Traditionally in Germany, dancing and funerals have kept a good distance from one another. But now one ballet dancer is bringing new movement to these solemn ceremonies and finding it can work wonders.
Gruetzner uses dance to express the powerful emotions around death
Georg Krawietz was slightly nervous just before the dance performance began in the chapel during his father's funeral.
The mourners in attendance had never seen anything like it before. Most were over 80, friends and acquaintances of his dad who died at the age of 88 in a nursing home.
But his nervousness soon faded as the dance got underway.
"I saw that people were interested, and moved," he said. "No one there thought that was inappropriate or irreverent."
Four months later, Bonn-based dancer Felix Gruetzner was back in the nursing home's chapel – this time for the funeral of Krawietz's 85-year-old mother. He was there to acknowledge the long and full life she had led, but also to express the pain of saying goodbye.
Gruetzner does this not through a spoken elegy, but through his body – with soft gestures and restrained movements.
Expressing life and loss through dance
Gruetzner at a memorial service in Cologne
In bare feet and simple, black clothes, Gruetzner proceeds up the chapel's central aisle accompanied by Bach's "Cappricio in B-Flat." At a respectful distance from the coffin, he stretches out his arms, closes his hands into fists, and then pulls them back to his body.
He looks up and down, searchingly, then goes down into a squatting position and makes caressing motions over the ground. There is where the deceased will find her final resting place, but will it be all that remains?
In the final part of his dance, Gruetzner expresses with his body the transition from death to life - spreading his arms and raising them high. Through movement, he recalls a life not lived in vain, but one that was a precious gift and full of joy. His face shows the hope for a life beyond death, mourning and tears.
Gruetzner, who trained as a dancer, aims to give those in the depth of mourning the courage to embrace life despite the painful loss of a loved one.
"Dance can often move people just as much as a good elegy," he said. "Big emotions are sometimes difficult to capture in words. Dance gives these emotions the space they need."
According to him, each individual can find his or her interpretation of the dance and find a personal way to mourn, but in the presence of the larger community, which helps in the grieving process.
Gruetzner, who originally studied art history, decided to concentrate on dance after working in a publishing house for years. The 46-year-old was regularly asked to participate in commemorations for the dead in both Protestant and Catholic churches.
Two years ago, he was asked to dance at a large funeral and since then, the requests have kept coming.
"Dealing with death and dying all the time is not easy for me either," he said. "But life is given new depth and fullness when we face our mortality instead of repressing it."
Felix Gruetzner is getting increasing attention for his performances
Dance of life
Gruetzner has also learned how helpful and comforting movement can be in times of crisis from the seminars and workshops he offers for people in mourning.
"People who come are often very wound up. They are often bent over when they walk and their breath is shallow," he said. The movement exercises he does with them help counter that, and often lift their spirits.
"Mourners often get another perspective on the world all together," he said.
For him, it's important that he communicate to his audience the life that he feels waits beyond the veil of death. He calls his work a dance of life, not of death.
Georg Krawietz, who asked Gruetzner to participate in the funerals of both of his parents, said that he thought Gruetzner's dancing was anything but macabre.
"While watching him dance, I felt not only consoled, but also grounded in my own life," he said.
Author: Sabine Damaschke, Kyle James
Editor: Nathan Witkop