Scene4 Magazine — Nathan Thomas
Nathan Thomas
Meyerhold and Dalcroze

It probably started with Rudnitsky.

Konstantine Rudnitsky published a monumental study of Meyerhold. Published by Ardis (now sadly gone), the over-sized book had a great picture for the end papers.  When Meyerhold directed Revisor ("The Inspector General" or "The Government Inspector") in the 1920s, he found a means of showing a frozen group of people. He had them replaced with wax figures. The end papers of the American version of the Rudnitsky book is a picture of that moment.


As an undergraduate theatre major, I was mesmerized.  Simple black and white pictures from a variety of plays. These pictures hinted at a way of making theatre that was far beyond anything I'd experienced.  I wanted to know more.

Vsevolod Emilievich Meyerhold defied easy labels in his life and certainly defies simple explanations now. 

Scholars and writers have tended to contrast Stanislavsky and Meyerhold. Stanislavsky was the realist; Meyerhold – the bold experimenter.  Stanislavsky developed a clear acting system.  Meyerhold never clarified his ideas for posterity.  Stanislavsky wrote the books, and Meyerhold did not.

Like many myths, this myth may have a small grain of truth mixed with an avalanche of nonsense.  The Stanislavsky System described over several books is a system of subtlety. More than one person has found more confusion about Stanislavsky's "clarity" after reading the books than they were before reading them.  Stanislavsky experimented continuously, looking to find new and better means of understanding the actor's work.

Meyerhold, likewise, worked to clarify a means of understanding the actor's work and an effective pedagogy to train actors.  While he didn't write a series of pedagogical novels as Stanislavsky had, Meyerhold did work out a fairly clear legacy that he left behind. The vagaries of Soviet politics interfered with the transmission of that legacy.  But that doesn't mean that a system didn't exist.

Biomechanics is the term used to describe the heart of Meyerhold's pedagogical system.  A systematic way of training and thinking about the actor's work, describing biomechanics solely as movement training is somewhat like describing the Grand Canyon as a big hole.

As an undergraduate in the early 1980s, there didn't seem to be much in the way of materials to learn much about biomechanics.  But there seemed to be tantalizing hints.

It seemed clear that Meyerhold was guided by his sense of rhythm and music both in training and in production.  Like many theatres at the time, he had a small orchestra available to him for incidental music.  Consequently he developed complex musical scores that helped provide rhythm/tempo structures for a given production.

And he seemed to be working at the same time as Emile Jaques-Dalcroze who had developed a kind of movement training system called "eurhythmics."

As I came to find out, even that simple sentence hinted at more complexity than I first imagined.  First, "eurhythmics" is one of several terms used in different languages.  In some languages Jaques-Dalcroze's work is called rhythmique.  In another it's called "rhythmic gymnastics."  And Jaques-Dalcroze's main goal wasn't movement training for its own sake nor to train dancers nor to train actors.  Jaques-Dalcroze was a musician looking to train musicians to be better musicians.  Ultimately.

As an undergrad, I found that there wasn't much reliable information in theatre books about Jaques-Dalcroze.  What information there was – it wasn't very clear.

So I decided to find out about these things.  I figured that there was some relationship between what I called eurhythmics and biomechanics.  I figured that the more I learned about one would help me with the other, and vice-versa. I also figured that if I finally saw real eurhythmics being done and real biomechanics being done – not simply described in text passages in a book – then I would really know what the nature of that relationship might be.

So what is eurhythmics?  We can dispense with lengthy re-tellings of biography. 

Suffice to say that Jauqes-Dalcroze (hyphenated last name) received a broad artistic education in late 19th century Europe, focusing on music.  He taught music at the Geneva Conservatory of Music.  Discovering the need for real education or remediation in the area of "inner hearing," Jaques-Dalcroze hit upon the pedagogical principle of gross motor movement to train the whole person.   Or to put it another way – musicians have always used small/fine motor movements to produce sound.  Fingers on a keyboard, the brush of a bow across a string.  These are small muscle movements.  To train the person, Jaques-Dalcroze used whole body movements to teach musical subjects to students.

He came to these conclusions:

1. Rhythm is movement.

2. Rhythm is essentially physical.

3. Every movement involves space and time.

4. Musical consciousness is the result of physical experience.

5. The perfecting of physical resources results in clarity of perception.

6. The perfecting of movements in time assures consciousness of musical rhythm.

7. The perfecting of movements in space assures consciousness of plastic rhythm.

8. The perfecting of movements in time and space can only be accomplished be exercises in rhythmic movements.[1]

Jaques-Dalcroze's system for teaching music centered on three main areas of instruction – solfege (or ear-training), musical improvisation, and rhythm.  Gross motor movement was employed to teach in each area.

Ethel Driver, one of Jaques-Dalcroze's more prominent English pupils, outlined the structure of a typical eurhythmics class.  The lesson begins with some sort of recap of an element from a previous lesson. This then provides the building blocks both for continuing work and introducing new material via cognate concepts. The students are given the opportunity to invent tunes and movement.  There will be studies to develop quick interaction between mind and body.  The teacher will provide breathing and relaxing exercises as needed within the structure of the lesson.  The student will experience contrasting styles of music, each style intimately relating to the exercise of the moment.[2]  Driver suggests any eurhythmics teacher must be able to watch students and talk and give directions rhythmically while playing the piano to achieve the results desired within a Jaques-Dalcroze class.[3]

The typical means of instruction is a movement game.  Students are given "rules" and asked to play along. For example, as a teacher improvises at the piano, students may be asked to walk and clap to the music – walking the beat of the pianist's left hand and clapping the beat of the pianist's right hand. At a signal, the student may be asked to switch.  By accomplishing the tasks set by the game, the student can literally feel how the rhythm of the music works.

