The Postwar Mime Culture: From Mime to Movement Theater

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

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From Mime to Movement Theater

Even though some American teachers who were students of Decroux, such as Jewel Walker (1926-2020) and Daniel Stein (b. 1952), have retained the term “mime” to describe their work, the perceived damage done to or by the word “mime” as a result of its appropriation by street performers or clown acts urged some artists elsewhere seeking a more serious approach to speechless performance to develop the concept of “movement theater.” But this concept should remain separate from other terms, like “movement for the stage,” “movement for actors,” “movement training,” and “physical theater,” improvisational, exercise-intense pedagogical regimes that have proliferated in theater education since the 1980s and may include acrobatics, fencing and stage combat, somatic training, dance, gymnastics, or commedia buffoonery, and often entail the total exclusion of anything resembling pantomime (cf. Potter 2011). Movement theater originated in The Netherlands with the founding in 1965 of the performance group Bewegingstheater (Movement theater) or BEWTH by Frits Vogels (b. 1933), a student of Decroux. But this group emerged out of tensions within the Dutch Decroux cult. In 1952, Jan Bronk (1928-1985), a student of Marceau, established the Dutch Pantomime Institute, which performed mime scenes similar to those of Marceau. Vogels, Rob van Reijn (1929-2015), a nightclub performer who modeled himself after the Dutch clown Johan Buziau (1877-1958), and Will Spoor (1927-2014), a student of Decroux for six years, joined the Institute in 1954. The Dutch Decroux disciples embraced more ardently than other disciples Decroux’s concept of the “Zero” or “neutral” state, a theoretical “nakedness,” in which the body no longer signified an individual or personality but became a symbol of humanity, as Decroux explained: “When I see the body rise up, I feel as if it’s humanity that’s rising up” (Langen 2017: 47-48). The Zero concept emphasized the torso as the dominant source of semantic value in the body while demoting the value of the hands, arms, and face, which too easily promise, conceal, and lie (53). This distinction supposedly separated mime from pantomime and enhanced the value of stillness, wherein it was possible to make visible the “movement of thought” or “mime thinking” (mime denken). In 1956, the Dutch Pantomime Institute produced a piece designed by Jan Bronk, Rood zien, in which performers used their bodies, without using their hands much, to create a larger abstract image. Baart (1982: 18) claims that this event marked the abandonment of pantomime by the Pantomime Institute and the inauguration of a Dutch mime aesthetic opposed to pantomime. Rob van Reijn soon left the Institute to pursue numerous opportunities in the entertainment industry (revue, film) primarily as a pantomime clown, and in 1967 formed the Pantomime Theater Carrousel, in which he developed the recurring comic character Mannetje Maccus. “I do not care for abstract mime,” he declared (Jeanne-Marie Jobse, “Een bijzonder mens moet het zijn geweest,” De Verdieping Trouw, 12 March 2001, Paragraph 11). Eventually he published a monumental novel, Voetlicht en vetpotten (2000), about the early Amsterdam pantomime Jan van Well (1773-1818), who devised and performed commedia ballet pantomime scenarios (as Pierrot or as Arlequin) for the Schouwburg Theater (cf., De Toneelkijker 1818: 88, 165, 213, 334). Meanwhile, Will Spoor, who came from a musical-theatrical family and was himself a violist, moved away from Decroux’s idea of the body as a symbol and toward the body as an instrument that makes “music for the eyes,” which, however, meant developing an absurdist image of the body. His attachment to absurdism derived not only from his appreciation for the work of French absurdist playwright Jean Tardieu (1903-1995), but from his own rather messy career. In the 1950s, he worked in Parisian cabaret with the French marionette producer Yves Joly (1908-2013) before performing comic cabaret pantomime duets with Bronk; he had a part in a 1961 cabaret act by the famous Toon Hermans (1916-2000). He tried to establish his own company and school in 1962-1963, but these failed, and he moved on to playing for a season the bumbling crook Snuitje in the clown duo of Snuf and Snuitje on the popular Dutch children’s TV show Pipo the Clown (1963). He found small parts as an actor or dancer in mainstream drama productions, then ventured into street theater for a while, before starting a new, four-person company in 1967. In Italy, he and his performance partner got arrested (1968) for performing a mime using artificial penises. The group moved to London to work in the avant-garde Arts Lab newly established by the American counter-culture impresario Jim Haynes (1933-2021). There he experimented with multimedia and with minute bodily movements and connecting movements of animals, plants, and insects to the human body, and these performances, The Art of the Fugue, became the subject of the film Moving Statics (1969), by the Australian experimental filmmakers Arthur (b. 1938) and Corrine (b. 1928) Cantrill. Unlike Decroux, he was not comfortable with solitary mime and continually sought to create ensemble mimes. In 1971, Spoor formed the Waste of Time mime group, which removed him from the ensemble in 1974, presumably because of his acute abstractionism: “I hate the actors theatre,” he said, “I try to make a science out of mime, instead of an expression of my most inner feelings. For nobody has anything to do with what I think” (Langen 2017: 84). He formed new companies, Stichting Inccoprodinc (1977-1992) and Onktheater Overal (1981-1984), while appearing occasionally in experimental, speechless films like Harpya (1975). Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he appeared in or supervised numerous productions through these companies; his daughter Pepijn sometimes performed with him in mimes, but also for a while (1987-1989) operated her own highly abstract street theater, Witte Wiven, as seen in Maartje Seyferth’s (b.1945) experimental film Movimenti cantabile (1989), deposited in the Amsterdam Eye film archive, “in which a young homeless woman, a saxophonist, and a businesswoman stage a silent choreography amid a labyrinth of illuminated tiles” (Eye web page). Yet all this mime activity remains bereft of documentation or commentary that describes what it was. Marijn de Langen’s treatise on the Dutch “mime thinking” cult, which provides the most extensive commentary on Spoor, focuses entirely on his work in the 1960s (Langen 2017: 67-86). 

