Vera Proca Ciortea’s career spans across three fields of study—physical education, actor training and ethnochoreology—and her choreographic work connects to the roots of contemporary dance in Europe. She trained with Floria Capsali, Gabriel Negry, Harald Kreuzberg, Dorothee Günther, Max Terpis and Tatiana Gsowsky and her aesthetic model was Gret Palucca. Vera Proca Ciortea is one of the founding figures of Romanian choreology and she is credited with a unique dance notation system. During the Cold War period she represented the Romanian state in two global organisations, the Dance Commission of the International Folk Music Council (IFMC) and the International Association of Choreographers, a UNESCO-affiliated NGO. She was co-opted into cultural diplomacy projects developed by both the interwar Ministry of Propaganda and the communist state. Throughout her career, Proca Ciortea created four dance groups, received the national award “Medal for Labour” and two awards at the National Festival “Song to Romania.” Her activity connected several areas of expertise on movement with a common denominator: her unflinching focus on creating what she called a “Romanian rhythmic dance.”
Vera Proca Ciortea was also a pedagogue. She trained several generations of students at the National Academy for Physical Education and at the Institute for Theatre and Cinematography in Bucharest. She had training in choreography for the theatre (a unique specialisation in interwar Romania) and after 1945 she taught the discipline at the aforementioned institute. She also worked on productions that had a seminal role in Romania’s theatre history such as Ion Sava’s Macbeth (1946) or Lucian Pintilie’s Idiots under the Moonlight (1962).
Vera Proca Ciortea’s formative years are outlined by the German performative culture as the country transitioned from the Weimar Republic to National Socialism. After 1948, she re-imagined her professional career to fit the demands of official state socialist culture. Eastern Europe dance, like any other art, was refashioned from the socialist realist perspective. Initially this shift did not make room for Proca Ciortea’s training and professional experience which were deeply rooted in the Ausdruckstanz tradition. Nonetheless she found the means to adapt and carry interwar influences into her work during the communist period.
In her various professional capacities Vera Proca Ciortea was a constant presence in the Romanian cultural milieu for six decades and even though she left behind a well-documented archive, writing her biography is a daunting task. The numerous notes she made on her activity, photographs and films documenting her choreographies, news clippings, lists of artists she trained, worked with or was inspired by, international organisations she was member of, the massive documentation she gathered for each of her conference participations or published articles amount to a substantial material that is yet to be catalogued. Writing about Vera Proca Ciortea’s life and work entails finding one’s footing in the mass of material she left behind. At times sources are contradictory; her biography requires therefore historicisation. The present article is a first sketch along these interpretative lines. Although the secondary literature references the influence of Weimar dance on her work or her international visibility as choreologist, these facts are never presented in historical context nor are they situated within a transnational framework of analysis. The material she gathered through the years features contradictions, syncope, repetitions and omissions, inevitable considering that she lived under a succession of dictatorships. These asperities are illuminated when situated within the European dynamics of the professional fields she was active in. Proca Ciortea’s biography reveals circulations of ideas and methods that are essential for better understanding local and European dance history in the second part of the 20th century. The essay explores key questions raised by her biography: How did the formative years influence her choreographic work or her approach to movement pedagogy? How did she apply the Günther-Orff system in Romanian context? How did her extensive knowledge of Romanian folk dance propel her to international limelight during the communist period? How did that level of exposure and knowledge production influence her choreographies?
