Movement director Ayse Tashkiran rehearsing Maria Aberg’s 2018 production of The Duchess of Malfi, Royal Shakespeare Company. Photo © Helen Maybanks/RSC


To sit or not to sit? The question of movement direction

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Movement director Ayse Tashkiran rehearsing Maria Aberg’s 2018 production of The Duchess of Malfi, Royal Shakespeare Company. Photo © Helen Maybanks/RSC
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What do movement directors do? A new collection of interviews shines a light on an overlooked craft

Six months after leaving my dance career, I sat in a rehearsal room as a fresh dramaturgy intern and witnessed an actress clash dramatically with a director. He was telling her to sit on a specific chair, stage left, and she simply couldn’t imagine her character behaving that way. She couldn’t find the intention behind that action. She didn’t feel it. My dance brain felt like doing an eye-roll – ‘for God’s sake, just sit!’ – but my new dramaturg brain observed, trying to understand. In hindsight, what could have unlocked this particular rehearsal room would have been a movement director.

Since coronavirus restrictions have confined us to our homes, the eyes of eager dance enthusiasts may have wandered over to other art forms to get their fix of entertainment – Netflix, streamed online theatre, the careful choreography of political press briefings – but the attentive observer will of course notice that movement is everywhere. Movement is a huge part of human life and communication; anyone in the business of storytelling, who wants to touch people and make them react, cannot bypass the body. Watching other bodies move directly affects us in our own bodies. Mirror neurones ignite real physical responses in the audience. The power to generate kinaesthetic empathy is dance’s greatest strength and a storytelling tool that should be a no-brainer for directors to use.

The late, great Sir Ken Robinson often spoke about dance being the least respected art form, the ‘posterchild for underestimating something hugely important’. It is indeed baffling that while countless studies have shown human communication to be largely non-verbal, so many people feel uncomfortable about or avoid using their bodies. In British theatre, the word is king. The script is sacred and Shakespeare is a national treasure (and Shakespeare bothered very little with what people do on stage while they speak). Actors have voice coaches and accent coaches and learn projection, but sometimes neglect their body as a communicating tool. In opera, world-famous singers are still allowed (luckily, less and less) to walk up to the ramp and deliver their aria, a peak emotional moment within the story, completely static. This produces a disconnect between the emotion an audience hears about in words and the physical cues they observe from the body in front of them. They don’t match. We are not, after all, ‘amorphous, floating brains’ (Sir Ken again) who happen to be hosted by a body; we are creatures who experience the world as we do because we have a body – indeed, because we are bodies.

For actors, the body and physical movement can be hugely important keys towards unlocking and developing their characters, and it is tremendously interesting how their work can differ from a dancer’s. While dancers are generally used to copying and remembering a routine of steps with impressive speed, self-checking the shape of their body and their placement in the mirror, an actor’s work involves ownership, questioning, experimenting, choices and inhabiting every aspect of their character, including the movement. They need to understand and feel the intention behind an action. This approach to creating movement from the inside out and through collaborative searching and co-creating is better known in contemporary dance – but rare in other dance forms such as ballet, ballroom dancing or a big musical number.

Movement direction by Kate Flatt for Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Peter Grimes, Opera North (Leeds, UK). Photo © Robert Workman
Movement direction by Kate Flatt for Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Peter Grimes, Opera North (Leeds, UK). Photo © Robert Workman

Shining a light on this overlooked and undervalued field, there now comes a new book, Movement Directors in Contemporary Theatre: Conversations on Craft, by London-based movement director, teacher and researcher Ayse Tashkiran. The idea came to her back in 2009: she was at a round table with colleagues from her field, and realised it was the first time that movement directors were talking to other movement directors in a curated format about their common practice. There was no movement directors association in the UK at the time (Tashkiran and colleague Diane Alison-Mitchell founded one in August 2020). Movement directors are not recognised as theatre creatives by Equity, the UK’s official union for performers and creatives; their work is often invisible, and until 2005, when the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama launched the first Movement Directing MA in Europe, there was no formal pathway into the career. And there is no book – until now.

