Irmgard Bartenieff

Irmgard Bartenieff. Image from LIMS®. Used by permission.

Irmgard Bartenieff

by Susan Tobin

The work of Irmgard Bartenieff and her many collaborators and pupils is of the very greatest importance in research on mother-infant relationships, the social behavior of primitive people, choreometric styles around the world, work with psychiatric patients, and studies of animal behavior. —Margaret Mead

Irmgard Bartenieff (1900–1981), dancer, choreographer, and pioneering physiotherapist, attained world-wide renown as the foremost authority in the United States on the work of Rudolf Laban, whose methods of notation and analysis of human movement she developed and adapted. Bartenieff collaborated with Alan Lomax on the Choreometrics Project from 1965 to 1970, continuing as a consultant with the Project after retiring from full-time involvement with it in 1970.

Irmgard Dombois was born in Berlin in 1900, the daughter of a French Huguenot father who held an important position in the German government and a German mother from a prominent business family. She grew up in Berlin, graduating from the prestigious classical Gymnasium at or near the top of her class. Her broad education, which included the study of biology, was to be an excellent preparation for her subsequent multi-faceted career, though at the time her parents were not thrilled when she chose to be a dancer. In 1925 she met Rudolf Laban who was a well-known dancer and theoretician, celebrated for his new ideas in dance notation, and movement. Her somewhat disparate early interests in dance, biology, and the arts became more sharply focused after this meeting. From 1925 to 1927 she studied with Laban, becoming the recipient of a Laban diploma (when she came to the United States in 1936 she was the only person to possess this credential) and then continued to work and teach with him in the schools he had founded throughout Germany.

In 1928 in Munich, Irmgard met and married Michail Bartenieff, a Russian Jewish ballet character dancer who had moved to Germany after the First World War. Together they established a dance company called the Romantische Tanz Theater (Romantic Dance Theater), which toured throughout Germany. Her own training had been in modern dance rather than classical ballet, and this worked well with her husband's character dancing: she taught dance and notation, and he taught ballet. The life of their company was cut short by Hitler's government, however. Bartenieff found work for a time translating earlier notation of French dances into Labanotation. In 1936 she had her husband were forced to flee to the United States. Two years later she was able to return to Germany for their two sons.

Irmgard Bartenieff

Irmgard Bartenieff. Image from LIMS®. Used by permission.

Throughout her career Irmgard Bartenieff continued to find new and fruitful applications for Labanalysis in the disparate fields of physical therapy, psychiatry, history of dance, and ethnology. Upon arriving in the United States, Bartenieff introduced Labanotation to the Hanya Holm Studio in New York. She lectured at Bennington College, Columbia Teachers College, The New School for Social Research, and the Brooklyn Museum and, shortly after its founding in 1940, was invited to join the Dance Notation Bureau in New York. Meanwhile, compelled by the necessity of supporting the family by means other than dance, she and her husband both decided to become physical therapists.

In 1943 Bartenieff graduated from New York University's Physical Therapy Program, and over the next several years worked as a therapist in several New York area hospitals, notably the Willard Parker Hospital on Manhattan's Lower East Side, the most famous of the infectious disease quarantine hospitals. Here, for seven years, Bartenieff helped rehabilitate victims of the polio epidemic. Her background in dance notation proved unexpectedly useful in this task. As she later recalled, "Analysis of the movements necessary to do notation gave me a body of knowledge that I began to use in physical rehabilitation.... The absence of movement taught me what movement is about, so I developed new techniques...I was a very unconventional physical therapist" (from an interview by Ilana Rubenfeld, in Somatics, Autumn 1977). .

From 1954—57 Bartenieff was Chief Therapist at Blythedale Hospital in Valhalla, New York, an orthopedic hospital for children. In the years following she worked at the Jacoby Hospital and from 1957?67 as a dance therapist and research assistant in non-verbal behavior at the Day Hospital at Albert Einstein Medical College, where efforts were underway to find new approaches to working with mental patients. At Albert Einstein, Bartenieff led the development of systematic program of observation and notation of patient behavior, combining Laban's concepts with principles that she herself had devised.