Chronology in Context
Vera Proca Ciortea was born in Sibiu in 1912 in a middle-class family. Her mother guided her education forcefully insisting she focused on physical training as a means to fortify a delicate body. At a very young age Vera started to train in rhythmic gymnastics and dance with a Viennese teacher established in Sibiu. In 1930 she was admitted at the National Academy for Physical Education in Bucharest. The education she received prior to her university years gave her good knowledge of the German language and cultural milieu. The time she spent in Salzburg at the Mozarteum was informed by this background. By all accounts Vera Proca Ciortea studied with Harald Kreutzberg and Derra de Moroda at the Mozarteum in the early 1930s, though it is difficult to pinpoint the exact dates. In her statements through the years she gave conflicting information about this experience. It is very likely that she frequented the Mozarteum on several occasions, at least two times by 1935. An indicator for a participation in 1932 might be a mention she often made to a famous dancer from the Anglo-Saxon world who was also taking Kreutzberg’s classes, referring probably to Ruth Page. Another comes from an unpublished interview with dance critic Liana Tugearu. Vera Proca Ciortea states that the course on the mechanics of movement taught by mathematician Octav Onicescu at the National Academy for Physical Education was of great use when she attended Kreutzberg’s classes at the Mozarteum. Autobiographies found in Liana Tugearu’s custody archive indicate that in 1938 Proca Ciortea visited again the Mozarteum. Most likely, this later meeting with Kreutzberg took place in Berlin while she was attending the courses of the German Dance Theatre (Deutsche Tanzbüne) or those at Dorothee Günther’s school (Güntherschule). Vera Proca Ciortea insisted that Kreutzberg had a massive impact on her work. In time they became good friends and it is very likely that at least one of Kreutzberg’s tours to Romania was due to Proca Ciortea’s efforts. Kreutzberg had ballet training but he was also one of Mary Wigman’s students. He was one of the most widely known representatives of the Ausdruckstanz and his influence on Vera Proca Ciortea can be inferred from photographs documenting her work or the influence he had on her career choices in the late 1940s.
Proca Ciortea’s formative years were framed by a specific historical context. The National Academy for Physical Education was created in 1922 under Carol II’s patronage and followed the principles of the Swedish school of physical education. This explains why Clara Lantz, a Swede, was Vera Proca Ciortea’s gymnastics teacher at the university. Aside mathematician Octav Onicescu mentioned earlier, philosophers Constantin Rădulescu Motru and Nae Ionescu, anthropologist Francisc Rainer, writer Mircea Eliade and ballet master Floria Capsali also taught at the Academy. Around the same time Proca Ciortea attended Floria Capsali’s dance studio and that of Paule Sibille, a proponent of Dalcroze’s system of movement. At Capsali’s school she met Gabriel Negry who had a tremendous influence on her style. He was not only her teacher but also her dance partner in the late 1930s and the early 1940s. In Bucharest, Vera Proca Ciortea absorbed knowledge on any type of movement, from rhythmic gymnastics to ballet. This range of interests informed her choice of school when she was awarded a scholarship to Berlin by the Academy for Physical Education.
In 1934 she graduated from the Academy and by 1937 she was already working as teaching assistant. Soon after her appointment she was offered the possibility to study a year in Germany, between October 1937 and October 1938. The state awarded Vera Proca Ciortea a scholarship on the condition she documented for implementation in Romania the activities of Kraft durch Freude [Strength through Joy], a National-Socialist organisation that promoted physical education and the useful employment of free time as means to keep the body of the German nation healthy, joyous and working diligently. In Berlin she chose to attend Dorothee Günther’s school, the German Dance Theatre and the German Dance Workshops (Deutsche Meister-Stätten für Tanz). Upon her return to Bucharest she wrote two articles in the Annals of Physical Education, the first describing in detail how Kraft durch Freude was organised in Germany and how it could be transplanted in Romania. The second was an introduction into the application of the Günther-Orff system to physical education in the