The Extinction of the Pantomimic Literary Imagination: The London International Mime Festival

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

PDF version of the entire book.

Figure 189: Scene from “Les Arrière-Mondes” (2021), directed and choreographed by Nicole Mossoux and Patrick Bonté and performed by Dorian Chavez, Taylor Lecocq, Colline Libon, Lenka Luptakova, Frauke Mariën et Shantala Pèpe. Photo: Cie Mossou-Bonté and Fabrik Potsdam.

The London International Mime Festival

Since the 1990s, varieties of voiceless performance in the theater have emerged that either expand the definition of pantomime or, more likely, render inadequate the “mime culture” idea of performance issuing from Paris so pervasively from the 1950s to the 1980s, for after all, performers and audiences in various countries had moved beyond French-defined mime culture well before 1990. In Eastern Europe, however, performers were less afraid than in Western countries to use the term “pantomime” to describe their performances. Except for Handke’s Die Stunde da wir nichts von einander wussten, the world literary imagination had nothing to do with this project of expanding the definition of theatrical pantomime since 1990. Because mainstream theater institutions were unable to make a stable place for pantomime, the mime culture, scattered across a multitude of small, often non-professional troupes, institutionalized itself not only through the mime schools that began to proliferate in the 1960s, but through international mime festivals formed in conjunction with the networks of mime schools. The problem with the festival format was that it insulated mime culture: mimes performed largely for other mimes, and festivals functioned like professional conferences. Festivals did little to expand the space for pantomime in theater culture outside of the mime culture network. Instead, festivals, with their numerous auxiliary workshops and technique demonstrations, emphasized mime as a pedagogic enterprise. Learning mime was an end in itself, a path to the self-development of the performer; under the spell of Decroux, mimes quite often regarded performances for diverse audiences outside of the mime network as an unhealthy compromise of pedagogic ideals. The pedagogic environment persistently stressed the display of performer skills, dexterity of technique, at the expense of narrative innovation, representational imagination, or scenic complexity. This academicization of mime has led to the creation, in 2011, of the Mime Centrum in Berlin, with its busy schedule of workshops, lectures, demonstrations, trainings, and archival activities, but it has not led to any pantomime performance in subsidized theaters in Berlin or indeed in any German subsidized theaters other than revivals of Handke’s pantomime dramas from 1969 and 1992. The Mime Centrum primarily serves teachers and students who wish to enhance the instructional quality of classroom and studio activities. In Germany, pantomime has become an acceptable therapeutic activity in public schools for improving socialization and communication skills as well as body awareness; it is a way of integrating children into the society. While it is probably a beneficial aim, pedagogic pantomime reinforces the perception that pantomime is primarily an activity for children and young people and therefore detached from “serious” artistic ambition. 

            The London International Mime Festival, established in 1977, is the oldest and perhaps the most prestigious of the international mime festivals. The Festival began through the initiative of the English clown-mime Nola Rae (b. 1950), who had studied under Marcel Marceau. She persuaded a theater manager, Joseph Seelig (b. 1948), to organize the event at a theater he managed in London. Seelig soon soon supervised the operations of several theaters, and in 1986, he began co-directing the Festival with Helen Lannaghan. Since then, the Festival has followed their shared vision of voiceless performance, although Seelig has said that the word “mime” is not accurate to describe the scope of the Festival (Martin 2012: 2). Nola Rae proposed the Festival because she felt the public needed a larger idea of pantomime than the media’s tendency to reduce it to Marcel Marceau, if not the annual Christmas pantomime. The Festival has always brought in performers and companies from different countries, but for economic reasons, the performances are on a small scale, though not without challenging technical and physical complexities. A diverse array of voiceless performances has filled Festival programs, including acrobatics, jugglers, quasi-dance concerts, puppet and marionette shows, circus stunts, kinetic sculptures, performance art ritual actions, and forms of “physical theater,” in which performers show different movements or effects they can create with their bodies rather than represent characters or construct narratives out of a sequential, linear logic of physical actions. Many of these performances are not pantomime insofar as the performers do not “imitate” others, as is implied in the original meaning of the word. The Festival treats all these types of voiceless performance as “mime” apparently under the assumption that the word is more vague or more inclusive in its meaning and connotations than the word “pantomime” and thus will attract a wider range of spectators. The Festival unfolds in different theaters and neighborhoods throughout London and attracts a much less unified audience than festivals organized by the mime culture networks established in the 1970s. Originally, Seelig promoted a festival of “mime and visual theater,” but he soon dropped the term “visual theater,” because it seemed even more vague or confusing than just “mime” to describe voiceless performance that was not dance: spectators tended to regard any kind of theater performance as a visual experience anyway, even if some performance groups used the term to describe speechless, though by no means soundless, performances emphasizing dynamic imagery, stunts, technical effects, acrobatics and/or bodily communication, including sometimes but not always pantomime. Even in 2016, Seelig complained about the “unnatural prejudice” against mime that the Festival has sought to dissolve, but in his efforts to redefine mime, he has inadvertently reinforced a prejudice against “pantomime,” insofar as this word presumably has come under the control of school teachers or become implacably identified with the Christmas pageant and thus irreparably signifies an infantilizing mode of bodily performance (Martin 2012: 2). Nevertheless, while it is hardly comprehensive in its presentation of voiceless performance since 1977, the Festival has across its history provided a good cross section of “mime” that reveals how postmodern aesthetics has destabilized the modernist semantic relationship between “mime,” “pantomime,” and “visual theater.” 

