Irina Sirotkina

Signs for a Science: Aleksei Sidorov’s Choreology

Studies in East European Thought. Special Issue: 100 years GAKhN: Artistic Research between Art and Science. Reconsidering the Practice of the State Academy of Artistic Research (1921-1930). 2022. DOI 10.1007/s11212-021-09428-z
The author thanks Marina Bykova, Nikolaj Plotnikov, Roger Smith and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive suggestions on early versions of the paper.
The article is an inquiry into the contribution which choreology made into the Russian/State Academy of Artistic Sciences (GAKhN) as both the institutional and research project. Choreology was a new discipline that Aleksei Sidorov and Aleksandr Larionov created following Vassily Kandinsky’s idea that dance and, wider, the art of movement, should be a subject of scholarly and scientific investigation.

In his capacity as the academic secretary of GAKhN, Sidorov founded the Choreological Laboratory (1922-1929), and Larionov served as its head. Both took an active part in movement analyses, made sketches and notes and used photography to capture dance movements and to create a system of dance notation. Their search was informed by Allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, and especially by Heinrich Wölfflin; at the same time, their interest in dance notation grew from their search for occult signs and symbols.

In Sidorov’s notes and sketches from the 1920s, one can see the process of making signs for a language of dance notation. The attempt by the Russians to schematize movement and find an abstract language for dance paralleled an effort by the Central-European choreographer and dance theoretician, Rudolf von Laban. A unique and only half-realized project, choreology was, however, a valuable contribution to the new ‘artistic sciences’.

Key words: choreology, Kandinsky, Laban, Larionov, Sidorov
In order to make art studies into a positive science, Vassily Kandinsky suggested examining scientifically each basic “element” of art including “color”, “sound”, “rhythm”, and “movement”. He planned to study both the “object of art”, that is, the viewer's perception of an art work, and the “subject of art, the creator of the work”. This kind of activity was envisaged “in the project of Prof. A.A. Sidorov’s laboratory” (Kandinsky 1921). By this project, Kandinsky almost certainly meant the Choreological Laboratory. Choreology, the science of dance and, wider of the art of movement, became one of the most innovative projects within the Russian, or State Academy of Artistic Sciences (further – GAKhN).

The methodology of art criticism at GAKhN largely followed the contours of general art history (Allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft), which was developed in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century by Emil Utitz, Konrad Fiedler, Heinrich Wölfflin, Max Dessoir, and others (Kollenberg-Plotnikova 2017). The founders of the Academy, including Kandinsky and Gustav Shpet, believed that scientific knowledge about art should differ from the aesthetics and philosophy of art, operating with the concept of beauty, and study art, first of all, as a form of human contemplation, in the words of Konrad Fiedler. Although it has been noted that the Academy of Artistic Sciences was not an “avant-garde initiative” (Kolleberg-Plotnikova 2017, p. 158), the Choreological Laboratory could be considered an exception. The most avant-garde experiment of modern dance found their way into it, and the most progressive scientific instruments, including chronophotography, video recordings and original notation systems, were used for research.

The story of the Choreolab has been brought out to scholarly attention about a quarter of the century ago by the art scholar, Nicoletta Misler. Her pioneering article (Misler 1996) also mentions the continuity between Kandinsky’s idea that new art scholarship should include movement and dance, and Sidorov’s project of a discipline for which he coined the term, choreology (Sidorov 2017b, pp. 81-82). The present paper brings together Sidorov, Kandinsky and Rudolf von Laban (1879-1958), both practitioner and theoretician of dance, while putting their searches for a science of movement into the context of Allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft. It also demonstrates the role of mystical knowledge and occult symbolism in creating ‘the signs for a science’, an academic investigation into the art of movement.
Aleksei Alekseevich Sidorov (1891-1978) had met Kandinsky before the war, probably first in Moscow, but they almost certainly saw each other in Munich in 1913 where Sidorov, a graduate of Moscow University, attended Heinrich Wölfflin’s lecture course. At their meetings, they could have discussed dance as an integral part of “synthetic art”, which Kandinsky promoted. He saw the future of art in the combination of two or more arts: “melodeclamation [reciting poetry or prose to music accompaniment], chamber dance, colored sculpture, experiments in colored spatial art, ballet, opera, architectural works created with the participation of sculpture and painting” (Kandinsky 1921).

In the art of the future, dance played a significant role, and Kandinsky predicted new synthetic genres, cross-hybridization of dance, performance and installation, and so forth. It was thought that general art studies, Allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft in Germany, or obshchee iskusstvovedenie in Russia, would benefit from including in the investigation “non-canonical”, marginal genres: cinema, dance, theater, circus and even the art of engineering (Kollenberg-Plotnikova 2017, p. 151). In the new science of art there had to be a place for daring, cutting-edge experiments.

