May 2005  | This Issue

Nathan Thomas

Dalcroze Eurhythmics and the Theatre

enerally this space is used for the expression of particular points of view.  As a change of pace, I thought I might offer a piece of history.  This is one of those by-ways out of the theatrical past – the use of Dalcroze eurhythmics in actor training in the 20th century.

Emile Jaques-Dalcroze was no stranger to the theatre. As a young man he worked as a touring actor, and he briefly trained at the Comedie-Francaise in Paris. The showpiece of his work at Hellerau was the presentation of Gluck’s opera, Orfeo et Euridice (1911), working with theatrical innovator Adolphe Appia. Yet, this information would be of interest only to theatre historians if this activity had been the total of theatrical work in eurhythmics. In practical terms eurhythmics had its greatest influence on actor training by the way of two particular visitors to Hellerau -- Prince Sergei Wolkonsky (or Volkonsky) of Russia and Susan Canfield from Pittsburgh.  


Prince Sergei Wolkonsky (?-?) was a member of the Russian aristocracy who had a passion for theatre and – more importantly -- dance. Wolkonsky heard of the work being done in Hellerau and decided to visit, which he did in the summer of 1911. Also the Superintendent of Russia's Imperial Theatre --  Wolkonsky arranged for Dalcroze and his students to bring a demonstration tour through Russia in January of 1912.(1)

This tour brought Dalcroze in contact with Stanislavski and the actors of the Moscow Art Theatre.  As a result of this Russian tour, Eurhythmics became part of the actor training at the Moscow Art Theatre's First Studio in 1912 under Nina Alexandrovna(2)  -- a dance teacher with a background in traditional ballet, but also with a strong interest in the movement innovations of turn-of-the-century Europe (Dalcroze eurhythmics, Isadora Duncan’s dance, etc.)  After Dalcroze’s presentation of his method in the demonstration tour of Russia, Ms. Alexandrovna, a proponent and teacher of the method in Moscow and St. Petersburg, assisted Stankslavski in using Dalcroze eurhythmics in actor training as part of the Moscow Art Theater First Studio.   Participating in this program was Polish actor Richard Boleslavsky.   

The artistic achievements of the Moscow Art Theater brought word of the Stanislavski approach to acting to the USA.  War and politics brought teachers of that approach to America to stay – including Boleslavsky.  By June 1923, with the help of some wealthy supporters, Boleslavsky started his school, the Lab Theatre, in New York. (3)

The Lab Theatre, the haven of all the rising theatre artists in New York, included instruction in Eurhythmics. Boleslavsky wrote in his book on ideal actor training, "Jaques Dalcroze [sic] told me a great deal about Rhythm . . . [and] I found a book on Rhythm in Architecture; it is not translated into English. Those were the only two reliable and practical guides to that great element of every art." (4) Boleslavsky arranged for Elsa Findlay to teach Eurhythmics to the students. In fact, the Lab Theatre had to change locations in January 1924 due to an enthusiastic Dalcroze class that jarred loose ceiling plaster of a restaurant in the floor below. (A waitress was evidently hit on the head.) (5)


The twentieth century, though, has also seen the development of actor training in colleges and universities.  Carnegie-MellonUniversity instituted the first degree-granting program in Theatre Arts in America.  Eurhythmics was a feature of that training due to Susan Canfield (?-1961).

Little is known of Canfield’s early life or family. The earliest record shows she served as First Assistant Supervisor of Music in the Indianapolis School System between 1904 and 1908.  Canfield moved to Pittsburgh in 1908 to be the Supervisor of Music for the Pittsburgh Playground Association.  In 1913 Canfield left Pittsburgh for Hellerau to study with Dalcroze.  World War I interrupted her program of study.  Evidently Canfield never achieved certification in the Dalcroze method. Nevertheless, she returned to Pittsburgh in 1914 as a determined proponent of the approach.

Canfield worked as an Instructor and Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Pittsburgh after her return from Europe until 1921.  But, evidently the University of Pittsburgh was somewhat cautious about the Dalcroze method.  Canfield taught Eurhythmics not in the Department of Music, but as a course in the Department of Play (or Theatre Department). (6)   In 1921, the Music Department moved to the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-MellonUniversity) .  Canfield stayed at C.I.T. until her retirement in 1947.

Canfield presented a demonstration of Eurhythmics in early June 1926.  The Dalcroze students filled the second part of a four-part program.   The program included this short description, “The arms show the measure beats, the feet show the length of the sounds . Greater freedom in interpretation is used in plastic realizations.”  The first piece of the demonstration was a plastic realization of the “Esquisse Rhythmiques, #35” by Dalcroze.  Other items included demonstration of canon, rhythmic counterpoint and syncopation. (7)

Evidently Canfield’s promotion of Eurhythmics convinced her colleagues at C.I.T.  Eurhythmics became an integral element of training for both musicians and actors. Canfield was followed at C.I.T. by such other teachers as Mary MacNair, Doris Portman, and Cecil Kitcat - teachers who either had joint appointments in the Departments of Music and Theatre or a sole appointment in the Department of Theatre. Among those students who would have taken Eurhythmics were such popular actors over the years as Robert Cummings (1933), Walter (Beau) Rogers (1935), John Arthur Kennedy (1936), Mary (Polly) Bowles (1936), Josef Sommer (1957),  and Renee Auberjonois (1962).  Other theatre students included influential American designer HowardBay (1934) and current university theatre leader, Mel Shapiro (1961).

Canfield’s efforts in popularizing Eurhythmics in Pittsburgh influenced how university actors were trained, even as Wolkonsky’s efforts influenced professional actor training. Canfield’s influence, of course, was not only in the area of theatre.  Canfield was not a certified Eurhythmics teacher. Because of the strength of her interest, Canfield was able to convince C.I.T. to hire a certified Eurhythmics teacher from Britain, Mary MacNair. MacNair was the primary Eurhythmics teacher for Hilda Schuster.  Hilda Schuster in turn headed the New YorkDalcrozeSchool for 50 years. So Canfield's trip to Germany started a chain of events that had a major impact on Eurhythmics in America today.

Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Annabelle Joseph and Marta Sanchez for providing information, assistance, and support.      NT


1. Irwin Spector, Rhythm and Life: The Work of Emile Jaques-Dalcroze (Stuyvesant:  Pendragon Press, 1990) 159-60.

2. Selma Odom, "Bildungsanstalt Jaques-Dalcroze: Portrait of an Institution," Thesis, TuftsUniversity, 1967, 120.

3. J.W. Roberts, Richard Boleslavsky: His Life and Work in the Theatre (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981) 104 - 06, 108.

4. Richard Boleslavsky, Acting: The First Six Lessons (New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1934) 111 - 12.

5. Roberts, 119, 146.

6. Hilda M. Schuster, "The Aesthetic Contributions of Dalcroze Eurhythmics to Modern American Education," Thesis, DuquesneUniversity, 1938, 31 -2.

Further documentary information is available in the Bulletin of C.I.T., 1922-23, 15.  See also Glen U. Cleeton, The Story of Carnegie Tech. II: The Doherty Administration, 1936 - 1950 (Pittsburgh:  Carnegie Press, 1965), 149.

7. “Dalcroze Eurhythmics and Madrigal Class,” Dir. Susan Canfield and Huldah Kenley, Outdoor Theater, College of Fine Arts, C.I.T., 4 June [1926?].


©2005 Nathan Thomas
©2005 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 and is a member of
the theatre faculty of Alvernia College.

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Nathan Thomas, check the Archives.


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