I group styles and exercises into three study levels with varied study topics.

Structure: the three study levels

For the first study-level, I focus on the basics, for the beginner of movement-based theatre. Acting qualities are acquired, such as the ability to focus, to develop energy, and to collaborate, and not collecting tricks and learning skills! The performer remains as himself, does not impersonate any character, and works with actions. (This kind of movement-based theatre can be found in post-dramatic, non-fictive theatre).

Study levels II and III deal with the opposite position: the trained and skilled body, an idealised, fictive body of art that functions as a signifier of movement, action, emotion and characters).

During the exercises of study level II, the student learns to play fictive characters (with and without a mask), as well as the character’s actions and emotions. The body is the receptacle and the medium, and is not supposed to feel and to suffer itself![35]

Study level III deals with diegetic theatre – with mime, pantomime and multiple character changes, for the creation of a poetic multiverse.

On each level, the exercises are grouped into the following study topics:

  1. (Games and limbering-up exercises)
  2. Body education
  3. Voice and body
  4. Acrobatics
  5. Techniques and adaptations, movement analysis
  6. Improvisation and application
  7. (Stretching)

Proper movement techniques are developed by the exercises in parts II and III. But besides movement skills, always belonging to a particular style, what more must be taught to future performers of movement-based theatre?

Usually, the teacher must start below zero – with the re-education of mind and body.

De-blocking mind and body

Before the course starts, an assessment of the capacities and the level of the students is necessary. The placement of exercises in the student’s development must be considered, not only the placement of the exercises in a course or a syllabus.

The mind and body of the acting student must be deblocked, made fit for spontaneous action and reaction. This is the first need in body-based theatre training. The actor must be prepared to think with the entire body-mind and be enabled for creative response. It is long-term learning for the actor and happens by practice alone, and can only happen in a creative atmosphere.

Re-education of the body towards functionality and neutrality

Movement skills develop only with a functionally moving body. For many students, the body must therefore be re-educated. Meyerhold invented his system of biomechanics for the purpose of functionality (with a strong aesthetic viewpoint). He focused on movement and movement sequences. Etienne Decroux, on the other hand, was more a sculptor of the human body. He analysed the possibilities and limits of human movement and segmented it as a cubist painter or sculptor.

Jacques Lecoq – influenced by his first profession as a physiotherapist and through Jean Dasté[36], Jacques Copeau[37] and the commedia dell’arte – took a more practical, more artistic, and more pedagogically appealing route. He wanted to achieve the state of physical and mental functionality with the help of the neutral mask. He envisaged a moving body that is efficient (to move in the physiologically correct way), but at the same time being effective (doing the right things).

To him, neutrality seems to have meant that an actor is efficient and creative not only with a functional body, but when he is not hampered by prevailing concepts. He should be physically, and also mentally neutral and available, as he often mentioned in class. Lecoq’s students must all empty their cup! Start from zero! The ideal is an actor who is open-minded and awake to the world, and available (disponible) to partner(s) (for reaction and action, even before the rise of emotion). ‘To explore the world a new, with a child’s eyes’, as Lecoq used to say in class[38].

Lecoq’s neutrality is also a mental one – not only to move in the right way, but to do the right things! For Lecoq the right things were to move and to act, to re-act without preconceived views about the world, but with genuine curiosity and in all simplicity, without preciousness. No movement with ballet-like embellishments! No en dehors, no courbes and no tracé is necessary![39] Instead, the perfectly functioning body with the perfectly functioning mind, and without pre-concepts! It is the ideal body of the puppet, as long ago described and craved by Heinrich von Kleist and Gordon Craig.

Technically, physical functionality has to do with the correct – by counterforces balanced positioning of the pelvis and the spine – and economic use of the muscular apparatus[40]. In fact, the functional, neutral body is already a fictive body, because it is an ideal out of reach. It is a must for the performer of movement-based theatre.

Through years of practice, I found Asian martial arts training (especially kung fu, karate, judo, aikido and kalarippayattu), the most efficient way for the development of a functional and neutral body.

Social competence on stage

Social competence on stage – intensive collaboration with partner(s), is an important feature for collective and psychological theatre (Stanislavski) and is developed by intensive partner and group work.