As early as 1909-1910, Kandinsky experimented with dance together with the artist and dancer, Alexander Sakharov, who was part of the Blue Rider association of artists. In 1913 Laban opened a dance school in Munich; at that time he also tried to become a painter and was close to the Blue Rider (Keilson 2019). It is not clear that Kandinsky and Laban had met, though they allegedly lived in Munich on the same street, but they most certainly knew about each other (Wojnicka 2011). Sidorov might have learned about Laban from the book on modern dance by Hans Brandenburg (Brandenburg 1913), which he read with great attention and used it in his own monograph on contemporary dance, the first in the Russian language. In the monograph, Sidorov admired Laban as “a real harbinger of the culture of the future” (Sidorov 1923, p. 60) and used his celebratory quotation, “We dancers are the pioneers of this new dawn of art” (Laban 1919, p. 675).

When the Great War began, Laban went on to experiment with dance in the artistic colony in Ascona in Ticino, Switzerland, and Sidorov returned to Russia, where a couple of years later he started a major research project of dance research. A talented teacher and choreographer, Laban taught a cohort of excellent dance artists and received acclaim as a founding father of modern dance. His theoretical work is equally well known and his movement analysis is still used today for training dancers and dance therapists (Preston-Dunlop 1998). By contrast, the contribution into dance studies made by Sidorov and his colleagues at GAKhN is much less known. An art scholar and critic, Academic Secretary of GAKhN, Freemason and occultist, and, according to some information, an agent of the secret services during the Stalin years (Nikitin 2002, p. 165), he remains one of the most enigmatic figures of Russian humanities.
Mystical circles
There was something else in common between Laban, Kandinsky, and Sidorov: belief in the existence of higher, spiritual planes and in the world of symbols pointing to them. All three shared an interest in Theosophy and viewed dance as a powerful instrument for the development of humans in harmony with the world, the microcosm with the macrocosm. Kandinsky wrote about “invisible vibrations”, “subtle sensitivity”, which, he believed, at present was peculiar only to artists, but which every person could develop in himself. He famously sketched the dancer, Gret Palucca, rendering her movement as geometrical figures. Sidorov inscribed the poses of modern dance in geometric shapes: a rhombus, a pyramid, a triangle, a circle. Laban and Sidorov, each in their own way, invented special signs for recording movements and looked for symbolism of gestures. Laban imagined the structure of the body with its movements as a large crystal, the icosahedron (Laban 1919; Keilson 2019, p. 21).

Both Laban and Sidorov were members of secret societies, Freemasons and Rosicrucians, and one might expect that this motivated and informed their respective scholarly undertakings. According to the scholar of Laban, Ana Isabelle Keilson, “A series of early performance experiments around 1912 led him to choose movement as his primary medium, and he relocated the following year to Switzerland to cultivate his dance career. Yet his exposure in Munich to Kandinsky's spiritually oriented color theories, and his involvement in Paris with mystical practices of Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism, formed the durable core of his ideas about dance” (Keilson 2019, p. 21). For these mystics and scholars of hermetic knowledge, geometric figures also had a special Gnostic meaning, and choreography, booth as artistic practice and as a written language, could have had profound the significance.
Fig. 1. A. Sidorov, Fragment of a sketch of a choreographic study, early 1920s
Fig. 2. A. Sidorov, The Circle of the Arts
Manuscript Department of the Russian State Library. Published with the permission of the curator.
Manuscript Department of the Pushkin State Fine Arts Museum. Published with the permission of the curator.
In the choreology project Sidorov was helped by his colleague and friend of early years, Aleksandr Illarionovich Larionov (1889-1954). A chemical engineer by training, Larionov attended, like Sidorov, the symbolist circle of the sculptor, Konstantin Krakht, and he may have become interested in dance and movement in his studio (Misler 1997, pp. 267-268). The members of this circle worshiped Charles Baudelaire and studied both Helene Blavatsky’s Theosophy and the Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy. Larionov was a Rosicrucian, participated in experiments with spiritualism, and worked on a compendium of symbols together with Pavel Florensky. He became one of the founders of the Choreological Laboratory and, in 1923-1929, its head. Following Kandinsky’s clue, both Larionov and Sidorov worked on the methodology of studying the art of movement, an area that “had been for too long hijacked by emotions not of an aesthetic character” (Sidorov 2017b, p. 81). They shared the view that the substance of dance is “not the language of the body (plastique), and not the language of music (rhythm), but the movement itself”, “movement as such” (Sidorov 1923, p. 60).

