Intellectual and craft studies initiate new qualities of consciousness, minutiae of perception, ability to observe, they alter our desires, our instinctive moments of desire and aversion. To attend is to care, to learn to desire to learn.

Simone Weil

Movement is only seen by the one who is mobile itself.

Michel Palagyi[54]

There is still no valuable, specific pedagogy and didactics for movement-based theatre.

Below I take a closer look at movement teaching and learning – through some newer motoric learning theories – at motoric science as well as at movement-didactics and their applications. The algorithms of movement learning should also be considered. Theoretical features and empirical findings can lead to didactic consequences, also for movement-based theatre.


Learning means to acquire knowledge or skills and to adapt them. All knowledge is defined through norms. Norms are values that set out criteria (conditions) about what knowledge is. One criterion of knowledge is the (objective) truth of what is known. To teach and learning are actions which have normative – and not merely causal – properties. This means that also movement-based theatre education is a value-laden exchange. But without transmitted knowledge, development would be very difficult.

Movement is always action, meaningful action, not just behaviour! Movement is purpose-oriented, intentional interaction with the environment. Human beings, as highly dissipative systems, are in energetic exchange with their environment and they move, they act, to master and change their world. The human nervous system serves to initiate and control aim-based behaviour to make interaction with the environment possible[55]. Contemporary movement research and didactics are built on these premisses.

There is affinity between cognition and motor skills. A chain of processes constitutes learning and is discussed in the following. The stimulus is found at the beginning of the process.

From stimulus to reaction

Many factors influence the stimulus – as the awareness of the perceiver, his motivational state, his emotional state, his interest, expectations and attitudes, as well as his previous skills and experiences or even his perceptual defence – to see only what he wants to see. A distal stimulus is a sensory information. The object we select to observe is the attended stimulus. Its signals are processed in the nervous system. There, in a complex process, transduction takes place: Sensory information is organised, identified, compared, understood, evaluated, interpreted and anticipated.

The outcome, the percept, is dependent on the recipient’s learning, memory, expectation (anticipation) and attention. The percept results in bodily reaction – as movement and action.

The anticipation is an important factor of the percept[56]: The student plans, and foresees the action: space, time, amount of energy. He settles the aim: ‘In this way it must work!’ ‘There I want to reach!’, are the self-commands for improvement.

But the movement-action is fully understood only if I have learnt, practised and repeated it with my body, and new perimeters have been created. The body-mind, a kind of ‘muscular feeling’, must have absorbed it fully. The new movement has ‘become my own’.

Perception lies at the very basis of all learning. Palaguyi called motion imagination the basis of perception of movement[57]. Perception is observation with the five senses (seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting), but also with proprioception, the kinaesthetic sense of ‘self-movement’ and of bodily position, also called the ‘sixth sense’. Body balance (gravity), feeling acceleration, and the position of body parts also belongs to this. This sense is extremely important for movement learning!

Perception also means to learn ‘at a distance’, with eyes, ears, and the kinaesthetic sense. Often the body or body parts already move unconsciously, when watching a movement. This is very important for the subjective grasping of a movement, an action – it is its basic prerequisite[58]. Not only the real execution of a new movement, a new action, but also ‘to understand from distance by watching’, without doing it yourself (das ‘Mitvollziehen’), is a basic condition for the subjective understanding of movement-rhythm[59].

In learning by observation, there is no need for a teacher yet. The entire process is probably enabled by the mirror-neuron system[60]. I perceive an action – the stimulus – I am maybe interested or attracted by it, and I observe it. Curiosity, or even fascination, may be a basic motor for the desire to learn it, or even to identify with it. The movement and the action fascinates me, and I like it (the hippocampus is at work!). Through the work of the mirror neurons, I imitate it in my mind, and sometimes I understand it at the same time. The involuntary co-motions I do, when I observe the movement, are the basis of the perception of movement, as Melchior Pelagyi[61] stated already. Today we would say that the mirror neurons are firing (in the inferior frontal and the inferior parietal cortex)! Perception is really something we do actively. It is already a way of acting[62].

The theory of associative sequence learning, ASL – presented in 2000 by Cecilia Heyes – explains how mirror neurons can match observed and performed actions, and how animals, children and adults are able to imitate body movements[63]. According to her, mirror neurons are maybe a by-product of associative learning, the result of social learning, and not of evolutionary adaptation, as it was previously thought.

The motoric learning process of a movement, an action, contents:[64]

  • To acquire a new movement, an action as a totality, in its rough form
  • To correct, to differentiate and to refine it
  • To consolidate and adapt it
  • To apply and to transform it

To improve rhythm learning, adequate syllables, words and sounds representing the movement may sustain the learning process. I have observed the same method from ballet dancers, where they memorise difficult rhythmical movement patterns by using small poems and ditties. For learning (and remembering) kūṭiyāṭṭaṃ, modules of fixed sound and movement (vaittaris) are used, for mimed actions such as describing a tower, playing with dice, etc.)

There is also mental training, and mental repetition of movement sequences by reflection. My kathakali teacher used to say after class: ‘let the movement play in your mind this evening!’

In the following, some important ideo-motoric models of movement control and movement effects, affecting the learning process, are discussed as well as their use for movement-based theatre.

