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“The mind is an enchanting thing…”

Eileen Kramer creates dance dramas that stir the soul

By Bonnie Fuoco

The artist’s artist

Dance, choreography, film, costume design, writing, painting — there isn’t much Eileen Kramer doesn’t do. Born in Sydney, Australia and a resident of Lewisburg since 1992, Kramer is the artist’s artist. For the past ten years, as a member of the Trillium Performing Arts Collective, and amidst a varied creative output, she has regularly created and performed in sumptuous dance dramas and pageants.

Kramer begins by adapting or creating a tale. She recruits and rehearses the participants (usually untrained dancers), choreographs the piece, makes the costumes for the ensemble and often makes masks or props to go with them. They are emotional pieces, rich with mythic characters.

Kramer with a mask
Kramer with a processional mask from The Garden. Photo by Bonnie Fuoco.

The story she tells of her life is a dance: a young girl, on her way into a recital, notices the dancers as they enter the stage door. They are women of exceptional beauty and elegance.

The girl resolves to be a dancer. She studies with a formidably brilliant but kind teacher; travels to exotic lands and observes the colors of life; spends time in the Big City making a film, then retires to the mountains to create magical dance dramas which recall her teacher.

Madame Kramer saw the dancers in Sydney, Australia. They were members of the Bodenwieser Ballet under the direction and guidance of Gertrude Bodenwieser. The name Madame Bodenwieser, or “Madame,” falls often and gently from Kramer’s lips. Gertrude Bodenwieser, who became Kramer’s teacher, had been a force shaping modern dance in Vienna in the 1920s and 30s. Bodenwieser was a renowned dancer, choreographer and educator who developed her own style of Ausdruckstanz, “expressive dance,” the central European break with classical ballet. With the annexation of Vienna to Nazi Germany, Bodenwieser fled and in 1939 reunited with six of her dancers in Sydney.

According to Bodenwieser, “Every work of art is the expression, through a form, of an adventure of the soul. It is therefore to be understood that every epoch has its own form of artistic expression, showing so the inner feeling of the soul of the people of that age.” Her form was the dance drama. She used a style that Charles Warren, in Gertrude Bodenwieser and Vienna’s Contribution to Ausdruckstanz, described as, “…decorative, fluid, effortless, lyrical and dynamic…. It embraces movement in circles, spirals, leaps, waves and figures-of-eight with the body flexible and leaning in all directions. Emphasis is placed on flowing arms and delicate hand movements. There is an unimpaired fluidity which commences at the center of the body and goes in all directions through it to the ends of the limbs….”

Kramer comments on the Bodenwieser style and her own career as an artist, “I was the least of the dancers and couldn’t do the strong stuff, but I’m the one who’s carrying on. If I had been a more physically able dancer, I might not have. It was my handicap that kept me creative, and my interest in painting played a part in my development.”

“I don’t always know”

Kramer uses Bodenwieser’s approach to create her pieces. “It’s not reliving the past,” she says. “It’s using the past.” For Kramer, the creation of the pageants is more like play. “They are not worked out from an academic point of view. Learning how to do it is not enough. I have to discover what I’m doing. I don’t always know.” This approach, I’m certain, allows archetypal images to rise out of Kramer’s pieces. Her teacher would have been proud, indeed.

The stories are vivid and touching. Songheart of the Dreamtime: “Long ago in the Dreamtime, our people came out of the sea and planted themselves in the ground.” Or Isis and Osiris: “Their life in Egypt is over; they go with their children to live among the stars.” I am dazzled by the magic this Gestalt conjurer works. “I muddle along, ” she replies. How can her work be so true? Like good paintings, her pieces are not depictions of events. They are events. “It’s hard to get rid of preconceived ideas and they intrude on you. If you have a clear picture of what you want to say, the preconceived ideas disappear.”

Whispers, Cries and Angels was “…simple but serious,” Kramer recalls. “A man is tormented by his own whispers. Then he hears the cries of mankind. A woman enters and they dance. She is his strength. Finally, they hear the voices of angels.” The Search, a sequel to Whispers, Cries and Angels, was more elaborate. “A woman has a vision of a garden and she goes in search of it. She encounters all sorts of people: Kings, queens, presidents, a pregnant woman carrying a heavy load, a boy playing with an elephant, a man with a grim mask. Finally she reaches the garden. The whole ensemble comes together like a big allegorical painting. At the very end, a wonderful character enters, a street sweeper, who sweeps the other characters off stage.”

