Basic Principles and Methods for Historical Stage Combat
By Steven Leon
Instructor – Bankeside Schole of Defense
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This dissertation includes some aspects and principles that are sometimes looked over and not taught in other schools teaching the art of rapier fighting. Some of these concepts are crucial to a student learning the art of defense as styled by the Italians in the 16th century. Other points are important for proper execution of techniques used in stage combat today. I have compiled these concepts to further assist the student in correctly executing the techniques taught, and to bring a viable believability for the person(s) watching the fight.
I must emphasize that these principles are as important as the footwork and techniques taught in the Bankeside Schole of Defense, for they not only help in the understanding of the movements themselves, they are critical in maintaining a safe environment for historical swordplay and stage combat. Remember, safety must come first!
In any form of physical activity, especially that which require movements to be learned, it is essential to remember that these movements do not come as easily to some as to others. Remember not to rush. Taking time to learn the techniques give your body time to learn the mechanics of the movements themselves. Eventually, it will become ingrained into muscle memory; the ‘memory’ that muscles condition themselves when a particular movement is done repeatedly till it becomes almost ‘second nature’. In order for this to be a safe practice, these movements must be ‘trained’ into the body through constant repetition. Foundation drills and constant reviews of these basic movements are therefore critical in gaining this muscle memory. This is called kinesthetic learning.
In order for the body to effectively learn these movements, it is also essential to breathe and relax when performing these techniques. It has been proven that a relaxed body flows more smoothly and has a lesser chance of pulling and straining muscles. Relaxation and breathing also helps in focusing in on the task at hand and a better ability of learning what is being taught at the time.
Another basic and essential idea is gaining the ability to control your movements and more importantly the weapon being utilized. What we do is essentially an illusion, in which no real force is being exerted. We maintain the illusion of two characters at odds with each other while not placing the actual players in any real danger of being hurt. The defender reaches to an attacking blade; the attacker supports the illusion by placing the blade at the correct target, correct time and energy beyond the defender, not at him.
Additionally, every movement needs a practical viability in reality and the intent must be shown in order to convey this to the audience who will be watching. This means every technique taught must be practiced on target while not actually directing the energy at the target. There are many individuals who perform similar routines that, when really looked at, do not appear as if they are directing the focus to the opposing sword. This will appear as if the participants are actually beating each other’s sword together with no ‘real’ intent. Every attack must have a practical reality; the same is true of every defense. To put it in other terms, every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
There are four main concepts when performing this sort of training. They are essential to not only historical combat, but stage combat as well. They are: Balance; Line; Eye Contact; and Distance (B.L.OO.D.).
Balance is the ability to move without having to shift your weight to do so. A low center of gravity is vital for this. The three-point stance (with feet shoulder width apart) coupled with the slight bending of knees makes for a stable center of gravity. From this stance, you should be able to move in any direction without the need to shift your weight. Shifting your weight causes you to become unbalanced. Being unbalanced can cause mistakes and mistakes can cause injury. Balance is closely related to control. This is not only the ability to pull your blows, but to prevent over committing your weight to the action. If you over commit yourself, you have the likelihood of becoming unbalanced and thus losing the control of both your body and your weapon. In reality, this would possibly mean your death. In historical stage combat, this would mean your inability to control you and your weapon and becoming a danger to yourself and your partner.
Balance when attacking and defending is important. When executing an attack, the best principle is: Lead with the sword and the body follows. The attack and footwork should coincide, (e.g. foot lands at the same time the attack finishes). The opposite is true when defending: Body leads and then the sword parries. The sword should complete the parry at the same time the foot lands to complete the movement.
Modern fencers today learn to use what is called a ‘two point stance’. This is where the heels of both feet are in the same line of each other. The front foot is pointed forward and the lag foot is pointed 90 degrees away. This naturally causes the body to turn away from the opponent and the smallest possible target. This type of stance is very well adapted to fighting in the linear style that modern fencing is done. However, it does not do well at all for historical styles of fencing. Executing any “pass movements” from a two-point stance could result in tripping over your own feet. It also causes your balance to remain on the forward and reverse sides of your body, but not your right and left flanks. A slight nudge on either the right or left side of your body would cause you to lose balance. The three point stance is therefore ideal for historical stage combat. The feet are shoulder width apart, with the front foot pointing forward and the lag foot remaining at a 45-degree angle. The knees are slightly bent and the center of gravity is stable. When done correctly, your balance is kept on all sides of your body, thereby reducing the chance of becoming off balance. When using the footwork to move, it is essential that the feet remain the same width apart to maintain this balance. Imagine the feet are on railroad tracks and unable to deviate from them. This will help in keeping the feet the proper width apart and helping to maintain your balance. Also as important is the keeping your shoulders and hips facing forward. This will also help to maintain proper balance and line.
