Victoria Worsley BA FG(UK)
“When you know what you do, you can do what you want”
Moshe Feldenkrais has studied the body in movement with a precision I have found nowhere else”
PETER BROOK (theatre and film director)
The Feldenkrais Method is increasingly a part of the performance world. Best known to physical theatre performers, musicians and dancers, it is now finding its way into more traditional acting through its wider inclusion in more drama school trainings and at institutions including the RSC.
Developed by Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-1984), an eminent physicist and judo expert, it is one of the most cutting ‘somatic’ methods available today. Based on sound neurological principles, it uses carefully crafted lessons to explore each participant’s own particular patterns in relation to a wide range of movements and open up new choices so that they can do what they want more easily and with less strain.
The Method’s application is manifold – it can be enormously helpful to anyone from office workers to sportsmen and women, for improvement in skills, ‘posture’, range and quality of movement, for recovery from injury, brain injury or chronic pain. It can also be used to address emotional experience (including trauma) on a somatic level. The method helps participants to become aware of what they are actually doing – their habits and patterns at larger and at more minute levels – and invites them to explore new options and choices, increasing their possibilities rather than setting rules or restrictions so that they are limited less by tension, difficulty or imagination and can adapt to do what they want to do in any situation efficiently and well.
Specific Benefits for Actors/Performers
The Method can help an actor or performer be upright, move with greater ease and grace, and have a greater range of possibilities and choices. It also reduces the likelihood of injury, can help get out of movement patterns that involve chronic pain and can help keep a good range of movement for longer in later years. All pretty useful in this business. However there are many other more profound and very interesting aspects to engage performers/actors at every stage of their careers for example:
- The focus on awareness is key for actors and performers at any stage in their training or career for finding out more about their habits through simple movements: and in doing that they can also find out more about what they bring on stage/in front of the camera with them before they ‘do’ anything. Even the most experienced actor can peel away yet more layers to discover patterns they haven’t noticed or fully appreciated before. And for younger actors it can help close the gap between what they think they are doing (trying to communicate) and what they are actually doing (what the audience gets).
- The method then invites the student to find new possibilities working in great detail anatomically which means that even the most experienced actor can open up some new possibilities to add to their ‘tool kit’. For example: imagine an actor who has always (probably unwittingly) taken a significant restriction in their ribs into every character they play who finds they can move their chest in very new ways with a new softness, flexibility and fluidity? What new range of character and emotional expression now becomes available to them?
- In learning about their own habits in this way and discovering new possibilities an actor also learns to observe the habits of others and to explore those possibilities in themselves in more and more detail – with obvious benefits for character work. Again this is work that can be done at greater or lesser levels of sophistication for different levels of experience and everyone can always learn to see and notice more. It offers a different and complementary approach to Laban’s ‘movement analysis’ as it is much more focussed on noticing and sensing the way the person uses (or doesn’t use) all the parts of themselves to create movement in great detail.
- The lessons ask the student/client to feel how all the parts of themselves participate in the movement (or don’t) – e.g. to notice what happens in the hip, leg or back in order to reach with the arm most effectively – and so every action, every gesture becomes more fully embodied or, eg in the case of a punch for example, more powerful. And less experienced actors can lose those meaningless peripheral ‘gestures at gestures’.
- The lessons ask the student/client to listen to themself, and move in relation to what they can sense rather than carry out an idea of what they think the movement ought to be. Sound familiar?It involves being ‘in the moment’ which is crucial to imagination, truth – and comedy – in performance.
- Similarly, having the opportunity to notice subtle sensations and differences and listen to yourself more carefully can promote or deepen subtlety in performance. It also easily translates into being aware of, listening and responding to others in a scene/shot with more sensitivity. Even a seasoned actor can always improve or refresh their skills in this area.
- The method involves noticing and finding ways to reduce unnecessary effort, i.e.: Ways To Do Less. Identifying ways they do more than they need in a simple action can help a performer find the point when they are ‘doing too much’ in other areas, including – very usefully – in performance. This is often the most challenging idea as most people – especially students or inexperienced actors – think they will do better if they ‘try harder’ by pushing it more, but it can happen to the best of actors under pressure sometimes.
- From working with people in classes and individual sessions, I have learnt to see and feel in them the embodiment of experience, of feeling and emotion. I know that the blocking of emotion also often involves tightening in some place at a neuro-muscular level and that tension prevents the ability to feel – let alone to communicate feeling (Stanislavsky knew it too if you look at his exercise to do with lifting the piano). I have begun to work with students and clients to help them notice that finding the softness inside that using less effort enables allows them to find an easy connectedness to emotion – and to each other and the audience.
- Being alive to the physiological changes that come with emotional shifts can also mean actors have a physical anchor so that they can repeat without losing intensity and creativity more easily too: they can find that feeling state in themselves again as something tangible. This kind of approach works largely through non-cognitive kinds of memory so that re-finding works automatically and through sensory association rather than having to do anything consciously. In fact I think sensing of inward physiological states is often one of the ways that many actors navigate their way through a piece even if they are not consciously aware of it at all – I know that was true for me. I believe this has a profound resonance with Stanislavsky’s idea of the ‘psycho-physical’ and with Michael Chekhov’s psychological gesture and with Laban’s inner and outer tensions.
