Jessmin Howarth was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1893. When she was four her mother died and her father took her and her brother to guardians in England. At the age of 17 she went to study violin in Dresden, Germany, where she came in contact with Émile Jaques-Dalcroze. She earned her diploma as teacher of Eurythmics at his institute in Hellerau and later in Geneva. Early in 1916 she joined the French “Theatre du Vieux Colombier” with Louis Jouvet and others. For three years she was choreographer for the Paris Opera. In 1922 she met Mr. Gurdjieff in Paris and came with him to the United States for the first demonstration of Movements in Carnegie Hall in 1924. In the following years, she taught Movements in New York, at Lyne Place in England and later at Franklin Farms. During the last years of the Second World War, she helped manage the French Press & Information Service in New York City. She played an important role in the coming together of the Gurdjieff and Ouspensky pupils and until her death in 1984, she oversaw the teaching of Movements throughout North America.
y young adult self slipped low to the ground at the back of the Armonk Movements hall, shoulders up against the wall—feeling the vibrations of the music, the rhythms, the feet on the floor—certain that I wasn’t supposed to be there, and hoping I wouldn’t get caught! How I longed to be able to understand, to participate.
I first met Mrs. Howarth, oddly enough, during a holiday in Arizona over Christmas in 1970. She was a quiet, diminutive elderly lady with a thoughtful air and most pleasant and easy in conversation—“not scary at all” as my daughter would tell me years later. While there were no formal “work” events during this time, I do have a very clear memory of Mrs. Howarth patting rhythmically and firmly, a very young, fussy baby who was part of our entourage—and the somewhat alarmed mother of the baby exclaiming “Mrs. Howarth—that is a baby, not a drum!”
When Mrs. Howarth arrived in Halifax with the Welches, and their Toronto group, in the summer of 1975, she had been “brought out of retirement” as it was explained to me, to help our fledgling group begin work in Movements. And what a beginning it was—she started, in the old local schoolhouse, with the arm positions of what I knew later to be the First Obligatory—and she said we should come back the next day having understood them!
Of course, we neither understood them, nor understood how to remember them, and when she asked us the next day to show her—of course, we were a complete disorganized mess! “Dears,” she said, her head tilted a little sadly—or so it seemed at the time—“we must work better.” That was the beginning of a long relationship until her death in 1984, which inspired and fed my own understanding of the Work, and, most particularly, of work in the Movements.
How often I have been reminded of that first class over the years—knowing that I had not taken something she had taught deeply enough, seriously enough, and being unable to match the effort she had made in bringing work she hoped we would understand. I have a recollection of a Movements “seminar” at Armonk, when she ended our class a bit early and saying: “Dears, you must be tired, go now and take a good rest.” She was clearly disappointed by our inattention, and wrong effort—and I ran from the class into the woods, throwing myself face down on a pile of leaves and sobbing at my own inability to understand this real work—and disappointing my teacher. I can still smell those leaves.
Over the years I came increasingly to appreciate her generosity with her time, her notes, her corrections, and her inspiration to continue even when there seemed to be insurmountable difficulties. She wrote: “I do wish everyone well with all my heart—to go on trying—and if ever notes or a word from me can be of any support—just let me know.” And then, of course, with her sometimes wicked sense of humor, a little chiding: “Dear, if you really can’t tell your left from your right, why not write it on the toes of your slippers the way they do in kindergarten?!!” Or, in response to my chattering on about “liking” to work in certain places in the class: “front, middle, back, like, dislike, what does it matter—the point is to work!”
Mrs. Howarth came with Dr. and Mrs. Welch to Halifax over several summers in the late 1970s and we had wonderful classes with her. I also went to New York when, between job and children, I could manage it. I would meet Mrs. Howarth, usually at the Foundation to go over notes, but more often, to show specific Movements positions—which she would carefully correct, putting my rather uncooperative body and limbs into a more correct position. I remember one such “tutorial” in a quiet corner she found in the dining room at the Foundation—where she apologized for not being able any longer to show me all the parts of the Note Values obligatory, but then proceeded to demonstrate much of the Movement herself!
In spite of these occasional visits to New York, most of the “instruction” from Mrs. Howarth was via handwritten letters—often describing experiences with Mr. Gurdjieff as they related to our own group’s struggles—“I remember how Mr. G. used to put together, in working couples or teams, people of opposing temperaments—quick ones with slow ones, introverted ones with outgoing ones—and how we found that since we had the same aim, even if it was only to clean a room, we could respect each other’s effort and make things go harmoniously. For me, I was placed in the Movements always with someone for whom I had the feelings of a dog towards a cat, but because we both loved the Movements and wanted to do them as Mr. G. seemed to wish, we became close friends forever.”
Other letters would give very specific instructions—usually in answer to a description I had written about the group: “as to making a bridge between “sitting” or work together with special conditions, one sees that one loses the awareness of oneself so quickly as soon as one moves or speaks. So, one has to find a specific anchor for one’s attention ahead of time—perhaps to sense one part of one’s body as one stands up, then move it with the strong feeling of one’s life force vibrating in it, while at the same time being aware of the whole mass of one’s body—the living envelope.”
