“The acquisition of all the plastic, dynamic, and agogic qualities indispensable to rhythmist or dancer, actor, or mime, will make him only an adapter, a transposer, an automaton, unless these technical qualities are controlled by a wealth of fancy, a supple, elastic temperament, a generous spontaneity of feeling, and an artistic, responsive nature. All plastique education, therefore, should aim especially at the arousing of natural instincts, spontaneity, individual conceptions. The final culmination of studies in moving plastic is certainly the direct expression of aesthetic feelings and emotions without the aid of music or even speech.”Émile Jaques-Dalcroze
My introduction to the Dalcroze classroom was filled with many variations of follows, canons, replacements, quick reactions, improvisations, and entrainments shared with my professor and with my peers. I found the work challenging and exhilarating and was so thrilled by the interactions that I couldn’t wait to come back. One of the most memorable sets of classes in my early training included explorations into plastique animée (sometimes translated as “moving plastic,” “living sculptures,” or simply “music visualization”).
Plastique animée lessons are notably different from our other routines in that instead of being led through the lesson, as is the case in most of the examples mentioned above, the building of a plastique animée asks the student to lead with an infinite set of options and often concludes with a public presentation of the creation. Plastique animée is a favorite activity for many students, but for others, it can be among the most challenging, so taking time to consider rationales, purposes, and strategies can be of great help when offering these explorations.
Plastique animée is a historic and critical part of the method dating back to the earliest writings of Jaques-Dalcroze, notably in La Rythmique et la plastique animée (1919). The Dalcroze Society of America Professional Certificate and License Teacher Training Program handbook offers the following definition:
Plastique animée is an artistic realization based on analysis of a piece of music through the body as an outgrowth of eurhythmics or solfège. It is an artistic interface between music and movement which deepens the student’s understanding of both. This can take on many forms from informal classroom experiences to formal staged presentations. Generally, plastique animée requires the movers to:
- Analyze, interpret, and demonstrate specific formal and aesthetic elements in the musical score and its relationship to movement in an artistic way
- Create, rehearse, and present
This description is by necessity general as the work can serve different purposes for different teacher-student interactions. Depending on the specific school, era, and goals of the coursework, plastique animée may be offered with a variety of outcomes.
- It can be presented solo or in ensemble with colleagues.
- It is regularly presented with recorded music, but some schools prefer live music, and, in other cases, it might be presented in total silence.
- It is regularly mounted to pre-composed works but can also come together in the moment to newly improvised music.
- It is a desirable practice for children and adults and is appropriate for individuals with great physical technical abilities as well as for novice movers and individuals of varying physical ability.
- It can emphasize a tightly choreographed set of choices or be used as an opportunity for improvisational exploration.
Each of the options afford different learnings and can be tremendously valuable as teaching tools if presented with proper pacing and attention.
In all cases, plastique animée is an overt demonstration of a personal and specific embodied musical experience. The most common examples involve a chosen selection of repertoire, a score, and a recording. Simply stated, the student or students choose a piece of music, study the score, ask themselves, “In what ways does this music move?” and then search for congruent gestures to demonstrate the musical movement.
The true perception of movement is not of a visual order, it is of a muscular order.
– Émile Jaques-Dalcroze
When working with new students, it is often necessary to clarify the differences between plastique animée and dance. While both are full-bodied gestures regularly paired to music, there are significant differences between the two. It might be easiest to think of them on a spectrum with dance at one end and plastique animée at the other. The purest examples of dance value movement and gesture above all. Dance can be presented with or without music and is primarily concerned with the motion of the body and the visual presentation of this motion. In the same way that sculptors manipulate clay, choreographers of dance are sculpting the moving body to create visual compositions. This is gesture for gesture’s sake.
A second point on the spectrum would be dance with music. Here, it is still dance in that it is gesture for gesture’s sake, but we start to see how music can influence the movement. It is more likely that a choreographer will place significant movements like a grand leap at an accented point in the score rather than completely ignore the pushes and pulls within the music. The dancer might use the musical movement to amplify the gestures in the choreography.
