Remembering Ria Higler – keep moving forever

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Photography: Jeanette Groenendaal

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It is with great sadness that we share the news of the passing of Ria Higler on Monday 24 April 2023. From 1972-1978 student, from 1981, teacher, from 1989-1998 artistic leader, mentor and member of SNDO core team until 2020, teacher until 2023.

Ria Higler was one of the nine students in 1978 to graduate from the school that would later become the SNDO. She has been with the school ever since. She entered the school at age 23 after a short career as a preschool teacher. From age 18, she regularly visited the studio of Pauline de Groot, where she rediscovered the passion for dancing that she had felt as a child. Going with her father to a labor union event at age 10, she fell completely in awe with the lights and the red dresses of a Can Can dance being performed there. Turning 14 her parents did not allow her to take ballet classes and told her to look for a decent career. It took two years for her to convince herself  to leave her job and join the pilot program of the Theaterschool led by Pauline de Groot and Bart Stuyff. She was excited to see the choreographic work of Pauline de Groot, as well as the last appearance of Martha Graham in the Netherlands. Seeing Graham perform, and watching her take the applause hardly able to walk anymore, moved Ria to tears.

Ria did not follow the examples of other artists. She has always been looking for her own path; one which is about the story of the body in space, its energies, and its particular qualities of movement and expression. After graduating she went to the US to study with Bonny Bainbridge Cohen, Nancy Topf and Viola Farber. But she did not follow the path of what she called traditional choreography. She started teaching technique and improvisation at the SNDO in 1981. In this period she was inspired by the visits of Steve Paxton, Simone Forte, Deborah Hay, Nancy Stark Smith, Z’ev and many others, who were teaching and presenting work at the school.

Over the years she started to develop her own perspective on dance and the body. She began working with voice and movement, and to study the chakras. From the chakras she started to look into the role of the organs in the moving body. Inventing one’s own pedagogy was quite a task, and she sometimes needed to confront resistance from the students. Teaching for her also involved facing misunderstanding. In her own words, she invited students to ‘embrace the messiness’. She has always been invested in making sure that diversity be felt and seen among a group of students.

From 1989 to 1998, she led the SNDO towards new directions of pedagogy together with Trude Cone. As co-directors, they invested in providing more structure in the curriculum and the pedagogy. Ria’s commitment was to keep challenging a sense of style that was developing in the school. She felt that a broader cultural orientation needed to be sought to break with the predominance of North American and Western European cultural conventions. She felt something was missing in the analytical and ‘neutral’ approach to the body, and looked for a more spiritual orientation to art. In 1994 she had an important encounter with Suprapto Suryodarmo, or Prapto, in Solo, Java Indonesia. Prapto helped her to think ‘don’t be a dancer’, and to learn to work directly from and with the body – to look afresh at dancing and the world. It taught her about the way art and life are connected. This work has gradually developed into what she later called The Alchemist Body in the 2000’s. From 1998 Ria has been a key figure in the school, and during some periods of shifts in the school, she has been an anchor, both to the staff and to students, in particular as mentor of the newly incoming first year students for many years and as a core team member until as recent as 2020.

As she told Emma Wilson, a student at SNDO in 2007: “My mother who is now 94 can hardly walk (she died in August 2007, ed). And sometimes she has to walk a little, for instance to go to the bathroom, and I help her. And I sing a song and the moment I do that, her eyes light up, and I dance her to the loo, instead of difficult walking. In that sense I think, why not? Keep dancing forever”. Indeed, Ria has continued to dance and perform with Deborah Hay, Ibrahim Quraishi, and more recently in a the work A Divine Comedy by Florentina Holzinger. Her last public performance was on February 18th, 2023 at Jacuzzi studio in Amsterdam where she performed her own songs while playing a shruti box (an instrument she had recently acquired) and danced.

In 2015, SNDO published her book “Movement Research: Stories and Journeys by Ria Higler”. In the book she explains that for her teaching was to “enable students to deepen the awareness of - and listening to - the body and to gain more understanding about physical, mental and emotional patterns, in order to become more free and broadminded in the creative process.” She wanted students to learn to study the behaviours of the body, to understand it at an emotional, as well as political and philosophical level. That was her passion. She wanted to provide students the tools to do that, and to learn to develop the courage, clarity and language for it. The body is a tuning instrument for adapting to the environment and circumstances. Students need to learn to delay judgment, to set aside rational understanding, and to learn not to focus on expressing inner feelings. Rather, to work through the body’s relationship to the outer world, and to work on confidence and trust, developing an intuitive intelligence. “Our profession is about communication. Movement research is about developing sensitivity and awareness.”

Ria will be tremendously missed by the whole community and beyond.

Text: Jeroen Fabius, Copy edit: Noha Ramadan

Some quotations have been taken from: A story of a body in space. Ria Higler talking to Emma Wilson. In summer 2007 Ria Higler was interviewed by Emma Wilson, second year student at SNDO at the time of the interview.

Information about the farewell

For personal good bye you are welcome to visit Ria on Saturday 29th and Sunday 30th April from 12.00-21.00 at her home in Kuinderstraat 31, 1079 DJ Amsterdam.

The farewell ceremony is on Wednesday 3rd May at Het Rijk van de Keizer at Joris van Den Berghweg 109, 1067 HP Amsterdam.

The doors open at 12.00; the ceremony starts at 12.30.
Ria will be celebrated with words, sounds, dance, talks, snacks and drinks.
Following the ceremony a small group will accompany Ria to the crematorium.

For those outside Amsterdam there is a possibility to join the ceremony online: