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  • Sitting at the Feet of Gurus: The Life and Dance Ethnography of Claire Holt
  • Laurie Margot Ross
Sitting at the Feet of Gurus: The Life and Dance Ethnography of Claire Holt. By Deena Burton. Edited by David Simons and Lisa Karrer. N.P.: Xlibris Corporation, 2009. xv + 231 pp. 25 illus. Cloth $29.99; Paper $19.99 on demand.

In Sitting at the Feet of Gurus: The Life and Ethnography of Claire Holt, Deena Burton shines a light on one of the most gifted and least understood chroniclers of twentieth-century Indonesia. Claire Holt (1901-1970) did much more than record Indonesian culture). She embodied it. She was a pioneer of dance ethnography before it had a name (a self-described "choreologist") and a Javanese dance practitioner. Holt's lived experience is self-evident through her writing. The title of this biography comes from a 1967 Christian Science Monitor interview wherein Holt remarked that she was spending her life "sitting at the feet of gurus."

Burton, who catalogued Holt's papers, photographs, and films gifted by Cornell University to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, was well-suited to contextualize the archive. Burton also examined correspondence at Cornell's Kahin Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and materials provided by Holt's family and colleagues. Burton positions Claire Holt as a great mind in twentieth-century Indonesian studies and examined her professional life, creative impulses and dreams. The book is organized geochronologically, beginning with Holt's childhood through early adulthood (Latvia, Moscow, New York, 1901-1929); her work in Europe and colonial Java (1930-1039); her stay in New York during wartime (1939-1944); her government posts in Washington, DC (1945-1953); and Indonesia (1955-1957); and teaching at Cornell (1957-1970). The book closes with a chapter devoted to Holt's tour de force, Art in Indonesia: Continuities and Change (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967), published three years before her death.

Claire Holt was born in Riga, Latvia, to a wealthy Jewish family. She [End Page 377] was part of a dedicated network of Euro-American scholars and practitioners who sought to understand East Indies culture from the inside. Her colleagues included dance scholars Curt Sachs and Beryl De Zoete; anthropologists Franziska Boas, Ray Birdwhistell, Jane Belo, Margaret Mead, and Gregory Bateson; ethnomusicologists Alan Lomax and Colin McPhee; and painters Miguel Covarrubias and Walter Spies. Holt went on to hold many important yet eclectic posts, including worker at the American Museum of Natural History; founder of the East Indies Institute (rename: Southeast Asia Institute); scholar at Columbia University's Navy School for Military Government (1942); and as a policy analyst at the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (later renamed Central Intelligence Agency) from 1944- to 1953, before resigning in protest over McCarthyism. She finally located her intellectual and spiritual home at the Cornell Modern Indonesia Project (CMIP).

Holt's early interest in performance began when attending special programs of ballet and opera in Latvia. In early adulthood she was a dancer and journalist in Paris and New York, where she covered dance for the New York World, with the byline Barbara Holveg (her articles on politics appeared under the name Claire Holt). Her aestheticism was informed by relationships with visual artists, including her brother-in-law, the Russian-American documentary photographer Roman Vishniac (1897-1990), best known for his portraits of Eastern European Jewry before World War II. Burton contends that the most influential person on Holt's artistic development was her lifelong friend, Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964). The Ukraine-born cubist sculptor and printmaker emigrated in 1923 and set up his studio in New York, where Holt was his assistant. His invention of a "boxed mechanism that created the illusion of a moving painting through the use of movable slats," which he named the Archipentura, likely sparked her lifelong pursuit of movement analysis through the lens of visual arts (pp. 20-22).

Holt's ethnographic work began with her first trip to colonial Java in the 1930s. This was a fertile time in cultural dance scholarship, when the American dancers La Meri,(Russell Meriwether Hughes, 1998-1988), Katherine Dunham (1909-2006), and...


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