Gendered Perspectives on Modernist Pantomime: Women Students of Decroux

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

PDF version of the entire book.

Women Students of Decroux

The French mime culture that displaced the concept of pantomime in the Cold War era attracted numerous women to study under Decroux, Marceau or Lecoq, but many of the women who subsequently achieved distinction in the performing arts did not work in pantomime, such as stage director Ariane Mnouchkine (b. 1939), movie star Jessica Lange (b. 1949), or German dancer Karin Waehner (1924-1999), who decided that neither Decroux nor Marceau provided the right path for her and decided to return to the expressionist dance aesthetic encouraged by her first teacher, Mary Wigman (Waehner 1997: 313-314). Female alumni from the Parisian schools have achieved distinction primarily as mime educators rather than as pantomime artists, such as Corrine Soum (b. 1956), who, with Steve Wasson (b. 1950), another student of Decroux, established in 1984 the Theatre de la Ange Fou, which moved from Paris to London in 1995 and then in 2010 to Spring Green, Wisconsin, where the company has transformed a 1902 church into a school and theater (The White Church Theatre Project). Soum has reconstructed (1994) several of Decroux’s pieces, and she and Wasson have directed numerous productions with their students, although some of these productions, inspired by fairy tales or European literary works, are not pantomimes, but examples of the exaggerated “physical theater” that has become entangled with the concept of  “postdramatic theater” as Hans-Thiess Lehmann (2006) has defined it, such as A Strange Day for Mr. K (2015), “a playful collision of Franz Kafka and Buster Keaton.” But the Theatre de la Ange Fou and the White Church Theatre Project constitute above all a school whose main business is the provision of workshops and training programs on corporeal mime (White Church Theatre Project 2016). 

Figure 179: Claire Heggen and Yves Marc in Les mutants (1975). Photos: Heggen (1978)

Similarly, Claire Heggen, a student of Decroux, formed with Yves Marc the Théâtre du Mouvement in 1975 based in the Parisian suburb of Montreuil. They proclaim that, “Etienne Decroux’s approach towards a corporeal and dramatic actor occupies the highest place in our affective references. He opened the way for a theatrical genre beyond the verb where poetic formalization has as much if not more importance than narration,” for as Decroux said: “It is not a question of movement conveying poetry, but of movement itself being poetic” (Théâtre du Mouvement 2018). Heggen and Marc constantly give workshops and “conferences” on corporeal mime both in Montreuil and at many academic institutions. But Théâtre du Mouvement is also a production company that attracts artists from a variety of backgrounds (as well as Decroux adepts) to give performances of almost annual regularity of what the company regards as “research projects” to demonstrate some principle of poetic movement. In the 1970s and early 1980s, their productions consisted entirely of solos and duos of an abstract nature; as a duo they wore identical costumes and often performed the same movements in synchrony or created a symmetrical bodily architecture, as in Mutants (1975), in which, wearing body stockings that cover their heads, they perform “a fiction reinventing the creation of man and woman from primordial chaos. Starting from an amorphous ball, they intersect and show through the poetics of the movement different animal, aquatic, aerial and terrestrial body states up to standing human” (Théâtre du Mouvement Archive). The body stocking was a default costume in the early years, but from the beginning Heggen had an attachment to masks and puppets that she never abandoned. She and Marc came up with the idea, in La Récréation (1972), of attaching several masks to the body and then moving the body to convey the impression of several alien characters living off of a dark, ectoplasmic blob that the viewer will, eerily and disconcertingly, perceive is a human body. The body stockings disappeared in favor of a kind of eccentric street-clothes image, but the masks changed from aliens to recognizable animals, perhaps to appeal to the children who were their prime audience in the 1990s. Since 2000, Théâtre du Mouvement productions have emphasized the “evocation” of existential themes that Decroux advocated, with performers interacting with abstract forms, such as balls, cubes, swathes of fabric, or a chair in a space with almost no material context, a kind of dark Everywhere/Nowhere. In Things Being as They Are, Everything Is Right as Can Be (2009), Heggen, interacting with a puppet, embodied an old man “caught between his constant desire to rise up and the promise of an unavoidable decline, he notices the dwindling of his vital space. He puts up with it the best he can, he gets used to restrictions, reductions, the senseless restraints which will eventually bring up his vanishing” (Théâtre du Mouvement Archive). But the corporeal movement in the company’s pieces is “poetic” insofar as it is largely abstract, derived from viewing the body as a form that requires no context other than the studio in which the performer created the movement, as if the studio is the metaphor for the universe. The pieces seem like exercises, things one creates when the studio has become the world or a refuge from the world rather than an engagement with it. Heggen makes this point herself: “Another aphorism that is important for us is ‘Theatre must be played before it is written.’ This means that you don’t start with a story and then look for forms with which to express it. Instead you begin by working with forms, and little by little things appear and you can compose your story from the things that result from this exploration. That is how we always work” (McCaw 2007: 15). Dick McCaw reinforces the point by describing Heggen’s pedagogic techniques without any reference to her mime productions or her artistic achievements: “Heggen demonstrates a physical process whereby ideas or images come through acts of movements. First the actor works at the level of physical sensation, then, hopefully, come the images and ideas by association. […] The training she proposes is a ‘tuning’ by means of which the actor can listen to the emotional and imaginal ‘resonances’ created by movements” (McCaw 2007: 15). This physical process, however, is an entirely pedagogic goal that requires no artistic outcome as proof of its efficacy, and it hardly moves beyond Decroux’s thinking in the 1940s. In France, though, the idea of “educating” the voiceless body seems synonymous with institutionalizing the body within a “poetic” system of signification that comes from teachers, lessons, and plenty of exercises rather than from artists, rather than from the poetry of performance meant for audiences other than actors. Théâtre du Mouvement has for several decades honored the teachings of Etienne Decroux, which has inspired in 2017 an exposition celebrating the company/school and the publication of a monumental book compiling documents of Heggen’s and Marc’s pedagogic philosophy.