However, it is also common for choreographers to ignore specifics in the music and to allow the music to “play along” as the dancer dances in front of and not necessarily with the sound. So, while some leaps might appear on accented beats, there can be other examples in a presentation where movement choices are not paired to the music (e.g. a pirouette where there is nothing in the music that feels like spinning).
A third point on the spectrum attempts to balance the values between body movement and musical movement. In these situations, a choreographer is listening closely to the score, studying the composition, and then matching the technical abilities of the dancers (or movers) to salient moments in the score. The choices are more specific and paired, but there can also be moments in the dance where the gesture separates from the musical score to make a gesture statement. This point on the spectrum is balanced between revealing the score and prioritizing the body in motion.
At the last point on the spectrum, it is the music that is the sole motivator of the choreography and gesture is merely a tool to reveal the music and musical interpretation. Plastique animée values the musical motion above all else. The choreographer must study the score/performance before they can know what gestures will fit, then use gesture to demonstrate the musical motion. In plastique animée, all gestures are tightly paired to the musical score.
Introducing the Work
How might we bring a new group of adult students to the work? What if they have never seen a plastique animée choreography and are new to Dalcrozian routines? As mentioned in my introduction, plastique animée can be the most exciting for some students and the most dreaded for others. What is freedom, self-expression, creativity, and collaboration for one student can be experienced as insecurity, judgment, and profound awkwardness for another. This is true for all our Dalcrozian routines, but I have found these emotions and experiences amplified in the plastique animée lessons. It is critical to be extra aware and thoughtful as we build to the grand finale!
As in all things Dalcroze, it is the preparation that makes all the difference. Long before I ever mutter the words plastique animée, I take my students through hours of big-body, expressive gesture exercises spread over multiple sessions. We start with simple, silly, and playful experiences that challenge them to literally stretch their bodies into different levels in space (high, middle, low) and proximities (gestures that expand the body, compress the body, and bring one closer and farther away from others). We explore the differences between directional movement versus random wiggles and motion without momentum or trajectory.
In early classes, we mirror and echo the gestures of our neighbors; we explore our own personal expressive range by playing with gesture near the body and stretching as far from the body as possible. We also explore the gesture as phrase by noting arcs of intention in our improvised motions—such as beginnings-middles-cadences and the forward yearning motion necessary to achieve the sensation of phrase.
These building classes are presented in ten-, twenty-, and thirty-minute increments interspersed with other aspects of our musicianship study. My classroom makeup commonly consists of music performance and composition majors from eighteen to twenty-three years old. These undergraduates and graduates do not all self-identify as movers or dancers, so I work slowly to introduce the practices of big-body expressive gesture. I prioritize the simple, the playful, and the successful. I keep the pacing fast in these early experiences: thirty seconds to explore; fifteen seconds to show your neighbor your movement; immediately switch neighbors and watch someone else’s work; smile and wink and tell your next neighbor, “Hey, you are really good at this!”
The exact pacing is, of course, dependent on the specific group of students. Some students are dancers at heart, even if they have none of the formal technique, and require very little onboarding. Others require much more. In either case, we engender trust in the students through exercises performed in a safe, supportive atmosphere geared toward the larger goal of deepening musicianship.
There is no singular way to create a plastique. The only mandate is that all gesture must reveal specific motion in the score.
– Stephen Neely
Creating the Plastique
There is no singular way to create a plastique. The only mandate is that all gesture must reveal specific motion in the score. There should be no extraneous nor meaningless gesture. It is a literal moment-to-moment pairing. The movement should look like the music sounds. The experience of moving the score should feel identical to the experience of listening to or performing the score.
When working with new movers, I always offer the following plan:
- Pre-Plastique: Find the score, study it for objective, inarguable compositional choices.
- Attention One: Embrace the awkwardness. This is improvisatory and exploratory.
- Attention Two: Discover what fits. This is subjective and personal. This is composition.
- Attention Three: Curate your choices. Vet, tweak, and adjust. This is interpretation.