            Many of the voiceless performances featured at the Festival employ tropes or unique performance devices that broaden the meaning of mime or pantomime while narrowing the scope of their performance aesthetic, so that they specialize in applying the trope rather than building different performance strategies around different types of narrative. For example, a French group led by Camille Boitel (b. 1979) has specialized in scenes wherein characters inhabit mundane environments of evolving chaos. The characters, in L’Immédiat (2002), perform routine tasks, such as getting dressed, while the clutter of daily life collapses around them: tables crumble, objects fall off walls, shelves tumble, walls cave in; the characters stumble over things, bang into them, fumble their way through doorways or underneath tables or chairs; they treat cabinets or closets as looming obstacles or escape hatches; they treat other bodies as objects in need of removal or displacement. The entire scene dramatizes the precarious, perpetually transforming environment of daily life in which no one who inhabits the environment seems in control of it. The company’s productions require fantastically detailed technical cues and intricately engineered props and scenic structures, with some of their more recent productions requiring many thousands of objects, all of which move from one place to another on the stage (cf. Gallagher 2016). By contrast, the Belgian Compagnie Mossoux-Bonté, founded in 1985 by Nicole Mossoux (b. 1956) and Patrick Bonté (b. 1956), uses super-abstract, bare, cold, minimalistic settings, often bathed in cold blue or white light, to emphasize the power of bodies to dominate, override, or negate any context. More precisely, the company focuses on how the display of bodies and physical responses to bodies form groups, communities, and power relations between members of the communities, power relations between bodies. The performers highlight gestures, poses, postures, “impostures,” and movements that signify their power to attract, scrutinize, adjust, ignore, study, devalue, glorify, rank, re-position, assemble, or separate other bodies, usually accompanied by ominous, heavy electronic soundscapes. Juste ciel (1985/2012) builds a 45-minute solo piece out of gestures of prayer, supplication, and obeisance. Some of the company’s pieces feature complete nudity of both men and women: Les dernières hallucinations de Lucas Cranach l’Ancien (1991), Hurricane (2001), Le corps et la mélancolie (2006), Nuit sur le monde (2007), Les corps magnétiques (2009), Les buveuses de café (2013). Although Mossoux studied under French ballet choreographer Maurice Béjart (1927-2007), her works with Bonté are not dance, but elaborately choreographed kinetic poses, like clinical or scholarly visual analyses or catalogues of bodily signifying practices. When productions occasionally contain scenic props, these are grandiosely symbolic, such as the enormous bed in Les sœurs de Sardanapale (1994) on which the performers pounce, lounge, leap, crawl around, or submerge themselves. Migrations (2012) featured seven performers skating their power relations on an ice rink. In Les sœurs de SardanapaleLes buveuses de café, and Taste of Poison (2017), the company makes very imaginative uses of tables to reveal how people use them to show their control over their bodies or their control over other bodies. Katafalk (2002) features a half-nude woman who lies, stands, or crouches on a table or platform while video images loom behind, on, or before her. Some of these video images depict her wearing a bizarre mask, but the scale of these images varies, so that she interacts with sometimes huge, sometimes equivalent, and sometimes small images of herself. In one scene, she lies, as if asleep, while an image of a girl bounces up and down on her. At the end of the piece, it is difficult to differentiate the real woman from the video image of her; as she lies perfectly still on the platform, she also seems to levitate, as the hovering video image of her lying on the platform replaces the living performance of her lying. But then another image enters of her lying, nude with pearl-like golden lights coiling around her body, which has become glistening black. She undulates as the image recedes into the darkness (Mossoux-Bonté 2018). The piece dramatizes an evolving conflict between a body and images of it that are presumably the projections of an internal, psychic attempt to control the idea of a “self.” It is exceptionally effective in showing how electronic image technology “enters” the body and controls the very idea of the self. But this concept of a projected self defined by image technology controlling a “real” self derives from the puppet aesthetic that Mossou explored with Twin Houses (1994). Here Mossou used five different puppets or “mannequins,” male and female, attached to one shoulder-arm or the other, to show, in five scenes, how the puppet controlled the puppeteer, how different “projections” of her identity, her sexuality, her body transform her into a puppet or at least undermine distinctions between the “human” self and the projected self (cf. Piris 2014: 33-35). 