Maintaining line is an important feature of historical stage combat. Line refers to the ability to move in the direction of the attack or defense. Most attacks are done in line while most defenses do not necessarily have to be in line. The concepts of Balance and Line are interdependent. One whose footwork moves out of line while keeping his attack or defense in line is sure to become off balance. This also creates a false viability in reality of the movement, causing the movement to either look unnatural, non-intentional or both. One key to maintaining the line is the ‘railroad track’ concept as explained above in addition to keeping the hip and shoulder directions of the body.
There are not only footwork lines, but there are lines of attack as well. There are four different target lines on the body itself. You have the Inside and Outside lines (Di Dentro and Di Fuora) and the High and Low lines (Di Sopra and Di Soto). The Inside line (Di Dentro) is the area on the left side of the (right handed) opponents sword. Most normal attacks are done on the inside line since this area is where most of the target body is located. The Outside Line (Di Fuora) is the area to the right of the (right handed) opponent’s sword.
The High Line (Di Sopra) is the area above the opponent’s sword hilt. Generally, this is the area from the waist and above. The Low Line (Di Soto) is the area beneath the opponent’s sword hilt. Generally this is the area the waist and below. All of these areas correspond to different areas of attack and intersect each other, forming a wheel of sorts across the body. For example, an attack can be made to the high inside line.
It is essential when performing stage combat or any martial art to maintain eye contact with your partner. By maintaining eye contact, you will be able to sense and anticipate his next move using your peripheral vision. This also improves peripheral vision by not focusing your attention on his hand or weapon. You will be able to better ascertain the ‘bigger picture’ when involved. Eye contact is also critical in determining distance. Using your judgment of proper distance will not only make the routine seem real to the audience, but will also provide better safety for the actors involved.
Another important concept in eye contact is to make sure you do not look down or at an opponent’s blade. This will cause you to shorten your body and to not perform the required choreography correctly. It also draws focus from the fight itself and causes the audience to be drawn to what you are looking at. This tends to take away from a choreographed piece.
Additionally, eye contact is used to ascertain your partner’s readiness for the next movement. You should be able to ‘read’ into the eyes of your partner to determine if he is ready for the next engagement. Solid eye contact should tell you that he is ready for the next attack. However, if your partner is not maintaining eye contact or his vision seems ‘unsure’, this should tell you he is not ready and the engagement should be broken off.
The relation of distance is critical in not only maintaining the correct intention to the audience, but also to keep safety paramount. Making sure your distance is correct will show the audience your ‘intent’ while you are performing your choreography. Whenever you are participating in drills, you must always check your distance first. Proper distance is determined by fully extending your rapier while remaining in your three-point stance. The point of your sword should be six inches from the chest of your partner. The partner with the longer reach should measure the distance in this instance. This principle is known as Misura Larga, or far distance: the ability to strike your partner with one step. Any thing closer than six inches will place you in distance of your partner. Being “in distance” means being able to strike your partner without having to utilize footwork to get there. This principle is called Misura Stretta or close distance.
On the other side, being “out of distance” shows to the audience that your attacks are not aimed at the proper targets. Even if you were to step forward, your technique will simply miss the opponent or the participant will not be able to effectively cross swords. While most choreography starts “out of distance” for theatrical purposes, they quickly come “in distance”, in order to effectively tell the story behind the confrontation.
These four characteristics are vital to historic stage combat not only for safety, but practicality for the show in question.
In discussing technique, there are a number of principles one needs to employ to insure proper execution of an action. Remember: every action has viability in real life. You should be able to convey to the audience that each action has an intention and focus of attack and defense. One of these principles is the proper handling of the sword. Keeping a firm but relaxed grip on the handle of your sword will help in the proper execution of techniques and movements. By keeping a tight grip in the sword, you can shorten the execution of the cut or parry, making the technique look stiff and unnatural. An old rule in fencing states that the handle should be cradled like a small bird in your hand; tight enough that it will not fly away yet not so tight that you will end up crushing it. Keeping this type of grip on the sword will also help enable the user to control the blade itself and, as discussed earlier is extremely important at all times lest an accident could happen.
When initiating any choreographed confrontation, assumptions should never be made during the encounter. Those attacking should never assume the defender will properly ‘defend’ and those defending should never assume the attacker will pull his blow or attack his proper target. The defender must react to the as if the blow is aimed with real intent.