Ideo-motoric theories

Ideo-motoric theories, as adapted and described for movement didactics by Hermann Müller[65], work with anticipative effect control and understand anticipation of movement as the nucleus of the ideo-motoric principle[66]. (It is easily forgotten that anticipation was researched in depth by Kurt Meinel[67] in the 1960s. He applied his research results successfully to generations of sportsmen and women in the former GDR.) Today, ideo-motorics are a branch of neuroscience as well as of kinesthetics and psychology.

TEC[68] is the cognitive, ideo-motoric Theory of Event Coding, developed by Hommel, Musseler, Aschersleben and Prinz. Their research shows how ideometric principles work: how movement is initiated and anticipated. Purposefulness and intentionality are connected to movement control. TEC is a theoretical framework for understanding how cognition – perception, action planning (anticipation) – and action (re-action) are linked together. TEC states that movement is represented by the self-produced senso-motoric feedback, called event codes. The perception of the senses, the sensory codes, together with the perception of movement, called the movement codes, work in the same way, and can be described as movement effects. TEC assumes that these action codes and movement codes work together as event codes. They represent features of reality – as object qualities, and spatial-temporal relations and effects as well, that are produced through movement. They constitute the basic role in the planning of movement, the control of movement, and as well in motoric learning.

The ideo-motoric model of anticipative behaviour control, ABC[69], goes a step further. The anticipated effect control takes previous experience as its starting point and consists of the anticipation of a given desired movement activity, which creates certain movement actions and controls them. This is the kernel of the ideo-motoric principle. ABC[70] is seen from a psychological point of view, that takes the actual situation of the mover and his stimulus in particular into consideration[71]. Sensory perception is regulated by sensory codes/situations by the motoric codes, as in TEC. But the effect of anticipation happens in three states:

  • The grasping of the actual situation, based on earlier perception, earlier experience and cognition.
  • The adjusting of the future condition state to be aspired to, deciding on and building a target, an aim (or desire) for the action, the anticipation, and
  • To generate the control-command. (The measures taken) and the control of the reaction.

The situation is the mapping of the sensory and the motoric input and constitutes, together with previous experience, the basis of decision-making. The stimulus is the trigger for response, for decision and for motoric reaction. The anticipation of the desired effect can happen in the form of action in spatial-temporal-energetic design or/with a desired psychological effect.

The mover works with stimulus S as the trigger. S stands for the mover’s knowledge, the experience of previous failure and success, and is the trigger of starting action and reaction behaviour. E is the result, or the effect of the action. If it is congruent with the planned result, it finally becomes E*, and the aim is reached. S-R-E and S-R-E* chains constitute movement behaviour.

For the actor, the intellectual assimilation of the tasks is given by the dramatist, the director, or perceived by the performer himself. He uses attention, memory, logic, analysis, reflection, comparison, evaluation, decision, coherence of emotions and feelings as well as objectives. According to Jean Piaget, one of the deepest thinkers on pedagogy, the five intellectual norms for reasoning are: autonomy, entailment (necessary knowledge) and intersubjectivity. This process has been described, modified and discussed in many works over the last fifty years. The physical realisation is engendered and accompanied by intellectual realisation, as I have described in my thesis.[72]

Learning is often seen as a computational process, as saving and accumulating of information, and information to be retrieved. The computational-connectionist-ideomotoric theory of internal models, TIM, delivers assumptions about learn algorithms:

If one works long enough on an action, in time created new parameters are created by algorithms, that is, certain behaviour patterns get ‘automatised’. (As an example, when driving a car: The driver does not need to think about the movement anymore. Body, legs and hands will automatically take the needed positions). This automatization is necessary for acrobatic movement, choreographies etc. Movement or action has ‘to sit’).

Learning is seen by TIM as storage of information and playback of what is learnt as a kind of retrieval of the filed information[73]. If there are more than two opportunities, there is the possibility of choice. The time it takes to decide with so many stimuli will increase proportionally to the number of solution opportunities available: the reaction time will be prolonged. A bottleneck of information is produced. That is the Hicks law[74]. During the developmental phase of a new movement, with the aim of learning it – the anticipated effect or aim, the self-organising system of the learner – the student sometimes gets entangled in a chaotic situation, into a short physical and mental ‘disorder’: when there is too much information about a new action, a ‘turbulence’ occurs. But the innate qualities of the system organise themselves: the transition from a given state of order into a new state of order happens via a state of disorder. (Even chaos theory plays a part in movement learning studies!) This makes it clear that exercises must have simple aims, i.e. not to create too much disorder!

It is worth considering the didactics connected to these ideo-motoric models – especially on VP, Variability of practice-theory – a didactic model (developed and described by Shapiro and Schmidt in 1982), and recently developed further by Joachim Hoffmann, that provides important new information about action learning (presented below). These learning strategies may be applied for movement-based theatre as well.

Didactics and learning strategies

Aha-learning is a complex form of self-learning – to learn movement by trial and error, without a teacher, for example learning how to ride a bicycle, skate or even swim. Once learnt, you never forget the skill. Self-learning is a human behaviour pattern practised from early childhood. It is built on imitation. No teacher is needed.

