- Gesture, Interruption, Vibration:Rethinking Early Twentieth-Century Gestural Theory and Practice in Walter Benjamin, Rudolf von Laban, and Mary Wigman
Convulsive beauty will be … fixed-explosive.—André Breton (1987, 19)
“Epic theater is a gestic theater,” Walter Benjamin writes in his 1931 essay on Brecht, entitled “What Is the Epic Theater? (I),” and he adds “[t]he more frequently we interrupt someone engaged in acting, the more gestures result. The interruption of an action is thus at the foreground of epic theater” (1991, 521).1 Benjamin’s observations mark a twofold break with the aesthetics of theater. On the one side, he propagates Brecht’s new concept of epic theater, which the latter set against a theater of illusion and empathy; on the other side, he introduces a shift in the theory of theatrical gesture, favoring thereby a new paradigm of arrest. Gestural arrest is to be understood, here, as a defamiliarizing theatrical intervention into everyday gestural regimes, bringing them to a halt and deconstructing them in order to reveal their ideological implications. Theatrical gesture, that is, was no longer conceived as a universal language of the soul, as in the eighteenth century, nor was it considered an “involuntary physiological response” or an “unconscious manifestation of psychic depth,” as in nineteenth-century naturalism (Smart 2004, 17). If Brecht and Benjamin formed “one of the classic literary partnerships of the revolutionary Socialist movement” (Mitchell 1998, vii), they did so not least because of a shared belief in the political power of a theater that lays bare its own gestural devices.
It is not Brecht’s much-discussed theatrical work, but Benjamin’s theory of gesture, that will initiate the readings of the following article. This theory forms an important counterpart to the equally innovative gestural theory and practice that were developed by Rudolf von Laban and Mary Wigman in the field of dance. Laban and Wigman also broke with the aesthetic tradition of their genre. In the ballets of the danse d’école, sequences of gestural pantomime alternate with sequences of pure dancing; Laban and Wigman (and the various other proponents of Weimar dance who are generally subsumed under the heading of Ausdruckstanz) are united by the fact that they regard dance itself as gesture.2 In this sense, they cleared the terrain for a meta-generic comparison of theatrical and danced gesture on the basis of a theory of gesture itself. The new gestural dance was not meant to give direct access to personal emotions, as in the eighteenth-century model of dramatic gesture. It “instituted a split between emotion and expression” (Franko 1995, x); that is, it engaged in processes of gestural abstraction that were deemed reflective and productive of universal “laws of [End Page 23] movement,” and of modes of “experiencing, being, and communicating” (Laban 1920, 58). Above all, gesture was inextricably linked to the flow of movement (Wigman 1933, 19). This aesthetic of gestural flow mirrors a vitalist understanding of life that was based on the belief in transhistorical continuities between human and cosmic energy, between the “gestures” of the world and those of the dancer. Benjamin’s Brechtian gestures, by contrast, address inscriptions and manipulations of bodies, which provide comment on the conditions of society by disrupting and subjecting to critique the essentializing aspects of transhistorical and vitalist flow. A comparison of Benjamin with Laban and Wigman thus throws into relief the characteristics of their heterogeneous approaches to gesture.
Approaching theater and dance from a perspective that is shaped by an interest in theories of gesture, my contribution rests on the assumption that both arts inform—and are informed by—a multifaceted gestural imaginary that arises in the early twentieth century across artistic practices, and aesthetic and scientific discourses. Its dense, unbalanced, pulsating energy integrates, transforms, and comments upon everyday gestural conduct; it embraces aesthetics of arrest and aesthetics of flow.3 In particular, my inquiry proposes to revisit sites and forms of vibration, which, as I would like to show, both belong to and are situated at the edges of the new gestural imaginary. These sites and forms of vibration hold the promise of enriching or destabilizing—or enriching by destabilizing—the...