Gurdjieff often preferred to be known simply as a 'teacher of temple dances' and his creations in this field have inspired generations. The Gurdjieff Foundation devoted a great deal of time and effort to the preservation of these movements as they were identified by Madame de Salzmann at the time of Gurdjieff's death. Over the years, they have produced a series of films and videos, recording performances of a very high standard. So far, viewings of these recordings has been severely restricted; the one exception being the pieces shown at the end of the movie 'Meetings with Remarkable Men'.
The movements were not only extraordinary pieces of choreography, capable of making a moving spectacle; they were also crucial as a 'laboratory' for investigating experientially human functioning. It is possible for people to 'meet themselves' while working on the movements. For this reason, J. G. Bennett adopted a more open and 'public' approach to them. He persuaded his students to open classes in the movements to attract people into the 'work', believing that the time had come for Gurdjieff's teachings and methods to be more widely available. This led, amongst other things, to a rift between Mr. Bennett and the more orthodox of Gurdjieff's followers.
Since Mr Bennett's death, there have been innumerable rifts and schisms, as well as many attempts at reconciliation. This is in the nature of any human enterprise and is paralleled in all walks of life. It is not entirely bad, since this is the basic way in which the inherent variety and diversity of a real process can become articulated. No one person or school is right and the others wrong. We can imagine many different attitudes to what we are proposing here.
The movements themselves are said to incorporate and realise 'ideas' about the world and its creation and maintenance. They exhibit a multiplicity of symbolisms, as well as some kind of direct action on the psyche, that Madame de Salzmann referred to as a special kind of 'energy'. Some of them - especially among the series of 39 - are related to the principles of the enneagram. Others show the stages of a developmental process. Further, it seems that each of the postures, sometimes adopted for only a fleeting moment, carries a significance.
As far as we know, little has been done to investigate in concrete terms what their origin may have been. So we have no basis of comparison with traditional dances. We have oral teachings about the origin and significance of the movements but, so far, these have barely been complemented with new investigations. Again, as far as we know, little has been done to bring to the surface what the various gestures might mean or what they might be used for. Many suspect that the movements have therapeutic or healing potential. Certainly, they serve to organise the nervous system in a holistic way.
As we reach the end of the twentieth century, we find that there are developments in contemporary culture which are equivalent in some sense to some of Gurdjieff's ideas and practices. Followers of Gurdjieff's ideas such as Solange have created their own understanding of the body and its powers. Outside of the circle of followers, there may well be other contributions; even though the investigation of sensation, the body's main energy of manifestation, remains strangely neglected.
Character of the 39
The movements (of which there may around one to two hundred) share in a certain kind of vocabulary. Gurdjieff's movements are always typically Gurdjieffian. We should remember that in the 20's (and earlier) there was a great deal of experimentation with forms of dance. Steiner and Delacroze developed their own systems, quite different from that of Gurdjieff.
In Gurdjieff's movements, the usual rule is that discrete postures are taken, often for only brief periods. Accuracy of gesture is essential. The physical co-ordination of distinct movements for arms, legs, head, feet and torso, etc. (some movements even include gestures for the eyes and tongue!) can be very demanding. Added to this, there is often a pattern of sequences that has to be held in the mind, especially while 'learning' the movement. Some involve the use of voice. In many, there is an 'inner work' for which the 'outer movement' acts as a vehicle. It is this inner content that gives the movements substance.
The 'book' composed of the series of 39 forms an encyclopaedia of gesture and movement. The movements may be distinguished as 'dervish', 'prayer', 'ritual', 'enneagrammatic', etc. Oral tradition has it that No. 1, sometimes called the 'Automat', derives from the ballet 'The Struggle of the Magicians' Gurdjieff was working on way back in Russia around 1910. Below we list some of the names the 39 have been given to convey some sense of their range and character.
An Adventure in Learning
Public performances of the movements were made in Paris (1923) and New York (1924). It was not until 1950 that they were performed in London (May 18 - 19, at the Fortune Theatre, Drury Lane). In the London performance are listed "Four exercises of the last Series created by Gurdjieff and known as 'The Thirtynine'", and "Further Exercises from the Series known as 'The Thirtynine'".
We would not propose a public performance per se, rather letting those who work at the movements have the experience. This is for various reasons, including the fact that the audience needs to be able to participate in the performance 'from within' as it were. Another important consideration is that an enclosed group can make use of 'imperfect' performance.
We call the series of 39 'Gurdjieff's unpublished book'. For the most part, people have come across the 39 (if at all) only in fragments. Our idea is that the whole series constitutes a kind of 'text' that needs to be experienced as a whole.
Performing the 39 is no easy venture. A total performance would require the efforts of many different groups of people, sharing the task. Our suggestion is that those interested in this proposal share in their information about the 39 and become familiar with as many of them as possible. Some steps are being taken in this direction already.
Note: since this event is only at the conceptual stage, input is welcomed.
For information on this and other workshops
in this series,
Karen Stefano, registrar