Irmgard Bartenieff

Posted on September 15, 2008 by

In 1974, after moving from Brazil to New York City to work as a ballet dancer, I entered Irmgard Bartenieff’s  Laban Movement Studies Program looking for innovative ways to approach choreography. I studied and worked closely with her from 1974 to 1977, becoming one of the first Certified Movement Analysts, and then went back to Brazil. But every year I returned to NYC to study privately with Irmgard. I helped her organize numerous texts for her book, and updated her on the progress of the Laban/Bartenieff work in Brazil.
Her greatest influence on my life and work relates to the idea of embodying change and innovation. In crucial moments of my life, I remember how she would ask us to instantly change from one attitude to another, or how she surprised us by interrupting an “organic” flow of movement by introducing unexpected elements into the movement phrase. And I still can hear her remarking with her great sense of humor: “Breathe and be ready to change! Change is here to stay!”

Irmgard Bartenieff (1900–1981) was a dancer, physical therapist, cross-cultural scholar and pioneer in the field of dance/movement therapy. A Renaissance woman who enjoyed weaving disciplines together, she investigated movement in a variety of fields—including child development, ethnic dance, nonverbal communication and physical rehabilitation.

One of Rudolf Laban’s star pupils, Bartenieff was among the first proponents of his work in the U.S., ultimately founding what would become the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies, LIMS® in NYC (celebrating its 30th anniversary this year). As a physical therapist, she applied Laban’s theories and the principles of human development to her work with polio patients as well as dancers, originating a physical reeducation method designed to develop movement efficiency and expressiveness. The work came to be known as Bartenieff Fundamentalssm.

Bartenieff’s method is based on the concept of “total body connectivity,” which perceives the body as a unified organism whose parts constantly influence one another. Building on the “Basic Six” exercises (Thigh Lift, Knee Drop, Lateral Pelvic Shift, Forward Pelvic Shift, Body-Half and Arm Circles), Bartenieff teachers lead students through the stages of human development in a series of structured movements that progress from gentle floor sequences to complex phrases traversing different levels of space in unusual ways. A Bartenieff session may also make use of music, guided imagery, touch, sound and speech, depending on the population being taught. In this exciting and supportive environment, a person learns how to embody change and feel present in the moment-to-moment experience of living.

Born in Berlin, Germany, in 1900, Bartenieff first trained as a dancer and later studied biology and visual and
performing arts as a university student. In 1925, she began studying with Laban. Trying to find common ground between her mentor’s teachings and her previous dance training, Bartenieff formed a company, the Romantisches Tanztheatre Bartenieff, which toured throughout Germany until 1932. With the expansion of Nazism, she and her husband, Michail Bartenieff, who was Jewish, relocated to the U.S. in 1933.

In the U.S., Bartenieff introduced Labanotation at the Hanya Holm Studio and lectured at Bennington College, Columbia Teachers College, The New School for Social Research and the Brooklyn Museum.

Bartenieff graduated from New York University’s physical therapy program in 1943. In a world afflicted by war and polio epidemics, she felt it was important to contribute to society with her unique vision of body rehabilitation. Drawing on Laban’s movement theories, she
pioneered methods of helping patients become active participants in their own treatment. Her enormous success earned her the position of chief physical therapist for polio services at Willard Park Hospital in New York, where she worked until 1953. Speaking of her work at that time, she said, “The introduction of spatial concepts required an awareness of intent on the part of the patient that activated his will, and thus connected his independent participation to his own recovery.”

In the mid-1950s, Bartenieff decided to go to England to study further with Laban, and she returned every summer for five years. Meanwhile, in NYC, she taught classes in Effort/Shape for professional dancers at the Turtle Bay Music School, where she started creating the material that would form the basis for the Bartenieff Fundamentals. With these dance artists, she began experimenting with everyday movement in dance. At this time, she met Robert Ellis Dunn, whose classes in improvisation and choreography were the laboratory in which postmodern dance was born, and they started a long and fruitful collaboration.

Bartenieff also continued her physical therapy work. From 1954 to 1957, as chief therapist at a small orthopedic hospital in Valhalla, NY, she developed therapeutic and recreational movement activities for disabled children, work that led to developmental studies on newborns and infants. She later brought her techniques to the Polio Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark, in a course called “Stretching in Polio.”

From 1957 to 1967, Bartenieff was a dance therapist and research assistant in nonverbal behavior at Day Hospital of Albert Einstein Medical College in NYC. Drawing from Laban’s concepts, she led the development of systematic observation and notation of patient behavior. She also operated a private physical therapy practice specializing in dance injuries and back problems.

Meanwhile, excited by the possible correlations between dance and everyday behavior, Bartenieff joined Columbia University ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax on the Choreometrics Project, which sought to analyze dance in a variety of cultures. She worked on the project from 1964 to 1966, sharing the richness of the experience with students in her Effort/
Shape classes.

In 1965, Bartenieff and two assistants established the first Effort/Shape training program at the Dance Notation Bureau in NYC. The first certification program in Laban Movement Studies, an amalgam of Laban’s movement theories and Bartenieff’s approach, followed in 1973. This in-depth graduate-level program offers the title of CMA (Certified Movement Analyst), and over the years has acquired international prestige.

In response to mounting interest, Bartenieff founded the Laban Institute of Movement Studies in NYC in 1978. Two years later, she published her much-anticipated book, Body Movement: Coping With the Environment, which covers the breadth of her interest in movement and dance across several
disciplines. LIMS became the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies in 1981, the year Bartenieff passed away.
When Bartenieff founded the certification program, it was essentially dance-oriented. In recent years, however, her methods have found greater resonance in fields as diverse as communications, performing arts, somatics and leadership studies and, in response, the program has evolved to be more inclusive of them.

The dance world is embracing her methods with a renewed vigor as well: Today’s dancers, even those immersed in more traditional forms, must be proficient in a multitude of styles and possess the ability to shift easily from one to another. As the formerly rigid lines between disciplines become increasingly blurred,  dancers are called upon to more actively participate in the creative process, tapping into the idea that the body itself is an open-ended process of actualization and self-innovation. Faced with these new demands, dancers are rediscovering Bartenieff as a technique for the fundamental embodiment of change.

As she would say, change is here to stay! DT

Regina Miranda, CMA, is chair of the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies in NYC, president and founder of Centro Laban–Rio in Brazil, a choreographer and theater director, and a specialist in leadership development and public speaking as performance.

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