Sidorov intentionally used ancient wisdom and hermetic knowledge in his classification of the sciences and arts, putting them into geometrical shapes and composing a mystical rose from “petals”. In one of his schemes, there are seven petals arranged in concentric circles. In the outermost circle are the words “prayer,” “ritual,” “icon,” “temple,” in the next one towards the center – “mystery,” “hieroglyph,” “plan,” etc. Seven circles converged on the inner one containing the arts: “music,” “painting,” “architecture,” “sculpture,” “facial expressions,” and, finally, “dance.” In the center of the rose, where the mystics placed the One, or God, Sidorov had “ecstasy” and “art”. Could it be the plan for the future Academy of Artistic Sciences? One thing is clear: dance had a definite presence there, and, in the shape of the Choreological Lab, it eventually assumed an important place within GAKhN.

I thank Elena Glukhova for the reference to Sidorov’s mystical drawings.

Fig. 3. A. Sidorov, The Rainbow of the Arts
Fig. 4. A. Sidorov, The Rose of the Arts
Manuscript Department of the Pushkin State Fine Arts Museum. Published with the permission of the curator.
Manuscript Department of the Pushkin State Fine Arts Museum. Published with the permission of the curator.
From Prince Kavkasidze to Prof-Sid
According to the family legend, Sidorov was from a princely family: his mother's ancestor, the Georgian king, David, after a palace coup, arrived in Russia with his uncle, Prince Melchizedek. This happened during the reign of Anna Ioannovna. The Empress granted David a Russian principality with the surname Bagration, a palace, and lands, while she granted Prince Melchizedek the family name Kavkasidze and an estate in the Poltava province (Bobrinskaya 1999: 147). Sidorov’s father, Aleksei Mikhailovich, graduated from the law faculty, became a member of the collegium of the regional court in Kharkov, and in 1914 received the position of full state councilor and hereditary nobility.

In 1902 Sidorov the junior entered the most progressive Moscow school, the Medvednikov Gymnasium. The boy loved books about knights, secrets and adventures – Don Quixote and the novels by Ryder Haggard (the forerunner of fantasy genre) “cheap editions with unimportant illustrations, but full of action and secrets” (Sidorov 1977, p. 67). He adored Valery Briusov’s poems “Moscow magician”, “The Bricklayer” and “Dagger”, and composed his own thematic poetry such as “Knights of the Holy Grail” (Rem, Sidorov 1910). During his university years (1910-1913) Sidorov was introduced to the literary circles by an intelligent and charming Evgenia Nikolaevna Chebotarevskaya who was close to Russian symbolists.

In the spring of 1910, Sidorov and his friends, Sergei Durylin and Vladimir Schenrock, attended Andrei Bely’s lecture, “Lyrics and Experiment” held on the premises of the Musaget Press. After the lecture they approached Bely with a suggestion “to organize an experimental studio for the study of rhythm under my leadership” (Bely 1990, p. 351). In response, Bely outlined a whole program for the development of aesthetics and poetics as exact sciences (Ivanov 1988, p. 343). The Musaget Circle became “a free academy of literature” (Durylin 1991, p. 12). Considering that many members of the Rhythmic Circle, including Sidorov, Larionov, E.N. Chebotarevskaya, D.S. Nedovich, S.N. Durylin, later became members of GAKhN, one can ask whether the “free academy” of Musaget served as its prototype.

Andrey Bely introduced Sidorov and Durylin to Ellis (Lev Kobylinsky), a Rosicrucian and the founder of the Circle for the Study of Symbolism, also connected to Musaget (Glukhova, Polyakov 2017). Under the influence of Ellis, Sidorov improved his comprehension of various mystical doctrines and occult knowledge and put it in his verses:
I do, the humble will proselytize,
All the mysteries of holy occultism.
— "Incantation" (1910), quoted in (Neshumova 2007, p. 607)
Ellis commissioned Sidorov to translate Goethe's unfinished poem, “The Mysteries”, intending to use it in his polemic with Rudolf Steiner (Neshumova 2007, p. 607), and left to Sidorov his own manuscript of the translation of Dante’s Vita Nuova before emigrating. Trusting Sidorov to translate these precious texts before his emigration, Ellis might have seen in Sidorov his successor in Rosicrucianism in Russia.

In 1912 and 1913, several young poets, including Sidorov and Durylin, published the almanac Lyrics at their own expense and created a publishing house of the same name (Durylin 1991). At this time, they were writing a fantasy novel, Seven Crosses, about Masonic society, and an untitled story, the protagonist of which was a medieval knight resurrected by a magician, who under mysterious circumstances turns into a modern futurist (Neshumova 2007, p. 607). However, after Sidorov's marriage in the fall of 1913 to Tatyana Andreevna Butkevich (1891-1983?), the ideal friend of Durylin's youth, relations between the two young men cooled down, and the novel and the story remained unfinished. Instead of writing belle lettres, Sidorov embarked on an academic career.

