Meyerhold's Biomechanics

"If the tip of the nose works, the whole body works."
V. E. Meyerhold

Biomechanics is an approach to actor training and to theatre developed by Russian actor, director and teacher, Vsevolod Meyerhold during the 1920’ and 1930’s. For political reasons, Biomechanics was forced underground after Meyerhold’s execution by the Soviet regime in 1940. During the 1970’s it began to re-emerge semi-secretly.

In 1972 Moscow’s prestigious Theatre of Satire invited the teacher of Biomechanics from Meyerhold’s own school, Nikolai Kustov, to train a group of the Theatre’s young actors. One of these was Gennadi Bogdanov. Mr. Bogdanov has become one of the leading exponents of the living tradition of Meyerhold’s work. Glasnost and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union have brought Mr. Bogdanov invitations to teach in the West-first in Europe, then in the United States. Thus Meyerhold’s legacy has become available for study here.

This approach, which Meyerhold developed over some thirty-five years of experimentation and exploration as a director and as a teacher, provides the acting student with a comprehensive, detailed program for the development of her/ his psycho-physical instrument. Probably the most striking thing about training in Biomechanics is the degree of integration between "purely" physical training and the application of that physical work to concerns specific to acting.

A course in Biomechanics begins with physical training. But the purpose of that training is to forge the connection between mind and body, to "teach the body to think." In Biomechanics, even the simplest exercises that at first glance might seem to be essentially traditional ones designed solely to develop physical capacities such as strength, agility, coordination, balance, flexibility and endurance become-because of the thought process involved-acting exercises. Thus while students run, jump and work every muscle and joint in a dizzying array of exercises during the initial physical training phase of the work, they are already required to be continually aware of their relationship to the space and to the other actors in their "ensemble"-as well as their own "inner movement."

The training is highly systematic and sequential. Thus it begins with fairly simple (although not necessarily easy!) exercises. In time actors are asked to do a great variety of exercises: work with objects such as balls and dowel rods, leaps and rolls over platforms and up and down ramps and stairs, and partner lifts and acrobatics. This phase of the work culminates in the study of the Classical Biomechanical Etudes. These are highly stylized movement pieces which Meyerhold choreographed as exercise material for his students.

The kinesthetic, spatial and relational awarenesses that the student develops through training in Biomechanics may, initially, be primarily in terms of the physical demands posed by the exercises. But as the training progresses, the actor’s moment to moment awareness expands and deepens. As a result, Biomechanics provides the student with a concrete methodology for addressing-physically and through action-issues of acting that are almost universally regarded as fundamental in the Western tradition since Stanislavski. These include: "as if for the first time," "give and take," "listening," "seeing," and "moment before."

All of this develops the actor’s sense of her/ his psycho-physical being as a malleable instrument and an awareness of space and rhythm as variables to be explored in the creation of a role. The actor’s heightened awarenesses and capacities are equally valuable for work that is highly theatrical or absolutely realistic. As Igor Ilynsky, one of Meyerhold’s finest actors, put it: "Technique arms the imagination" (quoted in Meyerhold at Work, Paul Schmidt).

Photos: by Kato McNickle
Wokshop by Kathleen Baum at The National Theater Institute at Eugene O'Neill Theater Center

Created: March 10, 2002 -- April 07, 2002
© 2002 Kathleen Baum
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