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Bodyspeak: A New Look at the Art of Movement - Part 1

Part 1: About Bodyspeak

BodySpeak™ - Samuel Avital’s unique approach to the art of movement - is difficult to place in any category. To attempt to describe it is to enter the realm Avital calls "The Elusive Obvious."

In its precise analysis of physical movement it might be described as bodywork. In its creative expressions it can look like dance. In its slow-motional meditative aspect it resembles Tai Chi. It incorporates elements of physical discipline and at the same time develops an extraordinary capacity for mental focus. But it is neither a religious practice nor a form of psychotherapy.

BodySpeak™ is par excellence a method of activating creativity by activating movement - in ways that are startling, provocative, playful, exhilarating. It is for anyone who struggles with the effects of inertia. And isn't that all of us from time to time? "A body at rest tends to remain at rest and a body in motion tends to remain in motion," reads Newton's law. Couch potatoes be forewarned. BodySpeak™ is no spectator sport. Its method of triggering outer movement seems to trigger an inner movement as well. Inner inertia, one discovers, is the real block to creativity. BodySpeak™ overcomes the debilitating effects of this innertia.

Many of its specific techniques derive from mime, yet in a whole new realization. Whereas mime is traditionally taught in a theatrical setting as a tool for honing the craft of the actor or clown, or as an art form in itself, Avital uses mime as a tool for self-discovery and for awakening creativity. "Mime is not the destination," he advises. "It's the launching platform."

"Man is the greatest mimic of all animals," said Aristotle, "and it is by mimicry that he acquires his earliest knowledge."(1) We learn by miming. At some point, though, we lose this marvelous tool of spontaneous learning, perhaps when we are taught the lesson of "Simon Says": you can only mimic Simon when he gives you permission, and if you succumb to spontaneity, you're out of the game. By these and other not-so-subtle methods, we're taught to control spontaneous expression with the check of the intellect.

"Behavior modeling," the psychological term for mimicry, became a byword in the practice of psychology as an alternative to talk therapy. Actual attempts at behavior modeling typically fall far short, however, because most people have lost the ability even to see what behavior they should be modeling! Or, if they do recognize the desired behavior, they are left to figure how to get their neglected and resistant bodies to reproduce it. For that matter who wants merely to imitate? As an art form, mime teaches "behavior modeling" but with a creative spin.

Avital uses the tool of mime to reawaken an elemental creative capacity. The effect can be stunning. One of his former students, storyteller Dot Ormes, gives her impression of atelier Avital:

"Working with Samuel is somewhat like being the over-curious sorcerer's apprentice. Enticed by the deceptive simplicity of the work, I dive in and suddenly find myself drowning in a flood, with brooms marching endlessly back and forth carrying even more buckets of water to douse me. In the nick of time, the flood subsides. The Mimagician returns, grabs me by a soggy collar and we turn back to page one in the Book of Silence. . . .My teacher is a big ring of invisible keys - they dangle in my hands as I stand before as many unmarked invisible doors. There is no superficiality here. To slide easily on the surface of mime-form would be a betrayal of this art." (2)

Avital's essay "What is Body Speak?" briefly describes the framework, method, and applicability of this training. But of course the best way to acquire an appreciation of Avital's work is to experience it directly, as thousands have already done. My first acquaintance - Avital had retired briefly from teaching at the time - came through a reading of some of his essays.

I found a disarming simplicity and directness of expression that rises, frequently, to the level of poetry. The essays have the freshness of being spoken, "voix vivante"in the workshop laboratory itself; and in fact they were for the most part dictated and then transcribed from tape recordings.

One of my particular favorites, "Facing the Mask," describes the mask session from Avital's summer program. Through a series of preparatory exercises, the training reaches this climactic point. It is an occasion of perfect peace and solemnity. As I first read the account, I had an unmistakable if indefinable sense of another, subtle movement just behind the stately measure of the words. Philosophers have called it Pure Being. Poets have simply described it. I was reminded of a poem by Wallace Stevens, "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm," which describes the phenomenon (3), in a literary setting:

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm,

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like the perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there. (4)

The quiet of the house, the leaning of the reader, the merging of the reader with the calm of the surroundings, the access toperfection: there is a feeling of inner movement here as distilled in its simplicity and effect as the quiet calm that envelops the mask session. What distinguishes "Facing the Mask" as an account of such a moment, is that the narration is not an after-the-fact description of a fortuitous and transitory occurrence. As a hallmark of the genius of Avital's method, the mask encounter is characterized precisely by its ability to elicit in the experience of the participant, and with considerable certainty of effect, the sense of attunement and wonder that it describes. All the materials have been consciously assembled for the occasion. Although individual experiences will differ in details, participants in the mask encounter describe, with remarkable consistency, an occasion of quintessential discovery whose effects continue to reverberate long after the session is concluded.

