Dance, Mime and Movement in Storytelling
Where does one draw the line between storytelling, dance, mime and movement-theater?
To me the line is not really there. Even if you sit on a chair telling a story you are dancing... No big leaps and kicks, but the minimalist kind of dance. The glances, the breathing, hands gesturing, toes twitching. In fact I find the toes of a storyteller are very important. If you see and hear a very good storyteller you can be sure his or her toes are moving as the story unfolds. What I mean with this is, the whole body, the whole being of the storyteller is involved in the story.
We always communicate with our body as well as speech even in everyday life, and our body can sometimes betray us or contradict our words.
In storytelling we try to control this movement, to support our story. It can be as simple a thing as trying not to twitch nervously even if we are terrified sometimes with stage fright.
I was always very interested in this aspect of storytelling. I have a background in mime, theater and dance. I studied at the Locoq school of Theater and Mime in Paris, France. At the Lecoq School we had a class called “Movement Analysis”. What I specially recall from this class was the relation between breathing and emotion in movement. Try for example: Pick up a book and open it, first while breathing in, then while breathing out. The whole feeling in the action changes from keen interest, to boredom or even anger. Other thins I retain from this class is creating a character inspired by the elements water, fire, earth or air. As an exercise: concentrate on an element, for example air, then start moving around, try walking and talking like this air person and see what ideas this gives you. Yet another exercise was letting different parts of you body lead. As an exercise: move around as a person led by her nose, then led by her feet, her belly, her chin.
I later studied East Indian Dance – Bharata Natyam with teachers Kama Dev, Savithri Jagannatha Rao and Kalanidhi Narayanan. It was a big journey to venture into another culture and tradition. Bharata Natyam is used to portray stories from the Hindu Mythology. There is a very long tradition of analyzing character and emotion in this dance. The reason I wanted to learn Bharata Natyam was that I saw a few performances of dancers that in such a wonderful way were able to convey the stories, that I was convinced I should learn this to be able to tell stories not necessarily just from India but also from my own far away part of the world which is Finland. After a few years of training I ventured into doing some Finnish stories with some of the techniques I had learned in India.
Folktales and myths travel all over the world and as we all know many characters can be found in slightly different costume in many different story traditions. The leap, though geographically huge was not that big when it came to the characters and of course the emotions that we all share.
The movement in storytelling technique I retain from the Bharata Natyam is foremost visualization and identification.
To make an audience believe you are walking through a forest you really have to see, hear and smell the forest in you own imagination. If you do your eyes and your whole body will convey that foresty feeling.
Try: Close your eyes and imagine a landscape. Really “look” at each and every detain with your mind’s eye. Now open your eyes and try to retain that image. Look around and “see” this landscape. Try this with, for example; a cozy garden, a desolate desert, a dark cave, deep under the ocean and observe what happens with your face, your breathing and your body posture.
To portray a character a good exercise is to look – for a long time – at a picture of the character, or a picture you find that you can imagine the character looks like. Try to really imagine your face is the face of the character on the picture. Try and feel how your body and your breath starts moving in a different ways that goes with the face.
When it comes to emotions, the Indian tradition talks about the Nine “Rasas”. Rasa is what happens between an artist and her audience. – A painter paints a happy picture and the spectator feels happy watching it. Together the artist and the spectator have created Rasa. A storyteller tells a sad story and the audience feel for the characters in the story. Together they have created Rasa.
The nine Rasas are:
Sringara – Love
Hasya – Comedy
Veera – Heroism
Adbhuta – Wonder
Bhayam – Fear
Bheebathsa – Disgust
Raudra – Violence
Karuna – Compassion
Shanta – Peace
The emotions causing these Rasas all have their particular way of moving our body and breath. Some make us open up, other make us contract, some make us breathe in others out. Try and think of different emotions and feel how they move your body. Do you open up or contract? What part of the body reacts? What happens to your breath? What happens to your eyes?
These are some aspects of the different performance techniques that I have found very useful in storytelling.