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Act like a Baroque Actor!

Try this: Stand up or sit forward, whichever you are able (back straight!). Put your left foot slightly in front of your right one, and point it away from your body. Move your right arm away from your body, elbow slightly bent. Make sure that you don't raise your arm above the height of your shoulder. Straighten your wrist and extend your index finger slightly. Your remaining fingers should rest a little below the index finger. Finally, bend your left elbow and place your left hand against your hip. How do you feel? You might feel like a king! This is the posture that King Louis XIV of France adopts in his famous portrait painted by Hyacinthe Rigaud in 1701. It is a posture that communicates power and authority. It is also a standard posture used in baroque opera. Physical gestures were an integral part of opera performance in 17th- and 18th-century France. The way that a singer arranged his or her body communicated something about his or her character or emotional state, and expressed the rhetorical aspect of their texts. Gesture expert Dene Barnett (The Art of Gesture, 1987) has outlined 8 basic gestures that were used in baroque acting. Some of the most basic gestures include indicative gestures (point to what you are talking about); imitative gestures (make a motion that acts out what you are talking about); and gestures of address (motion towards the person or thing to which you are talking) (Barnett, 18).

Hyacinthe Rigaud, Louis XIV of France (1701)

"Baroque acting gestures" may sound like an obscure concept. But many of the gestures and poses that baroque actors used onstage have carried over into basic communication in our culture. We use gestures to enhance or assist in verbal communication all the time. Next time you are at a meeting or in a classroom, or even waiting in line at the grocery store, look around to see how people move their bodies to emphasize their speech.

Learning how to perform and recognize baroque acting gestures will enrich your listening experience of baroque music. Let's try something else. Listen to this excellent recording of "Arise, ye subterranean winds" by The King's Consort from the semi-opera The Tempest (London, 1674 and 1695), whose music and text were contributed to by many artists, including Henry Purcell, Thomas Shadwell, John Dryden, and William Davenant (the work was ultimately based on Shakespeare's eponymous play). Close to the end of Act II, a spirit of the air conjures chaotic winds by singing the following air:

Arise, arise, ye subterranean winds,

More to distract their guilty minds. Arise, ye minds whose rapid force can make All but the fix’d and solid centre shake; Come drive these wretches to that part o’th’ Isle Where Nature never yet did smile. Come fogs and damps, whirlwinds and earthquakes there, There let them howl and languish in despair Rise and obey the pow’rful prince o’ th’ air.

Read this text aloud. Notice the powerful sense of movement that many of the verbs evoke: arise, shake, come drive, rise. How would you move your body to emphasize these words? This air would be a good opportunity to try a gesture of address or invocation, since the spirit is calling upon the "subterranean winds." Remember the Louis XIV stance you just practiced? Stand/sit up straight and move your left foot out slightly in front of your right one. Straighten and slightly raise your left arm so that it is perpendicular to your body. Now, raise your right arm above your head, index finger pointing upwards, other fingers trailing behind. With this pose, you are telling people that you are invoking or calling upon the winds. Trying reading the text aloud while maintaining this pose, or listen to a recording of the piece while performing this gesture. When you listen to the recording, you'll notice that the music often rises upwards in pitch as the singer invokes the winds to arise - the act of raising your hand unites music, text, and physical movement to create a powerful image of a spirit summoning the elements of nature.

The next time you listen to baroque vocal music, think about how physical movement and gesture enhances the text. You'll also notice meaningful gestures in baroque visual art. The background of our webpage uses an illustration of a performance of Lully's Armide at the Palais-Royal in 1761. If you look closely at the two actors at centerstage, you'll notice that both actors have placed one foot in front of the other. The man holds his arms out in a gesture of address, while the woman places one hand over her heart, perhaps as an indicative gesture to signify that she is singing about love.

You can read more about baroque gesture in many books, including but not limited to Dene Barnett's The Art of Gesture: the Practices and Principles of 18th-century Acting (1987), Judy Tarling's The Weapons of Rhetoric: A Guide for Musicians and Audiences (2004), Sabine Chaouche's L'Art du Comédien: Déclamation et jeu scénique en France à l'âge classique (1629-1680) (2001), and Jed Wentz's PhD dissertation, The Relationship between Gesture, Affect, and Rhythmic Freedom in the Performance of French Tragic Opera from Lully to Rameau (2010).

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