This article was written by Peter Bramley, Head of Movement at Rose Bruford College and the Artistic Director of Pants on Fire theatre company. It marks the culmination of a week-long Movement conference at the school of The Moscow Art Theatre and offers personal insight into contemporary Stanislavski training in Moscow.
Moscow, April 2007.
On the final day of a week-long conference on Movement held at the school of The Moscow Art Theatre, the delegates are treated to a tour of the Chekhov Theatre building lead by the school’s distinguished Director Anatoly Smeliansky.
We sit waiting in a grand foyer hall, where Stanislavsky would once rehearse his company and where he argued with Chekhov. We are told that when Dr. Smeliansky enters a room, his students normally show their respect by standing up. We have spent the week calling him by his first name, but when he enters, much to his amusement, we rise to our feet, half as a little joke, but half as a genuinely felt sign of respect. As he speaks to us, it strikes me how this unimposing, small man with a warm infectious smile and a surprisingly youthful giggle, stands in such stark contrast to his surroundings in this room.
The walls in the foyer of the Chekhov Theatre are literally crammed with portraits of Smeliansky’s predecessors and actors and directors, who have all long since been dead. These imposing monochrome faces stare down at us from thick black frames, which are squeezed uniformly side by side, giving little air to the elegant wallpaper behind them. There is no room for the living. Even space for the newly-dead is seriously limited. The installation of a new member to this eminent club of theatrical ghosts would mean the necessary removal of an old one. “It is a real problem” says Smeliansky “Who could you move”. Russian politics extend even into the afterlife.
These grainy old photographs capture each actor in some of their proudest moments; the characterisations for which they were once famous. An actress is depicted in one picture as a beautiful goddess holding a dagger aloft. This is placed next to a contrasting image of her, where she is drastically transformed into a comical old lady with crudely drawn on wrinkles clutching a hearing trumpet. We know from the photograph that this image is from some comedy, but it is not funny. The tone of this exhibition is sombre. It is not a celebration of the lives of the figures it displays, but a gloomy, cenotaphic documentation of this theatre company’s history. These photographs capture a different age and one imagines a photographer with his head under a black cloth, the pop of a flash bulb and the smell of sulphur. The subjects in these old images would have had to sit still for quite some time during the taking of these pictures. The pictures do not capture genuine “live” moments. They do not capture life.
Spatially, the photographs relate to each other with as much precision, formality and sombreness as soldiers in a military May Day Parade in Red Square. Like Lenin’s mausoleum, only a stone’s throw from the Chekhov Theatre, this grand hall has come to represent an age gone by. This gallery, as well as a tribute to the pioneers of naturalism, is a thumbprint of Russia’s turbulent political history. These ghostly framed images, Smeliansky explains, have been rearranged with each change of political leadership according to how the memory of each of these deceased artists favoured with the political regime of the day. A constantly changing posthumous hierarchy. Some of the frames have been removed in disgrace during one coup, only to have been reinstated with the highest honours after another.
Meyerhold, the visionary director who had worked as an actor with The Moscow Art Theatre as a young man, appears in this exhibition as a tiny figure sitting in the front row of a group photograph taken in 1889. He has not been given his own plot in the exhibition, though he is without doubt one of the most famous names to have ever been associated with this company. He was a cast member in the first ever production of Chekhov’s The Seagull , the play which inspired the company’s emblem printed into the wallpaper covering these walls and chiselled into the grave stones of those in the photographs. He appears only as one of many in a picture of one of Stanislavski’s early theatrical troupes. For some time, Meyerhold could not be seen at all in this photograph. Accused of being an anti-Soviet formalist during Stalin’s regime, he was executed for anti-government, political activities. In the photograph, his image was creatively and painstakingly turned into a parasol held by the actress sitting behind him, an attempt to erase him entirely from history. He has since been reinstalled, and a reprint from the original negative has replaced the doctored print.
The most prominent positions in the gallery have been reserved for Stanislavsky and Chekhov. Their portraits take pride of place in the centre of the hall. I notice that they have been given a little more space than the others, but only a little, and not enough for them to dominate or to draw too much focus, or perhaps to appear to be too far above their comrades. Free of any ornate detail, their frames are as black, simple and monumental as every other frame in the hall.