The tone of this huge book, Théâtre du mouvement (2017), is indeed relentlessly pedagogical. The authors pay constant and effusive tribute to their many teachers, including of course Decroux, despite his repudiation of them in 1975 for performing Mutants professionally while they were still his students. For Heggen and Marc, teachers, not performances, are the decisive forces in shaping the identities of mimes. Nearly all the essays in the book feel like notes, reflections, and lesson plans for the organization of studio classroom activities. Yet, as is almost invariably the case with French discourse on the arts, the writing is always and inescapably “philosophical,” pervaded with abstractions, metaphors, and “theoretical” suppositions. The writers imply that the purpose of mime education is the re-education of “the body” to reach a metaphysical core of being that is otherwise hidden from perception by language and a preoccupation with material values. As Ariane Martinez explains, Heggen and Marc seek “to redesign the contours of the body, in phase with the projections and anxieties of their time” (Heggen 2017: 15). But “the body” within this pedagogy is entirely hypothetical. The authors treat “the body” as an entirely abstract phenomenon, not something they have actually observed, either in performance or in life outside of the studio. Occasionally the authors make reference to famous performers like Marilyn Monroe, Marcel Marceau, or Charlie Chaplin, but they evoke these names as if the reader already knows what or how these artists signify, and the book provides no analysis of their distinctive signifying practices or anyone else’s. Within the “theater of movement” pedagogy, “the body” is an entirely theoretical construct, a hypothetical emblem of liberating neutrality that transcends physiognomic, gender, age, or health distinctions between bodies: all bodies are, so to speak, “the same” in relation to the pedagogical mission of “redesigning” the body of the mime. This abstract idea of “the body” is helpful in producing a rhetoric or vocabulary, a “cor-texte” (“body text”), of signifying practices defining mime education (77-80). The book is far more comprehensive in its articulation of mime technique than anything Decroux or anyone else has published. But, as Decroux implied by his absence of publication, mime attracted adherents because of the “silence” of its “secrets,” which could only be learned through direct contact with teachers and not from mediated sources like books or performances. The “cor-texte” refers to the categories of body parts that “move” and form the gestural vocabulary that defines the “research” guiding the mime toward the achievement of a transcendent, neutral body. Much of the book consists of lecture-essays theorizing the movement of individual body parts or combinations of them. However, the operation of these movements remains entirely hypothetical. For example, in discussing the semiotic significance of the eyes, Marc attributes cultural variables to the “axial” movement of the eyes to the left or the right:

 If one asks: “And tomorrow at eleven o’clock, do you have a project?” one may observe that [the eyes] move to the left. 