            Yet Spoor’s influence was probably greater than seems evident from the feeble historical record. Mime groups proliferated in The Netherlands (Mimetheater Kruimels, Mimegroep Oceaan, Mimetheater Mekaniek, Nieuw West, Suver Nuver, De Daders, Bewegingsgroep Bart Stuyf, Toneelgroep Carver, to mention a few), and these showed a similar disinterest in documentation. Some of these groups did not work exclusively in mime, but they did treat the body as an abstract form that did not require a story or a character to invest the body with meaning. In The Netherlands, mime nearly became synonymous with a hyper-modern use of the body to construct an abstraction of life rather than a representation of it, in contrast to postmodern dance, which concentrated on movement, rather than on the body, as an abstraction of life, for dance saw movement as something detachable from the body that performed it. The Dutch mime culture saw the mimed abstraction of life as a phenomenon that happened only in the moment of its performance and had no “life” outside of its performance: documentation was irrelevant, a contamination, and in this respect, mime continued to follow Decroux (86). This attitude toward mime created a great deal of mime activity, especially in schools, without building a large audience for mime. Spoor’s mimes showed the body “thinking” through movement. He liked to take a single movement, such as the pendulum motion in Pink Metronome (1968) for three persons, and show variations and reversals in speed, rhythm, rigidity, bodily position, and spatial relations. The act of initiating a movement from a “neutral” position of stillness preoccupied him and was a basis for the four-part Art of the Fugue (1968). The point of mime was to show the strangeness of any human movement, a point he amplified by miming minute insect movements in Bug Counterpoint (1968) (78). Unlike Decroux, he liked to explore the relation of the body to objects, as in Cardboard Column Canon (1968), in which three performers inside three large cardboard roles open hatches, release different objects, such as a banana peel, smoke, bubbles, and wrenches, and then gradually “break free of their packaging.” With this aesthetic, mime revealed the “universal” absurdity of humanity—humorous, perhaps, but never mistaken for a clown act (85). Spoor’s ideas about “mime thinking” produced widespread awareness of the body as an “instrument,” but as usual with those under the spell of Decroux, the ideas, the theoretical framework of mime, far exceeded in influence the evidence of performance itself. 