country. Proca Ciortea’s statements and interviews given through the years indicate that the time she spent at the Güntherschule was foundational for her career. The pedagogical approach at the Günther-Orff school focused on devising movement and sound structures that produced a deep awareness of rhythm for the student. The Günther-Orff system fused elementary units of bodily movement such as walking, running, hopping, jumping, falling, swinging, or rotating with the “Mensendieck method of analysing isolated movements in relation to specific body parts and the Orffian analysis of elementary musical structures in order to create a musical and kinetic consciousness.” In the article Proca Ciortea published in the journal of the Academy for Physical Education, she introduces the five elemental movements proposed by the Günther-Orff system—walking, running, tension, swaying and jumping—via the rhythm of Romanian folk music. In doing so she argued that “the cultural enlightenment of a generation only accomplishes a false culture, if it is not based on the structural qualities specific to a people. […] Primitive folk music is connected to movement, namely to the unity between voice, rhythmic sonority and movement, all three streaming from a need for externalisation that has not been destroyed [in Romania]. We find the same unity in the rhythmic-melodic musical exercises that also have, in a sense, a primitive structure.” This statement might sound outlandish in connection to physical education but if put in context it shows that the Güntherschule offered Vera Proca Ciortea not only a model for a new outlook on movement and body training but also a starting point for an approach to dance that was rooted in the natural movements of the body. She saw local choreographic folklore as a movement vocabulary that was closest to nature and genuine local culture. By 1942, Proca Ciortea promoted a new type of dance training that, as reviewers pointed out, distanced itself from the “exoticism” of ballet. Her approach did not entail a “citation” of choreographic folklore but a contemporary reconfiguration based on a deep understanding of its rhythms.
The idea of a nationally specific dance extolled by Vera Proca Ciortea upon her return from Germany reflected the general influence of Ausdruckstanz representatives such as Mary Wigman or Rudolf von Laban. Dance historian Marion Kant contends that expressive dance defined itself less as an art form and more “as a rhythmically marked movement towards a utopian society,” the “expression of German sensibility and German Character in the National Socialist sense.” This line of argument opens up the debate on the Ausdruckstanz involvement with the Nazi state. It has to be addressed because it outlines the aesthetic and ideological complexities entailed by the cultural milieu Proca Ciortea was exposed to during her stay in Germany. Terri Gordon, Marion Kant and Lillian Karina argue that Ausdruckstanz representatives supported the Nazi Weltanschauung not only by participating in events or pageants that celebrated the Nazi state such as the 1936 Olympics, but also by being involved in the institutionalisation and centralisation of German dance under the Nazi banner. Gordon and Kant see the origin of Ausdruckstanz in the Körperkultur movement, which began in the early 19th century, and insist that movement and dance cannot be dissociated from ideology. Furthermore, Kant asserts that gymnastics and movement were practical manifestations of National Socialism, a pathway to making the German body strong and apt to initiate political change. She shows that aesthetic categories of movement such as walking were deeply connected to ideas of race. Nonetheless, there are authors who propose a more nuanced look on the collaboration thesis such as Joellen Meglin. She states in connection to Harald Kreutzberg’s involvement with the National Socialists that as “one imagines one is using the system to forward one’s own artistic agenda, the system is using one toward its own ends.” Expressionist dancers did not enjoy continuous support from the Nazi state, nor did ballet dancers for that matter. There is a spectrum of cooperation and rejection with Rudolf von Laban, Gret Palucca, Dorothee Günther at one end and Kurt Jooss, Valenska Gert, Jan Weight and Victor Gsovsky at the other. Although briefly outlined here this aesthetic and ideological background frames Vera Proca Ciortea’s acculturation to German dance and physical education in the context of these fields’ regimentation by the Nazi state.