Kramer’s work is a forceful reality. It’s not just dancing or movement or pageantry. It’s suffering, gladness, hope and reassurance. Sometimes it’s humor. “It came from Madame Bodenwieser, because her work had that. Though it might stress meaning, there were never any extraneous movements. It was all right to the point. Without actually talking about it, Madame taught us that. She’d tell us what the meaning was or the story, for instance Truth Goes on a Journey. She trained us and we knew what she wanted. Her teaching was so elusive. It’s only now that I understand what I learned.”


“Ritual for Roots and Leaves went in cycles and came to be what it started out to be. Roots grow up trees interact with vines and gather around mother tree. It started out as a group dance based on a solo by Madame called Burning Tree. From Burning Tree, I started to get other ideas. The music I was using was called Real Life with Plants and I was calling the piece Real Life with Plants. Suddenly I saw the roots and I saw the part where the vines rush all about, as vines do, and climb up the trees. Then I thought, ‘I’m restricted. If I make it Ritual for Roots and Leaves I can include human forms in it.’ You see, they don’t have to look like roots.” In the end the piece had a Medieval look, complete with umbrella shrubbery and a regal figure of Mother Earth.

“The pieces Isis and Osiris in Egypt and Osiris and the Black Hole had a similar evolution. I had a poem, “Star,” written by Coralie Hinkley, another member of the Bodenwieser Ballet. I was trying to move to the rhythm of the poem and the voice reciting the poem. To do something like that is like doing an abstract painting. I feel you have to be closer to classical ballet and technically more capable than I am. Storytelling is easier. You can make movements for storytelling more easily than you can for an abstract idea. I spent nine months preparing for that piece. I couldn’t get people to come to rehearsal so I did movements on my own every day and wrote them down every evening.” Kramer shows me a journal. The pages are filled with longhand and small figure drawings. “Eventually I worked my way out and left the poem behind.” These pieces were extravagant in their use of themes, people, costumes and props. They were a heavenly reenactment of birth and death, what Kramer, in her journal, referred to as “the same old thing.” But for a shimmering moment everything painful thing in the world made sense.
Kramer in costume
Kramer as the princess in The Buddha's Wife. Photo by Beth White.

Natural dancers

Kramer works mostly with women who are not trained dancers. They come from different backgrounds and pursue different careers. “Some,” she says, “ are natural dancers.” Over the years a few have learned the Bodenwieser style. It’s an elegant style that makes you feel you’ve awakened beside some ancient river, lush with fish and breezy palms.

“Madame would always say that, ‘On the breath’ and we knew we were to breath in,” and here she take a full breath, moves up from her hips and waist and gestures out like a flower.

“Didn’t God breath into Adam? It’s like that and not like contemporary American dance. It’s more Bauhaus.” The movement comes as a result of the emotion the dancer is experiencing.


For me, the most extraordinary piece was The Buddha’s Wife. “I got the idea in India a long time ago,” she laughs. “Where else would you get the idea for The Buddha’s Wife?” Kramer spent three years in India. With another dancer, she created dance pieces and performed them. It was there (as well as in Pakistan and Spain) that she observed the huge festival masks that she now makes for some of her pieces.

The masks in The Buddha’s Wife have a sweetness and innocence, though the story is one of soul searching, renunciation, strength and acceptance. Prince Siddhartha gives up the palace. His bride gives up her dream of happiness but finds “perfect love.” I thought at the end of the piece that the audience might weep uncontrollably and never leave. Carnegie Hall would turn into a great forest. There would be chanting and music and saffron colored robes. But that didn’t happen. Even though we were sad, we felt happy. In the end, Kramer’s work makes you feel that way.

Eileen Kramer performs Whispers, Cries and Angels in November at the Greenbrier Valley Theatre, Lewisburg as part of a Trillium concert sponsored by the Trillium Performing Arts Collective. To contact author Bonnie Fuoco, e-mail

Author’s Note: “The mind is an enchanting thing…” is taken from a poem by Marianne Moore.