KP, knowledge of performance learning (to know how the action was performed) is the second method of self-feedback. KP learning is a very common strategy and is important for learning collectively in class. It makes the student less dependent on the teacher.

KR learning knowledge of result learning – is built on feedback by the teacher as well as on self-feedback (‘I did it!’). Augmented feedback from the instructor is useful for specific forms of training and learning where repetition is important.

Differential learning, DL, is built on the fact that human beings change constantly during their life and are in constant exchange with their environment. The hypothesis of DL also states that human beings have the abilities to learn actions correctly. It is also proven that movement can never be exactly repeated. It is therefore important for DL learning to make the learner conscient about the key points of movement and it also includes mental training.

Context-Interference Learning (CI): movement is considered as ‘the text’, the (con)-text is additional movement. New movement is learnt mixed with ‘old’ movement. Enough variations will help the student, not to forget new actions learnt easily. CI is a didactic theory that works with four discerned practice methods, used to speed up skill acquisition. It differentiates between blocked and random practice, and constant versus varied practice. (That is a method I always use. The exercise part for levels II–III is full of exercises with contextual interferences added). CI adds different tasks and/or practice variability when learning a movement skill. The effect of CI shows no immediate result or improvement of movement, but the action is more easily retained and transferred later.

(Context-Interference Learning can be successfully applied in learning new actions. When the steps of the ‘Harlequin series’, as an example, are absorbed, extra steps, turns and jumps are added. The exercise will be remembered and understood much quicker).

The variability of practice is an extension of CI research. In variable practice there is the same thing to practise, but with varied constants. For example, to practise throwing the ball into a basket (constant practice) but with variations in direction (e.g. in terms of basketball, throwing it closer to the basket, further away, etc.) as variations.

(An example from movement-based theatre training for variability of practice: A movement is done in various rhythms, with various dynamic patterns, diminished or enlarged, etc).

CI sees movement practice not as a reproduction of earlier experience, but as a fresh construction via a more general schema – by providing variations of a task.

Possibilities of practice:

  • Blocked constant practice, to practise the same thing always in the same way. There is no contextual interference. (This is the case in pure drill).
  • Random constant practice: Practising a given movement or action is interceded with other movement (steps, turns, ‘old movement’ in random order)
  • Blocked varied practice, the same movement is practised, but with certain transformations (changes, variations) such as size, distance, energy or rhythm. (This occurs in the pedagogy of Jacques Lecoq. In his transformation exercises, where actions/movements are added to steps, enlarging, diminishing, accelerating, or decelerating the movement, or doing it in slow motion, etc.)
  • Random varied practice: the practising of a movement is interceded with other movement (passes, sprints, throws in random order), all with varying parameters. Movement becomes action. (This happens in Lecoq’s transfer exercises: to transfer the action or parts of the action into another context)

Other forms of practice to consider:

Massed practice engenders short-term satisfaction, when for example something new is learnt within a single session, or in a concentrated workshop. But that which is learnt will hardly stay in the long-time-memory. (This implies that short workshops are useless for serious learning. They work mostly as a source of general inspiration).

Distributed practice: learning time is spaced out over two or more sessions with timeslots for mental rehearsal in between. Spaced-out practice is preferable for serious long-time learning.

Outspread practice: regulated, constant training over weeks, months and years, as repetition of movement, and also as drill. This facilitates movement by creating new algorithms and mechanising certain basic movement skills. Classical Asian theatre training works in this way.

Practise to the limit: and out over it, as has been practised by Grotowski and others. The tired body gives up blocks of resistance and is conditioned to answer to any impulse. This practice is not everyone’s taste.

‘Puppet learning’ is a very physical approach to teaching small children. The teacher stands behind the child and holds their wrists and leads them gently through the movement, moving their arms and head. This is used for teaching children in Balinese dance. Teacher and student become one.

Learning by repetition: Learning a movement or an action can be as difficult as beating a path through a jungle that seems to be tightly overgrown! Each beginning is difficult! It creates turbulences in body and mind, an uncontrolled way to prove, move, and reach the objective. Repetition of movement, sometimes in sequences, sometimes as drills and sometimes with variations, over and over, is key for all learning and must not be underestimated. New movement patterns must be repeated over time, and many, many times! Babies learn actions in this way and develop their muscles and joints. For adults, as well as for children, repetition demands (self)discipline and even drill. Our contemporary learning culture often blocks this type of learning. Nobody wants to imitate others or to imitate and repeat oneself endlessly! – To make repetition interesting, meaningful and satisfactory for the student, the teacher needs well-developed pedagogical skills. He must use various DI (differential learning devices) as well as contextual interference methods described above. He will change or adapt new movement and bind it into various contexts.

Repetition is to strengthen the way from the outside to the inside, to incorporate a movement or a sequence, to make a new the movement or action ‘mine’.[75]

Learning by drill: If repetition and drill are effective enough, movement ‘sits’ and is remembered. I can reproduce it without thinking about it, like talking with somebody at the same time as driving a car. It has become a part of me. Movement and action is appropriated, incorporated. It is stored and available.

