Early in January, 1924, Gurdjieff arrived on the SS Paris. Among the thirty people who accompanied him were Mme. Olga de Hartmann, then his secretary, and her husband,Thomas de Hartmann, a gifted pianist and composer who in the old days had played for the Czar and composed music for the Imperial Ballet. It was Hartmann who put Gurdjieff’s musical themes into playable script. Later the troupe was moved to more permanent quarters in a three-story house on the west side of Manhattan. One side housed Gurdjieff and the Hartmanns; on the other lived the younger students.
Practice sessions of Gurdjieff’s sacred dances, called more simply ‘movements’, were begun in a studio belonging to Rosetta O’Neil, and later at Lesley Hall, not far from the brownstone house. In the manner of the institute, the students swept, scrubbed the hall, and constructed a stage adequate for three rows of dancers. The watchword was working together. Mme. de Hartmann was surrounded by women cutting patterns and sewing costumes. Drums and a piano were moved in. For the first private demonstration of the dancing, Orage invited writers, artists, and other interested people. Gurdjieff seemed gratified by their response, and said his group was ready for a more public demonstration.
Orage had already met Alice and Irene Lewisohn, daughters of the philanthropist responsible for the Lewisohn stadium, who owned the Neighborhood Playhouse. After seeing the movements at Lesley Hall, the sisters offered their theater for the first general showing of the sacred dances, which took place early in February 1924.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the unpreparedness of Americans for that first viewing of Gurdjieff’s pupils in action. They knew vaguely that the movements were some sort of special dance, coming from ancient Eastern sources. At that moment, innovative dance centered about the Isadora Duncan influence, then considered revolutionary, or, for more classical tastes, there was a growing interest in ballet. Contradictory rumors about the demonstration in Paris reached the ears of those specially concerned with dance as an art form, who realized that this form would have to be regarded in some new way, and were anxious to be among the first to view it.
Lisa Delza, dancer and choreographer, remembers the excitement she felt at hearing from the poet, Hart Crane, that there was to be a performance of the Gurdjieff movements at the Neighborhood Playhouse, which had an avant-garde reputation of its own. Miss Delza recalls:
We went with Jean Toomer and Margaret Naumberg who was then head of the Walden school. Outside the theater, Orage introduced us to Gurdjieff. He was standing at the lobby entrance handing out tickets—you know how he did things. Some he passed by after he looked them over, and others he gave tickets to. He gave them to us and we were in.
Though he did not take part in the dances, Orage talked from the stage to prepare the audience for what they were about to see. Orage said:
Such gymnastics as these have a double aim. They contain and express a certain form of knowledge and at the same time serve as a means to acquire a harmonious state of being.
The farthest possible limits of one’s strength are known through the combination of unnatural movements in the individual gymnastics, which help to obtain certain qualities of sensation, various degrees of concentration, and the requisite directing of thought and the senses.
Thus the ancient sacred dance … is a book, as it were, containing definite knowledge.
The program began with the dancers in an almost military order of seven files and three rows, but costumed with quite unmilitary softness. Both men and women wore white tunics over full white trousers gathered at the ankle, much like the Rajput way of dressing, with its yielding responsiveness to bodily motion. The tunics were belted with wide sashes, looped on the left side, in the seven colors of the spectrum, and for the first few movements the dancers stood in the order: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Though they remained so for the ‘obligatories’, their swift movement in complex figures appeared to make the colors change and shift. Someone in the audience said that it seemed like watching white light passed very slowly through a prism and breaking into its spectral order.
Dervish exercises followed, performed by men in Islamic costumes, and then dances of an elusive beauty, based upon symbols associated with the Gurdjieff work. There was a pause, followed by a silence the audience shared, which has since been noted as characteristic of intermissions at such demonstrations. People seemed not to feel like chattering and were attentive the moment Orage returned to the stage to prepare them for the ‘stop’ exercise.
As soon as the dancer hears the shout to stop, Orage explained, he must ‘freeze’ and remain motionless until the signal to melt into his more usual posture. There were several explanations for the exercise, he told them. Since the body is made to stop in quite unplanned positions, the dancer cannot help but observe himself in a new situation—between postures, as it were. This was one way to break the vicious circle of his automatism.
But no explanation could wholly prepare either the pupils or the audience for the stop exercise. Those who saw it were electrified. Some reported their reaction as fear. Others were shocked into the vision of a new human possibility. Others reported that the dancers, still frozen in the stop, fell off the stage into the orchestra pit. That did not, of course, actually happen, but the shock of the immediate and complete obedience to the shouted signal dazzled the audience in unforeseen ways.
New York, February 1924.
(from a book “Oriental Suite”)