Responses to Rodin Research | The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama

Co-researchers Rachel Nouchi and Ana Marambio presented a paper entitled UNDERSTANDING VISUAL ART THROUGH MOVEMENT at the Movement: Body Brain Cognition Conference at Oxford University on July 7th2017

Movement practitioners and neuroscientists gathered to discuss the connection between body and brain in a varied programme of science and arts-based presentations hosted by academics in the fields of neuroscience and movement provoking fascinating connections between the two fields.  

Research methods

We were invited to share our research drawing on material gathered over a two-year period as part of a research initiative between the International Centre for Movement and The Courtauld Institute to look at the movement dynamics in Rodin’s work in support of the exhibition, Rodin and Dance, The Essence of Movement, at the Courtauld Gallery (20th October 2016-January 22 2017).

Our research methods were developed using movement practices as a tool to deepen our understanding of the artworks in question; a collection of sculptures executed by Rodin towards the end of his life named posthumously as ‘Mouvements de Danse’ (1910-1915).

We wanted to find out how embodying the artwork through movement improvisation and physically drawing on paper, capturing moving bodies in a space, could deepen our understanding of what we were looking at. Using movement practices as a method of discovery led us to neuroscience and what it can offer the movement practitioner in terms of understanding the connections between movement, body and brain. ‘Artistic understanding always emerges from embodied simulation processes that incorporate the ongoing dynamics of brain, bodies and interaction with the world’ (Gibbs, 2013) clearly encapsulates our research process and what we were trying to achieve.

Compositional structures associated with creating art mirror many movement principles; space, weight, rhythm, balance, to name but a few, understanding such relationships through the discovery of Mirror Neurons’ (neurons that "mirror" the behaviour of the other, as though the observer were itself acting) and embodied simulation explain how the brain and body are fully engaged in this process. 

Movement Laboratories

With this in mind, by instigating movement laboratories, we set up a series of movement and drawing tasks to capture live movement to better understand the movement information embedded in Rodin’s drawings and sculptures. During each laboratory, through the exploration of muscular efforts, alignment, rhythm and directional impetus found in Rodin’s work, we attempted to get closer to the movement he was presenting.  This in turn influenced the curator to create a gallery space where viewers could view exhibition through the eyes of movement.  As co researcher curator, Dr Alexandra Gerstein confirms: “Not only does each figure compress several movements into one form, but altogether the series could be said to operate a piece of theatre, with one figure enacting a sequence of loosely related actions which can be observed in real time.” 

Documentation suggests that Rodin’s models were in his studio for at least 3 hours moving freely.  His aim was to capture movement while they were moving– thus many drawings – almost 5,000 in total, came from capturing live movement. Our research confirmed that as well as his drawings showing motion, his sculptures were often precariously off balance. 


One of our earliest discoveries was to establish that many of the sculptures and drawing did not correspond to the laws of the human anatomy and such anomalies became increasingly revealing as we attempted to find the postures in our own bodies - at times, with minimal success. Many of the postures represented could only be reached with aid of support. For example, the movement research team used walls to balance against and props such as boxes and yoga squares.  It was only after a longer period that the more subtle postures revealed themselves.

There are many factors that come to play when considering what composes the movement including the pull of gravity, weight, balance and the lines of tension, activated throughout the body when seeking a pose. Some of the sculptures exude a line of tension that prove the sculptures to be off kilter and the leg suspended in the air, thus the very nature of being out of balance might suggest falling or moving into another position. We often found that by changing the orientation of the pose, as Rodin did with his own work, the dynamics of the sculpture/drawing could be more clearly understood or re imagined. 

We experimented at attempting to recreate the sculptures through isolating body parts given to individuals as separate tasks and regrouped as each person formed a human cluster that maybe moved  us closer towards the essence of some of the sculptures on display. Rodin had created these sculptures through assemblages of moulded and cast body parts (taken from two source models) and through our practices, we had arrived at the same realization as the curator but through an embodied route.

Through movement practice and historical research, we established that the sculptures’ positions did not hail from Yoga or Ballet practices as maybe we initially assumed. Whilst we used similar principles of flexibility and strength that come from Yoga, we applied such principles using different dynamics through the space. Thus evolved a preparatory warm up for action - an acrobatic limber as part of the process reflecting the postures. Such preparation exercises themselves allowed for further discovery and the curators witnessed similar movements echoed in the drawings that they had found in the archives, representing precise moments of our exploration.

