Cells and tissues have the remarkable ability to actively generate the forces required to change their shape. This active mechanical behavior is largely mediated by the actin cytoskeleton, a crosslinked network of actin filaments that is contracted by myosin motors. Experiments and active gel theories have established that the length scale over which gel contraction occurs is governed by a balance between molecular motor activity and crosslink density. By contrast, the dynamics that govern the contractile activity of the cytoskeleton remain poorly understood. Here we investigate the microscopic dynamics of reconstituted actin–myosin networks using simultaneous real-space video microscopy and Fourier-space dynamic light scattering. Light scattering reveals different regimes of microscopic dynamics as a function of sample age. We uncover two dynamical precursors that precede macroscopic gel contraction. One is characterized by a progressive acceleration of stress-induced rearrangements, while the other consists of sudden, heterogeneous rearrangements. Intriguingly, our findings suggest a qualitative analogy between self-driven rupture and collapse of active gels and the delayed rupture of passive gels observed in earlier studies of colloidal gels under external loads.