Before any movements are made, we take a short period (a few minutes) to get familiar with the piece, study the score, and discuss cogent moments and significant happenings. The main question to answer here is, “What did the composer write into the score?” We note the form and the key and the objective facts in the score such as tempo, meter, dynamics, voicing, imitation, articulation, etc. Our plastique animée will need to acknowledge many of these obvious compositional choices.
After we have some initial ideas about the objective facts or data in the composition, we next turn to the subjective and interpretative opportunities in the score. This is where plastique animée really shines. The subjective decisions are the personal moments in the piece that proclaim, “It feels to me like this.” In Attention One, we ask, “How does this line move?” Any given line or passage in a selection of music must move, but it does not need to feel exactly the same to every participant. Plastique animée is an exercise that challenges participants to find the gestures that reveal the aesthetic of every musical moment in the score.
There are lots of ways to get into Attention One, but I always encourage my students to just “go for it.” With no time to discuss or prepare choreographic fireworks, I play the recording and tell the students to make up something and embrace the awkwardness. The excerpt plays; they wiggle, and lean, and giggle, and look around desperately for someone to offer something promising. The short excerpt finishes and we then take sixty seconds to play with some of the improvised choices that came up in the first awkward run. Attention One is the beginning of noticing what feels. It is not the simple naming of the objective facts in the score. It is the turning toward the subjective, personal experience and noting how it fits with the music we are moving to. Ninety seconds in, we are already entering Attention Two.
The actual making of the plastique is a back-and-forth game of trying out ideas and seeing what fits. Some gestures work and others fall flat. When experimenting in an ensemble, we find that some arrangements of bodies beside bodies help make the score clearer, while other choices obscure the music. Some choices are tremendously clever and fun and fancy while others are more mundane, but the only choreographic choices that should find their way into a plastique animée are those that illuminate or demonstrate the musical motion of the score. Attention Two is not simply finding things to do to fill up the time of the performance. It is to find gestures that reveal the music.
I tell my students, “Plastique animée is not a dance. It is a realization of the experienced gestures in a selection of music.”
– Stephen Neely
Attention Three is the real point of the exercise and is where we see the true value of the practice. Attention Three is woven in with Attention Two as we realize that not all gestures fit (objective analysis), and not all fitting gestures feel right (subjective interpretation).
Up to this point, students were led through a period of gestured improvisations and were challenged to make choreographic choices. The Attention One work is not always fun or obviously enriching. Sometimes it can feel silly, and for some students, awkward. Attention Two is more rewarding in that we get to do some planned movement, but it is still less clear how the exercise is deepening one’s personal musicianship. A common attitude encountered from students in professional training is, “Why are we doing this?”
A careful teacher will be there to aid the student in recognizing the value of the exercise and can help them see the artistic process they are involved in. Every time the mover improvises an awkward motion for a given moment of music, they immediately make a value judgment. The motion either fits or it does not. For the choices that do not, we cringe and throw them away. For the gestures that work, we are likely to keep them, feel congruence with the music, and use these as the basis for our evolving choreography.
It is in the Attention Three phase where we start to understand that we have had an instinct for musical feeling all along. This is a revelation for many students. The fact that not all motions fit is proof that “music feels” and that “music feels personally to me.” The student likely will not have words to describe why one gesture choice feels better than another, but we can easily agree that not everything fits. We cannot just fill the space with anything because, at the root of it, feeling is motion. There is musical feeling which is manifested as motion in the experiencing body, and there is overt gestural motion, which also manifests as personal aesthetic or feeling in the experiencing body.
Plastique animée pushes us into the highest levels of artist interpretation. Once we toss the choreographic choices that do not fit, we are led to a range of choices that do fit. We come to realize there are multiple gestures that could fit any single phrase. It is then the job of the interpreter to weigh and balance and assess each of these choices against one another, honing the decisions to the best choreography of the day. While we might find five different options for a given phrase at today’s rehearsal, we also acknowledge that the options are not aesthetically equal. They all fit, but one is bolder, and another uses more space, and one is busy while another is subtle. One choice depends on greater connection with my colleagues and another shows unison motion but separate trajectories. Thus the infinite realities of true interpretation come to light.