It is important in reading "Facing the Mask" to realize that it is not the script for a guided visualization in the manner that this process is normally conducted. The participants are not sitting or lying down passively with eyes closed while the narrator takes them on a meditative journey. They are active: looking at the mask, putting it on, moving around the room, then slowly and deliberately taking on various postures and attitudes as prompted by the teacher, and, finally, removing the mask to ponder it once more. The session has the aesthetic elegance and meditative feel of Japanese Noh. There are elements of visualization, but they are engaged by a fully participative act-or visualizing the archetypal image of Warrior or Coward, for example, and then instantaneously embodying the archetype in precise and original ways. Mark Olsen, another of Avital's former students, describes the session as "a slow, gentle handshake with the lion inside."(5)

The approach is thus more kinesthetic than visual. All the senses must come into play and are fully integrated in service of what Avital describes as active imagination. Imagination becomes an animating principle: not just a manipulation of mental objects in a mental landscape, but a physical embodiment of the image or concept. The distance between thought and action is compressed in both time and space. Through a subtle dialogue of action and response, a skill is developed in these sessions I would describe as "deep orientation." Psychic space and physical space merge and one learns to navigate the mental/physical terrain. The teacher acts as a compass, pointing the way.

I am reminded of an incident in Einstein's early life, an encounter with a compass, which was to affect him deeply. The episode is related by biographer Abraham Pais:

. . .Einstein spent his earliest years in a warm and stable milieu that was also stimulating. In his late sixties he singled out one particular experience from that period: "I experienced a miracle. . . as a child of four or five when my father showed me a compass." It excited the boy so much that "he trembled and grew cold." There had to be something behind objects that lay deeply hidden. . .the development of [our] world of thought is in a certain sense a flight away from the miraculous.(6)

Avital had an equally resonant experience as a child in a rendezvous with the horizon. ("The Horizon.") On an after school adventure in his native Morocco, he is lured into the countryside by the sight of a majestic tree in the distance. The young boy decides this must be the Tree of Life he has learned about in school. He concludes that the horizon line on which it stands must be the edge of the world. With sunset coming on, he reaches his destination only to discover that the edge of the world has moved and a new horizon looms in the distance! In the mist of twilight he feels embraced by the horizon and seems to merge with it. Realization comes in the words of an ancient sage: "I wandered in pursuit of my own self. I was the traveler and I am the destination."

What links these experiences is the sense of awe in an encounter with an object - a compass, a tree - that the adult world takes for granted. And both experiences are later recognized to have been, in a sense, defining moments that intimate a life direction - a compass pointing the way. Einstein never lost his sense of wonder. Avital also never lost the sense that something lay deeply hidden behind objects: call it the horizon, the destination, the self, the essence. Terminology is not important here. The direction might be science or art or a philosophy that links the two. What is important is the encounter itself and what is experienced and learned.

To follow the compass point, to embark on such a journey of discovery, it is necessary to begin at the beginning and look at the world with fresh eyes. For Avital, that has meant the necessity to reconsider everything that we ordinarily take for granted - primary movements, sensory experience, relationship to objects and people - and to re-awaken our sense of wonder in these things, to make "the invisible, visible and the ordinary, extraordinary." In so doing, he has found a method to reproduce in the workshop laboratory an occasion for his students to experience, on multiple levels, the equivalent of Einstein's adventure with the compass or his own encounter with the horizon.

How is this accomplished? The answer may be found by retracing the route taken.

Continue to Part 2: Early Life

"Samuel brings awareness to the soul of people and gives the artists who work under his direction the need, dedication, and love for the world of silence and the beautiful art of movement."

 

- Marcel Marceau, BIP 1961

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Le Centre Du Silence
P.O. Box 745
Lafayette, CO 80026

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About LCDS

LCDS is an independent school for self-discovery through the human Arts.  The school offers seminars and workshops teaching the concepts of Theater, Mime, and Movement.