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

By Eugenio Barba and Nicola Savarese

review by Howard Rheingold

A true how-to book on practical magic. Education, friendship, courtship, parenting, politics, art, commerce, warfare all depend upon a strong element of performance. This book is a treasurehouse of astonishing and useful lore about how performers perform, everywhere in the world, illustrated by a profusion of equally astonishing and useful photographs and drawings. Mudras, minuets, masks, ritual, biomechanics, draumaturgy, rhythm, staging, improv, semiotics, footwork, make-up, choreography, mythology and other phenomena that reflect different aspects of the full spectrum of human performance are examined with attention to spiritual, communicative, social, and aesthetic meanings of each variety of performative behavior.

This book is a vibrant example of what Anthropologist Clifford Geertz means by "thick description." Society is a performance. Culture is a performance. We are performers, and we might as well get good at it.


"Among the ten qualities of the dancer in Indian tradition, there is one quality which has to do with knowing how to see, how to direct the eyes in space. It is a sign that the dancer is reacting to something precise. At times, a performer's training exercises appear to be extraordinarily well-executed, but the actions have no power because the way of using the eyes is not precisely directed. On the other hand, the body may be relaxed, but if the eyes are ative -- that is, if they see in order to observe -- then the performer's body is brought to life. In this sense, the eyes are like the performer's second spinal column. All the Oriental traditions codify eye movements and the directions the eyes must follow. This has to do not only with what the spectator sees, but also the performer herself, the way she populates the empty space with lines of force, with stimuli to which she must react."

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