            The Dutch concept of “movement theater” (Bewegingstheater BEWTH) emerged as a response to the absurdist appropriation of mime as Spoor theorized it. Spoor was indifferent to the context of mime performance, which could happen anywhere—the studio, a theater, the street—without disturbing the “zero” foundation of universal “mimed thinking.” Like Spoor, Frits Vogels embraced Decroux’s concept of the body as a “zero” state of being, but unlike Decroux, he never thought of the body as a symbol of something other than itself: the zero state was a body free of all personality and any motive for acting, for making a movement (Langen 2017: 120, 126-127). Every movement or action is the process of the body returning to a zero condition of stillness (“stilstand”), a notion similar to the Roman pantomime idea of moving from one pose to another. This attitude toward bodily movement allows mime to draw insight from bodily representations in painting or sculpture. It was not a matter of mime copying visual images; rather, visual images clarified relations between movement/stillness and context: movement is a response to a particular context, a particular space, a particular physical environment, which of course may include other bodies. Whereas Spoor saw mimed movement as a thought issued internally from the body to make a corporeal “music,” Vogels saw movement as a thought stimulated externally by a particular location: mime was a physical response to a unique physical space and clarified the body’s relation to the space. With the sculptor and muralist Arnold Hamelberg (1931-2010), Vogels formed the Bewegingstheater BEWTH in 1965 in Amsterdam as a mime school, with, among others, Spoor and Luc Boyer (b. 1935), another student of Decroux, as teachers, but Vogels (like Spoor) became less interested in perfecting movement or in discovering the ideality of a movement than in revealing movements imaginable only in relation to a particular moment in a specific space. Unlike many mime teachers, including Decroux, Vogels (and Spoor) did not place great emphasis on exercises and the application of a rigorous technique; Vogels followed a more “open” and intellectual process of incorporating influences from the other arts (134-135). Indeed, the term “movement theater” arose because Vogels was not altogether sure he was doing mime as conventionally understood, and while he never repudiated the term, he needed another term to differentiate his idea of mime from an overdetermined public and pedagogic image of mime. He and his students began (1965) experimenting with “bizarre” movement in the school’s tiny Micro Theater (seating for thirty) and in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, where bodies formed aesthetic relations to abstract sculptures. In 1968, BEWTH captured widespread attention for its production of Bossche Bollen in an Amsterdam church that was now a youth nightclub, the Paradiso. The piece mimed actions depicted in the monumental painting The Garden of Earthly Delights (ca. 1495-1505), by the late medieval Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516). As seen in the 1968 film made of the performance by Marcus van Hoorn (b. 1947), the piece involved eleven performers, seven men and four women, dressed in white knit body stockings, surrounded by the audience on a bare stage (dance floor); low-hung cross-lighting allowed the performers to cast long shadows. All the performers interact with each other, and no one leaves the performance space, but different combinations of performers interact in different parts of the space simultaneously, making it difficult for the camera, which functions as if it is in the performance, to see all the action occurring at the same moment. The performers continually form new configurations: duos, trios, quartets, and occasionally even larger groups; they dart and dash impulsively across the stage to form new bonds that last briefly before abruptly breaking up to form new relations. They crawl and slither toward each other; they pounce on each other. They jab, prod, kiss, fondle, carry, and wrestle each other. They form rings; they prance around; they build rolling sculptures out of their bodies; they pile up on each other; they simulate sexual acts, including male and female homosexual intimacies. One man seems to sprout an erect fur penis that goes through his male partner and comes out of his partner’s anus. Some members of the group briefly break away to do things alone, such as assume the pose of a crucified man or walk as if on a tightrope. A female performer seizes a man in a suit from the audience, pulls him to the ground, and aggressively overwhelms him with her sexual embace until she suddenly leaps off him to rejoin a group. The performers handle objects: a woman kneels holding a domed, wire cage over her body; a group lifts a platform on which lies a woman; men battle for control of a stick; three women play with a large toy fish. Especially notable is a moment in which ensemble members roll dozens of balls to each other and roll the balls over each other. Later, dozens of small balls fall from the ceiling, and yet the performers continue to perform their physical interactions as if a stage littered with many tiny balls made no difference. In the latter portion of the piece, the performers move from exuberance to a more sinister mood, presumably the “Hell” panel of Bosch’s triptych: some restrain, twist, toss, or stretch the bodies of others; some hobble about as if crippled; some convulse as if in pain; they all lie on the floor, holding hands, as balls bounce over them. The piece ends with a man leading another man. They kiss. Suddenly the leading man grabs his partner and shoves his head into a bucket of water. The man with his head in the bucket rolls over and lies still, as if dead; the other man stands over him, as if frozen in triumph: “Stilstand.” The music in the film accompanying these actions is eclectic: guitar, somber organ tones, avant-garde electronic sounds, rock and roll, folk tunes. But the final death scene is silent. Obviously a huge number of actions occur in about twenty-five minutes to create the mimed image of a community in which all members appear to have uninhibited access to each other’s bodies, and this access is simultaneously exhilarating and dangerous and more than one can see in the finite space. The performance fractures the spectator’s ability to “contain” space or bodies through vision, much like Bosch’s effort to create a fantastic scene of bodies that the viewer is unable to absorb all at once. None of the action is choreographed. Instead, performers follow a different logic: “I am doing A with f, but now it is time to do B with h, which includes e, who may do C, which may be unkown to me, until E.” The performance arises out of a collective trust in the bodies of the community, unlike, for example, dance, which arises from a collective trust in the steps, the choreography, the system of regulating bodies. An improvisational quality pervades the performance, as bodies move from one action to another, one “access” to another, impulsively, without being “told” to do so by any one member or a text or some invisible guiding force like a director or choreographer. The space creates the communal logic and infuses the performers’ bodies with the idea of access to other bodies as the governing motive for action. 