Difference between sportive and dramatic situations

Sport movements have been closely researched, and the mentioned theories have been adapted and have already affected practice. Didactic specialists have tried to extract models for practice from these ideo-motoric models; and have linked them with didactic models. It is a question of sport movements, or dealing with amelioration of movement itself. In sport, there is usually a concrete situation and an aim: to reach higher, further or quicker, or to land a ball in a specific place. Sport is about performance motor skills (Leistungsmotorik). Are there affinities between sport movement and actors’ movements?

There is in fact no difference between an imagined trigger and a real trigger. But in a dramatic/theatrical/fictive context, the grasping of the actual situation is fictive. The actor uses a fictive stimulus for the action of his fictive character. He works with a supra-text[76], an evaluating system, being a chain of thought, comparisons, decisions, etc. helping quickly to decide on a concrete reaction. The actor is in ‘illusion’, (in-lusio), in a fictive situation, in play. When he has chosen the target, the aim of his planned action, he re-acts with his body and maybe also his voice. The movement is concrete.

It can be said that acting is about acting out a fictive situation with fictive emotions, but with concrete actions, the concrete body in concrete space and concrete time. The actor must transform the stimulus – into a desire so strong to be able to solve the problem (or the problem of his character), as Penciulescu expressed it[77].

In the classroom or in rehearsal, the stimuli as well as the re-actions are created and remembered, and repeated in performance. Mental and physical focus are all-important.

Reflections about the learning process

I started today to study shenduan (Chinese movement skills for women) and kunju – with my body conditioned over many years by ballet, mime, kathakali and Indian dance. To learn new movement patterns confuses my body-mind. I never felt so clumsy! I forgot sometimes what is right and left! Full chaos for some moment patterns! Stocharic resonances! Turbulences! Bottlenecks in the brain!

(MTG, Beijing, August 2012)

After some months, finally, a new order has emerged from chaos. My body-mind has accepted the new system of movement and starts to understand it. I got from the old stability via an instability to a new stability!

(MTG, Beijing, November 2012)[78]

Learning can no longer be considered as accumulation of knowledge and skills because the learner changes constantly! A stored movement action, when remember years later, is also not fully the same anymore. It delivers the ‘stored’ basic images differently, feels differently in the body. Changing, the body seems to change the objectives. In the best of cases, pedagogues may say: ‘The movement has matured!’

About learning by mirroring

Primates are also able to imitate. A female orang-utan lived at Hamburg Zoo. She had often observed her stockman clean her cage with water bucket, brush and floorcloth. When she got the utensils into her hands, she cleaned her place for hours!

Imitating a teacher happens through mirroring, imitating the original (das Vor-bild) or model, in front of the student(s).

  • The teacher stands in front of the student and executes (vor-machen) the movement, the student copies it (right and left side interchanged) as he sees it, in mirror version. I have often observed very skilful kathakaḷi– and bharatanāṭyaṃ-teachers in India, showing students in class sitting opposite them on the floor, with right-sided movements done by left arm and hand, or the left side.
  • The pedagogically well-versed teacher instead demonstrates the movement, with clear directions, and accents on crucial points without verbal explications.
  • The teacher shows the movement in slow motion.
  • The teacher shows the crucial points and impulses of the movement in an enlarged version.
  • The teacher uses sounds and syllables that accompany the movement.
  • The teacher shows the movement to learn in front of the class, facing the mirror, with the class spread out behind. The student observes the movement in the mirror and imitates it. This is a common feature in dance classes – a more impersonal learning.
  • Jacques Lecoq did not allow his students to work with the mirror. He demanded eye contact. The student should not control what the copy looks like in the mirror! Control of movement should come from the inside, from body consciousness.

From the outside to the inside

Merleau-Ponty stated that all human beings are somehow bodily interconnected. This somewhat flaky, unproven intersistence (Zwischenleiblichkeit) can be anthropologically interpreted as the possibility of imitation, and neurobiologically as the work of mirror-neurons, not only for survival (like the mimicry of animals) as it was supposed before. Perhaps it explains the importance and omnipotence of imitation in human culture.

I learn a physical action by letting myself grasp ‘the other thing ‘, I am fascinated, and imitate it, and while imitating, my own body understands it. I identify with it, I ‘become’ it. Imitation is always the result of a process: from the original to the blueprint or double. It starts with visual perception, and via the percept, processed and developed, results in the re-action, the movement as mentioned above. Young children watch and copy interesting walks and behaviour patterns consciously or even unconsciously. Jean Piaget mentioned small children imitate everything and learn about the world through imitation. He called this process accommodation.

Jürgen Funke-Wienecke, professor of sports science at the University of Hamburg[79], regrets that contemporary movement didactics have rejected and forgotten imitation of movement. Imitation has long been considered by pedagogues as unworthy and mechanical, but since we now know more about the mirror neurons, imitation should slowly regain its former importance in didactics. A teacher that shows a movement to learn, and the student that imitates the teacher, does not really fit into contemporary pedagogic systems, where everything should ‘come out’ of the student himself! A very romantic idea! Imitation has a bad reputation in our culture, where individuality is king. The talk is always, with the best of intentions, about individual expression, and individual movement and individual learning processes. It has been overlooked that imitation has a deeper impact, and is not only a blueprint of an original, but in fact a new creation!

The way from the inside to the outside, as often propagated by contemporary didactics, is not everything. We know from practice, and also from children, that ‘spontaneous individual movement creation’, mimesis from inside to the out – has a very restricted repertory!