The graduate of the Moscow University, Sidorov devoted his early essay to Albrecht Dürer’s engravings. It could hardly be accidental: Dürer was artist and scholar initiated into the hermetic secrets, and he allegedly belonged to the Knights of the Temple. The essay was awarded a special prize. In 1918 the Helicon Press published Sidorov illustrated album Engraving by Albrecht Dürer. The fifty numbered copies, each enclosed in brocade binding with gold thread, were obviously intended for a narrow circle of initiates. After graduation, Sidorov stayed at the Department of Art History and Theory to prepare for a professorship under the guidance of professors Malmberg and Tsvetaev. Ivan Tsvetaev invited Sidorov to the Museum of Fine Arts, which he founded in 1911, to become one of the first museum guides. To prepare for a professorship, Moscow University post-graduates were sent abroad to finalize their studies. Sidorov traveled to Italy, Austria, and then to Germany to study with Wölfflin: a proponent of Allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, the professor also was a specialist on Dürer.

Wölfflin believed that an art scholar must “think in forms” – a special way of visual perception, for which it was necessary to study works of art “with a pencil in hand” (Wölfflin 2009). Sidorov tried it out: in order to analyze Dürer's engravings, he learned the art of engraving. A monument to this activity was a small book, Six Portraits (which includes a portrait of Dürer with a sonnet dedicated to him) (Sidorov 1922). All the sheets were engraved on beech and palm boards, and a thousand copies were printed at the State Art Printing Workshop. After graduation, for almost twenty years, Sidorov worked at the Moscow Fine Arts Museum, and some of this time he was in charge of the Engraving Office.

Initially, he welcomed the Revolution. Yet, during the Civil War his father, a respected lawyer and a liberal, was taken hostage and shot dead by the Bolsheviks (Bobrinskaya 1999, p. 191). Sidorov was overwhelmed by powerlessness and fear; to regain strength, he needed magic or a successful career, or both. And what the occult is about if not about power and self-empowering (Menzel et al. 2012)? In 1919 he became a privat-docent (lecturer) at Moscow University, and two years later obtained a degree for the dissertation on “The Evolution of Art Image”. He suggested a special discipline, artistic eidology, was needed to improve art scholarship: “the doctrine of the image, the complex and living unity of a work of art which evolves in connection with the common life of human societies" (Sidorov 1985, p. 12). The Russian term eidologiya copied the German Eidologie and referred to the natural philosophy of Goethe and Rudolf Steiner rather than Husserl's phenomenology.

Through the 1920s, Sidorov continued to climb the career ladder. He became Moscow University professor and also taught at the Institute of Philosophy and Literature (1933-1938), the Architectural Institute (1936-1944), and the Poligraficheskii [Book Printing] Institute (1938-1964). Muscovites knew him as "Prof-Sid" (Glukhova 2014, p. 450). Amazingly, he continued his membership in secret societies as “a high-degree Mason, Rosicrucian, Templar, mystic” (Nikitin 2003, p. 343; Nikitin 2005, p. 382). He also kept writing poetry exploring Templar symbols, such as the poem, “Knight Angerran” (1939) (Nikitin 2002, p. 173). Even when repressions against Masonry, anthroposophy and other secret societies were in full swing, Sidorov did not try hard to conceal his involvement with them. His colleagues and friends knew about his rich collection of esoteric literature and borrowed books from it. His second wife, Vera Sergeevna, was the niece of the anthroposophist N.A. Grigorova and a sister to the philanthropist, merchant and Freemason P.A. Buryshkin (he sponsored the construction of the Goetheanum) (Glukhova 2014, p. 450).

Yet, over time Sidorov’s apartment near Arbat acquired a bad reputation: rumors began to circulate that the owner handed people over to the NKVD. During interrogation in 1943, a colleague of Sidorov at GAKhN, Dmitry Nedovich reported that Aleksandr Larionov warned him to beware Sidorov as an informant (Nikitin 2003, p. 332). The authoritative historian of secret societies in Russia, Andrei Nikitin considers Sidorov’s “invincibility” a proof of his involvement with the NKVD. Despite the fact that during interrogations people often mentioned his name, Sidorov remained free and lost none of his posts and privileges. On the contrary, after the Second World War, he was decorated by state orders, given membership in the Academy of Sciences and awarded an “Honored Culture Worker”. Nikitin also suggests that the absence of Sidorov’s files in the open part of the archives signifies that he was not an ordinary informant, but probably a member of staff (staff documents are kept in classified files which are not open to public) (Nikitin 2004, p. 213). Though the truth will hardly be found in the nearest future, one thing is clear: Sidorov possessed considerable power over Moscow intelligentsia, and not mystical, but quite real, material. And this power came to him through acquiring an important position as full member and the academic secretary of GAKhN.
The art and science of movement
Following Wölfflin's advice “to study drawing with a pencil in hand”, Sidorov studied dance working closely with dancers. He was able to see many performances of the new, modern dance (as opposed to classical ballet) in Munich already before the Great War. The two Russian dancers, Alexander Sakharov and Inna Chernetskaya (1894-1963), also worked there in close connection with Blue Rider. After studying painting and dance in Munich, Chernetskaya opened her Studio for Synthetic Dance in Moscow in 1919.