By this time Bartenieff had renewed her association with Laban, traveling to England, where he had been based since 1938, for five consecutive summers. They exchanged ideas and she learned about latest theories, in particular his concept of Effort, later called Effort/Shape. Concurrently with her work in hospitals, she taught classes in Effort/Shape at the Turtle Bay Music School in New York and as a private practitioner. In the mid-1960s Bartenieff became a charter member of the American Dance Therapy Association.

In 1965 Alan Lomax, on the advice of kineseologist Ray L. Birdwhistell, approached Bartenieff about joining his Performance Style and Culture Research Project, conducted through the Anthropology Department of Columbia University. That year, Bartenieff had just established and was teaching courses in the Effort/Shape program at the Dance Notation Bureau with two of her advanced students, Forrestine Paulay and Martha Davis. She brought Paulay and Davis with her to Lomax's project and together they collaborated in creating the method of cross-cultural dance analysis known as Choreometrics, an outgrowth of Lomax's ongoing Cantometrics research.

In her 1967 paper, "Research in Anthropology: A Study of Dance Styles in Primitive Cultures" (Cord Dance Research Annual I), Bartenieff affirmed that dance (particularly traditional dance) was uniquely suited to Lomax's type of analysis, since movement is "not only a medium of expression but also the essence of communication." She wrote that although all dancers feel that movement communicates across culture barriers, there have hitherto been no means for describing dance patterns so that they could be consistently compared cross-culturally. In her view, Alan Lomax's Cantometrics Project, constituted a breakthrough: "The task on which we collaborated with Mr. Lomax was to adapt the Laban system to the problem of comparison of movement styles cross-culturally so that the main style families would emerge from the study of this visually perceived behavior on film, as in Cantometrics they had been found by study of aurally perceived behavior."

Three chapters of Lomax's book, Folk Song Style and Culture (1968), are devoted to Choreometrics. In chapter ten, "Dance, Style, and Culture," Lomax, Bartenieff, and Paulay describe the origin and meaning of the term: "In order to distinguish the level of this comparative study of movement from the levels where previous investigators have worked, we have given the method a freshly-coined designation, Choreometrics, meaning the measure of dance, or dance as a measure of culture" (p. 223). They wrote that:

Choreometrics tests the proposition that dance is the most repetitious, redundant, and formally organized system of body communication present in a culture...The dance is composed of those gestures, postures, movements, and movement qualities most characteristic and most essential to the activity of everyday, and thus crucial to cultural continuity. By treating these elements redundantly and formally, dance becomes an effective organizer of joint motor activity. Dance supplies the metronome to meter and regulates, or orders the energy and attention of groups of people, and thereby acquires the weight of general community approval. Thus dance functions to establish and renew consensus at moments when a society, without further discussion or explanation, is ready to act in concert. (FSS&C, p. 224).

In 1973 the Dance Notation Bureau initiated an in-depth, graduate-level program of training in a combination of Laban and Bartenieff's theories and practices of movement study and analyses. In 1978 Bartenieff branched off to found her own Laban Institute of Movement Studies, which, in 1981, the year in which she died, was renamed the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies (LIMS®).

Irmgard Bartenieff's book, written with Dori Lewis, Body Movement: Coping with the Environment, about her experiences as a therapist in hospitals, had appeared in 1980 and was directed at general audiences (it was reissued by Routledge, in 1992). Her theories and therapeutic practices, called Bartenieff Fundamentals, are described in greater detail in Making Connections: Total Body Integration Through Bartenieff Fundamentals (Routledge, 1990, ISBN-10: 9056995928) written by friend and colleague Peggy Hackney, who drew extensively on Bartenieff's unpublished papers.

The Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies, teaches Bartenieff Fundamentals and offers an intensive, year-long graduate program in Laban Effort/Shape Movement Studies, conferring a degree of CMA (Certified Movement Analyst). According to Regina Miranda, Director of LIMS:

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.

—"Irmgard Bartenieff, Movement Innovator," Dance Teacher , January, 2008

Miranda recalled her mentor in these words:

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 can be heard commenting on traditional dance in the Discussions and Interviews section of our catalog.

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