When parrying (Parata) with the blade, there are some principles that must be observed while defending yourself. You must always parry with the edge of the blade and never with the flat. The sword has more strength when parrying with the edge and even strong, committed blows are readily defended against. Parrying with the flat of the blade can damage the blade, weakening or breaking it.
When using the sword in defending, avoid having to ‘beat out’ to parry. Doing this will overextend your arm and it may put you off balance. You only need to move as far as needed to protect yourself. This will also help in correctly and efficiently placing a counterattack. Also, when parrying, you should never lock your elbow. Instead keep it slightly bended. The weakest point on the arm will always be your wrist. Locking your elbow may cause the wrist to bend from a strong blow causing the sword to not properly parry, and possibly damaging your wrist as well. Bending your elbow will slightly cushion the force a bit, and you will still be able to maintain the proper defense. The blade edge position must also be facing a 45-degree angle when parrying. The only exceptions to this rule are the parries for the cuts of Fendente, Squalembrato and Montante, which require the edge to face straight up and down, parallel to your own body. This insures that you will always parry the attack with the edge and not the flat.
It is also essential when performing the parries that your hilt remain at the same level (or plane), especially when conducting parry drills. Try to refrain your hilt from ‘leaping’ one parry to another. Keep the hilts at the same level. What is also true when performing the parries is that the blade entirely covers the body. This insures that you will be able to react to any possible change in the line of attack.
Lastly, it is important for the student to understand that when executing parries, one must move the body first and then parry. This is the opposite of executing attacks in historical stage combat. Remove your self from the threat and then make the appropriate parry. As you continue your training, you will become aware of the possibility of evading an attack without having to parry.
As explained before, the opposite of the above is true when conducting cuts (or Colpo). The sword leads the attack and the body follows, making sure that the blow lands at the same time as the completion of the foot movement. In addition, one must reach out to the target with the weapon. By using the wrist and relaxing the hand as explained above, this will show the intention of the cut to the audience.
In the practice of historical stage combat, there are a variety of different ways to initiate cuts with the sword. Many schools of the period taught the use of three distinct styles of cutting attacks. Delivering cuts with the wrist, elbow and arm. While attacking with the wrist (often termed ‘flick’ cuts) was, of course, quick to the target, the blow was generally not very strong. Attacking from the elbow was slower but stronger than attacking with the wrist. Attacking with the entire arm was slower than the previous two, but the blow was much stronger, since the entire arm is used in the attack. In training or performing, most cuts are delivered from the arm without the strength associated with the blow. This is done both to telegraph and cue the attack for your partner to properly parry.
Finally, thrusting (Punto) techniques have their own particular principles in historic stage-combat. As with cuts (Colpo), thrusts are delivered with the sword leading first and the body follows. The sword arm extends completely before actually moving the body forward. This historical point might actually seem confusing since you essentially are telegraphing the thrust for your opponent, and indeed this concept was taught in the schools of defense in Europe. By extending the arm completely before moving, you are telling the opponent that you are conducting an attack and therefore he must take defensive action, else he would be struck. Hopefully, you will be drawing him into a position where another attack may succeed. This author was told once in his training that the whole point of rapier fighting was to have your opponent fall on your sword.
When executing the thrust it is both important and desirable to keep the blade level and horizontal with the edges of the blade facing to your right and left. Historically, this made thrusting easier to pass through the ribcage of the adversary and hopefully to damage some of the more vital organs. Telegraphing the actually thrust is important also. For safety reasons this is a must. As above with cuts, it ‘cues’ your partner for effective (and safe) parries to your attack. Direction of the attack is important as well. The participant’s thumb actually guides the thrust attack making sure the technique attacks the proper target.
Though the face and throat were viable and popular targets for fencers of the period, it is a matter of safety that students of this art never under any circumstances thrust at those vulnerable and potentially dangerous locations! Thrusting attacks in general are much harder to see when being executed. Therefore, any thrusting attack should be done with care and respect.
These basic principles and methods are important for proper training of historical stage combat. Using these methods with training sessions will insure any type of staged conflict will have the most amount of safety involved, not only for the participants but the spectators as well. As stated before, every movement must have a viability in reality in order to make the fight believable to those watching the confrontation. Otherwise, the audience will not believe the characters are actually colliding with each other in confrontation. By putting all of these principles into use we can, as a group, attempt to take our training to a higher level, where we can entertain the audience, while still making the conflict as safe as possible for the members involved.