Nevertheless, it seems that two types of imitation have been found – superficial imitation and imitation in depth. The former is not just to imitate what I see – an animal, a river, a piece of paper in the wind, or spaghetti cooking in boiling water, but take it ‘into my body’, ‘becoming’ it. I feel it in my mind and express it by my body. But at the same time, I take in something more – an expression, a fleeting feeling, an association, maybe a context or a vague knowledge. I become the double of the thing I imitate. I am in dialogue with the imitated. Lecoq called this process ‘not imitating, but a way of grasping the real’[80]. Imitation has become creation, has become mime.

The student learns one quarter from his teacher, one quarter from his classmates, one quarter he learns by himself, and one quarter is given to him by time.

Sanskrit proverb

Chinese diary of practice

After a year of studies as a senior student at NACTA (National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts) in Beijing, studying shenduan[81], jingju and kunju, I started to learn the traditional use of long water-sleeves[82]. Here I describe a beginning sequence of the second part. Lee laoshi teaches shenduan and has bound traditional movement in an appealing choreography. She taught it to me in the winter of 2014 in individual classes twice a week. I could even join the mixed opera classes twice a week as well. The group learnt and practised the same movement series.

Attending Lee Iaoshi’s classes, diary from winter 2014 Bejing

First session: Individual class with Li Iaoshi (reverend teacher). She puts on her blue pei[83] and shows me the first part of the new action globally. There are about twelve movements of throwing and handling the long water-sleeves, all gracefully combined. I get a first impression. It’s like falling in love at first sight, really fascinating, beautiful! And it expresses different ‘female’ reactions with water-sleeves. (Is it the same mechanism as ‘spontaneous understanding’?)

I must now copy her actions, somehow, standing opposite her. She shows me the movements again in slower tempo. My body is in chaos. I try to orient myself in space, in the chaos of innumerable possibilities, how my body parts could relate to each other. Where are my feet? Where is my weight just now? In my mind, there is a dialogue going on: ‘Arms in front of the body, nearly at the height of my face. No, lower! Inside rolling movements (but how?) I decide to concentrate on the movements of the water-sleeves first.’

With no comment, Lee Iaoshi repeats the movement one more time. I think feverously: ‘She prepares in profile, opens her body towards the audience, transfers her body-weight to the back leg, throws one water-sleeve behind her and throws it onto the right upper arm, that has arrived there in the same moment and moved to the right… She becomes big like a ship… and continues opening the arms again, turning the hands, throwing both sleeves, and collects them resolutely on the wrists, walking with small steps to the right, on her toes, rolling the wrists again close to the head…and all this with utmost gracefulness…’

Iaoshi now turns towards the mirror and watches my movements. I repeat the action three more times, standing behind her. I focus first on the difficult and subtle coordination of feet, step and weight, the second time on twisting movements of torso and head, and then again on the throws of the sleeves. I got the course of the action – roughly!

The crucial points are the throws of the water-sleeves, following tightly after each other. I must practise them in isolation several times. My teacher gets a phone call on her mobile phone, goes to the window. I practise the throws, going through the whole sequence.

She comes back and shows me the action once more, with clear poses, underpinning the key points.

The next day, I have no class and practise alone in a gong fang (big working space, with mirrors on the wall and soft carpet on the floor). I repeat the new movements over and over, in small drill series. I focus on the flow, on the poses, on the legs…

The third day, I attend a group lesson[84], given by Li laoshi, were the same water-sleeve series are studied. When I stand behind in the third row, it really feels like a chorus of women, demonstrating their gracious strength! But I cannot yet follow the tempo of the other girls correctly.

In the next individual class, Lee Iaoshi corrects the movement of my arms. I use too much energy and must control the movement better. She makes me stand in a pose that she had corrected carefully for ten minutes.

Thereafter, a short break. Then, Lee Iaoshi starts to count: Yi, er, san si… I must find a rhythmical flow of the action, slow and controlled. I have time! rolling the hands on 1, then 2, 3, 4 opening and pose, on 5, I throw the left sleeve, on 6, the right, 7, 8 pose of the ship with its sail… Li Iaoshi added more choreography to the beginning part today!

A week later, in the group class, my movements get more dynamic and more graceful, as I watch, satisfied with myself and comparing my presentation with the others in the mirror. But I see the other 24 young girls can do it with even more precision and beauty! I watch one girl in particular. She has especially gracious movements. (She must be a kunju student!) I have a new aim. I want to move like her!.

Later, I analysed my learning and ‘remembering the learnt’ process: I have used two different ways to make movement stick in my mind: Certain poses or movements function for me as mnemonic dramatic situations and expressions. I imagined them as: to decide, to rebel, to state strength, to think about… or to be happy, surprised, or angry.

The second tactic was to use specific body focus, a kind of clear shape of movement in my mind and my body (Bewegungsgestalt). There was no concrete content, but some positions became strongly present in my body.

Facit: In the learning process, I used the sensory impressions and images as well as the motoric logics of the style I practised intensively for over a year to solve the problems of a very complex movement series. Both Lee laoshi’s feedback and corrections, my own self-feedback, and the practice in the group helped me improve quickly.