As a western visitor, one is struck by how the country’s history and politics is indelibly engraved into the walls and the lives of Russian people. Their history stares down at them as oppressively as these photographs. It is stamped onto their architecture. It flavours (or doesn’t) their food. And after a week of observing students at this school, it is clear to me that it is also ingrained in their bodies and deeply rooted in the way they move.
The conference, which is focused on the teaching of movement, has given us an opportunity to share our practices with both The School of the Moscow Art Theatre (MAXT) and the lesser known, but still prestigious and equally historical neighbouring school GITIS. European practitioners also have the chance to confer with each other, and to observe and compare their approaches with their Russian counterparts. Focusing every day only on the mechanics of the human body and “how we get actors to move”, has been an interesting study. And paradoxically, it is here, sitting in this place of stillness, not moving, being stared at from all four walls by these haunting black and white faces with stern dead eyes, that things start to click. I am able to begin to make some sense of our differences, our similarities and most usefully where my beliefs about movement and acting have been challenged or reaffirmed.
It occurs to me that the training in these schools refers always to what the school’s forefathers laid down as a system of beliefs. Academic references are made only to the dead. “Stanislavsky told us this. Chekhov taught us that”. Such quotations are the fabric of the school and dead men’s ideals are practiced religiously. The photos on these walls are almost like icons of prophets. Stanislavski’s name is uttered with an almost holy weight. All of the work I have seen in the school this week, seems to be an attempt to emulate the golden age of theatrical history captured in these photographs. The ideas shared are very familiar to all of us and it is exciting to be in this very place where the work of these great artists sent the ripple through the world which changed theatre. These Moscow schools are so confident in their legacy of a system, a tried and tested, world-famous method, that little time is needed to explore the unknown. Through its association with Central [Central School of Speech and Drama] and by inviting conferences such as this, MAXT is stretching tentative fingers out into the world in the spirit of sharing, but one gets the sense that they wish to share what they know, as a kind of gift, rather than needing to learn very much of anything from the outside world.
This confidence is startling and physical. These Russian teachers are like great masters. They are given an aura of great importance. They are formal in their dress and their demeanour. They are stern yet adored by students who are nothing but utterly respectful. The movement work is focused, serious and not playful. By comparison, we westerners seem like new age hippies. Young upstarts, slightly scruffy, liberal, brash and a little spoilt. These Russians have stiff backbones and we are like sponges. Their work is rooted, strong and sturdy like their buildings, and we are like balloons, tethered to our theatrical history, but still floating freely in the wind. Our work is a constant search for answers. Our ideas change. Sometimes in taking risks we make mistakes, or discover what doesn’t work. We quote the living as well as the dead. Our work moves. The work in Russia is set in concrete; still, solid and unchanging like these photographs.
From this week spent in Russia I have learned that I have been naive to think that my country’s politics and history are not equally ingrained into my life and my body. It has not happened oppressively like it has for the people of this country, but in a surreptitious way, and in the form of political correctness. I have developed an instinct for what it is “appropriate” or “inappropriate” to turn from thought to word or action. In these classes at MAXT and GITIS, and also in the school performances we have been privileged to see, I notice behaviour, small fleeting gestures or dynamics in relationships, which trigger a reaction, which I can neither articulate or justify in the moment. One might call it “mild culture shock”, my body actually becomes tense, it flinches or winces. I hear through translation, people saying things which I have been conditioned to be afraid to say out loud, or even to think, yet I sense the irony of coming from a country which would not torture or execute me, or turn me into a parasol for speaking freely. The Russian students are all, with very few exceptions, remarkably beautiful with chiselled athletic and muscular bodies. There is a clear attractive aesthetic, which raises questions for me about the selection process for these students. Are the short and the large excluded from this place? Or have they been hidden away for the week behind parasols? Or are young Russian people just all beautiful? The material we see in these shows seems largely to be preoccupied with overt sexual activity. My reaction to watching young people thrusting genital areas is far from prudish, but I am shocked nonetheless, and it comes from a built-in instinct which tells me that much of it is sexist if not misogynist. But in the context of this environment, this different world, I have to accept these differences as being only quaintly old fashioned, like the hair styles I see in the street. Like I remember people used to be in my country not so long ago. I consider how I have been politically conditioned to a level of arrogance which instantly makes me conclude that I belong to a more enlightened culture. I conjure a mental image of portraits of Queen Victoria and Margaret Thatcher glaring at me from black picture frames. I realise, I too am a creation of my historical and political heritage and that it is also in my body.