Introducing the subject in traditional academic style, Tashkiran sketches the history of movement directing, from the early pioneers in the field such as Litz Pisk, Claude Chagrin, Geraldine Stephenson and Jean Newlove, to how they have influenced the following generation of practitioners.

The body of the book, however, is handed over to the original voices of movement directors working in theatre right now, and here is where the book really comes alive. Tashkiran has collected interviews with fellow movement directors for years. She is a great interviewer and a careful listener, instinctively taking a back seat and giving space and time to her interviewee, only intercepting to dig a little deeper or tease out more clarification. With only the lightest of editing, the different voices are largely left untouched, which can feel a little rough and ready at times, but makes up much of the book’s charm. It brims with different personalities, unfinished thoughts and stream-of-consciousness monologues – the struggles of people who habitually work with bodies to find the right word.

The book allows us to sneak a peek directly into the rehearsal room and the very practical physical craft that happens there. While some of the movement directors have a background or formal training in dance, others come from acting (many citing the physical theatre school of Lecoq), others from the wider field of visual arts, literature or indeed the school of ‘watching others, listening and learning’. The interviews all meander off in different directions but common themes arise. All of the movement directors struggle with describing precisely what they do, what to call themselves, and perhaps as a result of this uncertainty, with being recognised and credited for their contribution.

So what is a movement director? The role seems to be undefinably located somewhere between choreographer, associate director, therapist and dramaturg. Ann Yee, who has worked with illustrious theatre directors such as Phyllida Lloyd and Robert Icke, describes herself as simply ‘a theatre maker’, while others such as Steven Hoggett, founder of the physical theatre company Frantic Assembly, seem to fight with more convoluted, abstract ideas such as ‘bringing to the fore that which exists in every piece of theatre: inherent in every actor and scene is physicality happening in front of a live audience.’ Sue Lefton, whose movement work spans film, theatre and opera, admits ‘I understand what movement directing means to me, but each director I work with will understand the term ‘movement’ in a totally different way’. And therein lies the crux.

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Movement directing is not for egomaniacs, but the humility needed in the rehearsal room can too often result in being overlooked

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Back to the nitty gritty of a movement director’s work. There seem to be roughly three categories. The most obviously choreographic aspect is creating a specific dance sequence within a show, where the movement director, similar to a dramaturg, often brings knowledge of historic accuracy or social etiquette for period dances or formal social dance settings.

The second task all the movement directors stress as vitally important is to create a warm-up routine for the ensemble, to prepare them for physical activity and maintain levels of strength for the specific needs of the production that can be sustained for the run of the show. Other goals of a communal warm-up are to gel the ensemble together, for the movement director to see what levels of ability they are working with, to try some tasks to get creative juices flowing and create an atmosphere where ideas and discoveries can happen. Performers who strongly identify as actors or singers, with no formal dance training, can often be quite fearful of dance, so preparing the room and making people comfortable is crucial.

The third and most substantial task for the movement director is then to find and develop the individual movement language of the specific production together with the performers. All the movement directors stress how they take their cues from the director, how the movement needs to seamlessly sit within the production and serve the director’s vision. Movement directing is not for egomaniacs, but the humility needed in the rehearsal room can too often result in being overlooked in credits or awards (no UK theatre awards currently have no category for movement direction).

What of the future? The closing chapter gives space to a younger generation of up and coming movement directors, some of whom have been the first to take the newly available formal education path. Abandoning the previous format of one-on-one interviews, the indirect quotes, presumably taken from a group discussion, make this section feel more passive. Common aspirations from the younger movement makers are: to have more standing within a creative team and to be given more time and space to make a mark on a production. They talk about how movement directors can be instrumental in bringing about necessary changes in industry practice to safely perform intimacy or violence. They lament the instability and precariousness of freelance work, particularly work that is considered as peripheral or non-essential.

But as with dance, so with movement: it is forever being looked down upon. It’s impossible to predict at this time, but the pandemic and the alarming jeopardy the theatre industry now finds itself in may mean the hopes and wishes for the future of movement directors could be more elusive than ever. 

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Movement Directors in Contemporary Theatre: Conversations on Craft by Ayse Tashkiran is published by Methuen Drama in the Theatre Makers series. More details:

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