it has the dancers describing circles in the air with their right hands.
At one point Mr. Young identified the compositions as “sacred dances” that Mr. Gurdjieff oberved in temples and monasteries and tekkes: “ceremonies that are inaccessible and unknown to Europeans.” The dances are to be felt, for they speak of cosmic laws and also of various organs and other parts of the human body. A couple of the compositions call for performers to say “Ha!” or “Na!” or their equivalents. One number struck me as the dance that a crazy man – an idiot – might perform when he lost control over his body. But no control was lost!
I always found it unexpected and moving when the dancers in one row or in one file would begin to perform acts that the dancers in the other rows or files would then begin to perform. It created a sense of contained movement, a spiritual stasis. It brought a secular image to mind: “the wave” introduced by baseball fans at Toronto Raptors games.
Near the end of the program, Mr. Young quoted Madame de Salzmann who said, “Behind the visible there is much that cannot be seen. Attention is your only chance. Without it you can do nothing.” The thirteenth and last exercise seemed to embody the need for attention and aim. It had the troupe arranged three deep in six rows. Dancers began to lean to and fro, rocking, their fingers fluttering, as if uncontrollably. Again, everything visible was under control.
Suddenly it was 8:30 p.m. and the demonstration was over. The audience emerged as if from under a spell. There was the urge to applaud, but this was suppressed, though instead there was more than the usual animation and conversation. Mr. Young announced that while the demonstrations were finished for the evening, after a short break members of the audience who were interested could return to their seats and take part of “an exchange.”
About ninety members of the audience accepted the invitation to the “exchange.” Mr. Young and Mr. Sokol sat on chairs on the stage and encouraged questions and comments from the audience. The first question concerned the country of origin of the movements and the music. Someone compared the music to folk tunes and found in them echoes of Bela Bartok who collected folk melodies.
Mr. Sokol admitted not much was known about the composition of the Gurdjieff-de Hartmann music; some of the tunes might be traditional, others not. There was an allusion to the collecting of Armenian melodies by a composer Alexander Comitas. Asked about performing these compositions on the piano, Mr. Sokol said that they were composed so that ordinarily talented people could handle them. He noted, “You don’t have to be a concert artist to perform them, but you do have to be very attentive.”
Mr. Young referred to the effect of the Work on Pamela Travers, author of the Mary Poppins books, and how she found new meaning in the word “understand.” When you watched the Movements, you “under-stood” them: it is as if the “knowledge” that they have “rains down on you.” He reiterated the description of the Movements being meaningful “like a book.”
Mr. Sokol found in them “quietness in motion.” He spoke about “flow” and occupying “musical time, not in my usual associative time.” You have to look with intention. Mr. Young said the music is unique in that it “speaks to the whole of man,” and the Movements are not learned or performed for purposes of exhibition. “We do not try to do the movements well per se, but we try to do them well as a source of knowledge.” He noted that when students are about to master one set of Movements, another more difficult set it introduced. He went on to discuss conditions for work on attention – “something that is larger than a cell in, say, the liver of the body.”
He recalled an ominous remark made by Madame de Salzmann to the effect that one needs to work alone but one does this with others. “If you don’t, the Earth will fall down.” With Mr. Sokol, he took a pass on some of the rambling questions that seemed to touch upon important concerns which were not really articulated. He left the audience with the message that a new series of classes for people who were interested in learning the Movements was to begin in a few days. Information was available.
Now it was 9:45 p.m., and it a lovely evening, quite warm. My wife Ruth and I left the rehearsal space of the Toronto Dance Theatre with a lightness of step and instep. In my mind’s eye I entertained images of the faces of the dancers, whose eyes (when not blinking) were perhaps still staring into the middle distance. Some of the participants were younger, some older; some looked to the future ahead of them, some to the past behind them; some looked apprehensive, some fulfilled; some would no doubt flourish, some falter; all would experience disappointment, yet all were working together for inner knowledge and its outer expression. The Work here has meaning for all and everyone.
John Robert Colombo, who participated in the Movements with the Toronto group in the late 1950s, is a Canadian author and anthologist. His current books include a collection of causeries titled “Whistle While You Work” and “The Big Book of Canadian Ghost Stories.” Later this month, the Humanist Association of Toronto will designate Colombo to be their Humanist of the Year.