Start Here: How to study Baroque Gesture & Historical Action

We must not break forth at once into speech, but should allow ourselves a few moments for reflection… In this preliminary delay there are certain pauses, as the actors call them, which are not unbecoming. We may stroke our head, look at our hand, wring the fingers, pretend to summon all our energies for the effort.

Quintilian

Homer describes Ulysses as having stood for a while with eyes fixed on the ground and staff held motionless, before he poured forth his whirlwind of eloquence. And these recommendations for how to start a speech (or an aria, or an instrumental solo, or for that matter, a corporate or academic presentation) come from Quintilian Institutio Oratoria (c95 AD) complete text here, in English translation.

So should we start by reading all 12 volumes of Quintilian (in the original Latin, of course)? Well, you could do worse, but there are perhaps quicker ways to get started. Read on…

In 2010, when I began to investigate baroque gesture seriously, in preparation for a production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo (see the documentary film here and below), I started as any academic researcher might do, by reading key primary and secondary sources: Bonifaccio’s L’Arte dei Cenni (The Art of Gesture, 1616) here; John Bulwer’s 1644 Chironomia here; and that magnificent pioneering study, Dene Barnett’s (1987) The Art of Gesture: The Practices and Principles of 18th-century Acting. [Available on-line in 5 parts here, but charges may apply. Thank you to Brian Robins for informing me of this link]

Of course, this was not at all the way to start! Well, yes and no. These three books, along with Quintilian and other such publications are indispensable sources of historical information of what to do with your hands. But those hand-movements depend (physically) on whole-body structure and mental/spiritual connections, and they depend (rhetorically) on the text. And Baroque Gesture is only one element (and perhaps not the most significant) of the discipline of Historical Action.

Baroque Gesture requires holistic study

Attentionem poscit and art

 

Physically, gestural practices circa 1600 were enabled by the general embodied habitus of Early Modern performers. In an age before motor-cars and lifts, they walked and took the stairs, they rode horses. They were fit and more connected to their bodies than many of us today. They had better balance, they were more ‘centred’. Courtiers spent many hours every day dancing and practising swordsmanship.

 

 

 

Music Dance Swordsmanship

 

So any modern study of baroque gesture requires a grounding in academic knowledge and practical experience of period posture, early dance and historical swordsmanship. Speaking for myself, an academic appreciation can be more quickly acquired than an embodied understanding. It takes years of daily practice to assimilate ‘new’, healthy and historical ways of standing and moving. Experience with early dance is a great help, and sword-school is enormous fun. Although it is from another culture, I have found Tai Chi very helpful too in improving balance, establishing a sense of “centre” and facilitating mind/body/spirit connections.

Suit the Action to the Word

Thomas_Betterton_Hamlet_c1661

 

This is the advice for would-be Players in Shakespeare’s c1600 Hamlet. Baroque Gesture is only one element of Historical Action, which includes positioning on the stage (and even stage design), full-body acting, facial expressions etc.

For a list of possible gestures, see Bonifacio’s chapter headings, which examine the whole body from head to toe, not omitting ‘gestures of the genitals’. I’m currently working on a translation and commentary, to be published in 2016.

For an overview of all the various disciplines pertaining to Historical Action, see the opening chapter of that anonymous c1630 guide for a theatre’s artistic director, Il Corago, edited here.

By far the greatest influence is exercised by the glance. For it is by this that we express supplication, threats, flattery, sorrow, joy, pride or submission. It is on this that our audience hang, on this that they rivet their attention and their gaze, even before we begin to speak. It is this that inspires the hearer with affection or dislike, this that conveys a world of meaning and is often more eloquent than all our words.

Quintilian

Mona_Lisa

And all this Action is dependent on the Text. It is not a modern “production” that has its own values, nor is it some kind of ancient hand-ballet, however visually pleasing that might be when done well. Action flows from the Text. Not only is the choice and timing of each gesture dictated by the play-text or opera-libretto, but the actor’s motivation, the mental and spiritual energy that empowers the physical movement, comes from the meaning and emotional force of the particular word being pronounced in that very moment.

This demands intense concentration on the text, not only in rehearsal, but right in the moment of performance. It should not be necessary to point out that performers (singers and their instrumental colleagues) need to understand the meaning and deeper significance of every word that is spoken or sung. But that understanding needs to be accessed in real time. It is not enough to have the translation written into the score, or buried somewhere in one’s memory. The complete implications of every word need to be fully present, in the exact moment that you pronounce it.

‘Staying with the text’ like this can function as a Mindfulness exercise, keeping the performer ‘in the moment’ and focussed, creating a special state of consciousness that enables relaxed concentration and flow. From this optimised mind-set, a great performance can emerge.

 

Of the various elements that go to form the expression, the eyes are the most important, since they, more than anything else, reveal the temper of the mind, and without actual movement will twinkle with merriment or be clouded with grief. And further, nature has given them tears to serve as interpreters of our feelings, tears that will break forth sorrow or stream for very joy. But, when the eyes move, they become intent, indifferent, proud, fierce, mild, or angry; and they will assume all these characters according as the [text] may demand.

