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Thursday, August 13, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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History In Motion -- Biomechanics Practitioners Put The Lost Technique Of Acting Developed In Russia Back On Its Feet

Seattle Times Dance Critic

------------- Dance preview -------------

Biomechanics Lecture / Demonstration, Saturday, 8 p.m., Freehold Theater Lab Studio, 1525 Tenth Ave. Admission by donation. 206-323-7499

When Gennadi Bogdanov and his students demonstrated several ritualized series of motions with names like "Throwing the Stone," or "the Slap" at Freehold Theater two weeks ago, it was like seeing history resurrected. These slow-motion movements, involving elaborate windups and exaggerated reactions, are part of a rigorous system of training known as Biomechanics developed early this century by Vsevolod Meyerhold, a Russian theater visionary.

Most American acting techniques are based on Konstantin Stanislavsky, Meyerhold's contemporary and compatriot, who emphasized the inner and emotional life of the actor in creating a character. (Stanislavsky's work became known to Americans' through Lee Strasberg's "Method" acting. Think Marlon Brando.) But Meyerhold believed that the character's emotional life arose from the actor's physical movements. To give a highly simplified example: Do you hang your head because you feel sad, or does going around with your head low and your face long actually produce the feeling of sadness?

Biomechanics has been handed down by actors who worked with Meyerhold. The tradition has survived despite the fact that Stanislavsky's approach became the official technique of the Russian theater after the revolution. As Bogdanov put it, speaking through a translator, "Stalin killed Meyerhold."

Bogdanov, a slight, mustached man with enormous energy, demonstrated his techniques for an audience of about 100 crowded into the small theater lab space. He began by circling his hand around his chest. This is the only part of the body most actors concern themselves with, he said. "They think they act with their soul. No soul, no actor. They think it's radio theater and they leave their feet behind them," Bogdanov said. His face and body were so expressive he got laughs simply by turning his head or lifting his foot.

He then asked 14 students who had been participating in all-day workshops for two weeks to demonstrate several Biomechanics techniques. These exercises looked like a cross between acrobatics and the ritualized dance of ancient theater forms like Noh or Chinese opera. The performers balanced four-foot rods on their elbows, and tossed them vertically from hand to hand. They stabbed and slapped each other in slow motion, the victim's back arching into a deep bend. They tapped out rhythms. Bogdanov called directions: "Softer feet!" "Rhythm." "More precise."

Actor George Lewis, one of the founders of Freehold theater, discovered Bogdanov at a workshop in Syracuse, N.Y., and arranged for the Seattle workshop. "I'd been studying Meyerhold's theories and trying to piece the work together from old photographs," he said. "And here was someone who knew the technique, had learned it from Meyerhold actors themselves, and could teach it. I was converted," he said.

In the past two weeks participants have been applying the techniques of Biomechanics to scenes from Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams. This Saturday they will demonstrate the results. For those interested in theater, dance and performance, it should be a fascinating evening.

Bogdanov closed the July demonstration with Lucky's speech from "Waiting for Godot." Bogdanov's troupe, all trained in Biomechanics, performed the first "Godot" in the Soviet Union. "Before perestroika, we performed in a little underground theater like this," he said looking around the Freehold theater lab space. "But after perestroika, we moved to a big theater and started charging money."

Though the words were in Russian, Bogdanov's "Lucky" was spellbinding. He ended the scene by falling straight backward, taking the weight full on his back. No "radio theater" here. He did not forget his feet, but he also brought along his soul.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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