Friday, July 5, 2019

Fertile Ground: Laban and the Mountain of Truth, Monte Verita, Ascona 1913-1914

What was happening, in the beginning of the 20th Century that attracted Rudolf von Laban to Monte Verita, Ascona, Switzerland to set up his Schule für Kunst (School for Art)? 

What prepares the soil for great artistic movements and new thinking? Who were the participants and where did their ideas come from?

            There are many answers and pathways to conclusions about these questions. In this essay I will pursue the ones I find most interesting. In doing research for this essay each search led to a further line of inquiry. I found myself going further and further back and falling down rabbit holes in European history. My interest in this topic was primed by the fact that it is now 100 years later and my own work has evolved from the material that Rudolf Laban was just beginning to develop during that time.


            A new movement of the mind is a fertile place for new movements of the body. What better place to start than at the dawn of the 20th century? The industrial revolution had led to over-crowding and pollution in European cities. It gave rise to new stresses on the body, psyche and soul. New movements were arising in the realms of art, spirituality, psychology and thinking. Questions came up about the role of women in society, the need for recuperation from industry, the value of being in nature, of how to be human, how to make art and the connections between the individual and divinity.

            The turn of the century heralded an end to the repressive Victorian era (1838-1901). La Belle Époque (1871 -1914) would come to an end with the start of World War One. Romanticism and Mysticism were pushing away Rationalism. Art, theatre and culture were thriving in cities like Paris and Munich. Technology, industry and science were flourishing and opening spaces in people’s minds for new ideas and new thinking, sometimes in reaction to their effects and sometimes in harmony with them. In Paris the Fauves (Wild Beasts) such as Matisse and Derain were placing an emphasis on color and strong brushwork, breaking away from the more realistic styles of the Impressionists. The values of simplicity and abstraction moved the Fauves further away from more complicated realistic approaches.


            Munich was a Kunststadt (Art City) almost on a par with Paris in terms of arts education, art making and exposure. While it was likely the most experimental art arena in Europe, traditional artistic training and approaches could be found alongside the avant-garde. Ideas about geometry, color, form, line, the artist’s inner drive, divinity, rhythm and harmony were spiraling around among groups of artists, musicians, writers, philosophers and the intelligentsia. The connection between the human body and divine experience were linked through ideas of physical expression, sensation and sexuality. Liberation, art, nature, expression, celebration and idealization led people toward the search for a utopian society. Jugendstil or Art Nouveau (1890-1914) attempted to reconcile the effects of mass production and industry through creating Gesamptkunstwerk (total art work) that addressed beauty and harmony through the inclusion of the natural environment. As with the Fauves simplicity and abstraction were components of this work. Elements of primitive, medieval and oriental art merged and entwined drawing inspiration from the past and creating a new look. Nietzsche had influenced thought in many arenas. Wassily Kandinsky’s Phalanx school opened in 1901-1902 next door to Art Nouveau Sculptor, Herrman Obrist’s Teaching and Experimental Atelier for Applied and Free Art. Epistolary between Laban and Obrist demonstrate the strong influence the sculptor had on Laban. Certainly Laban had read Kandinsky’s book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, written in 1910, which held that the inner expression of the artist was the prime element in making work. 

            "When religion, science and morality are shaken, the two last by the strong hand of Nietzsche, and when the outer supports threaten to fall, man turns his gaze from externals in on to himself. Literature, music and art are the first and most sensitive spheres in which this spiritual revolution makes itself felt. They reflect the dark picture of the present time and show the importance of what at first was only a little point of light noticed by few and for the great majority non-existent."

            Laban’s drawings of forms in space reflect the influence of these artistic movements and the origins of his ideas about the geometric relationship of the body in space, which would later become his movement scales. Laban’s Effort is directly (ha pun) related to the inner drive of the mover as it expresses itself through movement. Inner-Outer is a Major Theme in Laban Movement Analysis.

            Laban and his wife singer Maja Lederer had a base in Schwabing, the bohemian neighborhood of Munich from 1910-1914. Schwabing was a center of counter culture and experimentation. Alternative lifestyles were the norm. Performance flourished in the forms of dance, cabaret, puppet theatre and the carnival events, which afforded Laban some income during these years. 

