by Mary Ann Brehm and Lynne McNett, excerpted from Creative Dance for Learning: The Kinesthetic Link

Biographical Sketch: Barbara Mettler (1907-2002)
Barbara Mettler grew up north of Chicago near Lake Michigan in a family that practiced arts of all kinds within the home. Close to nature as a child, Mettler created her own dances freely, but was uncomfortable with most formal dance classes she encountered. An exception to this was a course she took with a dance teacher from the University of Wisconsin. As a young woman, she was inspired by a performance of a group led by Isadora Duncan’s daughter, Irma Duncan, but was discouraged from pursing that avenue, being told she was already too old.

While touring Germany, Mettler found a toehold for her artistic searching when she visited the Mary Wigman School in Dresden. Mettler returned to study dance there and graduated from the Wigman School in 1933. Beyond her studies at the Wigman School, she was highly affected by the artistic freedom and democratic spirit of the German Weimar Republic. This was at the height of Laban’s work in Germany which influenced Mettler through her dance study with Wigman.

Mettler was an independent dance pioneer who directed Metter Studios for over 60 years. Through her studio Mettler offered on-going dance classes and an intensive summer program each year. She also published nine books, produced films and videotapes and directed the Barbara Mettler Dance Company. Her book Materials of Dance as a Creative Art Activity is a classic in the field of dance education. Known for the central role of improvisation in her work, one of her greatest innovations is the development of principles of group dance improvisation.

Upon returning to the United States from Germany Mettler opened a dance studio in New York City and was part of the thriving modern dance movement there during the Depression. She moved out of the city in 1940 to be closer to nature and have her work be more fully integrated with the natural world. She offered summer dance courses in New Hampshire from 1940-1952. During this time a scholarship was annually offered to a student from H’Doubler’s dance program at the University of Wisconsin. (Avant–guard dancer Anna Halprin was one of those students and became a teacher at Mettler’s summer school.) In the winters Mettler commuted to teach dance and in 1943 established a Department of Expressive Movement at Keuka College in Ithaca, New York. She also directed the Modern Dance Department of the Boston YWCA. In 1953-54 Mettler took a small dance company on tour through north eastern, southern, and central United States, performing improvisational group dance. Mettler’s first dance film was made with this group.

The year 1963 marked the opening of Mettler’s Tucson Creative Dance Center, with its stunning, architecturally-acclaimed round studio. Here she lived and worked until her death. With a permanent home for Mettler Studios, Metter was able to hone her explorations. She saw her studio as a laboratory for searching for the most basic understandings of how to work with dance. That is, she searched out the roots of movement expression so that dance experience could be made available to everyone. Over the course of her career she taught thousands of students. In Tucson, Mettler’s summer schools became very large and by necessity Mettler’s investigations into group dance deepened. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s Mettler’s dance company toured and preformed large group dance improvisations. During this time Mettler also taught in Europe and Central America. In 1984 she gathered an international dance company to demonstrate the potential of dance as a universal language. The work of Mettler’s companies is documented in film and videotape, available from Mettler Studios.

In 1995 a group of Mettler’s students founded the International Association for Creative Dance to promote the development of dance work based on Mettler’s principles. Mettler’s archives are housed at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA.

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