Following performances of Isadora Duncan in Russia (she came several times between 1904 and 1913, and in 1921 she returned again to open a dance school in Moscow), modern dance developed rapidly, and Sidorov became one of the most sensitive and attentive critics of the new art from. As mentioned earlier, he wrote a lengthy essay on “Contemporary Dance” published first as a journal article and later as a book (Sidorov 1918; 1923). There were those who doubted the originality of Sidorov's work and accused him of plagiarizing Hans Brandenburg's Der Moderne Tanz (Rudzitsky 2011). Although Brandenburg’s influence on Sidorov is obvious, some interesting observations and original thought went into the book, especially in the section on new dance in Russia. And, like Brandenburg in his book, Sidorov remains dance critic rather than dance scholar: he describes dance in an essayistic way rather than examining it with some scientific procedure.

In a way, by the time of publication, the book had become anachronistic, for, beginning with 1920, Sidorov started supplementing his art criticism with experimental work. He might have been encouraged by Kandinsky who wanted to do field research including surveys and questionnaires about perception of various kinds of art. Kandinsky wanted to study, for instance, “which arts have the greatest impact on the masses; what are the largest influences in particular arts, why; what associations are evoked by individual elements; how the law of the combination of elements is felt; what elements of one form are most suitable for elements of another, why, etc.” (Kandinsky 1921). In September 1921 (while Kandinsky was still in Russia), Sidorov made up a questionnaire about the perception of movements (the archived sheet includes partial answers from two unnamed respondents):
What seems to you most characteristic of the movement of this person?
  • Comparative immobility of the body and mobility of the legs. Movement along space
  • Lumbarity. Bursting in
How do you perceive the movement itself?
  • Metric
  • Angular, push
What part of the body seems to manifest most this movement?
  • Knee
  • Shoulders
What is the difference in perception of fast and slow movement?
Slowdown at the end, great haste at the beginning
Have you noticed a difference between various moments of the movement?
Is there a difference in perception of the movement from left to right and from right to left?
How do you perceive the topics?
How do you perceive the direction of movement?

Unlike Laban, who analyzed spatial and temporal organization of movements from the dancer’s point of view, Sidorov followed Kandinsky’s tendency to explore psychological perception of movement by the observer. He conducted this survey twice: first, at the beginning of 1921, at the Moscow Psychoneurological Institute; two years later, he repeated it at the Choreological Laboratory of GAKhN. Unfortunately, he did not publish results.

The continuity between the Moscow Psychoneurological Institute and GAKhN has been often overlooked, yet, at least for the fate of choreology, the connection between the two institutions is quite important. The Institute was founded by Moscow psychiatrists, Aleksandr Bernstein and Fedor Rybakov; both were proponents of experimental psychology and made it sure that the institute facilities including laboratory equipment including the one for chronophotography, for recording successive moments of the movement (Sidorov 2017b, p. 50-51). From April to June of 1921, Sidorov used the facilities for his own purposes: he organized several sessions when he and his colleagues photographed and made sketches of the dancers and models, both in costume and naked. At one session, the dancer was N.V. Korotkova, and sketches were made by the artists A.A. Malinin, V.V. Preuss, V.I. Belyaeva, O.P. Chernysheva and by Sidorov himself. Comparing between dressed and undressed states of the dancer, Sidorov argued that movements served as a cover for nudity: “the body seeks to replace clothes with the greatest aesthetics of its movement” (MD RSL 776-4-20, p. 1-3). He was a great admirer of nudity, and during many years he collected images and literary descriptions of the naked body compiling a thick hand-written volume (now archived in the Manuscript Department of the Pushkin Museum). In this, he followed Isadora Duncan and Rudolf Laban who held that the most beautiful dance is the dance of the naked body (Sidorov 1923, p. 62). Yet, some of the pictures taken in the Choreolab were reminiscent of popular erotic imagery.