            At the turn of the century mysticism was thriving in Munich. Several groups were exploring the lines of spirituality, mysticism, politics and art and how they entwined and entangled. The Cosmic Circle, centered round the mystic, Alfred Schuler consisted of writers, philosophers and intellectuals who believed that many of the problems facing people and civilization were rooted in Christianity. They studied matriarchal clans and pushed toward a return to paganism. The “Bohemian Countess of Schwabing” Fanny zu Reventlow was a part of this group. She spent time in Monte Verita and will be discussed more in this essay. Poet Karl Wolfskehl was a member of the cosmic Circle who was also involved in Stephan George’s group, George-Kreis, another academic/artistic group of mostly writers.
Harmony and disharmony was on everyone’s mind and tongue. Arnold Schoenberg rejected it in his avant-garde musical compositions.


            In 1902 Rudolf Steiner became head of the Theosophical Society in Austria and Germany following the work of Madame Blavatsky. Blavatsky’s methods mixed Eastern and Western mysticism and taught that each individual had the power to interact directly with the divine and effect change through thought, word and action. Steiner broke away from the Theosophists in 1914 to form the Anthroposophical Society. According to Wikipedia the 1st principle of the Anthroposophical Society is:
The Anthroposophical Society is to be an association of people whose will it is to nurture the life of the soul, both in the individual and in human society, on the basis of a true knowledge of the spiritual world. 

It was an open society that could be joined by anyone. Equality was a major value. With his wife Marie von Sivers, Steiner went on to create Eurythmy, a movement art, which was also concerned with spatial movement lines, curves, the three dimensions, color and the balance between the relationships of speech and movement and music and movement. It is likely that this may have been part of the initial thinking that led to Laban’s Arc-like and Spoke-like Directional Shape and his Dimensional Scale. Ultimately the Steiners developed the Waldorf schools, which still exist today.

            Emile Jacques-Dalcroze opened his school for Eurhythmics in Hellerau, Dresden in 1910. His focus was in training young musicians to hone their bodies to hear and respond to music through movement. Dalcroze believed that Eurhythmics, solfège (musical education focused on pitch and sight singing), and improvisation were the keys to advanced musical abilities.   

            Suzanne Perrottet and Mary Wigman both came to Monte Veritas after meeting in Hellerau at Émile Jaques-Dalcroze school of Eurhythmics where Perrottet was teaching Wigman. Both acknowledged to each other that they were secretly practicing movement alone in their rooms and reaching new conclusions. The Dalcroze structure was too regimented to allow room for their curious explorations. Taking a cure near Hellerau, Laban was invited to a student demonstration at the school. Here he met Perrottet who he was immediately drawn to. They began an affair and correspondence that led Perrottet to meet up with Laban in Monte Verita. Perrottet would work with him on his ideas to form a new system of movement. 

            Suzy Perrottet and Mary Wigman must have brought a great deal of Eurhythmics to Laban’s table. One of the ways that Laban could distinguish himself from Dalcroze was through breaking away from the meter of music. Laban believed that rhythm could be found in the human body without the aid of music. Dancing to music was actually less expressive of the inner drive of the dancer because of the strong influence of the rhythm of the music.

            Laban and Wigman had much in common according to Isa Partsch-Bergsohn. In her book Modern Dance in Germany and the United States: Crosscurrents and ..., Volume 1, she states;
"For both of them dance arose from ritual, from their own undefined nonsectarian form of Dionysianism, inspired by Nietzsche… Wigman believed that the student had to reach this level of trance in order to connect to his unconscious roots, similar in thought to Carl Jung’s collective unconscious. It was in this realm that Wigman conceived dance ritual, a direct outgrowth of her collaboration with Laban on the dance ritual “Song of the Sun”, in 1917."

            It was Nietzsche who said in Ecce Homo, "Remain seated as little as possible, put no trust in any thought that is not born in the open to the accompaniment of free bodily movement.”  In fact Nietzsche wrote Thus Spake Zarathustra in the Swiss Alps not far from Ascona.


            In 1889, prior to the colony, theosophists Alfredo Pioda, Franz Hartmann, and Countess Constance Wachtmeister began planning a cloister on Monesia (Monte Verita) called Fraternitas. Although this cloister did not succeed, perhaps these ideas paved the way for the future of the area in terms of its vegetarianism, sexual equality, occultism and harmony with nature.