The relationship to the partner on stage is a concrete one (as an example in the theatre of Penciulescu or Brook). I hear, see, smell, taste; I react to the perceived movement and the intention of the partner(s). All exercises of level I are exercises that may, beside other qualities, develop social competence.

In Grotowskian theatre on the other hand, the relationship to the partner on stage is an imaginary and inner one. This partner, even when he is in the flesh working opposite me, is fictive for me. I react (found in the work of Grotowski and Barba and others) on fictive stimuli.


The student must acquire improvisation skills. Besides the training, proper, regular improvisations must be done in order to learn to apply and adapt actions in various new situations, that is to re-act, rather than to act. Body and mind must be prepared to re-act spontaneously to a partner, to a stimulus.

I discern three different types of improvisation:

  • Transformations and transfers (see Lecoqian techniques in the exercises)
  • Aim-based (Stanislavskian) improvisation (The actor must have an objective, solve a problem by finding a creative solution)
  • Random (‘jamming’) improvisation (The actor must simply answer the partner, and drive the theme forward)

Paidia and ludus

There are two different main approaches for studies and performance to consider, as mentioned by Huizinga[41] and Roger Callois[42]: Paidia is the enjoyment of the playing child, to have a good time and have fun through play, which is a typical feature for motivating an action for children and beginners. Sometimes, paidia exercises give even the highly professional actor new energy kicks – especially when work is approached too intellectually. Theatre is also an opportunity for play, recreation and fun!

Ludus is the serious involvement in fictive reality with deep focus, skills and seriousness, through the attitude of the professional. Sometimes ludus is mixed with agon (competition), another feature of professional work.

In our pluralistic theatre world, the body is considered in different ways, according to the ruling paradigms, tastes and fashions of theatre and dance. The body of the actor serves different purposes. It must be defined what type of body the exercises are meant to be developed for, and in what way the training may be effective for this type of body. For didactic reasons, I discern here eight ‘different’ bodies, as kind of theatre-aesthetic categories.

To achieve specialised bodies

But what type of body, having which qualities and skills are requested of the actor of movement-based theatre? In the following chart, eight body types are presented that serve different stage purposes and need different acting qualities and skills.

Body typeQualitiesSkills
The private body
The daily (socialised) body (film, stage)Certain control, certain choices, socially adapted, behaves similarly to the private bodyNo specific skills
The neutral body (Lecoq pedagogics)Is a functional, neutral starting point for movement and charactersCorrect, functional movement and action, no private gestures
The fighting body (Chinese opera, kabuki, kathakali and martial arts)Needs quick and precise reactions, perseverance, must always be focused (‘The body becomes all eyes’[43])Attacking and defending skills, swiftness
The dramatic body, extra-daily body, delated body[44] as craved by Barba, Decroux, Lecoq)Energetic, dramatic, vibrant and dilated movement, conscious about partner(s) and about form, space and rhythmSuperior and subtle movement and acrobatics – and vocal skills to play fictive characters
The gender-defined body (Chinese opera, kabuki, kathakali)Skills of presenting socio-connected gender signs and behaviour patterns
The poetic body (Mime, storytelling)Androgynous multiverseSuperior mime and pantomime skills, superior skills of body, hands and eyes
The virtuoso body (Circus)Extreme and virtuoso body skills as acrobatics, dance, balance, juggling, contortions, etc.

The private body, ‘the Leib’, is the subject. Some actions of the private body – such as to show itself naked, to sweat, to cry, to eat, to drink, to kiss, to copulate, to give birth, etc. (as well as to scratch oneself, to touch one’s own hair unconsciously, etc.), should not be exposed in public! The actions of the private body were already mentioned by the Indian Nāṭyasastra as forbidden actions on stage (such as to eat, drink, kiss and die). Our contemporary society uses the look of the private body for public sensations: the extra-beautiful model as well as the ugly and abnormal or other-abled awake public sensation mongering.

Besides the private body with its individual expressions – my personal ways to move, to touch my hair, and to behave (such as tensed shoulders, an always rounded back, etc) – express private emotions, feelings and habits, and do not belong onto the stage!