It was only by interrogating the sculptures through a series of movement laboratories over an extended period of time that we began to create a method of empathy and understanding directed to these specific works of art.We discovered that by moving our bodies in response to Rodin’s work with clear objectives, a deeper empathy or understanding of the artwork could be encountered and as such, an action-based agenda allowed us this experience. This became further targeted with one member of the team facilitating, directing and offering feedback in response to movement tasks. With such clear, focused direction, our responses to the sculptures and drawings became increasingly lucid. As Victor Gallese found in his research on mirror neurons: “In the case of the mirror neurons, what seems to matter most is that action must be goal orientated.” (Gallese 2010). 

MA Movement student Viola Bruni participated in the Rodin research project and what follows is her response, originally created for a blog on the Courtauld Institute website.

Fig 1: Movement AContortion is not an art that everybody can practice, but Alda Moreno was definitely gifted with the extraordinary flexibility necessary to practice this ancient technique. In the fascinating exhibition “Rodin and Dance: the Essence of Movement”, the Spanish model is captured on paper and in clay in a series of movements which demonstrate her ability to bend in extreme ways.

When I look at these sculptures I can see that not all of them are realistic. To my eye, Rodin was playing with exaggerating movements by composing impossible poses. Nevertheless, some of the movements are also realistic, and look similar to movements of the circus discipline of contortion, of Yoga and of gymnastics.

Myriam Peignist in her article "Histoire anthropologique des danses acrobatiques", suggests that Alda Moreno worked at the Opéra Comique in an environment where dance and circus melt to create the professional figure of the danseuse-acrobat, a sort of hybrid performer in between dance and circus.

By taking part in a collaborative project led by the MA/MFA Movement: Directing and Teaching course leaders at Royal Central School of Speech & Drama, and exhibition curator Dr. Gerstein, it was interesting to note that many of the movements seem to be preparatory ones rather than finished poses. Having a circus background, it was clear to me when certain poses could lead to further acrobatic movements.

Fig 2: Movement BDiffering art historians suggest that when embarking on a series of drawings Rodin used to watch carefully chosen models moving for hours. When he saw something interesting, he was quickly capturing it on paper. Most of the time he did this without interrupting the flow of the models’ movements by asking them to stand still in a pose. Being an acrobat and model for artists myself, I experienced being captured both in stillness and motion. If I imagine being one of Rodin's models, with others moving around me for an indefinite amount of time, I know that I would reach a state of flow, being liberated from time constraints and the pressure to create a pose. Such a state enables one to find one’s own personal rhythms and ways of exploring movement. Maybe this also happened to Rodin’s models, allowing him to capture normally unseen movements, warm-ups, and transitions. In my experience as performer, these moments retain more intimacy and subtleties than a perfectly finished pose.           

If we look closely at Movement A (fig. 1) we can see both hands catching the lifted feet. This pose could be finished in itself, or it could be caught at the middle stage of a ‘back catch’ or ‘leg in hand’ pose. If that is the case, the hands grasping the feet have the function of helping lift the leg until it reaches the maximum extension.

Fig 3: Split with back catchWhat makes Movement A interesting for me, is its versatility. Both the movement as Rodin portrayed it, and the final pose it could lead to can be performed in a variety of ways. This means that Rodin might have seen Alda Moreno performing Movement A in a number of different orientations: standing, lying on one side, lying on the chest, in a split (fig. 3).

Movement A can also originate from Movement B (fig. 2): one arm catches the opposite lifted leg, creating a hole for the other arm to pass through it. If the flexibility permits,  as in the case of a contortionist, the lifted leg can be rotated to reach a back catch pose, with the shoulder involved in the rotation and the knee of the floor leg bending then extending again to allow the movement.

Fig 4: Y scale poseMovement B could also simply lead to the pose in fig. 4 which is also part of the rhythmic gymnastic vocabulary. In this case, in order to reach the finite position, the shoulder of the free arm passes through the hole. It is then positioned close to the knee, so to lock the torso in a stable pose. The arm is then stretched on the side, and can potentially hold an object. For example a ribbon in rhythmic gymnastic, or be positioned according to various expressive functions.

Photo credits
Artist: Claudia Hughes
Photographer: Despina Photography

[1] Peygnist, Miriam. Corps 2/2009, (n° 7), p. 29-38

To my eye, Rodin was playing with exaggerating movements by composing impossible poses. Nevertheless, some of the movements are also realistic, and look similar to movements of the circus discipline of contortion, of Yoga and of gymnastics.