Physical training is indispensable for actors. Today I am going to take that as a given, and discuss some of the movement disciplines I have studied and the advantages they afford.

Capoeira There was a time when it was being considered to hire a capoeira teacher at the Yale School of Drama to teach the discipline to the acting students there. To my knowledge, this step was not taken, and it’s too bad, in my opinion. Capoeira is a martial art from Brazil that was created by slaves brought to Brazil from West Africa. In order to disguise their activites from their masters, the slaves developed the form as a kind of dance. It is practiced to chanting and the music of a string instrument called the berimbau. Martial arts are in general great things for actors to practice, as they promote alertness, focus, presence, strength, agility, and endurance. But capoeira has an advantage over other forms in that it has a rhythmic aspect, and rhythm is a vital faculty for actors as well. Also, capoeira has a swing to it, so it also promotes fluidity in movement, another aspect that differentiates it from other martial art forms. There are different styles of capoeira as well, so there are styles appropriate for people of all ages and physical ability. Try out this exuberant and sly movement form– you’ll be hooked before you know it.

T’ai-Chi

I have actually studied two different T’ai-Chi forms. T’ai-Chi, as I have practiced it, is a form of moving meditation based in part on Kung-Fu maneuvers. It has taught me a lot about the principle of filling negative space, for one thing, which is invaluable on its own. It promotes groundedness, and it also teaches you about managing your weight, which helps you move much more gracefully (some actors have an unfortunate tendency to begin walking by crossing their legs, which is often awkward looking). It helps actors develop independence of the two arms, and the ability to gesture expressively and gracefully. It challenges the student to learn to extend herself expansively, and stay grounded and balanced at the same time.

Contact Improvisation:

From Wikipedia:

Contact Improvisation (also referred to as “Contact” or “CI”) is a 39-year old dance form, practiced as both a concert and social dance form. In the performance context, Contact Improvisation is used either as a dance practice end-to-itself or as a dance research method for identifying new set choreography. Weekly meetings of practitioners that take place world-wide are called “jams,” in which participants participate and watch as they choose over the course of 2-4 hours. Dancers practice both known CI technique and conduct new dance research with different partners or groupings over the course of a Jam session. The name “Jam” is used in keeping with its use by contemporary musicians, who come together to spontaneously explore musical forms and ideas, with some group agreement about structure and duration of the exploration. While there is now an established CI Fundamentals technique, CI dance vocabulary is not closed, so all who practice the form contribute to the constant expansion and greater understanding of the dance form’s vocabulary, which is exchanged and taught among practictioners world-wide via regional jams, classes, week-long festivals, both print and online publications and, since its inception, via video in a process of dancing/watching/refining. While CI dancers usually stay touching or in physical contact for much of a dance, a CI dance can occur in which partners never touch yet there is a clear “listening” and energetic connection/intention that creates the “contact” of their shared dance.

Contact improvisation is very valuable to actors as it helps them to develop trust in others, and to embody that trust physically. It is all about risking balance, which actors need to be able to do contantly. not just for physically challenging scene work, but to achieve fully engaged, fulfilled work in the most sendentary of scenes. It also helps to develop responsiveness and attunement to the partner.

Limon technique: This is a form of modern dance developed by the legendary Jose Limon.

Wikipedia again:

Limón created the Limón technique, which “emphasizes the natural rhythms of fall and recovery and the interplay between weight and weightlessness to provide dancers with an organic approach to movement that easily adapts to a range of choreographic styles.”

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Limon technique is very bouncy, emphasizing “suspend and release” as the central dynamic. It is a great way for the actor to discover her body’s natural swing. The connection to the breath is also paramount in this technique, which is invaluable for actors.

Butoh:

Butoh (?? But??) is the collective name for a diverse range of activities, techniques and motivations for dance, performance, or movement inspired by the Ankoku-Butoh (???? ankoku but??) movement. It typically involves playful and grotesque imagery, taboo topics, extreme or absurd environments, and is traditionally performed in white body makeup with slow hyper-controlled motion, with or without an audience. There is no set style, and it may be purely conceptual with no movement at all. Its origins have been attributed to Japanese dance legends Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno.

Butoh is extremely challenging physically, and that is the point. The great theater visionary Jerzy Grotowski was interested in what occurred at the limits of an actor’s physical capabilities, and Butoh is a great context to enter into such an explanation. Like acting, it asks that the actor be both fully engaged and relaxed at the same time.

And here’s an even better butoh video that I couldn’t embed.

Suzuki: This is an approach to acting developed by the Japanese theater director Tadashi Suzuki. It seeks to help the actor develop self-definition, focus, and groundedness. While I think it has value, I think it should not be sole discipline that an actor pursues, as I think it is important to develop physical responsiveness and agility as well.

Fitzmaurice voice work: This is a type of vocal training that involves physical training as well, particularly “tremoring”, a process where the actor is asked to hold difficult physical positions until the muscles start to shake, which can have the effect of helping long-held, unconscious rigidities and tensions to dissolve.

The Alexander Technique: Most major acting conservatories offer training in the Alexander technique. Alexander was an actor in Australia in the early part of the century who evolved an approach to body-mind integration that is extremely valuable for recovering from injuries, maintaining health, and helping performers of all stripes to stay in the present moment consistently. I think of the Alexander technique as an invaluable “meta-technique”, or a technique that helps you to execute other techniques, so I encourage actors to study one of the above disciplines in concert with the Alexander technique. I have written extensively about the Alexander technique on this blog, so you can use the search box to find other pieces.

Zen meditation: Although this is done, generally, seated and motionless, it’s a great way to develop centeredness, and to understand the dynamic nature of living stillness. Again, I would receommend using another technique in combination with it, to actually practice moving, but the benefits of Zen practice cannot be overstated.

There are lots of others, but these are ones that I have firsthand experience of. If you have thoughts about others, please leave them in the comments!