Throughout the week, there have been several audible gasps from western spectators. An elegant, yet formidable ballet teacher from MAXT with a stiff hair bun almost as high as her long neck, asks a student to face a wall close-up with his feet turned out so the instep almost touches the skirting board. The Grande Dame proceeds to kick the student’s heels repeatedly towards the wall. An effective, no frills, no fuss way to improve the student’s turn-out, tried and tested by the great founders of this institution. Acrobatics classes at GITIS are equally tough in their approach. Students are ruthlessly bent and pulled and stretched into place. I see British delegates squirm and shift uncomfortably in their seats, imagining themselves leading the same activities and being presented with lawsuits. Our approach would be softer, wrapped in cotton wool, kind, soft and sensitive to the student. We might have a long discussion about our feelings and then fill in some forms. But I watch these classes with complete envy. This work is remarkable! These students are physically articulate. They have the kind of dexterity, balance, poise and grace, which I can only ever dream to nurture a fraction of in my students. They are fearless without being dangerous or loosing control. They have presence in bucketfuls. Their focus and discipline seems to me to be from an age gone by; one I start to feel I desperately wish we could return to.
Similarly when observing some of the presentations or workshops that we westerners offer to the conference, there is often a bristling from the Russian delegates. A chorus of shaking heads or tutting disapproval. One almost gets the sense of the dark figures in the photographs joining in with these dismissive whispers. It becomes clear that our ideas either fit with theirs, or they don’t. There is no grey area. They are not to be swayed. It seems we specialise in the grey area. We are inspired by the old, but we are looking for the new. What each of the western delegates’ presentations seem to have in common is that they are about release. Physical release, or releasing the imagination, or in my case, releasing self-consciousness. The work is playful, experimental, some of it impenetrable, bogged down by academic theory and not effectively demonstrated through practice. Some of it is dangerous, pretentious and at times even silly. And little of it has the expectancy of an immediate outcome.
Without doubt, I cannot help but feel that the Russian students would really benefit from loosening up a little. The quality of their movement seems to me to be invariably hard, crisp with much jerking and slapping of hands. The movement is direct and precise, intense, heavy, clean, crafted in fact. What we bring is soft and light, casual, indirect, released and a little messy. Our movement is a celebration of freedom. Something perhaps we take for granted. Some of it seems at times somewhat frivolous in this environment.
Both MAXT and GITIS separate movement as an aspect of training which is not related directly to what the students do as actors. The actor needs to be able to fulfil whatever the role requires. So the actors train, to be able to do almost anything that might be demanded of them physically. And it seems that they can! Their movement training is detailed, vigorous and thorough, and they have a covetable level of skill, in acrobatics, ballet, stage fight and bio-mechanics. Whether or not this makes them better actors, who can tell.
While I am genuinely amazed by the quality of the work in these classes, I find it difficult to departmentalise each element of training in this way. For me, movement is as much about acting as voice, text and emotional engagement are. To act is to be physical, to speak is a physical action. An actor’s training ought to be where all of these rivers meet, not neatly divided into rigidly separate components like black frames sitting side by side on a wall.
Russian delegates confess to us that they know that westerners are much better at playing. They do understand the importance of play, but are still learning how to do it. It is relatively new to their culture. Perhaps then, they are open to some things after all. If they do have any play, they clarify, it will happen in acting classes, but not in movement. There just isn’t time. If I worked in Russia I may be classified as an acting teacher, but not a teacher of movement at all, this has become clear.
My training was with Jacques Lecoq. I understand the need to seek wisdom from what has gone before us. We studied the ancients; Greek Theatre and Commedia Dell Arte, but the emphasis on our training was not to recreate these forms religiously, or even with historical or technical accuracy, but to use the same principles as a springboard to create theatre which has not yet been created. Lecoq is now dead, but his image will not haunt me from a metaphorical imposing black frame. He will be a living memory, moving and looking forward. I feel theatre should be lead by the living and not the dead. It should move. This has become my own belief to which I have realised I too am religiously bound. There is no grey area for me either in this respect.
The exhibition of portraits has encapsulated this theatre’s heyday. It is a museum, a glorious fossil trapped in amber, eternally locked in the past and not moving; or at least moving cautiously and very, very slowly. But, oh my, what great days they must have been!
I do feel genuine respect for Dr. Smeliansky when I rise to my feet and for all of the ghosts in this hall.