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Meyerhold and the Russian Avant-garde

Michael Craig is a documentary film maker living and working in Moscow. He moved to Moscow twelve years ago to make films and write. Over the past few years he has been working on a documentary series about the Russian avant-garde with locations in Russia, Germany and Japan. As a prelude to this article and to further contextualise the subject matter, a 10 minute excerpt from Michael’s documentary, Meyerhold, Theatre and the Russian Avant-garde, is included here below.

Meyerhold,Theatre and the Russian Avant-garde is part of a series of six documentary films about the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s and 30s. The series concentrates mainly on the development of the visual culture of Russia during this period and its influence on a range of artistic activity including literature and theatre. Once it was decided to undertake a film about Meyerhold, and include an element of his acting theory, biomechanics, it was obvious that it would be almost impossible to recreate these movements precisely and in fact this would not be desirable given the type of film that was being planned.

The actor William Rousey and I agreed that this would not be a manual on “how to do” biomechanics. In the film we experimented with movement from our own point of view within the context and framework of a documentary film and based on our research into Meyerhold’s work. In the end the decision was made to film the movements as shadows. This satisfied a number of criteria. The black and white nature of the images of shadow movements and the black and white photographs of Meyerhold’s productions together would preserve a visual unity in the part of the film which features biomechanics. Also, the idea of using shadows instead of showing the bodies as they are in a real setting, was in a sense to depersonalise the movements. In this way viewers would be encouraged to concentrate on movement as an image rather than movement as direction. In other words to establish the graphic essence of movement in Meyerhold’s biomechanics.

An actor in Meyerhold's theatre company demonstrates biomechanic exercises.

An actor in Meyerhold\’s theatre company demonstrates biomechanic exercises.

Therefore, our main task was to discuss how Meyerhold used the graphic experiments of the avant-garde for solving the problems posed by the need to create a new theatre for a new era. Underlying this thesis were a number of integrated concerns and goals which had preoccupied Meyerhold’s thoughts for some time about the development of contemporary theatre in post revolutionary Russia; firstly to solve the problem of combining the two dimensionality of the set design and the three dimensionality of the actor’s body, secondly to reduce the theatre’s dependence on naturalistic set design, thirdly to reduce the theatre’s reliance on text and words and lastly to breakdown the distance between the actor and the audience, doing away with what Stanislavsky called the fourth wall.

Portrait of Meyerhold from the 1920s

Portrait of Meyerhold from the 1920s

Often Meyerhold and Stanislavsky are presented as advocating two diametrically opposed “systems” for training actors, however both were concerned in releasing the actor’s emotional and expressive potential albeit using different means. For Stanislavsky the actor needed to tap their inner emotions to express or externalise them in a physical or oral manifestation. For Meyerhold movement and the development of the actor’s awareness of their body was of prime concern in this task – finding their way inside from without.

The period in question saw massive social, economic, political and physical changes. Cities and towns became dominated by an industrial landscape which brought with it a new mass culture.These changes and moreover the revolution, demanded new plays for а new era and with it came а change in the type of audience that attended the theatre. Before the Revolution the theatre was the domain of the middle and upper strata of society, now it had to cater to factory workers, soldiers and former peasants seeking education and enlightenment. To solve some of these problems Meyerhold turned to a number of sources. Firstly to Russian avant-garde artists and secondly eastern drama, in particular Kabuki Theatre.

William Rousey and Oksana Petrova

William Rousey and Oksana Petrova demonstrate biomechanics in shadow form

Russian Avant-garde artists had been experimenting with new visual forms and techniques, breaking down the taken for granted perceptions of classic art, emphasising the flatness of the canvas and a more decorative approach rather than straight depictions of reality, as a basis for new forms in painting. Collaborating with avant-garde artists in set and costume design gave Meyerhold the opportunity to eliminate the dependence of theatre on naturalistic motifs and scenes and to increase the emotional potential of the theatrical space. It provided new possibilities for the movement of actors in collective scenes, the drama of the masses and a theatre of wordless action, because it created the possibility of a theatre independent of literature altogether. In addition the new age was the age of the machine not nature. Humans would have to learn to work with machines if a new world was to be built. They would have to reconcile themselves to a new order, a mechanical order which imposed new values and which was growing up all around them at the beginning of the 20th century, an age which was personified by mass production, speed and dynamic movement.

