Gendered Perspectives on Modernist Pantomime: Women Students of Decroux

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

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). 

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.

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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