In 1937 Proca Ciortea attends the Berlin branch of the Güntherschule, where Berthe Trümpy was listed as its director, the courses of the German Dance Theatre and the German Dance Workshops as an intern. The German Dance Workshops were imagined as the teaching and training sections of the German Dance Theatre, an institutional structure that was headed by Rudolf von Laban starting with 1934. Here Vera Proca Ciortea had the opportunity to study with opera choreographer Max Therpis and to specialise in theatre choreography. The Master Workshops had two sections. The German Dance section was led by Gret Palucca and her assistants, Charlotte Hölzner and Marianne Vogelsang. The larger ballet section was led by Lizzie Maudrick. Liselotte Köster, Harald Kreutzberg and Mary Wigman were also invited to teach. The courses she took in Germany exposed Vera Proca Ciortea not only to a certain approach to dance but also to an ideology about dance. As she puts it, this is where she had a revelation of what her purpose would be as a dancer—creating a specific Romanian dance that would coagulate, synthesise and therefore revolutionise local movement and dance traditions. Upon her return to Romania, she started to teach at the Academy but she also enrolled at the Department of Philosophy and Languages at the University of Bucharest. As was the case with the Academy, her professors represented the entire ideological spectrum. From philosophers C. Rădulescu Motru and P.P. Negulescu who were fired once the Iron Guard took power, to literary critic Tudor Vianu who barely escaped persecution for his Jewish lineage and sociologist Traian Herseni, a known Iron Guard sympathiser who was also a member of the Gusti Sociological School. Herseni was probably her connection to the ethnomusicologist Constantin Brăiloiu and her future interest in folkloristics and dance notation. The courses she taught throughout her career, the institutions she was affiliated to and the choreographies she created are contained in a nutshell by the interwar period. It is within this timeframe that we see the seeds for most of her future projects. The choreography Dance on Bartók’s music was first developed in 1939. The idea for the music and the costume she wore for this particular piece can be traced to the revelation she had in Germany during an improvisation class, incidentally also on Bartók’s music. Proca Ciortea also created Ilinca the Mad Woman (1939) on Bartók’s music. She will keep this choreography in her repertoire until the late 1950s. The piece was a collation of movement and costume elements taken from local folklore to which a play with the masque was added (in this case a symbol for madness) suggesting the influence of Ausdruckstanz.
More importantly in 1942 she created Rhythms I and II. The programme described this particular set of choreographies as “rhythmic studies that show Vera Proca’s stylisation method, that is, the transfer of folkloric rhythm into a trained movement system/discipline which creates in turn a new rhythmic technique in a Romanian style.” Proca Ciortea spent the 1939–1947 period giving numerous recitals at home and abroad showcasing her approach and dominating the cultural landscape as the creator of a specifically Romanian dance school, of a national contemporary dance idiom. Throughout the period she was teaching at the Academy for Physical Education and working at the National Theatre where she was corps de ballet mistress from 1944 to 1947.
The Stalinist years took Vera Proca Ciortea out of the spotlight; she turned to choreology, teaching and collaborations with several theatres around the country. If in 1942 she was a teaching assistant at the Department of Gymnastics and Training Methods at the Academy for Physical Education and by 1951 she secured a full teaching position at the Department of Gymnastics. She held this job in parallel with that of chair of the Choreography Department at the short-lived Art Institute. From here she was transferred to the Institute of Cinematography where she held a course in actor training. Once the Institute for Theatre and Cinematography was created in 1954 she was appointed lecturer in dance. In 1950 she also started to work at the Folklore Institute of the Romanian Academy. In 1953 she was appointed researcher here and by 1956 she led her own research group.
Vera Proca Ciortea’s interest in notation systems was prompted by her focus on local choreographic folklore. She studied Constantin Brăiloiu’s archive in depth since the early 1940s but the context of her German education should also be taken in consideration. Although it is hard to ascertain if she was ever fluent in kinetography (Laban’s notation system) she was clearly aware of it since her Berlin days. Laban first published his system in 1928 and the set of regulations he created together with Wigman and Günther after 1934 in order to produce an examination curriculum for all dancers in Germany comprised subjects such as the analysis and notation of movement. All Ausdruckstanz dancers had notation systems but unlike Laban’s they were mostly a private language. Laban’s was a comprehensive system that could be mastered by others, albeit with difficulty. Albrecht Knust, one of Laban’s students, and a champion of kinetography was very active in promoting it internationally after the war. Proca Ciortea mentions meeting and working with Albrecht Knust in 1968 at the Essen Folkwangschule but she most likely knew him since 1957. This context is relevant for her international activity after the war. In 1956 she published her first article on the Romanian stenographic method of notation (Ronotaţie), which signalled a turning point in her career.