William Rousey and Oksana Petrova demonstrate biomechanics, Moscow

William Rousey and Oksana Petrova demonstrate biomechanics, Moscow

Explaining biomechanics, Meyerhold differentated it from the ‘ Moscow Art Theatre’s’ system for training actors. It brought the actor to the centre the director’s composition. Biomechanics allows the actor, perfectly controlling their body and movements, firstly, to be expressive in dialogue; secondly, to be the master of the theatrical space; and, thirdly, in integrating with the crowd scene, the grouping, to impart to it, their energy and will. According to biomechanical theory, every movement must not simply be realistic, or lifelike but deliberate and in particular responsive to the movement of the partner. Emotion would reveal its dynamic framework: the moment of арреаrаnсе, the development, the rising and falling, the culmination, the exhaustion.

As Meyerhold observed, “the path to the image must begin not from emotional experience, not ‘from within’, but from without, from movement. Moreover, any movement, the tilt of the head, the turn of the body, the smallest gesture, even the fluttering of eyelashes, should ideally involve the whole body of the performer, who possesses musical rhythm and quick, reflexive ‘excitability’.”* Meyerhold therefore turned rhythm and movement into a component of the performance which created content as well as form. Meyerhold’s first experiment with Biomechanics was in his production of “The Magnanimous Cuckold” in 1922. Lubov Popova designed a constructivist set with moving parts and flywheels. When the actors first stepped onto Popova’s machine they found themselves in an entirely unfamiliar territory with no make up or decor on which they could fall back on. Every movement whether intended or not, required sculptural form and significance.

William Rousey and Oksana Petrova demonstrate biomechanics, Moscow

William Rousey and Oksana Petrova demonstrate biomechanics, Moscow

Meyerhold was strongly influenced by eastern drama and the Japanese theatre Kabuki, especially its principles of stage direction which indicate or suggest a place rather than showing it. He attempted to create an analogous system for Russian and Soviet audiences of the 1920s, using the technology of Kabuki theatre and synthesizing it with contemporary innovations, instead of using Japanese signs – music, colour, symbolism and costume, as exotica. What captured Meyerhold’s interest was not the beauty of Kabuki but rather its ability to externalise emotions or a state of mind through the rhythm of the actor’s body movement. The basis of the Kabuki actor’s technique is dance and its essence is a series of gestures each of which contains a specific meaning – Kabuki converts words into gestures, it stresses the dynamic tension of poses – it moves from pose to pose. Other parallels can be drawn between eastern theatre and Meyerhold. In Kabuki drama the audience is an integral part of the performance. Many plays were based on real events of the day or had them consciously integrated into already established plays. An audience would recognise certain characters from an event which had taken place that week. For instance political figures or other famous or infamous people who the audience would know and would be part of topical discussion. The point was to make theatre more relevant to the political and social milieu of the time. Meyerhold borrowed this idea but took it a stage further.

During the performance of The Dawn on 18th November 1920 the news of the taking of Perekop in the civil war was announced. Meyerhold read out the telegram from the stage announcing victory over the enemy, substituting it for the herald’s line. This was an instance of involving the audience in a way which at the time was innovative and new and in keeping with the stated aim of the Russian avant-garde of bringing art and life closer together. The political significance of such an act as mass meeting and performance was not lost on the audience either. This breaking down of boundaries and boundary transgression was manifest in Japanese culture despite the rigidity of the social structure. The distance between the actor and the audience, the stage and the audience is dissolved or reduced, creating a kind of equality, a collective or mass experience. In Meyerhold’s work actors and audience are no longer separated from each other by a hierarchical set of relations. Art and social reality could come together in a consciously collective passion of social masks rather than through the individually expressed emotion and psychology of the actor. This, together with Meyerhold’s other developments in acting and set design, paved the way for any number of innovations and changes in the way theatre was both performed and perceived.

* Citation is from an article by Meyerhold, published in the newspaper Izvestiya 1922 (exact date unknown).

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2 Responses to Meyerhold and the Russian Avant-garde

  1. Jacob Fennessy March 4, 2012 at 1:46 pm #

    This site Meyerhold and the Russian Avant-garde | Performance Prompt is often a walk-through for all the info an individual wanted about this and didn’t recognize who to be able to ask. Glimpse right here, and you’ll absolutely discover it.

  2. Jospeh Gonneville February 15, 2013 at 5:09 pm #

    Found you on the internet . Appreciate the information. I suspect Putin cannot be pleased with the focus on the arts and theatre.

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