A Dancer's History Autobiographical Sketch 1

A Dancer's History Autobiographical Sketch 1

I am a dancer whose entire life has been formed by my love of dance as the pure art of body movement and by my conviction that creative art activity is a basic human need.

I was born in Chicago in 1907. My Father, originally from New York, was a practicing neurologist and teacher at the University of Illinois Medical college in Chicago. My mother was the daughter of a farm woman whose family had moved west in a covered wagon, and of a civil war major who pioneered in the development of prairie land in central Illinois. My only sister was 6 years older than I.

When I was 4 years old my family moved to the village of Hubbard Woods, 25 miles north of Chicago, where they built a house on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, my home until I finished college. My early childhood was lived close to nature, in the woods and on the lake shore, with only birds and wildflowers and a few neighbor boys and girls as playmates.
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. My father played the piano, my mother acted, my sister painted and wrote poetry, while I danced. I danced indoors and out, summer and winter, inspired by my father's music or by singing my own songs. We rarely went to see others' art work. Art was something one did at home, naturally, like piano, which I loved and practiced a great deal. My preoccupation with rhythm in sound and movement, music and dance, was with me then as it is now.

After this free, natural and happy childhood came 8 years of confusion: my years in high school and college. My mother, wanting "the best" for her daughters, sent us to a conservative, private girls' school (Roycemore) in Evanston, Illinois, then to a private women's college (Smith) in New England.

Having no idea that dance could be a subject for serious study, I thought that music might be my field, but I received no support in this direction in either high school or college

In high school, because I loved to move, I participated in sports and did fairly well, becoming president of the athletic association. For a short time we had a dance teacher from the University of Wisconsin. I was one of only two students who loved the dance classes, and we were ridiculed by our classmates who contemptuously called it "flitting".

In college, dance had just been introduced as an extra- curricular activity. I enrolled in a class but, when I was put in a green frog costume and made to jump around on all fours under a tree to Tchaikovsky's music, I felt humiliated and gave up college dancing. If this was dance, I wanted none of it. My love of dance is the love of the language of pure movement and I have never been interested in theatrical uses of dance to interpret drama or music.

I graduated from college in June,1928, totally lost as far as personal direction was concerned. Not having been able to major in dance or music, I majored in English, believing that it might be of some value somehow. So little interested was I in my English studies that I almost failed to graduate, although I received A's in most of my music courses.

I had originally planned to attend music school, but when college was over I wanted no more school studies of any kind. Hoping to learn to write professionally, I found a job on an advertising magazine published by Marshall Field & Company in Chicago. My wish was to write about music, and my most satisfying piece of work on the magazine was an interview with Frederick Stock, conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

One evening an elderly musician friend took me to a dance performance by Irma Duncan's group. It was a bombshell for me. I knew that dance was my field, and that I was ready to follow the Duncan dancers to Moscow. My respected friend told me that I was too old, that one must begin dance training at the age of nine. I believed him, and the door was closed on the thing I really wanted.

I continued my work on the magazine. In the summer of 1930 I vacationed with a friend in Europe. This friend was interested in ballet dancing and took me to visit dance schools. We visited the Mary Wigman school in Berlin which she found not at all to her liking but was another bombshell for me. This time all the walls fell down. I knew that I could and must study dance and that, if I could have just one year at this school, my life would have some meaning.

I came back to the States and with great difficulty rearranged my affairs, gathering together enough money for one year at the Mary Wigman Central Institute of Dance in Dresden.

In the spring of 1931 I arrived in Munich for some introductory work with a student of Mary Wigman, then went on to the Wigman summer school in Dresden. In the fall I began the three- year professional course leading to a diploma.

I realized immediately that one year would not be sufficient and that I must graduate from this school. With only enough money for 1 year, I stayed for more than two. This meant that I was very poor, but so was all of Dresden and Germany.

As a dance student I must have shown some facility because I was advanced rather quickly, completing the course in time to graduate in June, 1933. 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.

I worked very hard, stuffing the starved dancer in me with much more than I could possibly digest. There were classes in which we practiced routine exercises, derived from ballet or from Rudolf von Laban's work, always accompanied by a musician improvising at the piano. At times we were given themes for improvisation or composition. Our teacher sometimes improvised movements while we tried to copy them. We had lessons in rhythm and the use of percussion instruments. There was a course called Pedagogy for which I was in no way ready. On occasional Saturday evenings we were expected to show dances for Mary Wigman's criticism. Mary was frequently away so she did not teach us very often. When she did she expressed great power both as artist and a educator.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have studied dance in pre- Hitler Germany. It was a time when the arts and education were flowering in new democratic ways. Outmoded conventions were being replaced with bold new works, and there was a popular demand for a return to nature and creative activity. The Wigman school was one of many art schools reflecting this atmosphere, and Mary Wigman, though the greatest, was only one of many artists pursuing this course.

This was at the end of the Weimar Republic. The Social Democratic party was collapsing and Communists and National Socialists were battling in the streets. Hitler was made chancellor in January, 1933. We all considered him a joke, but his influence was felt very soon at the Wigman School. Our dance themes had to be changed, costumes remade, and names which did not sound German omitted from our programs. Although supported by the Social Democratic government, the school was wholly non-political and neither students nor teachers had any idea what was happening.