Quintilian

eyes - mourinho

 

Most challenging of all, all of these elements – posture, movement, gesture, full-body acting and facial expressions, deep appreciation of the text – have to function simultaneously and in co-ordination. This does not come quickly or easily: one has to acquire the skill-set and musculature over years of study, hone the application to a particular text over hours of rehearsal, then give it that essential lift of spontaneity (for example, by choosing spontaneously from several well-rehearsed options, or by adding little touches of ‘ornamentation’ to the performance). Finally, you have to concentrate all this preparation into the one tiny instant of execution.

So Baroque Gesture is not something that we can master in a 90-minute workshop or condense into a short blog-post. It is a life-long study, that (for any true artist) will never be ‘perfected’. There is always something new to learn, something to understand more deeply, something to execute better in performance.

But there are some first steps that will get you started quickly. More quickly than me! So, whilst you are putting in the time to internalise the collected wisdom of Quintilian, Bulwer & Bonifacio, to memorise the complete works of Shakespeare and/or to translate all the ‘opera’ libretti from Anima e Corpo (1600) to Poppea (1643),  to learn all of Negri’s courtly dances, and to become a rapier-master according to Capo Ferro, here are some quick and easy short-cuts, literally from the ground up.

 

Start here

 

 

1. Historical Stance

Whenever you stand to sing/speak, practising at home, in the rehearsal room or on stage, adopt a historical stance. You can also practise this whilst waiting for a bus, an airport security check, or to pay for your coffee. Renaissance courtiers had to stand like this all day, so it became second nature to them. The aim is to minimise body tension, whilst still looking cool: ideal for standing around at court, waiting for your opportunity to shine. The technical term for this is contrapposto, an elegantly assymmetrical stance:

Stand diagonally-on to your audience.

With your weight on one leg.

The other (unweighted) leg is your ‘ornamental leg’. It is elegantly bent. Let the audience see how good it looks.

Relax, and let the weight fall through the weighted leg into the floor.

When you need to shift position, just change the weight into the other leg.

Contrapposto

There is much more, as you can read in any history of art study of the contrapposto, but this is a good start. Practise it whenever you have half a chance!

 

2. Hands

Hold your script, or your musical score, in your LEFT hand. Now your right hand is free to gesture. This simple trick allows you to integrate gesture with your artistic preparation right from the beginning and throughout the rehearsal period, even into non-memorised performance. Let your RIGHT hand assume the default historical shape, as illustrated by Barnett.

 

056 Barnett 1

Imagine your right hand is holding a tennis ball. Relax, so that you are not using any more strength than is needed for that tennis ball’s weight.

Bring your middle and ring fingers together.

Let your index finger open outwards, and bring your little finger inwards a little.

If you turn this hand-shape over, it becomes an elegantly curved pointing gesture.

 

057 Barnett 2

 

Try it!

 

3. Eyes

This is what I call the Ut Pictura (like a picture) technique. As you study your text, create a detailed imaginary vision of precisely what everything looks like, with period iconography as a guide to keep your vision historically focussed. As you deliver the text, look at what you are talking about. Let your eyes and face show how you feel about what you ‘see’.

 

Alessandro Turchi 'Bacchus & Ariadne' (c1630). Historical Action is more than just Baroque Gesture.

You will quickly notice how often baroque texts employ detailed visual imagery and such pointing words as “Look”, “Here”, “Now” etc. The more specific, detailed and precise your imagined vision, the more specific and interesting your eye-movements will be for the audience.

 

Further Study

No, these three first steps will not make you a master of Baroque Gesture. But they will create the conditions in which you can study and practise further. See my upcoming posts on what you might do next. And meanwhile, you have plenty of reading to do, in between those dance and swordsmanship classes!

 

Part 2 of this series, Modus Agendi, or How to Act is here.

 

Bulwer & Bonifaccio

Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our websites:

www.TheHarpConsort.com  [the ensemble, early harps & Early Music]

http://www.IlCorago.com   [the production company & Historical Action]

http://www.TheFlow.Zone  [Flow for optimal creativity, The Zone for elite performance]

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago. From 2011 to 2015 he was Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions. He is now preparing a translation of Bonifacio’s (1616) Art of Gesture and a book on The Theatre of Dreams: The Science of Historical Action.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Start Here: How to study Baroque Gesture & Historical Action

  1. Pingback: Act with the hand, act with the heart: motion and e-motion in Cavalieri’s Preface to ‘Anima & Corpo’ | Andrew Lawrence-King

  2. Pingback: Ut pictura: reverse-engineering Baroque gesture | Andrew Lawrence-King

  3. Pingback: Baroque Gesture: what’s the Point? | Andrew Lawrence-King

  4. Pingback: Modus Agendi, or How to Act: preliminary exercises for Baroque Gesture | Andrew Lawrence-King

  5. Dear Andrew

    I greatly appreciate your postings and have just started on Baroque gesture, a topic close to my heart as I’m trying to work on a project to grab Baroque opera back from the current breed of horrors (aka opera producers). I note you lament the non-availability of Dene Barnett’s book. In fact it is available on-line in 5 parts through: http://journals.cambridge.org/TRI

    You need academic institution accreditation to get free access.

    Hope that’s of some help, perhaps to your readers, if not you.

    Kind regards and please keep cup the good work

    Brian Robins

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