While at the Folklore Institute she also created an experimental dance group called Mioriţa. In 1957 sociologist Mihai Pop, the director of the institution, explained in a letter to the Ministry of Culture that this group was a new way to valorise choreographic folklore. Her approach, already highly successful, was supposed to imagine choreographies that went beyond simple imitation. It was akin to chamber music and therefore by analogy it could be called chamber dance. Most likely Proca Ciortea founded the group as soon as she started to work at the Institute. It was an opportunity to explore again her version of Romanian contemporary dance infused with folklore elements. Here she created some of her best known choreographies such as the Country Puppets, Țăndărică Dancing or The Goblin of the Forest. In all these cases the costume is highly suggestive making the connection with folklore source elements immediately visible. The photographs documenting some of these dances show movement elements, such as very high jumps, recalling Palucca’s influence. An article reviewing Vera Proca Ciortea’s choreographic work in the late 1950s even announced that Romanian folklore had found its way into expressionist dance. Proca Ciortea’s performances, the author argues, are presented as expressions of the essence of traditional life in a contemporary form. Her choreographies bring to mind not only gestures or costumes but the landscape itself. They create an atmosphere that is at the same time contemporary and traditional, intrinsically Romanian.
By the end of the decade, Proca Ciortea was already on track to becoming an ambassador of Romanian culture. In 1957, in Dresden, she participated at the first post-war conference organised on the theme of notation systems. This is where she probably met Albrecht Knust for the first time and this is where she presented her own notation system. The event recognised kinetography as a system of notation that could be applied to all movement. It was already used for ballet (Kurt Jooss and George Balanchine) and folk dance, although it was not the only notation system in use at the time. In 1958 Albrecht Knust was invited at the 11th conference of the International Folk Music Council (IFMC) to present kinetography and its possible uses in the context of folk dance notation. The conference was dedicated to the discussion of different notation systems in use at the time, including Vera Proca Ciortea’s. Even though most of the participants adhered to Laban’s system, German musicologist Felix Hoerburger was impressed with Proca Ciortea’s shorthand system which although complex could be taught with ease. With its help dance notation could be done with great speed. Felix Hoerburger was the leader of the folk dance commission initiative within the IFMC. It might be that Proca Ciortea’s nomination to this committee was a consequence of the impression she made on him. This success, which should also be understood in national terms, was one of the reasons behind the organisation of the 12th IFMC conference in Romania in 1959. The event was organised by the Folklore Institute and the Romanian National Commission for UNESCO. Its success prompted the creation of the Romanian commission for the IFMC. Vera Proca Ciortea’s rise within the IFCM is meritorious no doubt but it also shows that this institution was a launching pad for a new international career as an expert of the Romanian state. In 1962, Proca Ciortea was appointed secretary of the IFMC Folk Dance Commission thus embarking on a project that will define her career for the next twenty years. Since 1968 she published several articles introducing the international community to the work she was doing as the leader of the Study Group for Folk Dance Terminology (later on, the Study Group on Etnochroreology). They describe the method for analysing dance based solely on its constitutive elements irrespective of national origin or historical and cultural contexts. This approach was an attempt to uncover the implicit grammar of dance. The articles authored or co-authored by Vera Proca Ciortea and featured in the IFMC publications are essential for decrypting her choreographic method. Although through the years Proca Ciortea mentioned on a number of occasions that her method entailed transferring elements of traditional dance into a modern choreography it is difficult to ascertain from her statements how that particular mutation (a term she used often) was done.