- The lessons often involve orientation and relationship to space and include a crucial understanding of how the eyes lead/relate to the rest of movement all of which translates directly into performance. Laban’s spatial work is very useful to develop this too.
- Timing, rhythm and focus – three essential tenets of performance are all there in this method and can be pointed up and brought out in the lessons but again, Laban’s motion factors are very helpful in taking this aspect further.
- The Method includes very interesting and useful specific breathing and voice lessons but attention to breath is part of just about every lesson.
- Finally and crucially: there are no rules in the Feldenkrais Method, no insistence on always standing in this way or that or never doing x or y. There is no special dogma or right way to do something. It is all about creating a place for the participant to explore/find out something about themselves at whatever stage they are at, how they do things and what other possibilities they can discover – not about telling them what they should or shouldn’t do and interfering with or dictating their own artistic process. In fact it is more about finding ways to interfere with their own process less.
How Feldenkrais relates to other methods.
Peter Brook said he liked Moshe Feldenkrais because’ he didn’t have a method’ he just enabled what was needed at the time. And in that tradition I am interested in using Feldenkrais to complement, support and bridge to other kinds of learning or techniques that actors use or skills that they need to learn or improve
- The method’s basis in physics and organic movement means it works very well with dance forms such as Contact Improvisation and Skinner Release although dancers of many kinds -including ballet – benefit.
- Moshe’s background in Judo makes the method perfect fit with most martial arts (I am a student of Karate myself but many Feldenkrais teachers study T’ai Chi or Aikido) and helpful for other forms of fighting.
- It develops the architecture for flexibility and strength to create a good foundation for sports or strength training of all kinds.
- It is becoming much more current for voice (speaking and singing of many kinds) for the benefits it brings to freeing and enabling the movement of the ribs, spine, and diaphragm and for easy movement in all directions without unnecessary tension – and so for the easy and connected use of breath and voice.
- It can enable and deepen yoga practice (I teach many yoga teachers)
Including some I use …..
I sometimes use neutral mask, usually in a drama school or workshop setting, and have two of my own hand-crafted by Glasshouse. I am not qualified to teach Lecoq’s elemental journey (although I do use elements of this without neutral mask for developing quality of movement) but I use the masks simply to help reveal habits and patterns of movement and develop economy and simplicity.
Laban wasn’t something I used as an actor but I became interested in it watching Kirsty McFarland working at Oxford School of Drama and began to pick up and make use of what the students learnt with her. Since January 2011 I have been studying Laban with Dick McCaw PhD, Senior Lecturer at Royal Holloway who trained with several of the teachers who were themselves taught by Laban (and has just edited and introduced the Laban Sourcebook for Routledge) as I would like to use it more – mainly in drama school teaching. I find Laban and Feldenkrais different in interesting and complementery ways. To over-simplify: Laban works more in relation to space (allocentric) and Feldenkrais in relation to self and felt experience of movement (egocentric) but both inevitably involve the other: Feldenkrais being rooted in the gravitational field and ideas of the development of self (including movement) in response to the environment and Laban in his understanding of the relationship of what he calls inner and outer tensions and while many of his definitions don’t really bear close scrutiny they do work as ways you feel the movement. In analysing movement, Feldenkrais offers a great wealth of detail drawn from noticing how all the parts of the person relate to each other in a given movement and so specifically how an individual uses themselves while Laban offers the valuable motion factors of tension (weight), space, time and flow. Feldenkrais understands shaping of movement from within: the body’s own organic spirals and circles and planes of movement in terms of rotation (twisting), flexion and extension front/back or through the side whereas Laban thinks more of shaping in space: flexible/directional; pathways between points; external planes of movement based on the wheel, door and table. Both understand (in different ways) the interdependence of movement, emotion and self.
My experience is that Laban and Feldenkrais can enable each other. Trouble finding ‘flow’? Feldenkrais helps find the pathway of movement through the self that enables flow. Balance not good enough in a Laban exercise? Feldenkrais has a thousand lessons for it. Want to take a Feldenkrais lesson in lengthening and reaching with the arm further to enable expressive gesture? Laban scales extend it into space in every direction. Found some great ways to get up and down from the floor easily in Feldenkrais? Playing with different Laban efforts (variations in motion factors) allow that to evolve it into a meaningful piece of expressive movement. And so on. As a Feldenkrais teacher my approach to Laban is using his filters for exploration rather than attempting to strictly codify movement.
Warren Lamb describes movement as ‘a process of variation’ and one could say a good actors’ training (or development at any stage) is all about developing sensitivity in picking appropriate variations in the moment and increasing available choice. Both Laban and Feldenkrais facilitate that in complementary and different ways.
Stanislavsky, Michael Chekhov, ..
I have mentioned links with Stanislavsky (actions/intentions and the notion of the psycho-physical) and Michael Chekhov’s psychological gesture in the shared recognition that there is no real separation between internal and external. It may be that Feldenkrais goes further in understanding that movement/gesture/action is not an expression of feeling but is actually an inseparable part of the process of feeling given that emotion is a physiological (as opposed to some kind of purely mental) event. I can bridge to or directly use some of this work.
And of course it’s worth remembering that apart from teaching for Peter Brook, there was a plan for Moshe to teach some workshops at Lee Strasbourg’s school in the US. It just illustrates the range of performance styles the work can be beneficial to.