The Psychoneurological Institute occupied the building of the former Polivanov gymnasium on Prechistenka, 32. The gymnasium stood in the heart of the Arbat area, Moscow’s “Latin Quarter”; the building is still there, and it even retains its educational function housing two art schools. With the death in 1922 of a founder, Bernstein, the Psychoneurological Institute was merged with another medical institution, and the building was taken over by GAKhN. The estate was large and spacious, and some of its quarters were converted into housing for GAKhN employees; amidst the severe housing crisis in Moscow, this was a real treasure. In addition to the premises, the Academy inherited from the Institute some equipment including anthropometric instruments, psychological tests and a photo lab (Sirotkina 2020, p. 35-39).

The decision to open a Choreological Laboratory was taken by the Academic Council of GAKhN in May 1922. The program of research included “decomposing the phenomenon of artistic movement into its constituent elements”, finding “laws of construction and composition” and examining the “artistic organization of movement” (RSALA 941-17-5-37), which agreed well with Kandinsky's ideas for a science of art. A Duncan dancer and graduate of the Higher Women’s Courses, Natalya Tian (Natalya Frolovna Matveeva, 1892-1974) was invited to head the lab. After having presented a paper on the construction in the art of dance she was elected full member of GAKhN and, in the autumn, was appointed head of the lab. Several months later, however, Tian injured her leg, left Moscow for treatment, and was replaced by Larionov. In December 1923, he gave a talk “On an experiment in the field of plastique” where he suggested a new research program for the Choreolab. It included experimenting with “the formation of artistic poses, the expressiveness of the gait and the conditions for the expedient filling of the stage space by a moving person” (Kondratyev 1923, pp. 442-443). The topic of gait might have been brought about by Wölfflin’s observation of ​​changes in walking through the Renaissance: “The very gait of women has changed. From wooden and mincing, she turned to a free gait: her pace slowed down” (Wölfflin 2009, p. 283). In the Choreolab, different kinds of gait were studied including “harmonic, rhythmic, constrained or free, smooth, metric, lethargic, heavy or light, falling, cheeky”, etc. (Sirotkina 2012, p. 86).

At the beginning the lab consisted of three members of staff, Larionov, Sidorov, and some Faddeev, MD. Later other researchers joined it, many of them dancers and choreographers; some were employed full-time, and others were associated with GAKhN. The medical presence among the members grew, and they discussed physiology of movement in connection with breathing and other bodily rhythms, breathing exercises, made comparison between organic mechanical (machine), verbal and musical rhythms. The influential studies of work operations in the Central Institute of Labour were also discussed in the Lab: the relevance of scientific techniques, such as were used in analyzing work operations, to studying dance, and, vice versa, the relevance of “methods of art history” to the study of physical culture and work operations. The Central Institute of Labour introduced the concept of a model, or normale,of efficient movement; by analogy, the Choreolab used the notion of normale of an artistic movement. The choreographer, Vera Maya, even proposed her own system of exercises as a normale for modern dance.

