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A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: The Secret Art of the Performer

A review of a sprawling, sometimes maddening new book about world theatre.

A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: The Secret Art of the Performer by Eugenio Barba and Nicola Savarese, Routledge, New York, 1991. 270 pp, $29.95 paper.

For much of his brilliant career, Eugenio Barba has devoted himself to demystifying the performing arts of the Orient: In a 1963 landmark essay he introduced Indian kathakali to many in the West; a year later he founded the experimental Odin Teatret in Oslo; and in 1979 he launched the International School of Theatre Anthropology (ISTA) to explore the “extra-daily body techniques” of various performative genes. Most recently he has teamed with Italian theatre scholar and practitioner Nicola Savarese to produce the sprawling, packed and often maddening Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: The Secret Art of the Performer.

Although the phrase “theatre anthropology” implies a cultural analysis of performance, Barba and Savarese here present something more like an international, A-to-Z survey of physical-theatre techniques. From “anatomy” and “balance” on through “face,” “hands,” “rhythm” and “training,” the book caroms from one body part/technique/tradition to another, with an organizing principle no more profound that the alphabet. About three-quarters of the entries were written by Barba and Savarese, either solo or in tandem; the rest were contributed by such theatrical authorities as Jerzy Grotowski, Richard Schechner, Francco Ruffini and Ferdinando Taviani. Hundreds of photographs and illustrations point out postural correspondences between such unlikely pairs as the Commedia figure and the Mayan dancer pictured here.

From the back cover of the Dictionary we learn that Barba was a welder in his youth, and indeed his interest in the nuts-and-bolts of acting and dancing around the world appears to override any broader concern about what performance means, or how it creates meaning. When he moves beyond descriptions of specific techniques, brash generalizations follow: Contrasting “Oriental” performance genres with “Occidental,” Barba suggests that the former are codified, the latter not. (But is Irish step-dancing uncodified? How about flamenco?) He writes that ballet is “the only codified performance form in the Occident.” (What about tap-dancing?) He also claims that all art must be representational, that “a body imitating a body” is not art. (What do Balanchine’s abstractions “represent”?)

Taken once at a time, the entries in the Dictionary are fascinating flashbulbs, shedding light on myriad ways of performing—breathing in noh, eye movement in kathakali, balance in Indian bharatanatyam, and so on. For actors grounded in 20th-century American realism, this plethora of body-based—rather than psychologically based—information could prove (literally) eye-opening. Particularly persuasive is Schechner’s essay on “restoration of behavior” (reprinted from his 1984 book Between Theater and Anthropology), which illuminates several different cultural manifestations of a single performative phenomenon. Unlike Barba, Schechner seems to see that it’s the differences between various “Oriental” modes of behavior—not the similarities—that are most compelling.

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