Theory and Practice in Dance - Rina Schenfeld

Dance is a language passed down orally and transmitted from mouth to ear, from generation to generation. The human body is a wonderful machine, a superb orchestra; in order to know how to use it there is a need for living, knowledge andpractice.

After 50 years on stage and in creative work I am still looking to arrive at freedom, to allow my dance to evolve naturally. In my 50 years on stage so many theories and practice methods have formed and changed. I began with classical ballet, endeavoring to fly up to the sky. After that, in modern dance, with Martha Graham, I learned to fall down to earth. From being a delicate ballerina, I became a strong woman – a heroic Ariadne, a Herodiade, a Helena, a Medea; and, from there, I went to find a new language of my own, with objects, with Merce Cunningham and with Pina Bausch.
I learned so much at the Juilliard School: classical ballet and modern dance – the Martha Graham technique, Labanotation, choreography with Louis Horst ; then there were all the dances I performed, these being masterpieces by Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins, Glen Tetley, Norman Morrice, John Cranko, Robert Cohan – some of the world’s greatest choreographers. The 90 dances I have created over many years have permeated my body: they run in my blood and have become natural to me. All the rules and forms are instilled in my body, enabling me to create with closed eyes, without planning, allowing the creation to emerge from other natural- and unknown sources.

What is freedom in dance and how does one achieve it?

“Objects contain within themselves all possibilities” , said Ludwig  Wittgenstein and indeed, they have helped me discover new theories and practices, they also taught me to find my own personal language, to learn to create different movements, to relate differently to space and music. they helped me and showed me how  to partner, to join, to separate and to connect. I have worked with a variety of objects: geometrical objects, objects from nature, realistic objects, and later on, words, poetry and video. All these have helped me to detach myself from the world of Martha Graham, to create dance without the use of stories, plots and heroes, to achieve clear lines, to discover the world of light and shadow in an illusory, mystical, absurd world, in which one enters to the unknown.
Working with video allows me to get closer to my public, at the same time bringing outdoor sceneries to the theatre. This freedom has shown me the possibility and necessity of recycling, recreating and choreographing one work from another. A  trio can become a duet danced once to the music of Chopin, at another time to that of Bach and yet another time to the music of Leonard Cohen. Costumes can be varied as can the order of dances. all of this teaching us how a new and different work is created.
We change daily. Our dreams change; changes in weather can influence our dance. We must learn to be flexible, not to stick religiously to old theories and practices, but to open up to new possibilities. to learn and unlearn.
To achieve this freedom I have used several methods:

1)    I have created a new technique that integrates classical technique, modern dance, yoga, the Feldenkrais Method and Contact Improvisation.

2)    I have discovered improvisation; it has become a part of my technique and of my creative process.

3)    I have choreographed using the technique of free association.

4)    Turning to geometry in order to seek clear lines and freshness of atmosphere, I discovered the power and meaning of the triangle, the square, the line, the rectangle, the circle
and the cross.

5)    I have created dance to the music of the body and not to previously existing music. Composers have written music to completed dances of mine, sometimes sent to them on video.

6)    I have exited the theatre space to perform in unconventional locations: the street, nature, museums, at the sea.

7)    I have learned from Oskar Schlemmer’s work associated with the Bauhaus School, taking much inspiration and knowledge from this period.

8)    I have worked with voice, words, sound, poetry, with video and with light and shadow.

9)    I have used “chance operation” in my work.

10) The major part of my work has been with objects; they have given me much inspiration and knowledge that have helped me find my own personal language.

However, after 15 years of work, I discovered that “her blood (that of Martha Graham) was running through mine  and her voice was singing within me”. I was discovering that all the rules, the drill and, and in particular, Martha Graham’s world were, despite my having rebelled  against  them, instilled in my body.
In what way is this so?

1)    My work is always an inward journey, a journey to the unknown.

2)    There is ritual in my dance.

3)    It always includes some drama.

4)    I use facial expression. (The face is part of the body.)

5)    Even my work with objects is a continuation and development of Martha Graham’s work.