Thus, the past is to the left and the future to the right.

And here, one sees a cultural dimension: what is it that makes one move [the eyes] left or right? One writes, one reads. The axis of the look between the right and the left is eminently cultural because, for Arabic and Hebrew civilizations, which write right to left, the axis of the look is reversed.

[]And if one asks: “In this place, are your emotions sad or gay?” the eyes move to the left, because that question concerns the past, but they lower a little. It is as if the memory of the [sad] emotion pushes the eyes downward (85).

Marc applies the same generalizing semiotic assumptions to numerous other categories of axial body part movement, such as the eyelids, the lips, jaws, the head, hands, and torso. He inserts little generic photos of these body parts to support his argument, but these merely illustrate his points rather than verify them. Then he and Heggen introduce larger categories of movement, like respiration, walking, musicality, and animality. Discussion of props (mostly “neutral” masks and marionettes [330-351]), scenic architecture, lighting, and costumes is very perfunctory, a mere set of small lists of props they have used in various performances over several decades (328-330). But the discussion remains abstractly theoretical, without reference to the observation of movements in performance or by persons seen in the world outside the studio. The hypothetical organization of movement categories is necessary to standardize the education of the mime; it is the necessary basis for building exercises that all students in a class learn and that establish the “standard” by which a teacher can evaluate a student’s progress in a course. Exercises are essential to teaching, but they are not essential to artistic development. If learning derives from observed rather than hypothetical movement, then you open up a vast domain of subjectivity in the “interpretation” of the “meaning” ascribed to movement that is inimical to the goal of standardization. To standardize movement is to construct a vocabulary or grammar of movement that regulates bodily signification in relation to an institutional and societal ideal of control over the body and its otherwise destabilizing capacity to intensify the “chaos” of subjectivity. Heggen and Marc’s book clarifies that mime education is above all concerned with the preparation of teachers, not artists. This preoccupation with the teacher as the focus of power in the formation of mime identity leads to a pedagogy that emphasizes the student/performer’s process of achieving a transcendently neutral body; it is indeed a kind of therapeutic experience that pays little, if any, attention to what movements “mean” to audiences or to any aspect of the public outside of the sacred, sequestered studio-classroom, because the transcendently neutral body cannot exist anywhere else. It is the creation of exercises assigned by a teacher. 

Nevertheless, since 1975, Heggen and Marc have produced a large repertoire of performances, and they devote the last third of their book to brief descriptions of their performances, although it is not always clear where these performances took place, other than their school or at performing arts schools elsewhere in Europe. Access to the performances is therefore primarily through videos of them, but even these are difficult to see in their entirety. A 1978 video of Les mutants (1975) is perhaps the clearest available documentation of their ambition to embody transcendent neutrality. In this work, Heggen and Marc emerge, almost like huge insects, from a white shroud wearing identical green body suits that mask even their faces. For a little more than half an hour, they perform, together and solo, a series of contortions, gyrations, mirror movements, convulsions, lurches, lunges, crawls, tumbles, sliding nudges, intertwining limbs, and mutual enfoldings, all performed at different speeds and interrupted periodically with moments of stillness. The piece ends when the pair, after stripping off their body suits, wrap themselves in the white shroud from which they emerged. The performance takes place in a completely white space accompanied by the hyper-modernistic music of Didier Lavellet (b. 1944) and Yves Erwan-Chotard. Apparently the object of the piece is to show how, detached from any recognizable context other than the studio, the body “mutates” into alien forms of life: “the body” contains within it “other” life forms than any we can see “in the world.” But the movements constructing these mutations do seem as if they are the product of studio exercises that operate independently of any narrative structure that subordinates movement to a larger concept of action. A movement grammar (“cor-texte”) allows for the recombination and reconfiguration of movements without regard to narrative specificity. Mime, like dance, focuses on movements defined by an autonomous semiotic system; pantomime focuses on actions relative to a performer and relative to a specific narrative involving a specific context. Pantomime works best in relation to a specific set of narrative actions(not movements) that every actor will perform differently, subjectively, and not in a standardized manner: He enters the store to buy a book for scientific research, but when a woman enters the store, he becomes distracted and intensely curious about what sort of book she wants to read. As they each browse through books around each other, they “mutate” into strange, insect-like creatures burrowing into books either to get close to each other or to escape the scope of desire. Every actor who performs this little narrative will perform each action differently, because the action is more than any standardized regulation of movement yet always specific to the performer and the context. The mime studio space does not encourage the concept of action, because action requires linking “the body” to some context external to the studio and to “alien” domains of subjectivity that motivate action “in the world.”