Other examples: “the essential is for one to choose a specific anchor for one’s attention—to work more quickly, or move more slowly, or quietly than usual, to listen to the sound of one’s voice, to be open and aware of sounds, of odors. When washing up, kneading bread, patting clay—to sense one’s hands and be aware of facial expressions, count the sips of one’s coffee—don’t miss one!—take a moment before answering the telephone to assume a relaxed position, and keep it while talking. Oh, hundreds of little alarm prods to remind one to come to oneself!”
Often, she would describe certain Movements which she felt could be useful in different ways—to help us come back to ourselves, after a sitting, for example. She insisted that as a new group in a new place, we should chart our own way—not necessarily sticking to the regime of established groups such as New York, but with an eye to experimentation—for example, trying “classes” in the very early morning, every day for a week, then taking a break, and so on. Whatever might help us in our work, and help us to find the essence of The Work.
Mrs. Howarth’s comments in letters always related to the situation in which we, as a new group, found ourselves. She wrote: “The Movements, besides being another language in which Mr. G’s teaching is expressed, are a practical means for beginners to get the taste of being aware in ordinary life circumstances. I wish people could make this elementary connection [and take it] very seriously. I find in the Movements that different tonicities of my body, and different energy impulses, are needed—one is firm, or loose, heavy, or light and so on, as reminders to wake up in ordinary life. One can try to find these same tonicities in one’s daily activities—not because they are interesting in themselves, but because of the openness of seeing them. If one talks of them, the experience is over and one is shifted to the formatory center again.”
At one point I tried working with a few young children as a preliminary introduction to Movements, and, of course, sought Mrs. Howarth’s advice. She was absolutely practical and insisted they be left as free as possible. As she said, they are still finding themselves in their bodies and trying out what they can do with them, but she felt that the idea would be to find ways of developing their attention—through seeing, hearing, touching, simple movements such as stretching, swinging, playing statues and she sent along a book on the applications of Dalcroze Eurythmics for children. It was a wonderful help!
During a three-day public presentation of the play and musical, The Clown of God, in Halifax’s largest cathedral, Mrs. Howarth also brought Movements for us. I have wonderful memories of working in her class on the movement “Forming Twos,” complete with lustily called out words in the basement kitchen of St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral! At another time, during a camping event for young folks, she held outdoor classes in a village backyard with music provided by a guitar, drum and flute. Her quiet adaptability and eagerness to help people really experience the Movements and the possibilities they gave for real work, touched me greatly and her example has really been a guiding light for me.
She was always modest in her requests with regard to participation in work periods. As she wrote in the early summer of 1982, even admitting that her health had deteriorated considerably, and that “as I grow older, deafer and lamer, I just can’t bear to be a burden on anyone” and that she “hoped to be included” in a work period that summer in Nova Scotia, and hoped to be able to take the Movements classes “for I am trying to find new ways to link the inner and outer work.” Always practical, always searching, despite her modest demeanor, even in what she knew must be limited time remaining.
And included she was—naturally—but the groups became increasingly concerned about her health and limited mobility—both for teaching classes, which she wanted very much to do, but also for simply getting from where she stayed to the group’s house across a rather difficult and rough bit of landscape. With this in mind, some weeks before her arrival in the summer of 1984, I described for her what I thought was a marvelous image of a white-haired queen, being carried in a beautiful, decorated, howdah by handsome porters—as we had no elephants—across this little ravine. “Certainly Not!” she exclaimed before I had even finished.
There would have to be another solution. So, some weeks later, on the night before she arrived from New York, the group stayed up all night building a footbridge across the ravine—with screws and nuts and bolts so as to make no sound of hammering. She loved the bridge, as did we all. We called it the “Jessmin Bridge.” She often stood on it, looking out to the sea like a ship’s captain.
During that summer, mobility was even more a challenging issue for her, and she was never without her cane to assist in walking. She was, however, determined to give Movements. In order to do so, she would have to stand, walk about, even demonstrate. So, before the first class, a raised platform with a railing was quickly built at the front of the hall in the old schoolhouse, so that, in our theory, she could hold the railing, demonstrate a position, and be seen by all. Except, as we should have expected, she wanted to be close to the class, and determinedly waded, cane for support, into the rows to correct, suggest, and encourage—as always! It was a wonderful time for us, this very special work in Movements with Mrs. Howarth. I felt a deep, and true, gratitude.
During the Halifax group’s first “work day” in October that same year, we worked on installing a large, antique ship’s lantern over the “Jessmin Bridge.” As the electric components were finally fitted, we had a call from New York. Jessmin Howarth had quietly passed away that morning, “with her boots on” as they say in the villages here, just as she was preparing to head to the Foundation for an important session of work in Movements.
My dear Jessmin—may I call you that, now that I am nearly eighty, close to the age, I think, that you were when we first met? My gratitude goes to you, to your way of teaching, your way of being, I am forever grateful for your instruction, mentorship, support, and most of all, your understanding of real work and what it can mean.
~ • ~
Sally Ravindra first met the Work in New York, through Dr. and Mrs. Welch. She now lives in Halifax where her focus for many years has been on the Movements. She has a Master of Social Work Degree from the University of Toronto and taught at Dalhousie University.
Some of the excerpts of Mrs. Howarth’s letters have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. The photo above of Jessmin crossing her bridge is by Martha Henrickson.
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Featured: Winter 2018/2019 Issue, Vol. XIII (1)
Revision: August 1, 2019