What was termed normale in the language of the time, traditionally used to be called “a canon”. In the lab, five different canons of movement were compared including those of ballet, two schools of modern dance (by Vera Maya and Lyudmila Alekseeva) and two gymnastic systems (the Swedish gymnastics and the Sokol, or Slavic, one). It was found, for instance, that a number of leg positions are common in all these systems, but each system modifies these positions to a greater or lesser extent, while arm movements differed, and those in modern dance were more diverse and individual than ballet ones, the trajectories of which were rigidly fixed.
Dance notation
In the early twentieth century, the main obstacle to the scientific study of dance was the lack of a representative way of recording the fleeting art of dance. With this purpose in mind, Sidorov and Larionov experimented with film and photography, including chronophotography, or "time loop", and simultaneous pictures. Several meetings of the laboratory were devoted to verbal descriptions of dance including those found in well-know literary works, Eugene Onegin by Pushkin, Demon by Lermontov, and War and Peace by Tolstoy (Surits 2009, p. 225). However, the main focus was on special sign languages for movements. Larionov and his associates began by reviewing existing systems of dance notation — starting with those devised by the French ballet master, Raoul Auger-Feuillet, by the German teacher and theorist, Friedrich Albert Zorn, and by modern dancers Olga Desmond and Margaret Morris (Suritz 2009, p. 224) — before devising their own notation systems. Both Larionov and Sidorov developed their own notations, and the choreographers, Yevgeny Yavorsky, Nikolai Poznyakov and others offered their versions. Similar to Laban’s Kinetography, which was used primarily for analytic purposes and only rarely for recording dance, the Choreolab languages of notation mainly served a starting point for theoretical discussions.
Fig. 5 and 6. A. Sidorov, Sketches from the Choreological laboratory, between 1921 and 1924
Manuscript Department of the Russian State Library. Published with the permission of the curator.
Larionov created more than one notation system, the first one for systematizing bodily movements. The dance historian, Elizaveta Surits, reports than the recording consisted of a sequence of images of poses placed in different lines, so that a musical score was imitated (Surits 2009, p. 229). Another notation consisted of "shots" containing certain forms of "personal body space", the idea underlining Laban’s Kinetography (Misler 1997). Larionov was deeply intrigued by various semiotic systems including symbols, emblems and other signs; indeed, his work could be considered proto-semiotics. He authored entries on "Alphabet", "Coat of arms", "Totem" and "Tattoo" for the Dictionary of Artistic Terms, the GAKhN major project (Larionov A. 1997a; 1997b; 1997c; 1997d). He also taught a course on the graphic design of various alphabets and allegedly edited the Dictionary of Symbols: Symbolarium together with Pavel Florensky (Nekrasova 1984). The interest in semiotic and symbolic systems might have stemmed from the esoteric studies which Larionov shared with many contemporary intellectuals including Florensky and Laban; it is know that Laban wrote a journal article on "symbols in dance and dance as a symbol" (Laban 1919). Larionov studied secret languages including those used by the Rosicrucians in their rituals; several of these languages are classified by the level of initiation: mystical, magical, kabbalistic, hierophantic, etc (Nikitin 2004, p. 421).
Fig. 7. A. Sidorov, Signs for dance notation
Manuscript Department of the Russian State Library. Published with the permission of the curator.
Fig. 8 and 9. The “magic” and “hierophantic” alphabets of the Russian Rosicrucian-Manicheans, or Orionians; Sidorov was initiated into the Order of Orion-Khermarion
Nikitin 2004, pp. 422, 424
The languages of dance notation were almost as numerous as mystical languages, and they were subdivided into “synthetic” and analytical forms. In the former the dancer's movements are recorded either through the traces of steps on the floor (the Auger-Feuillet system), or through the image of dancing figures (the notations of systems of Arthur Saint-Leon and V.I. Stepanov). Sidorov’s notation belonged to the latter. In analytical systems, the dancer's body and the position in space are subject to preliminary analysis, and the location of individual body parts is classified and indicated by certain signs. Thus Yavorsky’s analytical language used numbers and was similar to music notation, but instead seven lines it used twenty: rhythm was recorded on the first line, tempo on the second, the direction on the third, etc. Six lines contained records of hand positions; five more lines – movement of the hips and legs; the last, twentieth line, was used for finger movements (Surits 2009, p. 230). The notation compiled by Poznyakov was equally hard to use and served mainly analytical purposes. In order to find out advantages and disadvantages of various systems, it was suggested to compare notations by recording a choreography (it was Lyudmila Alekseeva’s “The Dying Bird”) and a boxing match.

With the end of the New Economic Policy and the contraction of the private sector of the economics, the position of dance studios became precarious. In August, 1924, Moscow private dance schools and classes (including modern and ballroom dance) were closed, often under the pretext of their “unhygienic” and “amoral” nature. Modern dance was accused of “pornographic tendencies” and “bourgeois”, anti-Soviet aesthetic (Abramov 1922, p. 363). The Choreological Laboratory “sheltered” choreographers of various styles, from the Duncan dancer Natalia Tian to the Dalcrozian Nina Aleksandrova, and it became the center of modern dance and dance gymnastics. Dancers and dance enthusiasts gathered regularly in the spacious conference hall of GAKhN for performances and discussions; the events attracted both Moscow artistic and scholarly circles.

In mid-twenties, the laboratory organized four exhibitions on the “art of movement”, where photographs of dance, athletics, acrobatics, labor processes and even animal movements were presented. At the last, fourth exhibition, there was a large foreign section supervised by Sidorov, who, for this purpose, in 1927 traveled to Austria and Germany and met with dance artists, photographers and curators. As a result, the Choreolab received an invitation to participate in the international dance congress organized by Rudolf Laban and his student, Kurt Joss in Essen in 1928 (Stöckemann 2001, p. 112). The objective of congresses was building Tanzwissenschaft and Bewegungswissenschaft – the science of dance and movement. In Essen Sidorov’s talk, on “The Art of Dance in New Russia”, had been scheduled. Yet, allegedly due to bureaucratic reasons, the visit never happened. Sidorov missed the chance to meet Laban in person and to discuss the issues they shared in common – dance studies, or choreology. Today the term choreology refers to Labanotation and other systems of notating dance (Preston-Dunlop 2002); Sidorov’s plan for choreology was much broader and more exiting.
Fig. 10. One of the last sketches of dance by Sidorov of the German dancer Liesel Freund, made when she came to Moscow in August 1931.
Fig. 11. The cover of Liesel Freund’s book on dance gymnastics (1929).
Manuscript Department of the Russian State Library. Published with the permission of the curator.
In conclusion we may ask, what was the place of the choreology project in the general structure of GAKhN? We know that the study of movement and dance was an important part of Kandinsky's original program which found active support from Sidorov and Larionov. Following Wölfflin’s belief that art should be studied empirically, they saw such research as empirical, or research by practice. This gave rise to the idea of ​​a laboratory in which researchers and practitioners, dance artists and dance critics would experiment together.

