Rhythmic Gymnastics: Yin-Yang on the Gable

By Hella Kemper
for ZEIT Geschichte Nr. 2/2013, 21. Mai 2013

In the garden town of Hellerau, near Dresden, music educator Émile Jaques-Dalcroze raised his ‘rhythmic gymnastics’ to an educative art.

Text

On a warm June day in 1913, nearly seven hundred people walked through the gently curving streets of this extraordinary town, past neat terraced and detached houses, to the shining landmark of the Festival Hall. “It was like a dream to stand in the quiet, serene quadrangle of the forecourt to Dalcroze Hall in Hellerau at the close of a day which, like all the others, was marked by the restlessness and fragmentation of modern bustle,” wrote Gertrud Bäumer.
The women’s rights activist and writer was one of many prominent guests to visit Hellerau, one of the first German garden cities, seven kilometres north of Dresden. The artistic avant-garde of Europe – George Bernard Shaw, Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Werfel, Paul Claudel, Oskar Kokoschka – had come to be present at the summer festival of Émile Jaques-Dalcroze’s educational institution for rhythmic gymnastics. Within a very short time, the Swiss music educator had become a star among movement teachers in Hellerau.

Brück & Sohn Kunstverlag Meißen, CC0 1.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Gartenstadt Hellerau, Jaques Dalcroze educational institute, postcard from the Brück & Sohn publishing house in Meißen (www.brueck-und-sohn.de) with the registration number 14536

Text

Just a few years earlier, Jaques-Dalcroze had discovered rhythm as a source of joy and strength and co-opted it for use in an educational context. At the Geneva Conservatory, he had already developed a method that trained people to develop inner focus and musical sensitivity through the application of rhythmic gymnastics, music improvisation and hearing training. With the aid of this approach, rhythm and music would bring about physical and mental movement; his institute in Hellerau became the cradle of modern dance – and everyone wanted to see his innovative choreographies.
The performance in June 1913 began with a delay; then children and young people floated into the room in black woollen jerseys, performing rhythmic exercises to fugues by Bach and sonatas by Beethoven, more for themselves than for the tense spectators. “There is no discipline, absolutely no nervousness, and no sulking when [the students] can’t pick up the rhythm,” George Bernard Shaw observed. “The children can beat 4 in a bar with one hand and 3 in a bar with the other simultaneously, and they can change instantly in marching from 4 and 3 and 6 to 5 and 7.”
When Jaques-Dalcroze first came to Hellerau in 1909, there were just fourteen houses. But what grew up here following the example of English garden cities would become nothing less than a social Gesamtkunstwerk that reconciled nature-oriented and holistic living. In 1908, the carpenter and entrepreneur Karl Schmidt, together with Wolf Dohrn (an economist by training) founded the garden city in order to build architecturally beautiful production facilities and to offer the workers opportunities for healthy living.
Since 1899, Schmidt had been producing industrial yet beautifully designed wooden furniture at an affordable price in his workshops in Dresden. The hilly foothills of the Dresden Heath seemed ideal for a garden city: he bought 140 hectares of sandy land from the farmers in order to cultivate land that was not agriculturally valuable and to secure speculation-free land.

The British Library (Original), Wolfymoza (Commons upload), No restrictions via Wikimedia Commons
Jaques Dalcroze, published in: Die Schweiz im neunzehnten Jahrhundert (Switzerland in the Nineteenth Century), Edited by Swiss writers under the direction of P. Seippel, 1899

Text

The Munich Jugendstil architect Richard Riemerschmid oversaw the site’s development plan and set down the designs for the furniture factory. Production began as early as 1910. For the terraced houses of the architect Heinrich Tessenow and the somewhat larger detached houses by Hermann Muthesius, the factory workers were able to make suggestions as to how they wanted the design and furnishings to be. Rent was paid on a leasehold basis, regardless of whether someone was on Schmidt’s payroll.
Settled, connected to the ground, individual – that was the Hellerau Credo. In addition to the workshop area, a district of small houses was created, as well as a country-house district, a welfare area for public institutions, an elementary school, an experimental school and eleven arts-and-crafts businesses. By the end of 1913, 1,900 people lived there in 383 houses with 407 apartments – a society of workers, bourgeois intellectuals and artists.

Text

But the community should not remain “a random accumulation of people and houses,” Dohrn said. The “overcoming of spiritual anarchy” would start in Hellerau. On seeing a dance performance by Jaques-Dalcroze, he felt “close to the origin of all living things. [...] Rhythm [...] was only unseated from its dominant position by economic development,” Dohrn diagnosed. “We have lost our rhythm.” Schmidt and Dohrn commissioned the founder of rhythmic gymnastics to rejuvenate the “organism, body and mind that has become sluggish in its habits”.
Jaques-Dalcroze moved to Dresden with 45 of his Geneva students and in 1910 began his work with a total of 210 students – including the dancers Suzanne Perrottet, Mary Wigman and Gret Palucca, who later became famous.
In 1912 the reformer moved into the Festival House designed by Heinrich Tessenow, which at 1.45 million marks was much more expensive than planned. Jaques-Dalcroze was satisfied: “The participation of space is indispensable for the art that I seek to revitalise; this participation, I have to emphasise, does not take anything away from its freedom and originality, which gives it new stimuli beforehand, but does not irrevocably set it in stone or make it dependent on itself.”

Text

Tessenow’s spacious forecourt was bordered on both sides by simple guesthouses, making the four columns supporting the rectangular gable of the Festival House appear even more monumental. In the centre of the gable, a yin-yang sign decorates the otherwise unadorned front. “You could almost physically feel the beautiful, harmonious simplification of these vibrantly arranged buildings, which are austere but not cold, matter-of-fact but not dry or sparse,” Gertrud Bäumer noted after her visit.
Behind the classical façade, theatre reformer Adolphe Appia had created a hall that matched this formal austerity: 49 metres long, 16 metres wide, 12 metres high. Illuminated by a lighting concept by Alexander von Salzmann, who had installed 3,000 light bulbs. The result was a purist space, a self-illuminating shrine, in which the separation of stage and auditorium was done away with; the stage was no longer a peep show but rather a part of the hall.
The end of the social reform experiment came suddenly. In early 1914 Wolf Dohrn had a serious fall while skiing and died. Jaques-Dalcroze had travelled to Geneva for a short stay when the First World War broke out. He was unable to return to Hellerau, continued his work in Geneva and opened the Jaques-Dalcroze Institute, which still exists today. He died in 1950.

Text

In Hellerau, Harald Dohrn, Wolf Dohrn’s brother, tried to continue the work of the life reform movement, among other things with a reform education school, whose international branch was founded by the pedagogue Alexander Neill in Summerhill in 1921. Heavily in debt, Dohrn had to sell the landmark of Hellerau to the Saxon state in 1938. The National Socialists converted the Festival Hall into a barrack yard. In GDR times, the Red Army used the existing buildings to house a military hospital and sports hall. It was only after reunification that Hellerau once again became a “European Centre for the Arts” and is now applying for UNESCO World Heritage status. The workshops now operate out of modern glass buildings opposite the historical factory buildings, no longer producing entire series of furniture but focusing instead on individual pieces.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14594697727/, No known copyright restrictions
The new spirit in drama and art, Published in: Huntly Carter: The new spirit in drama & art, 1912, London: F. Palmer