In the world of theatre, the private body is mostly ‘covered’, that is to say transformed into a character by costume and makeup. It merges with the private body into somebody else. To this belongs the physical behaviours of another, of the character.

The daily or social body’s differences from the private body are slight, but they exist in the consciousness of the actor, his role, and his presentation on stage. The actor potentially uses some behaviour patterns he attributes to his character. He is involved in his role but knows how far to go and has control. He moves naturally but avoids private movement. He has learnt to control random and private movement and knows his personal movement peculiarities. He does not need any specific movement skills. Body expression is not stylised or formal/artistic. Through training of the daily body, the actor is more focused, learns to react here and now and to collaborate with partner(s), and to produce emotions and feelings as side products of action. He develops qualities, as discussed above, rather than skills. Acting on the small scale is preferred and poker faces are ‘hip’. Movement reactions, facial expressions and gestures are minimalized!

If the daily body gets conscient about the personal ways to move and the student unlearns them (if they are not functional), the daily body turns into a neutral body.

The neutral body has become famous through the pedagogy of Jacques Lecoq and the neutral mask, but the idea behind it is much older. The neutral body is efficient and effective, a functional body. It is not a character, but a blank page. The neutral body knows neither gender-defined nor ethnic or individualized movement, or behaviours patterns. The neutral body is simply human[45]. The neutral body is also an androgenous body. Lecoq used both a female and a male mask, but there was no difference in movement of functionality and neutrality observed. Physical neutrality was functionality for Lecoq. The neutral, functional body is the starting point zero for the impersonation of any physical characters, for example with expressive masks (some crave extreme bodies). By using the neutral mask, Lecoq has transformed the pedagogical device of physical and mental neutrality into a noble performing task.

Is the functional (or neutral) body a dramatic body? No, the neutral body is not yet a dramatic body, because functionality and availability alone still lack dramatic attack[46]. In the neutral body there is no drama. It simply is.

The fighting body is an extension of the neutral body. It is an all-attentive, exalted, well-trained and glowing body, and is fascinating to look at. Its movements are already a show! It displays martial arts – with ample movement, much higher energy than the everyday body, and with high focus, with good physical skills and balance (kicking, pushing, throwing, jumping leaping, bending, turning, etc) and dynamics, consciousness of movement, form and rhythm. The fighting body is already a dramatic body.

Some forms of martial arts lie at the heart and the basis of the movement systems of several of the great Asian theatre styles, with high physical involvement, as displayed in Chinese opera (based on kung fu), kathakaḷi (based on kalarippayaṭṭu), and so on.

The dramatic or extra-daily body[47] is a present body, a totally focused and self-controlled body. It has ‘attack’, a heightened state of perception, energy and readiness (Lecoq’s disponibility) for reaction and emotional response. It is a perfect vehicle for movement-based theatre.

The dramatic body is a body of extremes and is capable of precarious balance (as found in classical ballet as well as in several Asian classical theatre forms and, according to Barba and Savarese, is based on martial-arts skills (Chinese opera, kathakaḷi, kabuki). Barba mentions three particular features[48]:

  • The alteration of daily balance, as a search for ‘luxury balance’
  • dynamic opposition
  • incoherent coherence (such as spread legs and deeply bent knees, in principle not necessary for expression).

These features are not directly attributable to expression. They are non-relevant body positions, controlled distortions of everyday balance. There may also be a different placing of the spinal column, and the direction of the actor’s eyes in space are somewhat higher than the normal horizon. ‘Maybe… they prevent the body from being condemned to resemble itself, to present or re-present only itself’[49].

This dilated, ‘glowing body’ draws attention to the spectator. It is a result of serious training over a long period! It has dramatic attack, is conscious about movement, centred, decided, ready to react, and has good moving abilities, balance, and sense of space and time. All body parts and their expressions are under control. There are no unconscious and uncontrolled movements and expressions. The entire body expresses actions, emotions and feelings that are visible in the fingertips and audible in the voice.