And ten years later?

I have forgotten the details of the series! The basic skills – to throw water sleeves in many different and elegant ways, and to retrieve them on the wrist again, are remembered well by my body, and the perimeters of the movement are well anchored. I remember how the movement felt then.

I reconstructed the complex movement series learnt by Li laoshi step by step – the whole sequence takes about eight minutes to move through – with the help of my notes, and through a video. And with my body memory of course! I constructed specific images on these movements for when I was studying them – with an aim, an emotion, and/or a sensorial impression – and then the memory returned immediately. The action was still there in my body-mind! In some other places of the movement series – especially those movements where I had not developed specific visual images – only observation of the video and my notes helped me to remember the movement.

But the actions now feel different in the body/mind. The associations have changed!

Lecoq spoke in detail about the movement patterns of others – animals, elements, plants and objects in motion, and so on, and the importance of observing and imitating them. According to him, they are stored in the body-mind as ‘dramatic circuits’ and can spontaneously be activated and reproduced by improvisation or rehearsal[85]. He calls the identification with nature ‘our common poetic ground’. This new experience – knowledge and associations – is first acquired and thereafter strengthened through a process called consolidation, and eventually stored in the long-term memory.[86]

The strict borderlines between subject and object disappear, and the person lets go of the grip from ‘the other’, and expresses it with their own movement and postures.

H. Rumpf [87]

The teacher

Teaching is more difficult than learning because what learning calls for is this: to let learn.

Martin Heidegger [88]

There are three main tasks for the teacher of movement-based theatre. The first task is to prepare the student’s body for expression: flexibility, strength (energy), coordination, rhythm and flow, based on the teacher’s practical knowledge about the body and its functions. On this basis, other styles of movement are added – such as acrobatics, mime, pantomime, etc. The second task is to stimulate the student’s creativity by his attitude to work and by choosing didactic methods. The third task is to refine the ability to communicate with others, ‘to listen’, and to answer spontaneously with the body. To reach these goals, pedagogy and didactics must be applied – to strengthen the student’s perception, anticipation, planning, decision-making and reacting ability.

Teaching movement-based theatre is a matter of practice. The pedagogue/director applies or invents exercises for further developing the physical and mental capacities of his students. That means he provokes and uses the qualities, abilities and skills the student already possesses, and creates situations with further exercises in favour of the development of these qualities and skills. This should be done in a creative and appealing way. The path to effective and efficient exercises is not through straight, direct applications answering the needs. The skilled pedagogue wraps both the physical and mental needs of the student in appealing exercises. He will not say to the student: ’why don’t you concentrate?’ but he will find exercises that strengthen the student’s ability to focus.

The director as well as the pedagogue must provoke and spread enthusiasm, interest, through the ‘backdoor of creative exercises’, through paidia as well as through ludus. Academic logos are not needed, but much intuition, imagination and enthusiasm are. Academic logics should stay outside the creative process in the classroom!

I would not go so far as to say: ‘The artist is the true teacher’, as Herbert Read[89] postulated, but the true teacher is the artist, who has the pedagogic talent and a deep interest in his student’s development.

About feedback

Speaking about and correcting ‘wrong’ movement, as well as giving encouraging or discouraging comments – has some time ago landed in the pedagogical rubbish bin. The student should know what he is doing himself! No comments should be given in class! In contemporary Western teaching practice, it can be observed how teachers are scant with feedback. They do not want to comment on the students. ‘Good! or not good!’ are expressions that are best not used. The student should be made independent from the teacher and himself know that his presentation is ‘right or wrong’, ‘good or bad’.

Eastern practices, however, make the teacher an important person that can be trusted. There – through respect for the art and its tradition, the material to learn – inner closeness develops between teacher and student. As Westerners, we have lost the respect for the art, but also for the teacher, for teaching and learning.

I consider social contact between teacher and student, through instructions and feedback, to be very important. Learning is a two-sided affair and must be built on mutual trust. In the learning process, teacher and student must be made confidants! That happens when the student feels the teacher’s responsibility and accepts feedback.

In augmented feedback, the teacher seriously corrects, encourages and controls the work of the student. It is the teacher’s genuine pedagogic skill to know how much or when he may give feedback and when not.

Learning by side-coaching is one of the most useful pedagogic techniques I have come across, and it has been largely described by Viola Spolin. During improvisation, the teacher addresses the student/ group and reminds the participants to keep the focus point, solve the task, etc. The student/group just takes the side-coaching in, without looking at the teacher[90]. This is a very efficient technique and makes the teacher the co-helper of the group.

Teaching movement-based theatre

When I had problems with complicated and intricate rhythms and movement, learning Indian dance (Bharatanatyam), my guru Ksemavati used to tell me: ‘Maya, start to teach Indian dance. By teaching, you will understand even better and remember the choreographies as well!’


Movement could be called a ‘rudimentary mother language of the body’ and is ‘spoken’ by everybody. But as with any spoken language, it must be developed and refined – as to be given better articulation, an extended vocabulary, a grammar and a syntax. For ‘foreign body languages’ – as I understand mime, styles of Asian theatre, or ballet or flamenco, etc. – a long and sometimes painful learning process is necessary, and a long time to practice. As for learning a foreign language by rote, much practice is needed. That implies that more complex movement styles of theatre and dance should best be learnt in childhood, when body and mind are most receivable. As an adult, attending a workshop, even if it lasts some months or a year, will never recondition the body to a new style, because the body-mind must first undo old parameters for creating new ones. It takes time!