            With Bossche Bollen, BEWTH embarked on a lengthy period of developing performances—126 productions altogether—in manifold large spaces originally designed for other purposes: numerous churches, metal and machinery factories, a water pumping station, a shipbuilding works, museums, city halls, medieval castles, a horse riding school, abandoned warehouses, city plazas, government buildings, university lobbies, the roof of the Rijksmuseum. The company did not bring performances to the spaces; it built performances out of the unique properties of the spaces. Performances became increasingly complex with the incorporation of elaborate lighting designs, avant-garde music soundtracks, architecturally interesting props, and stylized costumes. The placement of audiences was often the most challenging question. Over the years, many people worked with the company, which changed “leaders” fairly often; Vogels never sought to maintain control over the company or any production, and for many years persons involved with the productions remained anonymous, never identifying their functions (Leidse Courant 11 May 1976: 5). As Vogels explained: “The theatre doesn’t want us? They aren’t interested in a new kind of mime, not even if we call it ‘movement theatre’? Our answer: The theatre has to escape from the theatre. No money for scenery? Then look for some place – monumental, if possible – and perform a piece in it, or about it” (Bakker 2004: 8). Audiences for any performance were never large, because of limits imposed by the architecture of even the largest spaces and because the audience was also mobile in relation to the performance. The Dutch government and various municipalities subsidized most of the costs of production, enabling the company to provide performances without charging admission. The Dutch government ceased its subsidies in 2005, which brought the end of the company. Unlike other groups in the Dutch mime culture, BEWTH was relatively diligent about compiling documentation of its production, partly because their performances made alluring photographic images [Figure 98] (cf., Schade 2005). Vogels started another mime company, Griftheater (1975-2003), which worked in more conventionally theatrical spaces, but constructed performances out of architecturally unusual sets and props. Often the company developed pieces in a manner similar to the Bosch production by miming bodily relations depicted in artworks by such modernists as Man Ray (1890-1976) and Max Ernst (1891-1976), which allowed bodies to interact within surrealistic spaces, although in the gloomy Op de rand van een vrouw (1993), with “mimography” by Vogels, one sees bodily “access” tropes and interactive patterns similar to those in Bossche Bollen, indicating the presence of a style of performance imposed over the ostensibly collective creation of the piece. In the latter part of its life, Griftheater began exploring the possibilities of “landscape theater,” whereby the group built performances in response to specific geographic or “architectural” features provided by nature. 