A traditional vocal signal used by Dalcroze and his teachers is the word "hopp."  This signal is used to direct the students to change instantly from one activity to another.   Early in the course of instruction, "hopp" may be called two to four beats in advance of the desired reaction.  More advanced students, though, may be directed with a "hopp" immediately prior to the desired reaction.  Or "hopp" may be replaced by the sign of a hand, an interruption or other change of music or some other pre-arranged musical signal.[4]  As students progress in eurhythmics, they gain the facility to carry out the rhythmic commands of the music (directed by the teacher) instantly.

Now, how does this relate to biomechanics?

Meyerhold was a leader of the Russian theatre.  He was a founding member of the Moscow Art Theatre.  He founded the first studio devoted to Symbolist theatre in Russia.  He served as Artistic Director of Vera Kommisarshevskaya's theatre.  He was a member of the directing staff at the imperial theatre in St. Petersburg.  And almost certainly he was part of the Russian artistic community that saw the demonstration tour of Russia by Jaques-Dalcroze with some students.

Much of the Russian involvement in eurhythmics resulted from the enthusiasm of Prince Sergei Wolkonsky, Superintendent of Russia's Imperial Theatres.  Wolkonsky heard of Jaques-Dalcroze's work in the German city of Hellerau (outside Dresden) soon after Jaques-Dalcroze started his school there.  Wolkonsky arranged for lecture demonstrations in the Mihailovsky Theatre  and the Moscow Art Theatre, among others.[5]  As a result of this trip, both Stanislavsky and Meyerhold used eurhythmics in their actor training experiments.

Meyerhold certainly maintained a strong interest in the rhythmic nature of performance.   In his last full production, Lady of the Camellias, Meyerhold deliberately directed scenes to correspond to various musical rhythms and tempi.[6]  Meyerhold also explicitly discussed Dalcroze's work in his theatre history course and included rhythmic study in his actor training program.[7]   The use of eurhythmics also became regularly used by a number of new groups formed by the Revolution.  In June 1920, the Theatre Department of Narkompros [TEO -- a division that supervised all but the 'academic' theatres] set up a Tonal-Plastic division to organize amateur acting for workers.  Meyerhold shifted the division under the Proletkult and included eurhythmics in the instruction for the worker-actors.[8]

And Meyerhold seems to have borrowed certain features from the eurhythmics lesson.   For example, biomechanical etudes were accompanied by a piano to help provide a rhythmic structure to the movement.  Also, generally the teachers used "Hup!" as a signal to shift or change from one part of an etude to the next.[9]

So, I thought, once I saw eurhythmics and biomechanics, I'd know how they relate.

Well, it wasn't that simple.  Of course, some ancient film of Meyerhold's actors doing biomechanics was found.  The video teased as much as taught (as historic records).  Without sound, it was difficult to make out exactly how much the actors "followed" the music in performing an etude.  Also, there was no indication about the quality of the work of the students.  One clip might feature Nicolai Kutsov, but other participants may not be equally identifiable.

The videos show the challenge.  The historic footage of Meyerhold's students has become more available over the past several years with the advent of international attention to biomechanics and the development of video technology.  The other video shows master teacher John Colman from a WHA-TV presentation from 1966.  Coleman had studied with Jaques-Dalcroze.   Colman worked as a musician with Doris Humphrey, Kurt Jooss, George Balanchine, Erick Hawkins, Hanya Holm and many others.  Given the students in the video are mostly dancers, it becomes easy to see how Jaques-Dacroze influenced modern dance.

Ultimately the conclusion may be fairly simple.  In the end, Meyerhold wanted to train actors. In the end, Jaques-Dalcroze wanted to train musicians.  Despite the tantalizing overlap between arts, they are different animals.  Some of the training tools overlap.  But the ends are very different.

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[1]Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, Rhythm, Music and Education (New York:  G.P. Putnam's Sons,1921)83 - 84.

[2]Ethel Driver, A Pathway to Dalcroze Eurhythmics (London:  Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1951) 81.

[3]Driver, 79.

[4]EJ-D, "The Inner Technique of Rhythm," EAE, 53.

[5]Beacham, 65.  also Irwin Spector, Rhythm and Life:  The Work of Emile Jaques-Dalcroze (Stuyvesant, NY:  Pendragon Press, 1990)  159 - 60.

[6]Paul Schmidt, ed., Meyerhold at Work (Manchester:  Carcanet Press, 1981) 196 -98.

[7]Marjorie Hoover, Meyerhold:  The Art of Conscious Theater (Amherst:  U of Massachusettes Press, 1974) 89, 313 - 17.

[8]Robert Leach, Revolutionary Theatre (London:  Routledge, 1994) 70.

[9] Alma Law and Mel Gordon, Meyerhold, Eisenstein, and Biomechanics: Actor Training in Revolutionary Russia (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996), 102.


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©2010 Nathan Thomas
©2010 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


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July 2010

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