The need to tell a story, to imitate, to play and to perform repeated acts that ensure a smooth continuation of a community are so vital and important to the human psyche, that cultures everywhere in the world have developed some form of enactments.
Peter L. Berger says human life is narratively rooted. It tends to be the base for effective experiential learning. The art of storytelling played a vital role in shamanic cultures. From a shamanic perspective, stories have incredible power. They can paint the picture of an era, give you courage, keep history alive, help to prepare you for a life event, teach you about a skill, and so much more. Just like shamans, storytellers have the ability to heal individuals and society. The origin of storytelling as a performative form can actually be traced back to shamanic practice and tribal celebrations. And since the very earliest times stories were told through dance, gestures and a million different variations of movement and rhythm.
Rock Art – Bhimbetka (Chattisgarh) – depicting dancers, made nearly 10,000 years ago
Theatre training at most schools thus finds itself divided between hours devoted to voice, to text and to movement. The Natyashastra speaks of codifying body language and form in order to create and carry meaning to an audience.
In contemporary times, certain diverse techniques of movement have come to influence theatre – movement that holds itself different from dance. Here is a list of movement forms – that influence contemporary theatre making in India and elsewhere.
Jacque Lecoq, founder of the eponymous L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, firmly believed that movement and gesture were the basis of an actor’s work. His technique for mime, mask and physical theatre focusses on that which allows words to be born out of silence. Lecoq’s movement forms drive an actor to experiment, to investigate their body and emotional state in various ways to create a language of performance best suited to them. Exercises often involve sensory stimulation, improvisation and forms derived from the older artforms like Commedia Dell’arte and clowning. A heightened state of play as the master himself refers to it in his work ‘The Moving Body’ is the aim of the improvisational exercises. The idea is to keep it simple and play with rhythm, speed and tension in order to create performance. From Lecoq we have the 7 levels of tension, the neutral mask and Lecoq’s 20 movements.
Sources: Lecoq, Jacques (1997). The Moving Body. London: Methuen
In the past couple of years, Contact Improvisation (CI) has taken off considerably in India – with a contact festival in Goa and regular contact jams in Mumbai. Contact Improvisation is an evolving movement form that is rooted in physical dialogues between two or more bodies in space. Steve Paxton first explored it as an experimental form of performance in the 70’s in New York. Since then, contact improv has gone beyond the performance space to actors’ and dancers’ training rooms and is even used in the education space and for therapy.
Since the driving force of CI is physical negotiations between people, it is a wonderful technique of movement that everyone, from non-practitioners, disabled individuals and children can engage with it and benefit greatly from the combination of touch and non-verbal communication.
F. M. Alexander and the first students (and teachers) of the Alexander Technique. Note the straight backs. And the nearly equal gender representation.
As an actor in Australia in the early 1900’s, Frederick Mathias Alexander had one serious problem. Every time he went up on stage, he developed laryngitis. The chronic condition threatened to end his career, especially since no doctor could find a cure for whatever ailed him. So true to theatrical form, F. M. Alexander worked on this problem till he figured out what the cause for his voice giving out really was – excessive tension in his neck and shoulder muscles. And thus, he went on to develop a whole technique of movement which focused on getting rid of harmful tensions. Alexander Technique pays specific attention to coordination, balance, posture and breathing. It takes the body to a level of mindfulness that identifies and releases stress in order to create an uninterrupted flow of voice and movement.
A 1987 article in the New York Times started with the line, “BUTOH IS NOT FOR THE FRAIL.” Nearly 30 years later, that still remains true. Inspired by the work of Genet and Artoud and the catastrophic end of World War II, Japanese dancers Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo created a form of movement, dance and performance that combined chaotic, sexual and violent improvisations combined with highly stylized gestures. Since the 60’s Butoh has traveled the world, exploring grotesquery, symbolism and elaborate visualization as a means to explore the truth of a body in performance.
Laban Movement Analysis
Much like Lecoq’s techniques, Rudolf Laban’s work attempts a codification of movement in order to create a practice for performers. Like all evolving movement techniques, Laban remains exploratory in nature. It requires observation, description, prescription, performance and interpretation of human movement. The technique categorizes human movement into 4 components which further divide into 2 elements and together they define the Eight Efforts listed above. It’s interesting to note that Laban’s work came together during the reign of the Third Reich in Germany. In fact, Laban was commissioned by the Nazis to work on the 1939 Berlin Olympics. In the oppression of the times, Rudolf Laban attempted to use choral movement as a way to express individual liberty. Working with Laban techniques in contemporary times connects the performer with the socio-political roots of movement and performance. Contemporary practitioner Faezeh Jalali feels, “Any physical form is worth learning for an actor. The actors can decide what she/ he really wants to take from the form to create her /his own vocabulary.” Though she is currently taking workshops and teaching Laban to aspiring actors she firmly believes that actors should work on experimenting with a variety of physical forms like clowning, commedia, Michael Chekhov’s work, Laban as well as Indian forms like Kalaripayattu.
Kalaripayattu training at Adishakti
Kalaripayattu has become a buzzword for Bollywood in the past few months. Everyone from Anushka Sharma to John Abraham is rushing to find a Kalaripayattu instructor as action sequences become more realistic and death-defying. Theatre association with Kerela’s ancient martial art has of course been older and more intense. Kalaripayattu was one of the first traditional forms that Adishakti and Veenapani Chawla researched in the 1980’s in the search of a pluralistic aesthetic. Even the NSD, arguably India’s largest training ground for actors, directors and theare makers, begins many a day with Kalaripayattu in the acting studios.
Belraj Soni, one of India’s leading Kalari trainers for actors strongly feels that Kalaripayattu inculcates a very disciplined way of living. This creates a strong mind in a strong body where the body becomes “all eyes” . He further goes on to pointing out that “Practitioners attain the power to control internal energy, breath, balance and concentration. Kalari thus helps in theater where voice, breath and body are integral elements of performance.”
And of course, one can’t learn about movement by reading an article. Shapeshift Collective has curated an ongoing series of movement workshops, bringing together some of India’s best contemporary theatremakers and movement practitioners. Sujay Saple, founder of Shapeshift as well as a theatremaker and mover himself, feels, “How the audience experiences the material of an act is in the performer’s hand eventually. The best possible vessel is the body, which needs to be thoroughly trained & engaged. It must go through psychological processes of development.”
Written by Akansha Kanjilal and Hina Siddiqui
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