Example Introductory Pieces
When introducing plastique animée, different pieces are more and less appropriate for different students. A good piece has a mix of technique, expressivity, density, and complexity that match the interpreter. Here are three pieces that university students have presented successfully in my classroom.
Claude Debussy: String Quartet in G minor, ii. Assez vif et bien rythmé
A contemporary-sounding pizzicato piece with an urgent character that later becomes melodic with bowed playing. The instruments of the string quartet either play together or take turns in the lead role, which can help guide students in their onstage groupings and texture.
Maurice Ravel: Piano Trio in A minor, 2nd movement
A beautiful yet frantic scherzo and trio with elements of canonic playing between the three instrumentalists. The B section features a change in meter from 3 to 4, which can be a nice moment for students to choreograph.
Antonín Dvořák: String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96, “American” B.179: iii. Molto Vivace
A lovely American-sounding piece in ABABA form where the B section uses the theme of the A but in minor. Elements of a bird call can be heard in some of the melodic lines.
It is noteworthy that in each of these pieces, there are lots of notes! That is to say, one cannot (should not) attempt to find discrete movements for every note. Instead, selections such as these require the interpreter to choose—what of the complexity is so salient that it must be brought to the front and demonstrated in gesture? Much of the point is that different interpreters will choose different lines, different emphases, different motions to reveal their own embodied music. Every new artist reveals something different and personal about the selection.
A Tool for Analysis
While there are many opinions in our community and in our histories for the importance of plastique animée in Dalcroze training, I am happy to champion the practice as a tool for analysis. Plastique grants strategies that not only encourage the interpretation of a score, but demand a comparison of interpretation against the live performance of the body in motion. In plastique, the interpreter is called to literally demonstrate their choices. These amount to value decisions. We are confronted with actual dilemmas in artful interpretation.
The novice might look at the score and assume that every note is as important as the other. We hear this subconscious opinion in every child’s sonatina performance that seems to emphasize each eighth note as the next most important moment of the piece, resulting in playing note to note (a plastique animée of this interpretation would have hundreds of equal length gestures, each one revealing the next eighth-note motion). Master interpreters know there is a ranking of musical gestures. There are gestures at the level of the eighth note, but also of the quarter note, and the half bar, and whole bar, and two bars, and larger and larger (and smaller and smaller!). We can find awareness of gestures embedded inside greater gestures embedded inside meta gestures.
The notion of gestures embedded in or encapsulating others is well understood in general music education. However, it was not until I was exposed to plastique animée that I started to understand how we can also choose to value one level of these above others. Rather than always going with default or instinctual choices, plastique animée provides a working ground for various interpretations, offering clear options to value one line or motive or motion above another. One cannot value everything equally. When noting the various engagement options, the interpreter understands that we cannot acknowledge the four-bar and the embedded two-bar phrase equally at the same time. The act of interpretation is recognizing the multiple choices and then ranking one choice above the others. In this way, our choices reflect our values. Plastique animée is the overt demonstration of these values.
As we work through any given selection, we start with unrehearsed guesses—hunches as to what works. It is telling how often we change our minds when engaging in the process of attentions one, two, and three. Logically, a certain choice seems to make good sense, yet when tested somatically, many of these logics are discovered to not actually reflect our musical values, requiring more searching and more revision—all of which is revealed through the personal body in motion.
“Music is supposed to feel.” This is a statement we try to keep front and center in all my adult musicianship classes. Music feels, and feeling requires motion, and plastique animée is a way to try and vet various motions, phrase by phrase, gesture by gesture, until we have an interpretation that reflects our values. At the university, I have taken to describing plastique animée as the Dalcrozian Analytical Technique where the point of the exercise is to discover, vet, and prove “in what ways does this music move?” We begin with a claim that all music is either yearning toward or away from moments of crusis. The plastique animée requires the interpreter to support that claim and prove the choices are true through their eu-rhythmic “good-flow” demonstration.
