Dementia and Dalcroze

Dementia and Dalcroze has become a key interest for me in the past year and my studies for the Diplômé Supérieur have led to two projects based on dementia. I explored dementia through my group choreography and I have decided to study the effects of rhythmics sessions on seniors living with dementia, which will become my thesis.

My group choreography was  performed just before Christmas and was part of an exam, which I’m glad to say I passed! In due course the film will be available to view on this website…but for now I will explain why I chose this topic and how the choreography developed.

I have been interested in Dalcroze for seniors ever since being ‘wowed’ by a wonderful class for seniors on a summer school delivered by Ruth Gianadda a few years ago. I could see then how valuable rhythmics could be for seniors and in recent years research has been done on the benefits of Dalcroze for older people although not so much on Dalcroze & dementia. My interest in dementia has grown since I observed my father in the early stages of dementia. When deciding what to present for my group choreography I decided I wanted to highlight some of the issues that arose with him. I hoped that movement could be a powerful advocate for the issues that occur with people living with dementia.

The themes I chose to highlight in my choreography were repetition, confusion, anger, loss and loneliness. Before I started I had some clear ideas about what I wanted to happen. Some of these were too impractical and weren’t realised (for example, I had the idea that my dancers would, one by one, put on masks to symbolise how someone with dementia can forget the identity of those around him/her) and as we started to rehearse I realised that there were dangers in trying to ‘impose’ ideas on music. I spent a long time searching for music that would at least loosely match my themes and finally re-discovered the Three Pieces for String Quartet by Stravinsky, written in 1914. The three pieces included plenty of contrast including repeated motifs, moments of musical ‘confusion’ and possible ‘anger’ and other parts where the music spoke to me of yearning and of loss.

The rehearsal process was incredibly rewarding and I was lucky to have the collaboration of 5 talented and enthusiastic Masters students who were a joy to work with. For much of the music I had clear ideas of the type of movement I wanted but there were moments when my dancers proposed ideas and there some that were immediately ‘right’ for what I wanted.

Here are my programme notes…

Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914) – Igor Stravinsky

My starting point for the choreography was dementia.  I wanted my group piece to represent a study of dementia with themes of repetition, loss, anger, confusion and loneliness. My father exhibited these symptoms in the last few months of his life, which followed the death of his wife, my mother, several months earlier. I offer the choreography as a tribute to my parents.

The Three Pieces for String Quartet by Stravinsky allowed a choreography that explored these themes. The movements contrast each other in mood, texture, structure and timbre. Stravinsky went on to revise the music as a piece for 4 hands and later as a chamber piece. The pieces for string quartet have no titles but he later added them to the 1928 work: Danse, Eccentrique & Cantique.

During the rehearsal process the dementia theme became increasingly subservient to the music and the choreography is primarily a plastique animée. However, you will notice the expression of loss, anger, love and some humour in the choreography. The ostinato cello part in the first movement represents the repetition of conversation and actions in dementia patients and the repeated accented chords could be interpreted as the anger that is frequently evident.  I imagined a dance that continued while the dementia patient is unaware of it and simply repeats himself/herself.

The 2nd movement, which was inspired by the clown Little Tick, shows moments of humour and my father always had a wicked but silly sense of humour which he didn’t lose.

The last movement evokes the well-known Gregorian chant Dies Irae (used frequently by Prokofiev in his music). In Stravinsky’s music the music is slow, dark, yet very beautiful.  In this movement I imagine the spirits of the dead trapped in our world and trying to leave. My father’s memory of my mother became confused and he was unsure when, or if, she had died. The choreography ends with her dance and that of her spirit.

The first semester has just ended at the Institut Jaques-Dalcroze and I have just started observations in a care home for those living with dementia, which will be the basis of research for my thesis. On both occasions the rhythmics sessions gave the participants great joy and the sessions were heart-warming to watch! The interesting question will be whether Dalcroze has anything unique to offer compared to other types of activity such as dance or music sessions.

Here is the link to a video of my group choreography.




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