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Gestural Performance

by Jeremy Butler

The significance of human gestures to a performance has been discussed since at least the nineteenth century, when a French teacher of elocution, François Delsarte (1811–71), codified gestures into the Delsarte system of performance. In the Delsarte system there is a strict vocabulary of gesture. However, the meanings of gestural performance are not as clearcut or universal as Delsarte maintained. Instead, gestures convey meanings in more ambiguous fashion and in a way that changes over time and from culture to culture. Hand gestures, in particular, differ markedly from one country to another. In the United States, most people would indicate the number one by holding up their first finger, but in Poland they use their thumb, which in the US would typically signify, “Okay.” Despite the inherent ambiguity of human gestures, Delsarte’s codification system was commonly taught to stage actors as the twentieth century began and had a notable impact on the performance style in early, silent film, too. 

The use of gestures is clearly one of the actor’s main resources. Meg Ryan’s performances, for instance, feature gestures that are so broad and active that they sometimes catch camera operators by surprise. In a shot from As the World Turns, she waves good-bye to a friend and does it so broadly that her arm extends beyond the frame of the image. What meaning are we to assign to this arm movement? Perhaps we can say that this odd gesture contributes to the quirkiness of her character, but that is nowhere near as precise as Delsarte’s strict code of gesture. 

Gestural Performance in "As the World Turns"

Performance in television.

from As the World Turns (1984)
Creator: CBS
Distributor: CBS
Posted by Jeremy Butler