Key-words: attributive/modal/mimetic/ludic gestuality, ballet, dance, language, non-verbal communication, proxemics, semiotics, sign, Greimas, Hall, La Esmeralda, La Bayadère, Spartacus.


Trying to put some order in the field of “gesticulation as language”, Algirdas Julien Greimas (1970) notices, first of all, the somewhat confuse aspect of this concept. Its umbrella covers a crowded heap and a heterogeneous agglomeration of “gestual signs and syntagms, programs and their codes, natural or artificial”. Placing certain interim landmarks, the French researcher separates gestuality into, respectively, “attributive”, “modal”, “mimetic” and “ludic”. According to the communication mode, the four classes are reduced to: 1. gestuality of direct (attributive and, respectively, modal) communication; 2. gestuality of transposition (mimetic and, respectively, ludic). The Greimasian taxonomy implies, however, as the author himself remarks, a dose of “hypothetic and arbitrary”, especially regarding the gestuality of transposition. The programmatic question which Greimas raises concerns the extent to which gestual units may constitute autonomous codes or gestual languages. The dichotomy “practical/mythic”, in the sense given by Greimas (1970), is a useful tool in describing gestuality systematically and highlighting its relations with the verbal. Used as a “practical” communication code, gestuality represents only a non-verbal translation of the means of linguistic communication; although recognizable, the gestual units and categories are not, in this case, really autonomous. The gestual elements organized in “communication codes with mythical contents” (with the meaning involved in the Greimasian opposition practical/ mythical), detach themselves from the semantic tutelage of verbal communication. They structure their own semantism according to a global principle of “functional and narrative” coherence which organizes any discourse (Ibidem).

Transposing the Saussurian opposition between signifier and signified in the field of gestuality, Greimas (1970) equates it with that between the “project” of a “gestual program” and its correlated “gestual sequence”. Thus, the semiosis of a gestual program may be understood as the relation between a sequence of gestual figures, as a signifier, and the gestual project as the signified (Greimas 1970). The figures subsumed to a gestual program may individually send to a natural gesture and, at the same time, receive a semantic – “mythical” or “practical” – interpretation (Ibidem). Having individual signification, as isolated entities, the figures lose nevertheless this signification, from the perspective of the global meaning of the gestual program to which they co-participate. They are desemantized, but do not turn asemantic. Desemantization reveals here the anaphoric nature of gestuality; the gestual figures subsumed to a gestual program send to a general meaning manifested only by the “project” in its globality. Therefore, desemantization leaves gestual figures intact and operates only upon the “semantic categories implied by the gestual text” (Ibidem). Thus, desemantization transforms the “immediate semiotic relationship” into a “semiotic distance” which has the status of “hypotaxic” relation. This means that “each desemantized gestual figure maintains its metonymic position towards the global signifier of the program” (Ibidem). Functionally, gestual semiosis is established, par excellence, rationally and ambivalently: on the one hand, as a relationship of the signified with the signifier taken as a whole (as a gestual program). On the other hand, as a network of relationships that connect the signified to each figure regarded as a part (Ibidem).

We shall further discuss the way in which, through desemantization, the immediate (isolated, independent) semiotic relation is replaced, on the semantic level of the discourse, by a hypotaxic relation. We are interested in the attributive, modal, mimetic and, respectively, ludic kinesic configurations, to the extent in which they may be identified in a choreographic corpus. This is further constituted – not exhaustively, but for a purely illustrative purpose – from the ballets La Bayadère[1], Spartacus [2] and La Esmeralda[3], with the possibility of being extended substantially anytime. Regarded as a signifier, the human body allows, due to its mobility which creates “positional deviations”, a correlative structuring of the semantic content. The connection between the level of gestual and semantic expression is relatively arbitrary and, at the same time, relatively constant, as Greimas remarked, following Saussure’s theory of sign and semiosis. (This is a condition of the functioning of the sign, in its quality of tool of social interaction.) On the other hand, such connection is valid in a determined socio-cultural context[4]. The “co(n)text” may be, lato sensu, the (macro)context of a certain socius or, stricto sensu, the cotext of certain opera, with its internal semiotic hierarchy. Thus, in the first act of the ballet La Bayadère, performed in the sumptuous scenery of an Indian temple, the hierarchic relationships, which structure the variegated human landscape, are sketched with kinesic means. Structuring that part of the content related to the stratified organization of society, the semantic oppositions sacred vs. profane, sacerdotal authority vs. common people, superior vs. inferior are correlated, at the level of expression, with oppositions of gestual marks: slow (or immobile) vs. alert, up vs. down, vertical vs. horizontal. In European medieval societies, gestures invested with a performative value, materialize hierarchies and bind social relationships (see Schmitt 1990). The contrast – let us say kinemic – between mobility and its opposites (immobility, slowness) is correlated with some specific semic oppositions. It is relatively equivalent to the opposition, well marked in the ideology of the epoch, between gestus and gesticulatio  (Schmitt 1990). The behavioural codes of the age privileged, on a psycho-moral and aesthetic axis, the first one, in virtue of the ideological primacy of immobility (Ibidem) and of retained movement. Immobility/mobility and gestus/gesticulatio, as polarized figures of the gestual expression, are correlated with certain well determined oppositions from the semantic level: order/disorder, virtue/sin (as lack of measure), rationality/irrationality, (self)control/weakness, solemn dignity (royal or papal)  vs. humbleness (of the common people), authority/dependence, sacred/profane. Thus, the interrupted gesture and immobility are, at least in the Western medieval code, marks of excellence, signs of “perfection and sovereignty”, whereas gestuality which expresses agitation and anxiety occurs as a sign of moral and social inferiority (Schmitt 1990)[5]. The oppositions ascendant/descendant and vertical/horizontal refer to a semantic content relatively equivalent (sacred/profane, authority/dependence, superiority/inferiority).