Teaching and learning movement are communicative processes, exchanges between the body-minds of student(s) and teacher. Skills are transferred from one body to another. The movement, the action to teach, must already be deeply anchored in the teacher’s body-mind.

To teach means:

  • To create ultimate learning conditions
  • and to optimise instruction, as well as
  • to be responsible for movement correction and
  • for the student’s development.

The teacher must himself precisely know the learning processes as described above, about energy, and the spatial-temporal procedure of the movement to teach. He must know the crucial points of a movement, an action. He should understand what is going on in the body and the mind of the student! He must also be able to simplify a movement – if necessary – for inducing the learning process and making it possible and smooth. In being able to verbalise the process, there is a last possibility at hand – to sustain the process verbally.

When teaching, the teacher always learns more details about the movement, the action in question that he is transferring to the student through his body. The ‘virtuoso’ as teacher is a lofty ideal that the student will look up to. One of my teachers in China was a famous artist, irresistible on stage. It felt good to imitate her, but I could not clearly understand what the main points of her actions really were! It was not only the problem of language. Even just imitating her and remembering was very difficult! But she was always a fantastic incentive! Another Chinese teacher – herself a brilliant performer – knew exactly about the difficulties of the actions and movements she taught, analysed the crucial points of movement, observed her students, and understood their problems! The teacher should be able to show movement correctly and to know the difficulties of learning as well as how to overcome them. Therefore, it is necessary for instructors to learn new things themselves from time to time!

Maybe the talented actor or dancer who has themselves learnt and assimilated a style easily and quickly is most often not a good teacher! The person that has fought with learning the matter is finally able to understand the learning process as well. He knows the crucial points and the time it takes to learn. Therefore, the teacher’s movement is very important.[91]

What aspects of movement should be transmitted?

In ‘Bewegungslehre’, Kurt Meinel mentions the following necessary features of movement[92]:

  • Precision of movement (the form)
  • Movement rhythm (includes speed, tension and relaxation)
  • Movement anticipation
  • Motion transmission
  • Flow of movement
  • Upbeat (compliant relationship between haul off and main movement (the otkas))

The late Stanislavski propagated physical actions – (they should rather be called psycho-physical actions), – as the principle of solving tasks,the objective’. As Radu Penciulescu always pointed out, in each moment of a dramatic situation the actor has ‘to find an aim, to have a task, a problem, to solve for the character, but to look for creative solutions.[93]

Therefore, for the Wulf Theatre in Uppsala, Sweden, a professional theatre group (with a small centre for learning and experimentation) – I created a new form of physical training, built on the premises of solving physical tasks. Motoric patterns and movement-contingent events induce goal-directed action. No movement, no action without an aim. This aim can at first be a simple focus: as for acrobatic movement the conscious direction in space: I want to reach there! Forward! Or in the right moment: now! And to an aim belongs resistance, an opposite force, to make a simple movement or an action really a dramatic one!

To invent and to apply exercises

But where are all the exercises coming from?

When preparing for a class, a course or a syllabus, the teacher must know the artistic and pedagogical purpose the exercise serves, as well as its physical benefits. If needed, the teacher should be able to invent exercises spontaneously and wrap their purpose in an appealing dramatic context, or to prepare enough material he can improvise himself in class and choose what best serves his purposes according to the situation.

But how do we wrap the exercise, the problem, the technical or other purpose, to make it meaningful and joyful for the students? This is above all the task of the creative teacher.

Penciulescu, following Viola Spolin, proposed that the student should always know the ‘rules of the game’, the aim of an action. An exercise should always explore something, not only repeating ‘old’ skills and knowledge. It must only indirectly connect with its technical purpose, especially for beginners. (As an example: The ‘isolation of body parts’ is important for movement and body consciousness, as well as for the use in characterisation and mime technique. The teacher could let the students move these body parts in a simple movement class. This does not seem very joyful, especially when it comes to drill: ‘shoulders up, shoulders down, circle eight times forwards, circling eight times backwards…’ Better to say: ‘shoulders want to reach the ceiling… the floor, … are the wheels of a chariot, etc’) He must wrap exercises in actions, images, dramatic situations and sometimes even games.

The ‘Chinese fight series’, as described in level I exercises, for example, are series of important basic exercises for the mobility of body parts (to use shoulders, hips, and legs, etc). The basic technical problems are wrapped into a more complete situation and/or a partnership, a fighting game. The teacher could also focus the same exercises on energy (to develop, spend, hold, share) or on observation (to observe the partner and its actions closely). A good exercise is always built on images (bildhaft), is action and never just movement, and is meaningful and therefore proper dramatic training.

To evaluate the exercise: The student, through the rules of the game, must know and be able to control whether he succeeds in his pursuit or not, and should not always be dependent on the teacher’s commentaries.

Ways to improve and to adapt learnt movement and actions

Nothing can be compared with the one
that repeats his lesson for the hundredth time
with the one that repeats his lesson
for the hundred-and-first time.

