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Bodyspeak: A New Look at the Art of Movement - Part 7

Part 7: Return to the Body

In its integrative role, mime belongs in the context of a twentieth-century undertaking that we might call "The Return to the Body." The Western discovery of Eastern disciplines - yoga, Tai Chi, the martial arts - is a mark of this trend. Modern dance - as pioneered by Duncan, St. Denis, Shaw, Graham, Cunningham, and others - has sought to liberate the expressive body. Movement therapies - such as those developed by Alexander, Feldenkrais, Trager, and Rolf - have played an important role.

Psychology began to investigate the inter-relationship of mind and body. Head, a contemporary of Freud, described kinesthesia as "deep sensibility." Gestalt has brought about a complete re-assessment of the nature of perception. Schilder speaks of the "body-schemes" by which we orient ourselves. A body-centered trend in psychotherapy is emerging. Somatic Psychology, a recent development that traces its origins to the early Freud and to his student Wilhelm Reich, considers that "body sensations, gestures, postures, and expressive movements are a kind of language of the unconscious."(23)

In the field of anthropology, Ray Birdwhistell developed "kinesics," a method of minutely analyzing communicative behavior. Edward T. Hall pioneered the science of "proxemics" in his influential studies, The Silent Language and The Hidden Dimension, which argue that gesture and use of space are a language in themselves that can vary from culture to culture.

Poets and novelists have led the vanguard of the return to the body. T. S. Eliot laments our "dissociation of sensibility." D. H. Lawrence considers the "blood knowledge" of the body and "reciprocity of touch" to be the only real hope for human redemption. Poet Theodore Roethke sings sensual praise of "a woman lovely in her bones."

Popular writers have taken up the chorus. Diane Ackerman saturates us with A Natural History of the Senses. Morris Berman writes eloquently and urgently of the need for Coming to Our Senses. Michael Murphy has produced an encyclopedic assessment he calls The Future of the Body.

 Philosophy in this century has at last begun to address the full implications of the Cartesian legacy of mind/body dualism. The subtle analyses of Merleau-Ponty and the highly original reflections of Gaston Bachelard represent the pinnacle of this endeavor.

All of these efforts, and this is of course only a selective inventory, have played a part in correcting the imbalance created by a host of "isms" - including Puritanism, Romanticism, Victorianism, as well as various strains of philosophic Idealism and religious mysticism -or gnosticism - that had discredited or denied the body, or upheld an otherworldly ideal in which the body played at best a marginal role. Twentieth century human beings arrived at the supposed final "ism," the Deconstructionism of the 1970's, with nowhere else to go.

Morris Berman calls this tragic tale of flight from the body "the hidden history of the West" and makes his own plea for reunion. Yet Berman himself admits, in his candid epilogue to Coming to Our Senses: "This has been a difficult book for me to write; I struggled a lot with my own body, which I love and hate, as the pages were filling with ink." He wonders if he may in fact have "overvalued the body as a vehicle of cultural integrity":

We can recognize the tremendous drawback of the mind/body split, and the severe limits of dualism and a dualistic culture; but body integrity finally doesn't necessarily get you into the social or natural environment, and there is no way that these can be ignored.(24)

If Berman struggles in a love/hate relationship with his own body, he may not truly know whether body integrity, fully realized, can "get you into the social or natural environment." He regrets:

Something obvious keeps eluding our civilization, something that involves a reciprocal relationship between nature and psyche, and that we are going to have to grasp if we are to survive as a species. But it hasn't come together yet, and as a result, to use the traditional labels, it is still unclear whether we are entering a new Dark Age or a new Renaissance.(25)

Berman is surely correct in observing that "it hasn't come together yet," in spite of the dedicated efforts of the artists, psychologists, and philosophers mentioned in our brief survey. Pioneer visionaries do not any longer have the option of retiring to a basement atelier with Decroux or to the woods of Maine with Thoreau - who had longings of his own:

I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one. . .but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries!-Think of our life in nature, - daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it.,-rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?(26)

Thoreau wails where Berman sighs, but the same concern haunts both: where have we arrived in our headlong technological rush? can we much longer endure the divisive legacy of our systems of thought and belief? how do we redeem the natural world and a community that has lost its way? In partial response, Berman cites Decroux, who once remarked "that people should walk down the street as if they belonged to each other."(27) More than that is required, of course, but we might also cite Barrault, who speaks very differently from Thoreau:

Life has been given to us? A great thanks! I will never do enough to be worthy of this gift. Modern society, carried today in a sort of toboggan of destruction, can leave me lost and wandering in the middle of a pile of ruins; that doesn't bother me anymore. In giving me life one made me: a body. An integrated body, a magnetic body which, giving me the universe for parents, tells me what I have to do: to connect myself with it. This body which I love as much as I love life, I must be worthy of. I am at the same time astonished and marvelling. . . . I am not against anyone. I am ready, on the contrary, to bring my humble share to the community.(28)

Apocalypticism may be just too grandiose a mood to be indulged any longer. We already know that the Emerald City is an overrated destination and that "there's no place like home." How do we get there? The answer, Avital would say, is right under our noses.

Melissa Huntress, a long-distance runner who took Avital's three-week summer program and is currently working privately with him, speaks about the effect of the training.(29) Each physical improvement has been accompanied by another change that is even more subtle and meaningful. Practice of Avital's exercise cycles enables her to lift out of her pelvis and breathe more fully; her motion "is more directed and organized" and she runs "with less effort." She is also "beginning to feel or sense a very subtle internal circular movement of energy - an ebbing and flowing, a rising and falling." At the same time she notices that she is more able to feel her own source of power and motion. She calls the experience a feeling of "deeper will." "Best of all," she says, "I make the decision to be running this way now. Before I would have this experience randomly or accidentally."

But another phenomenon is occurring, one that might interest both Berman and Thoreau. By practicing Avital's perceptual exercises she experiences increased depth and dimension of perception, as if she is fully embracing, with all her senses simultaneously, the terrain through which she runs. She has a feeling that she is no longer just running past scenery: "I am now able to draw on the power of things I am running by." She is very careful to explain that her experience of this is something much more focused and intelligible than "runner's high." Perhaps it is the "elusive obvious" that Berman mentions: "something that involves a reciprocal relationship between nature and psyche, and that we are going to have to grasp if we are to survive as a species."

He says this relationship "hasn't come together yet," but evidently there is a way it can: a method that is a physics of the body as well as an art form, that unites aesthetic cultivation and physical discipline, that integrates body and mind in service of imagination and creativity, that activates deep sensibility and a deeper will and permits nature and psyche to link up on a morning run - a bodymind compass known as BodySpeak™.

Jane Evenson, Boulder, Colorado - ©January 1994


Continue to Part 8: References and Notes

"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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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.