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What gave birth to Jacques Lecoq?

Updated: Apr 7, 2022

Yuyang(Angela) Zhang


“Physical education is a key area in the discipline related to social life and the production of cultural mores and value systems,” writes David Kirk. As an essential pedagogical approach and tool in European and American schools during the twentieth century, physical education prepared citizens for war.

Physical education produced an unexpected effect: the development of movements in theater. physical education influenced theater theorists to focus on human physicality in performance, both in before and after World War Two. Famous theorists and practitioners, such as Jean-Marie County, Antonin Artaud, and Jean-Louis Barrault, drew inspiration from their own physical exercises when developing their theatre performance theories. One of the most prominent theatre theorists and teachers is Jacques Lecoq, who sought to incorporate physical movement into his theatre and performance lessons.

The Impact of Physical Education before WWII

Born in Paris, France in 1921, Jacques Lecoq dedicated his early life to physical training rather than theatre. As a teenager, Lecoq lived through WWII, where the rise of nationalism made physical education a more important aspect of people’s daily lives. Lecoq played sports often, and at the age of seventeen, he understood the “geometry of movement and through exercising on the parallel and horizontal bars,” which made him more sensitive on physical movements. It’s so easy for Lecoq to feel the rhythms in his movements while waking on the street. This poetic kind of movement motivated Lecoq to explore the nature behind physical education, which he realized through toward theater studies.

Lecoq’s theater journey began at Bagatelle College, where he studied physical education under by Jean-Marie County. County’s friendship with Artaud and Barrault, two influential theater theorists, empowered Lecoq to explore physical activities in theatrical context. With County’s assistance, Lecoq was first introduced to theatre performance through Barrault’s staging of Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying, where Barrault deliberately presented how man and horse move. Then Lecoq joined Education Through Dramatic Performance to learn more about innovative methods to incorporate physical movement into theatre.

At the age of 20, Lecoq decided to devote himself to theatre completely when he started his training in Travail et Culture [Work and Culture], where he studied mime improvisation. The physicality of mime showed Lecoq a clear relationship between what he learned in physical training in his early years of and his theatre experiences during college.

While Lecoq grew up influenced by physical education during WWII, he had never surrendered to solely fitness and athletic virtuosity. Instead, Lecoq focused more on how the body could communicate with audiences, build characters, and express emotions. Lecoq observed daily movements, such as walking, to find patterns of emotions in movements. His observations of gaits in his book, Theatre of Movement and Gesture, offer a compelling example of how emotions became his criteria for categorize movements. As Lecoq stated that sports is a method to develop “the study of the human body, which is a result benefits all physical educations.”

Transition: post-war physical education and Jacques Lecoq’s Theory

After WWII, the goal of physical education was no longer to train for potential soldiers. Instead, physical education emphasized on expression and people’s feelings. These goals aligned more with Lecoq’s ideologies; the friendly environment allowed Lecoq to better develop his theories.

As an essential French physical educator after Second World War, George Hebert created the methodology of “natural” physical activities, which constituted one of the most significant transitions into the post-war era,. Herbert’s “natural” method required students to engage with a physical object in their surrendering; students had to imagine and mimic the movements of the object. By placing students as the center of the activity, physical education allowed students to convey their emotions, feelings, and ideas. Thus, more discussions in the context of theater production were focused on cognitive thinking, or the relationship between mind and movement. Herbert’s “natural” method allowed for more creativity in performances, helping Lecoq and the development of theater movement. In his teaching, Lecoq used a mask like the one used in “natural” physical activities. Influenced by Herbert, Lecoq focused on how the body can communicate, express emotions, and build characters.

“Purely athletic exercises are insufficient for actor training,” said Lecoq. What he wanted to accomplish through his exploration of physical education was to create a moving world.

How to Create a Moving World?

For Lecoq, sports was a way to understand the world, but purely athletic movement that only focused on repetitive practices for competitions was sometimes too inflexible to represent the “world.” Thus, Lecoq created a new form of physical exercise that follows for movements of tangible objects, similar to the “natural” physical activities practiced by Hebert.

For Lecoq, students were not only expected to behave like objects, but also needed to find the logic behind the objects’ movements. Even today, this methodology still plays a significant role in the pedagogy of Lecoq’s theater school, School of Mime and Theater. A training exercise students participate in is learning how to be a piece of paper fluttering to the ground. After having mimed as many objects as possible, students would become experienced in understanding the “law of movements,” and therefore creating a moving world. However, while the laws are the core theories of Lecoq’s work, the freeness and playfulness of movements are also needed in order to become performers. As Lecoq argued, actors should not just memorize physical movements. Instead, they must remember the feelings of specific movements in order to instantaneously launch into the movement.

Lecoq’s approach incorporates students' own personal experiences, their understanding of space, tension, rhyme, and the geometry of movement into their physical movement, curating a diverse set of movements representing the same object. The “seven levels of tension” is a typical combination of Lecoq’s understanding of physical movement and expression of theater movements. With all movements categorized into seven levels, Lecoq gave a holistic explanation of the role of tension in movement, which is vital to building his moving world.

Additionally, the use of space, tension, and rhyme when training actors is similar to ancient Greek athleticism, in which movements were also explored on different levels of tensions, spaces, and speeds. However, Lecoq only described these tensions using simple physical behaviors, such as “resistance, slowly and without a trajectory” or “the body rebounds on itself. However, later theorists, such as Rick Kemp and John Wright, added more emotions and images, like anger, death, survival to Lecoq’s descriptions. Lecoq’s attempt to avoid subjective description coincides with Lecoq’s belief that students’ personal understandings and experiences should decide the meaning of movements. Most of Lecoq’s well-known theories, such as the “seven levels of tension,” “twenty movements,” “ferryman practice,” are the result of this combination.


The influence of physical education on Lecoq’s theories is evident. He was motivated to conduct research on theater movements and building performers’ physicality through his physical education expertise. After WWII and the changing emphasis on physical education to self-expression, Lecoq’s theories became more focused on the role of movement in expressing emotion.

John Wright, one of Lecoq’s students, said that “Lecoq’s work was in a constant state of change and development.” To develop his own theories in movement, Lecoq discarded the purely athletic training he received as a teenager and sought to discover the law of movements by engaging with the world


Ecole internationale de théâtre. School History.

Evans, M. and Kemp, R., 2016. The Routledge Companion to Jacques Lecoq. pp.7, 40.

Evans, M. The influence of sports on Jacques Lecoq's actor training, Theatre, Dance and Performance Training. 2012. pp.165,166.

Lecoq, J., 2001. The Moving Body: Teaching Creative Theatre, pp.3-18.

Lecoq, J., Bradby D., Theatre of Movement and Gesture. Edited by David Bradby. Pp.15-17 89-91

Kemp, R., 2022. Embodied Acting What neuroscience tells us about performance. pp.113, 172.

Wright, J., 2006. Why Is That so Funny?: a Practical Exploration of Physical Comedy.. P.125.

pic:重庆南开中学 ISC 陈炫 Hyun Chen

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