When V.H. Meyerhold was killed and designated a non-person by the Soviets sometime around 1939, it may have seemed to the director’s adherents that his revolutionary system of kinetic movement for the stage–biomechanics–had died with him. But last year, another sign of the vast political change in Russia became apparent: Authentic training in biomechanics was taught for the first time in the U.S. by Gennadi Bogdanov, a direct inheritor of the Meyerhold technique through his teacher, Nikolai Kustov. Kustov, an original member of Meyerhold’s troupe and, ironically enough, the first U.S. link to biomechanics, was the actor featured in a famous series of photos which Lee Strasberg brought back from Russia in the ’30s as an illustration of Meyerhold’s techniques.
The creation of gesture
Bogdanov, who teaches biomechanics at the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts, spent five weeks last summer training members of New York’s Phoenix Ensemble in the rudiments of the technique, after making his first stop at Tufts University for an intensive workshop with theatre teachers, actors and directors. The Phoenix Ensemble began an exchange program with the Russian Academy (formerly known as GITIS) in 1991, sending an evening of Joe Pintauro one-acts to Moscow and hosting a Russian production–a project which earned the company the United Nations Society of Writers Award for Excellence.
Through translator Kathryn Mederos, Bogdanov–a quietly charismatic, passionate advocate for Meyerhold’s system–says the most important element in biomechanics is “the creation of precise, meaningful gesture. The ability to enter into the grotesque and to feel yourself in eccentric situations on the stage–Meyerhold’s actors were able to do that very well.”
Bogdanov uses a series of biomechanical “etudes” (a series of physical actions such as “the Stab” in which one actor stabs a partner in the chest), which are broken down into components–the Otkaz, or preparation for the action; the Paceel, or fulfillment of the action; the Tormos, or brake; and the Tochka, or completion of the action.
The point of these tasks is, Bogdanov says, “to bring the actor’s apparatus to a neutral position. Under no circumstances should you understand that to mean that we’re erasing the actor’s individual creativity. It’s a position from which we can go in any direction and create any quality of characterization.
“But naturally before that,” he continues, “we need to rid ourselves of any problems blocking our physical state. We have to bring ourselves into a state of certainty, so that we know not how the movement is born, but how to give birth to the movement.”
But the etudes are more than just a physical exercise, the movement specialist says. “When it all comes together, when you precisely fulfill the drawing called for by the etude, then at that point you feel the joy and the freedom of movement within the form. Your head is freed up from the physical problems and the imagination can work. All of your emotion is directed only towards the birth of the dramaturgy.”
The Phoenix Ensemble applied this intensive study to a fall production of The Bathtub, Paul Schmidt’s politically updated adaptation of Mayakovsky’s Banya, directed by Ivan Popovsky, a Russian Academy student of Bogdanov imported for the occasion from Moscow. Although he says the comedic production at Manhattan’s Theater for the New City could not actually be called biomechanical, Popovsky did make use of extensive stylized movement.
“What I have learned is: don’t use extra movements in the theatre,” Popovsky says. “Just use those movements which you need to have clean and clear pictures, so that the play can open up from the inside, from the meaning of the words.”
Finding your limitations
For members of the Phoenix Ensemble–which includes about 20 actors, directors and designers of various ages and ethnicities–the work in biomechanics proved a welcome addition to their training. “Like a lot of American actors, we tended to approach everything psychologically and emotionally more than physically,” says company member Fred Velde, who played Senator Hamfat Hum in The Bathtub, “and this was a totally different approach. For me it was great because I saw my limitations, and Gennadi stressed the idea that you should find those limitations and stretch them.” Cecilia Arana, who played Billy Biker, found that the work with Bogdanov carried over effectively into the rehearsal process. “I felt very grounded and very, very free amidst all the control of biomechanics, because I was so aware of everything I was doing,” she says.
Artistic director and ensemble member Paul Knox watched the group grow throughout the process in its ability to trust each other and work together. “Now we can take a lot more risks, both physically and with our technique,” he says. Knox hopes to continue the Ensemble’s biomechanical training and the exchange with the Russian Academy. Bogdanov, meanwhile, is kept busy by a growing worldwide interest in the technique, which most recently took him to Amsterdam.