Immediately after graduation I returned to this country. While visiting my parents in Hubbard Woods, I found opportunity to dance at Chicago's World Fair. Then, wanting to familiarize myself with American dance, I went to New York City. There I took a few lessons at the Martha Graham school, and for a short time I was a member of Doris Humphrey's understudy group, but these dance experiences did not satisfy me. I needed to pursue my own way of work in my own studio.

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.

I was a wholly undeveloped as artist and teacher. My study period at the Wigman school had been too short to provide me with understanding of what I had been taught or means of passing it on to others. I believe now that this was an advantage. I had to begin at the beginning and seek for myself the fundamentals of the art.

America was in the depths of the Great Depression. It was the most creative period in the history of modern American dance. Reliance on material things was replaced by creative work. There was no money with which to buy dance experiences so people created them for themselves. Amateur groups sprang up everywhere, and free experimentation was the order of the day.

I am by nature a explorer and I was discovering all kinds of new dance experiences. Conventionalities from my Wigman training still clung to me but I was beginning to free myself of them. Because I could not afford a pianist, we sometimes danced in silence, finding new meaning in pure movement expression. In contrast to the teaching of other New York dancers, my teaching subordinated routine exercise to expression. I stressed improvisation because I considered it the most creative approach to dance.

Between 1934 and 1940 I taught, performed and demonstrated dance as I understood it, alone and with my groups, not only in my own studio but all over the city and in neighboring states. In 1936 I attended the Bennington summer school of dance in Vermont, where Louis Horst gave me encouragement. In New York city my performances were always off Broadway, even when I rented the Heckscher theater, so they were not reviewed in the the daily papers. Nevertheless, they were received with enthusiasm. At the time, John Martin, dance critic of the New York Times, was encouraging all modern dancers to continue their innovations.

The goal of my work has always been to liberate and cultivate the natural creative movement resources which lie within human beings. After six years in New York City, I felt a great need to be closer to earth. In 1935 I had married Allen Hammer, journalist and photographer. With my husband's help, I persuaded a farmer in New Hope, Pennsylvania to let me use his farm for a summer dance program in July, 1940. This was another turning point. After a month of free outdoor dancing I knew that my work should be in the country.

In August of that year we bought an old farm in the foothills of the White Mountains of New Hampshire and left New York, taking with us three of my dancers and our musician. All winter we worked to transform the huge barn into a dance studio and the house into living quarters for a group. In April the barn burned down. There was nothing to do but send the dance group back to New York. My husband and I remained on the farm.

The next year we acquired a small carriage barn nearby which could be used as a dance studio. In 1942 I conducted the first of a series of New Hampshire summer schools continuing through 1953. Board, lodging and instruction were provided for the students who numbered 6 to 20. The first location was in the township of Sanbornton. Later, because of need of more space, the school was moved to Meredith.

It was a time of continued independent and bold experimentation. We gave programs every Saturday. When we danced outdoors our audience would move with us up and down the hills, through the meadows and around the trees. When we danced indoors we seated our spectators in a circle around the dancing area and sometimes arranged for their participation in movement. My percussion instruments had all been destroyed by the fire, so we constructed our own instruments or used natural objects to create sounds. We costumed ourselves and made masks with materials provided by the woods, fields and streams.

During the winters I solicited and received invitations to be a guest teacher for organizations in various parts of the country. In 1943 a small women's college in upper New York state (Keuka College) engaged me for six weeks, then asked me to take over the entire physical education department. I did this on the condition that all sports would be extra - curricular and that I could offer a complete dance curriculum to be called the Department of Expressive Movement, offering a major and a minor degree. For three years I commuted from New Hampshire to Keuka, during which time one major and one minor student graduated from my department.

In 1949 the strong and active Modern Dance Department of Boston YWCA was turned over to me and I commuted from New Hampshire to Boston until 1953. The large and varied nature of the recreational groups which I taught there, and the need for new approaches to performance, strengthened my creative work. There was great conservatism in Boston, which deterred me not a whit from making radical innovations.

By this time I had collected a number of students who had studied with me long enough to show some ripeness in my way of work. I decided to take a small group on tour to give performances of dance improvisation and teach for schools, colleges, art groups and community centers.

We started out in November, 1953, in an old school bus which we had remade into a motor home, and we were on the road for six months. There were 5 of us, three women and two men. We danced , taught, cooked, maintained and drove the bus and handled all the business arrangements ourselves. Our route took us through New England, down the East Coast, into the South and back through the Middle West.

Among the members of this dance company were Cora Miller, now head of the Dance Department at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts, and Willis Ward, now dance instructor at the University Of Illinois.

The tour was a great success artistically and educationally, although one of our sponsors, a college dance teacher, complained that we had done more harm than good by generating a demand for a kind of dance she could not provide. This made me realize that I would have to record my way of work in books and films to help other teachers. While we were on the road, we had some of our dance work filmed, and I planned to concentrate on writing as soon as I got home.