Plastique animée is so rich an exercise that it would not be possible to include all its uses, versions, or outcomes in a single article. That said, I would like to offer a few more notes for clarification.
Expressive Movement Vocabulary
The mover(s) involved in creating a plastique animée are permitted any gesture they believe reflects the motion of the music. Some motions are very small and quick, pulling our attention to a micro level of the score, and other choices reflect grand and extended gestures, motions that span great distances—again, pulling our attention to macro layers of the musical motion. As a teacher in the method, I encourage the broadest range of expressive movement possible (gestures in all levels of space, gestures near and far from the body, gestures that lead with any part of the body, gestures of varying tempi and rhythms, and a rich attention to intentional, trajectory-filled motion versus directionless motion).
Embodying the Score—Not Dancing to It
Dancer technique is not a requirement. While we all aspire to greater technique in all our performance, it is very acceptable to mount a plastique animée at any point in your Dalcroze journey. We conduct the exercise with young children, older bodies with limited mobility, and everyone in between. Greater technique simply affords greater expression. While it certainly has several things in common with dance, realizing the goals of the plastique animée is not dependent on dancer training or on dancer attentions. I tell my students, “Plastique animée is not a dance. It is a realization of the experienced gestures in a selection of music.” It is more like the act of conducting an orchestra than dancing at the ballet. The conductor simply attempts to embody the score for the performing ensemble.
Put the Body in Motion
Finding Authentic Expression
When critiquing a plastique animée for authenticity, one can start by simply asking, “What still feels awkward?” The exercise is effective in pointing out the passages where the mover has no meaningful interpretation compared to other passages where the artistic vision is strong. I tell my students, “If it feels off, it is.” At the end of a successful project, there should be no moment without thoughtful eurhythmic trajectory—in other words, there should be good flow. There is something about the body in motion paired with sound that efficiently highlights a focused or unfocused artistic vision.
Solo projects are useful as they force the performer to choose the single most important thing to realize at any given moment. Yes, one might attempt to show one line with feet while also demonstrating another line with the torso, but the strongest choices rise quickly to the top. In the plastique animée, our musical values are on clear display.
Ensemble projects are wonderful, of course, for the collaboration and sharing of ideas. They also allow the group to show multiple layers in the music at once. Primary attentions versus secondary gestures, counterpoint, and emboldened unisons are all possible once there are multiple partners.
We always learn new information when placing the literal body in motion compared to merely thinking or abstractly feeling our way through a selection of music. At the root of all Dalcroze work is the soma—the feeling-experiencing body. The power of the work is in the attending to this first instrument, the experiencing body. We are familiar with the more traditional approach to interpretation where one scans a score and makes choices about the performance through thinking and logic. These choices can be conceived and tested separate from a feeling body and, in that way, might fall short in the actual act of performance. Plastique animée separates authentic gestures from superficial, ill-conceived, and untested gestures. It is for this reason that many students continue using plastique animée as part of their music interpretation practice years after taking their last eurhythmics class.
When looking for models of musical excellence and interpretative prowess, we cite conductors as oft-applauded musical leaders. The conductor of an orchestra or opera is called upon to lead the ensemble in a singular vision. Internationally, the primary tool of the conductor is gesture. For all the words and descriptions anyone might offer, conducting uses simple leans, swings, and heaviness and lightness of the gesturing body to relay the deepest messages. I have come to introduce plastique animée as a form of amplified conducting, where we are attempting the same rich sharing as the main stage conductor.
However, in plastique animée, we are not bound to a podium with only two arms, a stick, some leaning, and raised eyebrows. The Dalcrozian can conduct their interpretation with their whole body and with their whole body in concert with multiple bodies, all attempting to share the unfolding movement in the music. When I frame this historic practice as a tool for analysis, and when I make clear the connections to becoming a master interpreter, the exercise not only hits a chord with my students, it truly becomes one of the most significant interactions we share in our lessons.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of Dalcroze Connections, Vol. 7 No. 2.