 In more recent video performances, Heggen and Marc appear to have acknowledged some of the limitations of studio sequestration and adopted grand narrative structures. Blancs . . . sous le masque (2005) is a nearly two-hour long “big and little history of mime” involving six actors. The piece is neither mime nor pantomime, but an example of physical theater. The actors use huge chunks of speech in various languages and in nonsense languages to narrate the history of mime from primeval cave performance through Roman and medieval times to the era of the Paris foire theaters, the Pierrot period, the silent film era, Decroux, Marceau, and up to the present, with allusions to Asian theater, German expressionist dance (Mary Wigman), and Jacques Lecoq. The piece is a loud, frenetic, clamorous, and rowdy romp through pantomime history in which pantomime appears as a sequence of clown acts performed by the same set of “recurring archetypal” figures. That is, the show is not so much history as it is a staging of popular myths associated with pantomime and mime at linearly arranged points in time. But a problem with physical theater is its inability to sustain a serious tone toward anything. Advocates of physical theater insist on a comic attitude toward all subjects, and they pervasively embody a comic attitude that relies entirely on a gestural grammar or “physicality” that invariably produces caricatures. This caricaturization of the body becomes aligned with assumed “archetypes” of human identity, although to the caricaturing mind archetypes are synonymous with clowns. In Blancs . . . sous le masque, mime and pantomime caricatures manifest entirely through the commedia and Pierrot archetypes. Brief video clips of Méliès silent films, Marceau’s Bip, and Decroux exercises do not dispel the sense of archetypal reductionism; they merely introduce a glaring tension between history as documented by film and myth as incarnated by “recurring” caricatures of “eternally human” types on the stage (Heggen 2005a).

The very short film,  Le chemin se fait en marchant (2005) offers a much narrower and more distinctive venture into the theatrical performance of history. It is a solo performance, about one and a half hours long, directed by and starring Claire Heggen. The piece chronicles her life story as a “path” followed through a variety of enacted metaphors for “walking.” While the show contains plenty of skillfully performed physical “demonstrations” or “evocations,” as Decroux would call them, Heggen relies heavily on her voice, either in voiceover or in monologue, to tell her story from birth, to childhood play, to ballet studies, to Decroux, to the formation of Théâtre du Mouvement, and to her deepening understanding of mime’s transformation of her identity. It is an extraordinary story of personal evolution that nevertheless seems of limited relevance here other than to indicate that her evolution entails a lack of confidence in voiceless performance to tell her story (or maybe any story or any history) effectively. Yet the piece contains an astonishing scene, a video clip from a film that Heggen and Marc shot in 1990, but the film derived from scenes in an earlier work for the stage, En ce temps-la ils passient (1983) (Heggen 2017: 235). They shot the short (five minutes) film, Tezirzek: Les animaux, in the Tezirzek gorge of the very remote Ténéré desert in Niger. The film shows a tribe or family of five mysterious creatures embodied by humans with torsos wrapped with a kind of reptilian netting and their heads masked to resemble a combination of lizard’s head and hawk’s head. A human hand emerges out of the desert sand, but the body that follows belongs to a primordial species that inhabited the world millions of years ago. The eerie family slithers up and down huge sand dunes like monstrous snakes and salamanders, creeps and crawls across the blazing Sahara like baboons or anteaters, and climbs giant rocks and explores caves like panthers or iguanas. The filmmakers do not identify the source of the accompanying music: dark, haunting electronic or horn tones embellished with gong strokes, whirring hums, a tingling triangle, and deep, murky drones. The film makes effective use of cinematic devices, such as telephoto shots, tracking shots, striking camera angles, dissolves, and wide-angle lens closeups, to capture the pantomimic performance. The human performers impressively “evoke” a pre-human, pre-primate, pre-linguistic evolutionary phase of “walking.” But the goal here seems the reverse of Les mutants. Whereas Les mutants shows how alien forms of life lie hidden within the human body, Tezirzek shows how “families” of various species contain within them an intensely alien form of life: the human. It is a powerful pantomime performance, in part because it communicates an idea that only pantomime can achieve persuasively. But the performance achieves this persuasiveness because it focuses on actionsperformed within a specific, overwhelmingly daunting context, the Sahara desert, and the viewer sees this performance through the advanced, cinematic technology of the “alien” species. The film provides a wonderful glimpse of how the mime philosophy of Decroux, when freed from studio sequestration, placed instead in imaginative contexts, and seen through advanced image technologies, can build a distinctive, mysterious “path” to the pantomime of the future. But the film is only and merely a glimpse, not a promise fulfilled by any of Decroux’s disciples (Heggen 2005b; Heggen 2020).