I argue that the theoretical work she carried out with the IFMC study groups after 1962 not only helped in crystallising her discourse on dance but it also had a significant impact on her choreographic vocabulary. In an article she published in connection to her work on choreographic folklore she wrote that the mark of a talented dancer was not only the creation of inspired choreographies but the formulation of a personal kinetic vocabulary. She explained that “the components of the ‘integral’ form of the dance are referred to as parts, sections, stanzas, phrases, motives, cells, and elements (dansemes)”and that “the best-known choreographic languages are based on the alphabet (dansemes) of academic classical dance and of the so-called modern dance.” Danseme, a word that she used on many occasions to describe her work in the late 1970s and early 1980s, is clarified here as the basic structure of any movement alphabet. The mutation she is referring to entails then a process of translation where structural elements from classical ballet, expressionist dance, pantomime, rhythmic gymnastics and folk dance are reorganised in a very personal language that she had to first teach to her pupils in order to imagine her choreographies.
In 1973 Vera Proca Ciortea retired from academic life. This was an opportunity to create a new dance group, Gymnasion, with students from the Institute of Physical Education (the former Academy). One of the first choreographies she developed with them was entitled Our Language (1975). In the late 1970s and the early 1980s she used it to introduce audiences to her method just as she did with Rhythms I and II in the early 1940s. Unlike Rhythms however, Our Language has been recorded in 1988 together with a number of new and old pieces such as Afternoon Respite, Transylvanian Echoes, Ritmodia or Fiddler Rhythms. A detailed analysis of her movement vocabulary might be feasible once all existing recordings will be digitised. Nonetheless, it can be argued that by 1975 Proca Ciortea’s kinetic language reached its most complex articulation and it is very likely that this level of abstraction and conceptualisation of movement was framed by the work she did within the IFCM study groups.
The work with the IFMC brought her back to Germany during the Cold War. This was an academic and choreographic environment she had been intimately connected to since the interwar period. In 1963 she attended Gret Palucca’s summer school courses for the first time. In an activity report she wrote for the State Committee of Art and Culture she described Palucca’s approach as realist, a melange of classical ballet and Orff’s system of musical training which she knew very well. In 1964, she was again Palucca’s guest, this time as lecturer. That same summer she was invited by Kurt Jooss at his school in Essen at Palucca’s enthusiastic recommendation. One might argue that Proca Ciortea’s success was due to her ability to translate Romanian folk dance into a language that her hosts knew well and which drew from German professional milieus of the 1930s profoundly shaped by the idea that modern dance was an art form that illustrated and promoted national specificity. From 1964 onwards Vera Proca Ciortea attained significant international visibility facilitated by her status as expert representing the new professional and political establishment in Bucharest. Not only was she an active participant in IFMC projects but throughout the 1960s and the 1970s she gave lectures and taught courses at numerous schools in Germany and Austria on Romanian folk dance and its potential for imagining a contemporary dance vocabulary. By 1969 Proca Ciortea was a world-renowned choreologist, highly acclaimed in the German-speaking world for her approach to dance pedagogy. Moreover, starting with the mid-1970s she toured across Europe with her new group, Gymnasion.
Her approach did not generate much of a following in Romania. One might argue that her choreographies were too encoded and that her process, which entailed internalising a specific vocabulary, was difficult to master without her constant guidance. Nonetheless, this was always a characteristic of her work. Interwar reviews often warned audiences about the conceptual complexities behind Vera Proca Ciortea’s performances. In the late 1950s her recitals with Mioriţa were much appreciated but always put in counterbalance with ballet. Vera Proca Ciortea’s legacy is unusual in the local context. Her highly abstract approach to dance connects to the application of structuralist methods in ethnochoreology and it is based on a profound understanding of biomechanics and rhythm in music. Her work connects stylistically to Palucca’s angular athleticism but there is also a theatrical element to it that is easy to trace to Wigman or to Kreutzberg. Making sense of her biography requires incursions into local and European intellectual history. Exploring her personal and professional trajectory is paradigmatic for the imperative to historicise personal trajectories that internalised artistic traditions inextricably tied to the ideological storms of the 20th century.
Viviana Iacob is currently a Humboldt Fellow in Theatre and Media Studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München.