When you have a sister who attended a Rudof Steiner School, you are sometimes treated to events of a different nature than the run-of-the-mill concerts or theatre performances. I'm currently in Germany visiting my family, and last Wednesday I tagged along to a presentation of Kalevala - Die Macht des Wortes (The Power of the Word), a presentation combining contemporary dance, spoken word, and eurythmy. Even though my sister had eurythmy as a subject in her school, my insights into this discipline is somewhat limited. Thankfully I sat next the my sister's friend Astrid, herself a eurythmy teacher, who was happy to fill me in. Astrid explained to me that this discipline, invented by Rudolf Steiner around 1912, is a form of "movement art" which aims to make words visible. Eurythmy can be performed to music, where the tonal experience of the sounds are interpreted, or to the spoken word, where the eurythmist illustrates the sounds and rythms of language. When performing eurythmy to poetry, each letter is assigned a gesture, for example the "S" is a waving of the hand following the shape of the letter, an "O" is, predictably, forming a circle with your arms. Sounds can also be connected to breathing - the letter M has two parts, breathing in and breathing out, which is also linked to the way the letter looks written down. And no, it doesn't look like a show by the Village People, rather imagine something along the lines of Isabella Duncan with a dash of cheerleading squad. Eurythmy performers usually wear flowing robes which emphasize the movements of the body and arms. It's a fairly esoteric affair, caught somewhere between dance and poetry, and utterly intriguing. The poet recites his words forcefully and slowly, allowing the dancer to follow along, and the the dancer moves across the stage, arzms waving and body undulating, illustrating the words. Even with my untrained eye I was able to pick up links between the dancer's movement and the sounds of the spoken words. Not every letter is interpreted, rather one or two key sounds are picked out by the artist and then translated into movement - the F of the sizzling Fire, the S of the hissing Snake, the O of the round Boulder. Interestingly, this means that a poem "looks" different when performed in another language, even though the content of the text remains the same. The eurythmist can interpret each letter-gesture to fit the meaning of the text, but there are limits. This creates an interesting tension between semantics and aesthetics which was explored in the Kalevala performance: several verses of the original Finnish text were translated into other languages - English, French, Dutch, German - changing the mood of the poem. The finer points of this exercise were mostly appreciated by those members of the audience with some experience in the discipline, I was just glad to occasionally comprehend some of the text (about 90% of the performance was in Finnish).
All in all it was a very interesting evening. My nephews all attend the local Rudolf Steiner School and have eurythmy classes once a week. I don't think I'll ever see any of them on stage, but the eldest does have a T-Shirt he bought at the school store which reads "Yes, I can dance my name". It's a start.
Note: There's a subltle difference between "eurythmy" and "eurythmics". The former was invented by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner and Marie von Sivers, partly as a new art form, and partly as a pedagogical discipline. The latter is a form of rhythmic gymnastics invented by Émile Jacques-Dalcroze designed to help music students retain their musical basics. It isn't clear which of the two disciplines inspired Annie Lennox to name her duo Eurythmics, though Rudolf Steiner pupils are convinced it's eurythmy.