Michael Chekhov and the visual arts

Influences, synergies, collaborations

Authored by: Julia Listengarten

The Routledge Companion to Michael Chekhov

Print publication date:  May  2015
Online publication date:  May  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415710183
eBook ISBN: 9781315716398
Adobe ISBN: 9781317506867


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This chapter seeks to place Michael Chekhov’s theory and practice in the context of cross-disciplinary artistic debates, specifically reexamining his legacy in relation to practices in the visual arts. Recent theoretical discussions about the intercultural and transnational nature and principles of twentieth-century avant-garde theatre have drawn attention to the primacy of performance gesture, hybridity of artistic forms, and visual dramaturgy as opposed to text. This shift in authority from literary to performance-driven practices is one of avant-garde theatre’s principal characteristics. In Chekhov’s theory and practice, the relationship between the textual and the performative is complex. In his preoccupation with the image and the infinite possibility of its transformation during the process of creating a character, he is akin to visual artists-cum-playwrights such as Vasily Kandinsky and Stanis?aw Ignacy Witkiewicz, whose experiments with visual art forms influenced their approaches to language and theatre. Chekhov’s image-driven methodology has also been compared to Antonin Artaud’s treatment of performance gesture (Chamberlain 2004: 24; Byckling 2000: 109–10). Liisa Byckling argues that Chekhov’s attempts to create a universal theatrical language, especially in his Paris production of the pantomime The Castle Awakening: An Essay in Rhythmical Drama, can be compared to Artaud’s experiments with performance-based non-western culture; she also links Chekhov’s artistic pursuit for universality in theatre to later experiments of Jerzy Grotowski and Eugenio Barba, and Peter Brook’s search for universal language. Yana Meerzon, too, writes that Brook’s principles of actor’s training that he was developing in the 1970s at the International Center for Theatre Research in Paris are evocative of “Chekhov’s attempts to create an international language based on movements, gestures, rhythms, and sounds” (2005: 269–70). She further highlights the intercultural and interdisciplinary nature of Chekhov’s theatre and compares his theatrical vision to the works of Jacques Lecoq, Richard Schechner, and Robert Lepage. Arguably, Chekhov’s acting system, rooted in the actor’s ability to imagine/create/collaborate with the image, can be discussed in the context of recent avant-garde experiments by Robert Wilson, the Wooster Group, and others in which visual dramaturgy created on stage calls upon the audience’s associative and sensory responses.

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