Due to Sidorov’s contacts with Western scholars, the laboratory did not become a parochial Russian enterprise: the exhibitions on the Art of Movement included material form Central-European photographers and choreographers. The lab members visited Europe and met with Western choreographers, and the latter, such as the dancers Liesel Freund and Valeska Gert, were invited to Russia. The person, who would be most welcome in the Choreolab, was Rudolf Laban. The choreographer was also a dance scholar, and he contributed to the Allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft movement. Laban’s articles were published by the organ of the movement, the Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, and his works were reviewed in the journal. His theory of movement in space, choreutics, shared much in common with Sidorov’s choreology: both were conceived as contributions to obshchee iskusstvoznanie, and both mixed together rigorous investigation with esoteric knowledge. In the words of a researcher and certified specialist in Laban Movement Analysis, Hilary Brian, Laban deeply committed himself “to embodying the sacred geometry of space”, and this commitment continues in the contemporary somatic practice carried on today by the students of Laban’s students (Brian 2016, p. 58). To Kandinsky, Laban and Sidorov dance seemed more than an art – it was both a path to higher knowledge and a key to life reforms on the way to a beautiful and harmonious life. Sidorov eagerly awaited that, “on the threshold of a new life, a new dance kindled the guiding lights” (Sidorov 1923, p. 62).

Sidorov approached dance from a different angle than Laban or Kandinsky. Laban analyzed movement as a choreographer, from inside his practice, and for the benefits of a performer, a dancer, or a choreographer. Kandinsky approached art studies also as an artist, practitioner, but also as a psychologist looking for the laws and peculiarities of perceiving and appreciating art. Sidorov was interested in dance primarily as an observer, photographer and art scholar; he wanted to stand firmly on the ground of empirical science and, for this sake, he analyzed and classified various movements, examined the visual image the body of the dancer produces against various background, in different costumes or indeed naked. In the Choreolab, his assistants compared types of gait, in shoes, on high heels or barefoot, in skirt, in tunic, of a nude person… What they were looking for was a picture which the dancer, choreographer and stage designer create together for the enjoyment of the observer. Sidorov believed that dance is in the eye of the beholder; in his choreology there is much more of the objectifying gaze of a photographer or an iconographer. The old-fashioned art scholar Wölfflin exerted more power on him than the avant-garde theoretician, Laban.

What were the causes which led to the Choreolab closure? Firstly, as a result of reorganization of GAKhN, research priorities changed, and Shpet, the patron of dance studies, was removed from his position as vice-president. Secondly, the Choreolab collection of photographs contained images of dancers either half-dressed or completely naked, and this brought accusations of ‘pornography’ (Stigneev 2000). Finally, obscure experiments with dance notation involving signs which looked like occult alphabets might have raised suspicion. When critics labeled GAKhN “a state-funded monastery”, they could have had a reason. Choreology has been more than once accused in producing “flowers of an idealistic art scholarship grown in the aesthetic glass-houses of the Choreo-Section” (Li 1924, p. 8).

The end of the Choreolab dealt a final blow not only to the rising dance studies in Russia, but also to Russian modern dance. The art of movement was reduced to fizkul’tura (physical education), gymnastics and official pageants. Modern dance was labeled “bourgeois” art, and the Soviet state supported exclusively ballet and stylized folk dance. Along with the avant-garde dance, the science of movement, equally avant-garde, disappeared soon after it had been born. Choreology as an empirical study of dance and movement, of their perception by the audience and their semantics and symbolism, remains a unique, largely unrealized project.

On the history of modern dance in Russia see (Surits 1996; Misler 2011; Sirotkina 2012; Misler 2017)

The journal, Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, was published by Max Dessoir; five congresses on general art history were held in Germany in 1913-1930; see (Kollenberg-Plotnikova 2017). I thank Nikolaj Plotnikov for the reference to Laban in this context.
MD RSL – Manuscript Department of the Russian State Library. Fund 776 (A.A. Sidorov)
MD PM – Manuscript Department of the Pushkin State Fine Arts Museum. Fund 52 (A.A. Sidorov)
RSALA – Russian State Archive for Literature and Art. Fund 941 (GAKHN); Fund 2740 (Khersonskiy Khrisandr Nikolayevich)


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