            Monte Verita (Mount of Truth), Monesia near Ascona, Switzerland was founded by pianist, teacher and writer Ida Hofmann and her partner Henri Oedenkoven in 1900, driven by the ideal of creating a utopian society focused on living simply, in harmony with nature. Henri Oedenkoven was the son of a rich industrialist whose money did much to support the colony as costs recouped from the clientele did little to cover expenses. The founding group of theosophists, anarchists, mystics and free thinkers had met in Munich in 1900 to set up the purchase of the land. They brought together other groups who had already formed in Ascona to escape from the “suffocation of the metropolis” (Preston-Dunlop.) Initially the place was conceived of as a sanatorium to recover from the effects of city life and industrialization through close contact with nature.  The beautiful peaceful environment provided a haven for a new kind of primitive socialism that arose as an alternative response to Capitalism and Communism. The brothers Karl and Arthur (Gusto) Gräser were involved in the first year of development but though they stayed in the area, their differing ideals split them apart from the colony. 

            Women’s rights, raw vegan food, direct exposure to sunlight, gardening, exercise and movement were some of the major values espoused. One of the goals was to recover from the effects of civilization through communion with nature, growing and eating vegetables. Basic living was extolled. The use of unheated huts and simple attire meant restricted corsets and clothing were exchanged for plain wool or linen clothes worn without restrictive undergarments. Arms could be exposed to the air. Women could stop wearing bras. People went barefoot. This was revolutionary in itself. Within the colony there were “air and light” baths where people could go naked. Originally these were separated by the sexes. Later as the colony evolved nudism became commonplace. People gardened, danced or exercised in the raw.  Artists, anarchists, psychotherapists, feminists, naturalists were all drawn to the spot. The thriving culture in cities such as Munich, Zurich and Paris served to bring them together.

            Laban came to Monte Verita from Munich in May of 1913 to scout the location with the idea of setting up a School for Art there. He must have had some previous connection with the founders for he was quickly brought on board. By June of 1913 the school was beginning to take in students. Mary Wigman was among the first. 

            Laban’s ideas for the school encompassed much more than just art. Laban took on the role of shepherding the spiritual life of the colony. He believed that dance could be a vehicle to engage in the festive celebration of the spiritual dimension. He drew inspiration from several places. Like George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, Laban was influenced by the Sufi’s and came to similar conclusions about the role of dance in ritual and the human-divine connection. Laban had been exposed to Rosicrucianism in Paris and became involved with of the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), a freemasonry/Rosicrucian group that practiced sex-magick[1], during his time at Monte Verita. It was an unusual group in that it allowed the membership of females. Ida Hoffmann and Henri Oedenkoven were also members, as were many others in the community. The O.T.O. Grand Lodge Mystica Verita pursued a stream of activities culminating in a 10 day congress in August of 1917 in which Labanites performed over a 12 hour span his Sang an die Sonne (Song to the Sun), “Dance of the Setting Sun,” “Demons of the Night.” and “The Rising Sun.” This ritual/performance cycle was an overt demonstration of the cosmic connection to be found in the expression of the artistic human form. In 1917 in Zurich, he founded his own lodge, the Libertas et Fraternitas/Johannes Lodge of the ancient Freemasons of the Scottish and Memphis and Misraim Rites. Perrottet, Wigman, Olga Feldt, Wulff, Lederer, Herbert von Bomsdorff-Berger and Oskar Bienz were members of this lodge. 

            For Laban freedom of the body, really meant freedom of the body, to express in terms of emotions, sexuality, primitive and spiritual impulses. His ties with the O.T.O. and the Schwabing mystics offered new ideas that directly linked the human body to the divine, through sexual liberation and movement practices. Laban had a large sexual appetite and was physically involved with many of the participants at Monte Verita. His magnetism drew ample willing partners. He was often sexually involved with the women who were collaborating with him as he developed his work. (I guess that is one way to begin an empire of movement…)

            While World War I was raging throughout Europe, Monte Verita, Switzerland, remained a peaceful neutral outpost. The war lasted from July 1914 to November 1918. Many of the Verita inhabitants moved to Zurich for the winter months.


            Soon-to-be Dadaists, Sophie Taeuber and Katja Wulff came to Monte Verita to study with Laban. With Perrottet, both Taeuber and Wulff would perform in the Zurich Dada movement born in the Cabaret Voltaire. Laban himself was involved in some of these performances, but his ideology differed from the Nihilist Dadaists. The expressionistic work they did at Monte Verita likely paved the way for further pushing of boundaries in public performance. The Dada women became well known for their grotesque portrayals that challenged stereotypes of femininity and harmony. They used masks and spoken word in performance. According to the Thesis of Katherine Leigh Weinstein,

"However, the women of Zurich Dada; namely the poet Emmy Hennings, artist and dancer Sophie Taeuber, dancer Katja Wulff and the dancer and musician Suzanne Perrottet, subverted traditional images of femininity through the presentation of their bodies on stage that were often radical and bizarre. Each woman found in the galleries and stages of Dada an arena for self-expression, a platform for their political views, and the impetus to revolt against entrenched artistic traditions."