Marcel Jousse[94] in The Rabbis of Israel

In ballet training, for example, or when learning acrobatics, kathakaḷi or jingju, there is an enormous amount of drillswell organised series of repetition, with or without variations. For a long time, pedagogues have underestimated and rejected drills. Some Western pedagogues have researched how to make drills more exciting and more effective.

Therefore, regular repetition is important – otherwise, the path in the mind is soon ‘overgrowing’ again! The philosopher Marcel Jousse argued that mornings are the best time for learning, and that the lesson should be repeated seven times a day! Time plays an important role in learning, storing and remembering movement. To sleep after having learnt something new enhances the process of remembering: The newly learnt action is deposed in the hippocampus, the short-time reservoir of new impressions. In the night – in the phases of deep sleep – it is transferred into the frontal cortex and maybe ‘filed’ there, in the long-term reservoir of our brain.

Transformation of movement is a technique developed by Jacques Lecoq: to adapt movement by variating the energy input, space and rhythm. (For example: variating a right-handed movement by doing it with the left (the boatsman exercise), changing the spatial extension of an action, making a movement smaller or larger, or playing with dynamics, such as to accelerate, decelerate, to add accents, as well as to change the balance situation (the conductor exercise), adding turns and jumps as well as changing the breathing pattern (the Harlequin exercise). Jacques Lecoq’s wonderful exercise, ‘The conductor’, is based on a simple gymnastic arm movement including weight change, and the repetition of a movement of a supine figure of eight. The student starts to do the action as a ‘gymnastic movement’, with economy of energy, economic speed, and in a sportive, functional style. He should hear music in his mind. He enlarges the movement to ‘full orchestra sound’, even involving enlarged balance, to the maximum. He also can speed the music up, or play pianissimo, with very reduced movement, only visible in wrists or fingers, and even the basic rhythm stays the same… In the end, the movement is reduced to immobility. But the end of the movement remains as an echo in the breath of the student, and can be taken up again at any moment…

Finally, transfer of movement gives a movement/action a new significance, transferring it into a different dramatic context. Both these aspects – transformations and transfers – were researched and taught by Jacques Lecoq.[95] (Examples of the above mentions random constant practice or blocked or random varied practice!) A movement series, an entire physical action, is put into another context, and gains a different significance. A specific Lecoqian exercise was the mimed movement of ‘the digger’, where the different stages of the physical effort and the positions are finally transformed into the situation of a tango dancer with a partner. First, the highly stylised mimed movement was studied as a set of phases. Thereafter, the different phases were given another action, rhythm, purpose and meaning. Transforming and transferring movement patterns are like the movement of a cat playing with a mouse. It’s very rewarding. They develop real creativity and extend the repertory of movement patterns.

To remember

Movement is more easily remembered when it has been learnt as being connected to a situation, and conceptualised through sensory, muscular and mental memories. If the movement is part of a serial, more complex action, with added sounds and song, movement is more easily learnt and remembered (to compare with the mnemonic sentence for the circle of Fifths in music theory)

Learnt movement should always be available. The use of learnt movement spontaneously in improvisation is achieved only after long period of study. New movement patterns have to mature, first through practice, and then through time, in order to be freely available through new perimeters, maybe to be forgotten, but later to pop up ‘at random’ in improvisation. Time is an important factor. The student becomes adept, adopts and adapts.

The myth of personal creation

What is creativity? Creativity seems to be composed of previous observation, experience and memory, but ‘it doesn’t fall down from the heaven of arts onto the talented!’

There is no ‘fantasy’ as such. Creativity is always the result of processed life experience, perception, and of personal and collective memory, the power of imagination, learning, storing, and forgetting. Creativity consists of novel combinations of pieces of old, available knowledge, consciously or unconsciously recalled and re-combined, transformed and arranged elements in new and different ways.

In very advanced forms of movement, as in Asian classical theatre and dance theatre, the actor/dancer first has to absorb the techniques completely, including the style, before he, now a master of the style, may express individuality and make changes. Only the Asian master may create his individual style.

Learning different styles

Movement-based theatre can benefit from many different techniques, from gymnastics to dance, couple dance, ballet, folkloric dance (flamenco, Irish dance, tango, etc.), acrobatics, martial arts, mime, mask and more.

But attention! Learning new techniques in short workshops is more harmful than useful. The individual perimeters of movement get easily disturbed. There is no time to establish new algorithms. Pursuing a technique seriously, over many years, is the only way to add to the development of the movement-based actor.

Besides a movement style that in the best of cases the student practices, they develop certain qualities and skills from martial arts or acrobatics that complete the regular movement-based training.

What about the inner techniques?

Inner techniques are the thoughts and motivations of a character, and especially its emotions. There are lots of techniques that can be used to produce emotions. (Some work with the inside: the actor’s memory and experience, while others work from the outside, through movement, or as the codified expressions of emotion in Indian classical theatre).

Meyerhold stated that each ‘acting cycle’ as well as each movement, contends with three invariable states:

  1. intention
  2. realisation
  3. reaction

Many books have been written about this topic. TEC also states that movement, perception, aim and mental activities are affinitive. The processes of the body (with the voice as a part of it) cannot be disconnected from the processes of the mind.