My husband had died in 1953 before we left on tour. When we returned, I sold the farm school. From 1954 to 1960 I stayed in Boston, editing films, writing, and teaching in a rented studio. For two years (1956- 1958) I was instructor at St. Paul's Rehabilitation center for newly Blinded Adults in Newton, studying the kinesthetic sense in relation to loss sight.

After completing five films and three books, I decided that my work should have a permanent home. For some time I had been thinking about the Southwest. I am not an easterner, nor am I a city dweller. The silence and emptiness of the desert have always attracted me. In the winter of 1960-61, I visited Arizona and arranged teaching engagements for the following summer at Northern Arizona University (then Arizona State College) in Flagstaff and at Arizona State University Art Department's summer school in Sedona.

In June of 1961, I left the East and moved to Arizona were I settled in Tucson, then a small city of 200,000 still alive with desert vegetation and wildlife. Tucson received me cordially. One dancer and one educator were already using my books. I was given the opportunity to teach at the Tucson Art Center, at the Workshop Center for the Arts, and at the Tucson Community School.

I bought a piece of property on the edge of the city, then visited the Frank Lloyd Wright group of Taliesin West. These architects were eager to design my dance studio, which I had decided would be round and must have an outdoor dancing area. Then my difficulties began. No bank wanted to lend me the money and no builder wanted to construct the building because of it's unusual design. Finally a local bank and builder were persuaded that this would be good for Tucson and the studio was built. I called it The Tucson Creative Dance Center. It was ready for dancing in the fall of 1963.

My work at the Tucson Creative Dance Center began with teaching recreational classes for adults and children, and giving frequent demonstrations in and out of the studio to acquaint people with my free approach to dance. Every year I have conducted intensive summer courses attended by students and teachers from all parts of the United States and from other countries. For several years (1972 - 1976) I taught teacher - training courses for the University of Arizona College of Education which gave academic credit for the work. The Department of Physical Education now offers credit for my summer courses. I have given programs, workshops and short courses all over the United States, teaching as many as one thousand people a day. I have taught in Canada and in Costa Rica. This Fall I will teach in Europe. Five new books, four new films and four video tapes have been published since I came to Arizona. A book published in 1960 has recently been reprinted for the fifth time.

There are many dancers and dance teachers in Tucson who have studied with me. Among them are Carolyn Deitering, an artist and educator who has become nationally recognized as a leader of liturgical dance, and Rosyln Miller whose creative movement work in the city schools is becoming well known.

A few years ago I began to feel that the recreational, educational, and therapeutic by-products of my work were being confused in people's minds with the artistic substance. I decided to form a professional dance company which could show my work on an advanced level for what it is: a free approach to pure art of body movement. The sale of an inherited piece of land in Illinois brought money with which I have been able to support a winter dance company since 1977. The company has been sometimes large, sometimes small. We have stressed group dance improvisation and dance as the primary, central art. We have performed on the East and West Coasts, as well as in Tucson and other parts of Arizona.

My school, known both as Mettler Studios and the Tucson Creative Dance Center, is supported by teaching, performing, the sale of books and video tapes, film rentals and sales and by private donations. In 1976 it became a non-profit organization. For the past two years it has received money from the Tucson Commission of the Arts and Culture, and from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, to give performances, teacher's workshops, and classes for children in the Tucson public schools.

In conclusion I would like to say that my long professional life has been immeasurably rich, but it has never been easy. As my associates well know, I have met misunderstanding and opposition every step of the way

In the 1940's my emphasis on movement brought to light the fact that in some intellectual circles movement was a dirty word. During the 1950's, when I was opening up the field of dance improvisation, improvising was considered indecent because one was not to express feelings freely in movement, certainly not before an audience. In Boston there was prejudice against my dancers' unconventional body coverings. Boston dance teachers would attend all my performances, sit stony - faced while taking copious notes, then make a point of telling my students how impossible were my ideas of dancing. New York dancers criticized my outdoor work as harmful because dancers should not have sun on their heads.

The dance establishment in my adopted city of Tucson has never known what to make of me. My presentations of large group dance improvisation have been criticized as "anonymous"- meaning, I suppose, that there is no choreographer, no premiere danseuse and no dancers' names on printed programs. Another criticism- which, I admit, pleases me- is that my work is too "unusual". I came to Tucson realizing that my work was on a cultural frontier and believing that I might contribute to the healthy growth of life on a geographical frontier. It was a disappointment to find Tucson suffering from a feeling of inferiority in relation to the East, wanting nothing better in dance than to be a carbon copy of New York

My unconcern for theatrical techniques in the interest of pure movement expression has always been, and continues to be, cause for conventional dancers everywhere to reject my work as non-dance.

Fortunately I am a pioneer stock and the perils of the wilderness do not faze me. I have worked hard with great joy through good and bad times. There are, of course, many people who find that my work is just what they had been looking for. This makes me happy and gives me strength.

I like to compare my work to a desert plant which can survive long periods of aridity ready to burst into colorful bloom when rains come, and I like to compare our dance improvisations to the flower of the night-blooming cereus which appears unexpectedly and lives only for only a few hours, uniquely beautiful whether or not anyone sees it.

copyright Barbara Mettler 1980

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