Image of BEWTH performance at Pieterskerk, Leiden (1976), from Schade (2005: 89)

Although its work was not well known outside The Netherlands, BEWTH nevertheless exerted great influence in mutating perception of “mime.” For one thing, BEWTH showed implications and consequences of Decroux’s pedagogy that actually carried mime performance far from the doctrines of the master. Even more significantly, BEWTH showed how mime performance undermined borders between theater and other arts and allowed mime/theater to appropriate manifold spaces. “Movement theater” became a highly interdisciplinary activity that fostered an ambiguous intersection of theater with other arts to produce hybrid modes of aesthetic corporeal messaging requiring new terms, like “movement theater.” 

Figure 154: Images of BEWTH performances. Pieterskerk, Leiden (1976), Raadhuis, Hilversum (1996), Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague (1989), Pieterskirk, Leiden (1976), Ministerie van Social Zaken en Werkgelegenheid, The Hague (1994). Photos: Schade (2005: 89, 90, 151, 201). 

BEWTH emerged in a time of profound dissatisfaction with conventional, institutionalized organizations of performance and was concurrent with other experiments elsewhere in bodily performance, such as Fluxus events, Viennese Actionism, performance art, installations, happenings, and the “kinetic theater” of the visual artist Carolee Schneemann (1939-2019). But the company was unique in seeing mime as the foundation for a major reorganization of institutional resources for the performing arts in a national society (cf., Haan 2003). BEWTH established “location theater” as an activity worthy of taxpayer subsidy. Many new theater groups arose as “alternatives” to the established, pre-1968 theater, and the established theater soon became far more “physical” in the performance of texts. Theater came to mean a radical reimagining of how to use bodies in performance. Perhaps the most extravagant and popular of the speechless “location theater” groups was Dogtroep (1975-2008), founded in Amsterdam by Warner van Wely and Paul de Leeuw, along with other artists and musicians with no training in mime. Dogtroep began as a kind of carnivalesque street theater to “infiltrate” the public sphere and showcase bodily performance skills, stunts, and processions that required more space and freedom than conventional theater could provide. But in the early 1980s, the company focused on location theater, and its productions, involving a large staff, became enormous spectacles performed in vast, open air spaces, often empty fields that allowed the group to integrate the operation of heavy machinery and huge props into the performance; Noordwesterwal (1994) made spectacular use of a monumental canal and dyke complex. In a large Amsterdam studio, the group devised productions collectively, which included the ideas of the technicians and craftsmen who contrived the multitude of machines, video projections, bizarre costumes, and architectural structures that defined the Dogtroep aesthetic. The company was very imaginative in designing unusual towers, scaffolds, robotic platforms, giant wheels, pyrotechnic effects, costumes containing all kinds of surprising contraptions within them, collapsible sets, water tanks, mysterious lighting effects, eccentric projectiles, and strange vehicles, including the use of cranes to move objects and performers across the performance space. The obsession with props and contraptions spawned an athletic performance aesthetic built around a rapid succession of comic or grotesque stunts. The company attracted immense audiences, not only in The Netherlands, but in many European cities. The performers had to display considerable physical agility in dealing with the elaborate, even dangerous machinery of production, yet they remained subordinate to the idea of the body as simply a component of a larger, “absurd” mechanical apparatus. Dogtroep presented a hallucinatory, Boschian circus, the “infiltration” into contemporary society of a medieval image of humanity somehow transplanted and entangled in the machinery of modernity. In the 1990s, the company, while maintaining an enthusiasm for location theater, began to adjust its flamboyant productions to more conventional theatrical spaces, but in the twenty-first century this type of theater became difficult to sustain. It cost too much to maintain such an industrial-sized workshop, while suitable or available “locations” became scarce. Without the body as the fundamental sign of modernity, which Decroux struggled to articulate, theater was bound to run out of spaces big enough to accommodate Boschian visions of bodies as “instruments” of a communal belief in the inescapable (though carnivalesque) doom constituting, one might say, the cosmic “machinery of life” (cf. Boer 2008; Findlay 2016).

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