But the actor’s delated, dramatic body can be developed further. It can be put into changed physical conditions: with extensions of body parts, (high heels, enormous bellies and backs, caps and headdresses, artificial breasts, hunchbacks, walking on stilts, wrappings, bodies bound together, water sleeves prolongating movement of the arms, etc). The performer develops new skills with his ‘new’ body. These artificially delated, other abled bodies are deeply fascinating. They are the base of buffoons, gangs of evil beings, or clowns turned sour, bitter and evil, and laughing at the public[50].

Special skills of the dramatic body deal with the gender-defined body, as a specialisation of the dramatic body.

The gender-defined body is a dramatic body with specific skills, presenting gender signs and behaviour patterns (to represent the extreme female or extreme male body), by accultured behaviour. It has been a part of world culture since the shamans of old. The gender-defined female body, often impersonated by male actors, is maybe a ‘male’s dream’, a cultural display of exaggerated degrees of physical, social and mental female attributes – such as roundness of movement, softness (rather flexibility than strength), or extreme female characteristics that are culturally conditioned – such as grace, lightness, shyness, fickleness, swiftness, or an extremely flexible spine[51], small tripping steps as the nandan of Jingju[52]. The gendered female body works with minimal steps, pointe shoes, high heels, or lotus-feet shoes (the qiao of jingju). Their specific movement patterns consist of diagonal spacing, twists and side bends of the torso and the head, and indirect glances. It presents an ideal, extreme female body with narrow shoulders and a slim body. Curvy, soft, serpentine movement style, asymmetry, as in Nihon Buyo (the Japanese actor Tamasaburo is an example of playing highly artistic super-females). In the Indian kathakali, men play women (strīveṣaṃ) and demonesses.

The gender-defined male body, presented by female or male performers, displays exaggerated strength and rigour (kathakali heroes and villains, Jingju wusheng and painted faces characters, kabuki and kathakali heroes, as well as Balinese baris and masked dancers). It works with frontal, massive presentation, ample arm movements, cothurns, poses, and highly lifted legs.

There are also interesting inter-mixtures, both with female and male movement and behaviour attributes: such as the young hero of jingju (xiao sheng), a sensible but somewhat effeminate character, as well as certain male kabuki characters (such as the dandy ‘Sukeroku’ in the play ‘The Flower of Edo’), as well as the actresses of the Takarazuka Kagekidan in Japan, where young women have successfully played male and female roles since 1913.

The poetic body is also an extension of the dramatic body. It is the body of the narrator, ‘the shaman’ of old[53]. We meet it as a mime or pantomime artist (Debureau, Marcel Marceau, the Indian cākyār and the naṅṅyār).

The poetic body is an androgenous multiverse, serving diegesis, and is both subject and object on stage as displayed in mime, pantomime and in kūṭiyāṭṭaṃ nirvvahaṇaṃ or the Balinese topeng padjakan performer.

With the help of the mask or without it, the actor can swiftly switch from one character or gender to another, or represent objects, animals, elements or spaces, etc.

When the human body touches the frontiers of physical skills, we can speak about a virtuoso body. It has the supreme skills of the acrobat, with total muscular and mental control on a master’s level. It can execute extraordinary movements. It is the dream become flesh and muscle – the dream of superpower, weightlessness, swiftness, of the human dream to fly, to reach higher, further, and to be stronger or more flexible. It works at the limits of human movement and sometimes surpasses it (extortionists). Here to also belong several characters of Chinese opera, kabuki, but also the comedian/acrobats of the commedia dell’arte. These athletic, fascinating bodies are very successfully displayed in the productions of the contemporary new circus.

The virtuoso body may also work with very reduced movement, were subtlety and elegance are pushed to the limits (movements of hands, fingers (mudras) and facial expressions of bharatanāṭyaṃ, kūṭiyāṭṭaṃ, or the nandan in Chinese operas as examples).

The virtuoso body tends to expose solely physical skills and is not bound to impersonate characters. Emotions are created in the spectator, not by the actor. To the virtuoso body belongs also a virtuoso voice emission, far from realist speech, as for example in jingju.

How are these bodies schooled? The following practical questions arise: How is the teaching of movement-based theatre ‘coloured’ by contemporary pedagogical and didactical methodologies? How are unnecessary movement behaviours undone, how are movement and actions practised, and do we make them professional? What is the position of the instructor? In the foreground or the background? In brief – how to teach?