            Olga Feldt (a.k.a. Dussia Bereska) followed Laban and Perrottet to Monte Verita in 1917. She would become a prime collaborator, lover, teacher and choreographer working with Laban until 1929.


            Franziska zu Reventlow “the Bohemian Countess” lived in Monte Verita from 1910-1916. She was famous for her unorthodox views on feminism. She rallied against the institution of marriage, believing that sexual freedom paved the way to equality for women.

            Psychoanalyst, anarchist and advocate of Free Love, Otto Gross was another key player in the early Ascona community. At the time Gross was thought to be Freud’s brightest follower.  In a biographical survey Gottfried Heuer pointed out “For Gross, psychoanalysis was a weapon in a countercultural revolution to overthrow the existing order - not a means to force people to adapt better to it.” Gross struggled with patriarchy. He was interested in Jakob Bachofen’s work on Das Mutterrecht or “mother-right.” He was an advocate against the discrimination of same sex relationships. Gross was another believer that the physical body could not be separated from the soul. He wrote "The psychology of the unconscious is the philosophy of the revolution . . . It is called upon to enable an inner freedom, called upon as preparation for the revolution" (Heuer, Gottfried, 1998)
Both Gross and Reventlow came from traditional repressive patriarchal families. Both saw the need for societal change and a questioning of values. Both believed in free and open expression of sexuality. 

            Writer Herman Hesse, dancer Isadora Duncan, philosopher and member of the Cosmic Circle Ludwig Klages and many other great minds of the early 20th century all made their way to Monte Verita.


            An underlying theme that connects many of the artistic, spiritual and philosophical movements at the time of the development of Monte Verita was the idea that each person had the power to connect to the divine through the expressive force their own inner drives. This Drive of the individual to connect to the cosmic seemed to be at the base of the ideas behind the work of Kandinsky, Blavatsky and the Theosophists, the Steiners, and Laban. People were interested in creating alternate societies based on utopian ideals, looking for a way forward into a new age that embraced matriarchal ideals while rejecting the materialism of the mainstream. 

            When I was studying Laban Movement Analysis I found that the spatial geometric  scales of movement came very easily to me. As the year of study progressed I had a dream that felt divinely cosmic to me. The dream was very abstract. I dreamt that I was a point in space and everything in the universe was simultaneously radiating into and out of me. It was a magical transcendent feeling of total emersion and connection with ALL. 

I believe this feeling was a part of the Zeitgeist of the early 20th century. Perhaps this deep connection I personally experienced through the course of my Laban work was the impetus to dig into this particular Monte Verita time and place in this essay.

Dörr, Evelyn, Rudolf Laban: The Dancer of the Crystal, Scarecrow Press, Langham, MD 2008

Laban, Rudolf ,A Life for Dance: Reminiscences, trans. Lisa Ullmann, Princeton: Princeton Books, 1975

Lachman, Gary, Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right, and the Radically Unseen, Quest Books, Wheaton, IL, 2008

Preston-Dunlop, Valerie Rudolf Laban: An Extraordinary Life London: Dance Books, 1998

Dörr, Evelyn and Lantz, Lori “Rudolf von Laban: The "Founding Father" of Expressionist Dance” Dance Chronicle Vol. 26, No. 1 2003

Heuer, Gottfried, Otto Gross 1877-1920 Biographical Survey, Festschrift, London, 1998

Prevots, Naima “Zurich Dada and Dance: Formative Ferment Dance” Research Journal 17/1 (Spring/Summer 1985)

Gordon, Donald, “New York: Kandinsky at the Guggenheim”
The Burlington Magazine Vol. 124, No. 949, April 1982

Turner, Christopher “The Art of Movement,” Cabinet Magazine, Issue 36, Winter 2009/10

Weinstein, Katherine Leigh “Subversive Women: Female Performing Artists in Zurich Dada”, Thesis (Ph.D.)--Tufts University, 2001


Koenig, Peter-R. “Ordo Templi Orientis
Veritas Mystica Maxima 
Consider other O.T.O.groups non existent” from the biography of Theodore Reuss

Juliet Linley, Sils Maria, Switzerland 2014

"Theosophical Siftings" - Volume -2- 1889-1890

Klahr, Douglas, “Munich as Kunststadt, 1900-1937 Art, Architecture and Civic Identity ”, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 34, Issue 2


[1] Magick with a K distinguishes occult magick from stage magic.