Figure 180: Tezirzek: Les animaux (1990), directed by Claire Heggen and Yves Marc. Photos: from Heggen 2020.

Yet another interesting French duo that has spent decades nurturing Decroux’s legacy is Pinok and Matho, the professional names of Monique Bertrand and Mathilde Dumont. They met as students at the former L’école normale d’éducation physique in 1959 and then studied together under Étienne and Maximilien Decroux. But they also became “impregnated” with the ideas of Mireille André-Fromantel, a modern dancer unique in France for having worked with German dance leaders such as Mary Wigman, Kurt Jooss, and Rosalia Chladek as well as with the American modern dance pioneers José Limón (1908-1972) and Martha Graham (1894-1991). Pinok and Matho introduced a “different pedagogy” that blurred distinctions between dance, pantomime, gymnastics, and acrobatics and created “an art of movement” or “bodily theater” (théâtre corporel). The purpose of this “decompartmentalization of techniques” was to bring “creativity” to voiceless performance, because “in the 1960s, the notion of creativity had little presence in dance or mime.” In 1962, the duo formed the Théâtre école movement et pensée (TEMP) that sought to educate students of various ages according to an eclectic curriculum built more around games than on exercises (Pinok 2016: 563-566; cf. Robinson 1990: 333-335). But Pinok and Matho pursued an extensive performance career that occurred primarily in nightclubs, cabarets, and small theaters, such as, from 1990, the fifty-seat Le Tremplin Théâtre in Montmartre. Unlike many mime performers, the duo did not involve their students in their productions: they performed always only as a duo. Maximilien Decroux endorsed their performance aesthetic, and the writer of bizarre, dreamlike tales Marcel Béalu (1908-1993) praised them because, “refusing to enclose themselves in a system, refusing the traditional image of the whiteface mime, Pinok et Mathot, with great independence, explore the relations between two persons, relations dynamic and dramatic, exploiting and opposing their differences [… and creating] a distortion of reality, an introduction to a fantastic or surrealistic dimension. […] Their bodies, which an intensive physical education has transformed, muscled, and planed, have become more doe-like, more leopard or cat or panther than bearers of breasts.” Another commentator described the pair as “androgynes dancing before Caesar as dreamed by Fellini,” while yet another observed that they were “androgynous beings who evade the sexes with ferocity and trepidation at the same time” (Pinok 2016: 442-443). 