Up to age 40 I had never improvised; it was not part of the theory and practice of the Juilliard School, that of Martha Graham or classical ballet. Today I very much believe in improvisation and train myself and my pupils to engage in it. I believe every dancer has his own language and that he should learn to devise his own movement and listen to his personal inner voice. My dancers create their own movements; each dancer has his different uniqueness and I make efforts to highlight this.

Changes of Theory and Practice
Great artists change theories over the years and that is how art extends itself. It is good and necessary to have the old theories but also to always be open to new ones in order to breathe new life into our own theories and practice.

Merce Cunningham was one of the greatest dance artists to change the world of dance. For me, he opened many doors, bringing much freshness to dance. Merce, a soloist in Martha Graham’s company, rebelled against Martha Graham’s world of dance. He went on to invent a completely different dance language he is the “prophet of abstract dance”. When he was asked where center stage was, he would say that there was no center stage and that the whole stage is a center. When Martha Graham was asked where center stage was, her answer was: “It is where I am”. Together with John Cage, Cunningham developed “Chance Operation”, giving the dancer freedom and enabling us to create dance in a different way. Freedom of creation is a central element and so important to us.

In order to achieve this freedom, one needs discipline and rigorous daily practice. Dance is an experience and this allows it to be within it. It is a fresh experiment each time. One must not rely on habit, nor should one give way to monotony; we must not stick to the same rules or the same patterns. It is important to make changes to music, steps and movements, to surprise ourselves and not to stay on the safe side. Merce said: “Instead of sitting and biting my fingernails in the task of looking for the next subject, I allow higher powers than I to make the decision.” He would toss a coin in order to let fate decide for him what the next dance would be. Merce Cunningham and John Cage’s theory and practice completely changed the relationship between music and dance. At the Juilliard School, we borrowed from theory of music to create dance according to the rules of music – the ABA form,theme and variation. Today we use music differently. We dance to the music of our bodies, then adding music for the dance. The composer, therefore, writes music to our dance. Merce Cunningham’s dancers first encounter the music only when on stage, and this works. It results in a fascinating encounter, full of life, tension and freshness. There is no glue holding the music and dance together; one does not control the other. Cunningham’s music is changed from performance to performance, as do the order of pieces, the lighting and costumes. His dancers see the order of the program up on a notice board the day of the performance. They receive instructions as to what to wear for each piece just before the performance, and each performance is different. A performance I saw of his in Caesarea looked like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; the same performance in Tel Aviv was more like “Hamlet”. This was due only to changes in the order of pieces, the music and lighting.


Pina Bausch, the of mother of dance  theatre, totally changed the world of dance, extending its possibilities in a completely different direction. She reinvented dance. Her dances include a collage of different styles of music – classical, contemporary, world music, folklore, Greek – and Italian music, popular – and sentimental songs, also music from Hollywood movies and Broadway shows.  Her evenings have no narrative content: they are constructed of free associations and have no plot – hers is theatre of movement and communication.  She fought against clichés and sweet, artificial and dangerous illusions. Her motto was “I am not interested in movement but in what moves people”. She also said “Dance, dance, dance, otherwise we are lost”. She was the first to create “full dance evenings” made up of short sections. Before this, dance programs were organized like a meal: a first course – an appetizer – followed by a main course and then the last – a dessert. Today, as a result of her influence, most of my dance evenings, and those of many others, are also made up of a collage. With no first – or last course, this is a meaningful change, opening up the field of creative work and changing it.

Conclusion – different approaches to the creative process
In conclusion, I wish to refer to a telephone conversation I had with a friend who is a painter and writer. She complained of the struggle  she was having in creating her latest work.  When I asked her why, she spoke of her ideal and the problems she was having in achieving it. I told her that after many years of work while looking for my freedom, in the process of creating a new dance, I decided to have no ideal; I simply go down to my studio and dance, allowing the ideal to come to me of its own accord. It does not mean that this way is easier. Both are different approaches to the creative process and both demand time and patience. One method is not easier or more difficult than the other. Every artist has his own way of reaching a goal. ‘It is the body that wanders in the world, collecting threads of light’, ‘Moving until the body no longer dances, only a scream’,  Hadassa Tal. There are no rules that suit us all. Choosing one way or the other depends on one’s education, habits, character and personality. The sky is the limit where freedom and openness exist.

Rina Schenfeld