Gurdjieff International Review
lfred Etievant was born in 1918 in Geneva. His father and sister were both actors. Alfred studied law until the outbreak of World War II, at which time he enlisted in the French navy. He and his battalion were briefly imprisoned by the Germans in Brittany and then in Germany. On his release, he returned to Paris for the remainder of the Occupation. There, along with his mother and his younger brother Jacques, who had befriended Philippe Lavastine, Alfred joined the group of people who met every night at Mr. Gurdjieff’s apartment on the rue des Colonels Renard. During that time, he worked in all of Mr. Gurdjieff’s Movements classes.
After the war, Mr. Gurdjieff sent him to show Movements in London, and in 1949 he went to New York at the time of Mr. Gurdjieff’s last visit there. After Mr. Gurdjieff’s death, Alfred moved permanently to New York, where he taught French at the Berlitz School. Along with Jessmin Howarth, he carried responsibility for the work in Movements in America, Canada, and Mexico. In 1958, he married Lise Tracol; they had two daughters. Alfred died in 1967.
My earliest memory of Alfred was in January, 1949, when my mother took me and my siblings to New York to meet Mr. Gurdjieff. Along with my mother, I was allowed—even though I was only five years old and this must have been an unusual privilege—to watch a class of Movements led by Alfred. As instructed by my mother, I sat very still on my chair. I saw the class at what seemed to be a very great distance in the huge rented studio. What took my attention was Alfred, as seen from the back, moving with catlike grace and energy as he showed the class a complex displacement. Then the class began to move forward in the hall, and Alfred glided backwards towards me as he watched and guided the class. I drew my feet up on the chair and pressed my knees to my chest, tensely waiting for what was sure to be an imminent collision. Then, inches in front of my chair, he stopped, not even looking behind him, and stepped forward again as the class moved backwards. I relaxed, convinced that Alfred had eyes in the back of his head, and watched the rest of the class.
During the 1950s, we children were introduced to the Movements by Margaret (Peggy) Flinsch, where we learned the Obligatories. By the time we were in high school, we had been placed in Alfred’s “Advanced Class” on Thursday nights, along with the adults. There were a number of us young ones, and Alfred treated us with great love and care. We learned from him the basic Movements of the series of Thirty-Nine. Alfred brought a strong demand coupled with the ebullient energy and precise grace of his manner of showing each new exercise. From time to time, he would place one of us in the front row along with the more experienced adults. If we made a mistake, back we went to the second row. As a result, we practiced assiduously, wanting to be in Alfred’s good graces. Occasionally, there would be a question about a rhythm or a tempo he needed to speak about with Annette Herter at the piano. Their exchanges, in fast flowing French, invariably became quite contentious. We stood in the rows listening, with a good deal of interest.
Alfred was generous and supportive to all of us as we grew older, asking some of us to take responsibility for classes when we were still in our late teens and early twenties. He never imposed his own way, but always encouraged us to find our approach, in relation to our questions. His untimely death at the age of forty-nine was a great loss to everyone.
I met Lord Pentland and started attending groups in San Francisco in late 1960. Three weeks after beginning, Alfred Etievant came out from New York. There were two Movements classes then: the more experienced and the newer people. I had no idea what Movements were or what their purpose was. I found myself in the middle of the class, not in the back row where newcomers usually go. Alfred rushed in and began an exercise. As I remember, he wore street clothes and probably a jacket and tie. I somehow kept moving despite my confusion.
He came out about every six weeks, sometimes with Lord Pentland, sometimes alone. He also went to Los Angeles. In early 1962, my husband and I moved to New York. I had Movements with Alfred’s wife, Lise, but he was my group leader some of that period, along with Lord Pentland. We would all be sitting quietly, waiting for the group to begin, when Alfred would dash in, a few minutes late, flinging off his overcoat and sending the curtains flying. Lord Pentland would sit there, not moving. Then things would settle down and the group would begin.
We moved back to the Bay Area in 1965 and I was immediately put in a class preparing for a public demonstration of Movements at the Palace of the Legion of Honor. Alfred came with Lord Pentland for the final preparations. I was terrified, because I only had a few weeks to learn a lot of Movements. Either I or someone else at the final rehearsals said how intimidating it was to come out onto a big stage and see all those empty seats stretching out in front, with just Lord Pentland sitting there. Alfred reminded us of Beelzebub’s story of the man, Karapet of Tiflis, who had to sound the whistle that woke up the railway workers. When he became ill, he was advised to curse everyone before sounding the whistle and that cured his problems. I took this advice very seriously, although it seemed strange to be cursing (silently, of course) Alfred and Lord Pentland along with everyone else. But it did help my anxiety.
Alfred died, I think within a year of that demonstration. What I remember most was his intensity and great spirit. Everything was very direct with him. One could feel Gurdjieff’s influence. He was a man of feeling. News of his death was one of greatest shocks I have ever received, even though we knew it was imminent.
I first came to movements classes as a teenager after I met Gurdjieff in the fall of 1948, and loved every minute of them. When Alfred came in 1949 to prepare the class for a demonstration on Gurdjieff’s return, my first impression was of an excitable Frenchman who was also very much a thinking man, but with a grace and lightness of movement most thinkers lack.
There was sometimes an atmosphere of high excitement when he and Annette Herter, who played for movements, discussed—or argued heatedly—something needed from the music. He could sit at the piano and play with one finger or more while looking at the class, giving us a rhythm or inviting a mood. He was very quick on the one hand, but sometimes one could see that the planning of the next step was always going on in his head as he looked at the class, weighing our possibilities and somewhat uncertain of our capacity.
I think this was partly because he didn’t understand English very well and we didn’t understand his lightning fast French. For example, in one entertaining moment he stood in front of the class repeating what sounded like “Sing! Sing!” So, we did our best to make a noise approximating singing, more like a helpless drone, and he stared back at us as if we had gone mad. He was really trying to say “Think! Think!” A more intelligible order he sometimes gave us was “Mind your lines.” Meant to keep us in orderly rows, it was said with such seriousness that, as one person remarked, it felt like a large instruction, highly applicable to our lives.
Alfred and Dr. Welch became good friends, and for a few years he lived with our family, mostly while I was away at college and before he moved to the top floor of the New York Foundation building. We also took several vacations en famille. I was quite enamored of him at that time. After all, he was a very charming Frenchman! □
Ellen Reynard and Fredrica Parlett are members of the Gurdjieff Foundation of California. Patty de Llosa is a member of the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York.
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Featured: Winter 2018/2019 Issue, Vol. XIII (1)
Revision: August 15, 2020