Video or even written documentation of their performances, however, remains feeble. Pinok and Matho describe their performances in several pages but do not even provide dates for their productions. They identified five categories of duo performance: 1) a conflict or opposition between two persons; 2) two persons who complement or mirror each other; 3) one person succeeds another in performing solo; 4) one person who remains the same while the other incarnates multiple persons; 5) two persons identically clothed and masked give the impression that they are a single person (445). Some of their pieces are comic, a kind of absurdist clownery, such as Les Reines (1968), in which the duo appear as chessboard queens in black and white costumes and attempt to upstage each other entirely through exaggerated formal movements, or Cadeau de Noël (1971), in which a little girl receives a Christmas gift of a doll but casts it aside when a bigger gift appears: when she removes the big box, a human being stands before her, and she proceeds to play with the lifeless human as if it is a doll. But other duos are melancholic, eerie, or austere, such as Toc Toc Toc! (1979), where a woman in a silver mask and a brown medieval dress stitches an imaginary garment in a dark space until a figure in a suit, bow tie, bowler, and white mask knocks; he speaks somber, unintelligible words, then leaves, while she performs a standing dance out of weaving movements to the accompaniment of a ticking sound. Temps distillé (1971) showed two silver-masked women in white medieval robes performing complementary stitching movements, one standing, the other crouching: “our hand gestures suggest the actions of sewing, spinning, threading without really imitating them, gestures close to the artisan’s gestures, precise, meticulous, or close to the movements of certain insects” (Pinok 1976: 9). In Où sont tous mes amants (1974) they appeared in Greek chitons made of the same piece of cloth and adopted different histrionically “emotional” poses while hearing a 1935 tune (“Where are all my lovers?”) by music hall singer Fréhel (Marguerite Boulc’h [1891-1951]). In Totem (1982), they created a living totem pole in which their arms, heads and legs continuously reconfigured the image of a double-bodied idol (Dumont 2016; Pinok 2016: 449-459). One of the duo’s most ambitious works was the program Tango avec la mort ou Hamlet et Hamlet (1976), a five-act “opera-reverie” inspired by Hamlet’s monologue and containing seventeen discrete scenes or pieces, both comic and serious, depicting either moments in the play or physical “meditations” on themes of the play. “The theme of death is recurrent” in their work, they explain, “even in the more comic pieces, not through complacency with a climate of morbidity, but with the intention of tracking down the slightest signs that announce or report violence, destruction, the dangers of totalitarianism and the death of arbitration, the crushing of innocence, and denouncing the will to power” (Pinok 2016: 444). In 1978, the duo began collaborating with the experimental composer Dominique Laurent on the program Les pays de tout en tout and then again with Ténèbres et Azur (1982), eleven sketches built around the duality of light and shadow: “after a nocturnal journey that unmasks the avid impulses of humanity comes the slow path into obscurity, then the supreme quest or spirit triumphs over materiality” (447). Laurent’s music added an alien, haunting, electronic pathos to the duo’s basically existential vision of a desolate, death-saturated world where love is very hard to find and never more than two people struggling to do something together in an otherwise dark, empty space. 

But the duo’s productions seem like supplements to their pedagogic activity, if indeed French mime as envisioned by Decroux is above all an intellectual rather than an artistic project, the enactment of a philosophy or theory. Pinok and Matho published several books in the 1970s: L’expression corporelle à l’école (1973), Écrits sur pantomime, mime, expression corporelle (1975), Expression corporelle: mouvement et pensée (1976), and Le fabuleux voyage aux pays de tout en tout (1979). These books introduced, developed, modified, and reiterated their ideas for implementing a “different pedagogy” to intensify creativity in “bodily expression.” But perhaps the most provocative of their 1970s publications is Dynamique de la creation: le mot et l’expression corporelle (1976), in which they assert that enhanced creativity in bodily expression depends on a “creative pedagogy.” A basic tenet of a creative pedagogy is a devaluing of exercises, for these lead to habitual and routine ways of thinking and performing. Instead, creative pedagogy emphasizes game playing as the foundation of “movement thinking.” Games, however, involve improvisations in which rules of play change to produce a “dynamic” understanding of the body’s capacity to respond to internal and external stimuli (20-24). Most salient in the improvisational process is the idea that words are the “detonators of movement,” for “the isolation of words or their random proximity disconnects us from the coherent sentence or a more literary formulation, and achieves the value of novelty, of strangeness” (32). According to Pinok and Matho, words in isolation trigger unconscious associations, a “reverie” of images that “escape the determinative sentence,” and the body moves in response to these images or “stimuli” that are unique to the performer. “For one person, the word moto [motorcycle] signifies an intolerable noise, for another a muscular sensation, for yet another a homosexual symbol or a beautiful, glittering new object or a feeling of power and freedom” (32). Improvisations arise out of allowing the body to move as an “expression” of the image “detonated” by the word. The authors discuss colors as a fruitful basis for bodily improvisation; particular colors, “for me,” contain particular “reveries” of association:

Violet: shade, Holy Thursday, covered statues, devil…

Black: raven, obscurity, shadows, trout, death…

Green: herbs, oxygen, mountain, non-pollution…

Red: blood, trepidation, excitation, ardor…

White: washing, slowness, immobility, calm, virginity…(43)

The improvised movements that arise in response to each set of associations attached to each color-word are the basis of “thinking in movement,” “a mysterious game of association born of chance.” Like a relational database, different movements from different sets of association may be combined to produce a new kind of corporeal narrative that reveals the “metamorphosis” of the body into an emblem of a hidden self, a manifestation of an otherwise invisible realm of the unconscious (Pinok and Matho quote Baudelaire, Proust, and Symbolist poets). Isolated word associations prepare the student’s body to respond to other stimuli, such as music, noise, light, objects, touches. The authors supplement their text with images of their duo performances. But their theory of pantomime as an image of the unconscious, of a dream world, though seemingly influenced by the French psychoanalytic discourse of the 1970s, is a modernized renovation of the nineteenth century romantic rhetoric about Pierrot as a dream figure: Pinok and Matho have given this rhetoric a pedagogic logic, a basis for treating pantomime, not as an end in itself, but as an instrument for achieving another goal—the liberation of a repressed self, the release of a “creativity” that words in their “determinative” structures have smothered. Here pantomime becomes a supreme sign of subjectivity, a thing evaluated almost entirely by the performer’s experience of performing it. The relation to an audience or to a world external to the performer’s unconscious is almost irrelevant.

            But Pinok and Matho themselves seem to have come to the conclusion that the French pantomime tradition has reached some kind of end. In 2016, they published a huge history of pantomime, Une saga du mime: des origins aux années 1970, a rich, montage compilation of quotations, biographies, images, “reflections,” and epochal summaries. The book provides a brief account of the “origins” of pantomime in ancient Greece and various features of pantomime under the Romans. Another chapter, also comparatively brief, with the title “German Expressionism 1905-1920,” discusses Frank Wedekind, Mary Wigman, Harald Kreutzberg, and Kurt Jooss as important figures who somehow influenced mime, although Wigman, Kreutzberg, and Jooss achieved prominence only after 1920. Otherwise, the immense book presents mime and pantomime as entirely French phenomena, without reference to pantomime anywhere else or even reference to important examples of French pantomime outside of the commedia format, such as Angiolini, Noverre, Cuvelier, or Richepin. Pinok and Matho situate themselves within this history as a culminating expression of French pantomime, for they do not refer to anyone after them or contemporary with them. The implication is that pantomime came to an end in the 1970s with the emergence of “corporeal expression” and the blurring of distinctions between dance, mime, and performance art, which is synonymous with a postmodern collapse of faith in the body to construct narratives other than the “mysterious games” of the unconscious. The story of pantomime thus comes to an end when those writing it can no longer find stories to tell in pantomime and must rely on chance relations between the body and word associations to allow the body to “express” something without words. 

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1 thought on “Gendered Perspectives on Modernist Pantomime: Women Students of Decroux”

  1. I find your writing on Corinne Soum to be a bit wrong. The Theatre de l’Ange Fou is a theatre company that has created well over 40 plays, and toured throughout the world. They have also created shows for other theatre companies in Mexico, Brazil, Ireland, India etc. etc… And they also have been teaching hundreds and hundreds of students for over the past 40 years. Former students and company members of the Theatre de l’Ange Fou have companies and schools in South America, Japan, Australia, the Middle East and throughout Europe from Italy to Spain to France to the UK to Ireland to Germany and on and on. When writing something about us, perhaps you might have talked to us directly.


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