            The perceptual trope of technology erasing distinctions between puppet and puppeteer has given rise to the concept of pantomime performed by non-humans or robots. Several companies specialize in such performances. The French company L’Insolite Mécanique, in which Magali Rousseau is the only human performer, specializes in Rousseau’s interactions with delicately, mechanically constructed birds and insects, as in her Je brasse de l’air/Lift Off (2014), in which she depicts “a little girl who wishes to escape by becoming a master of the air,” although the escape depends on creating completely robotized creatures rather than becoming immersed in an intensified, glorified image of natural flying creatures. In 2011, the Israeli theater director Amit Drori created Savanna, a performance involving the interaction of robotized animals resembling African wildlife, such as a giraffe, an antelope, a stork, a monkey, a tortoise, and an elephant. Because the robotized creatures interact with their human creators, Drori contends that the performance dramatizes the “discovery of nature” rather than the replacement of it (Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne 2011). A more completely robotic type of pantomimic performance comes from the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre, created in 1989 in St. Petersburg by a woodcarver, Eduard Bersudsky (b. 1939), and his wife, the theater director Tatyana Jakovskaya (b. 1947); since 1995, the company has resided in Glasgow, Scotland. Bersudsky builds enormous kinetic sculptures involving sometimes hundreds of moving parts and figurines attached to twirling mobiles, rotating wheels, swinging pendulums, pumping levers, or churning conveyer belts. The dynamic lighting designs, by Sergey Jakovsky (b. 1980), constantly change perception of the fantastic apparatus. For Bersudsky, this elaborate updating of the archaic automata performance represents a “mechanical paradise” designed by entirely invisible humans and operating completely according to inhuman laws of physics (cf. Kassabova 2013). But this form of robotic pantomime carries with it a vaguely non-modern aura of fairground quaintness, an extravagant obsession with creating a “happier world,” as Jakovskaya says, out of toys, with invoking a childhood feeling of control over objects, an experience entirely opposite to that staged by Boitel. 

            A far more demonic vision of robotic pantomime is the work of Survival Research Laboratories (SRL), which has never performed at the London Mime Festival or attempted any association with pantomimic theater. Founded in 1978 in San Francisco by Mark Pauline (b. 1953), an art school graduate, the company specialized in outdoor performances involving very large, remotely controlled robots built out of recycled machine parts (cf. Hicks 2012). The machines looked like monstrous predators, for Pauline equipped them with large claws, hammers, ramrods, torches, and explosives. The object of performance was for the machines to attack and destroy each other, creating an orgy of destruction. For a while in the 1980s, Pauline amplified the violence of the performance by including the corpses of slaughterhouse animals. Productions of SRL reached enormous audiences internationally. A peculiar feature of the machines was that they projected unique personas, albeit sinister and menacing, and spectators cared about which machines would “win” or survive the contest. It was emotionally unnerving to watch a hobbled robot continue to attack and struggle to keep moving, so that the robots actually seemed “alive,” because of their somehow visceral ability to simulate pain, affliction. The robotic pantomimes of SRL proposed that technology inescapably creates destruction, expands capacities for violence, imposes conditions of sacrifice, is an intimation of death. Though humans create the performance, their “invisibility” during the performance implies that the violence is inherent to technology, regardless of whether humans created it. It thus seems as if the machines come from an alien world, even though humans created them out of the debris of their own world. 

             However, in the twenty-first century, a much more postmodern manifestation of robotic pantomime has emerged through motion capture technology. This technology “captures” the movement of bodies without showing the body itself. The capture of movement alone allows the image-maker to “map” the movements onto different bodies and to place these bodies and their movements in different physical contexts. To capture movements, performers wear special body suits covered with sensors, which send signals to a computer that tracks the movement of the sensors. The more sensors the performer wears the more movement data the computer will record. Motion capture can record facial or hand movements with great precision. Some motion capture systems can handle ten or twelve bodies moving at the same time. But generally, to create large ensemble scenes, it is more effective to take data from individual bodies and combine them with data from other bodies to produce ensemble scenes. Motion capture allows an artist to create performance with a wider range of bodies and movements than is possible in live performance. Movements of humans can be mapped onto objects, so that it is possible, for example, to have a chair crawling like a human. The image-maker can model bodies through programs that either provide numerous body models or allow the artist to construct entirely original bodies. In the modeling process, bodies can be distorted or transformed while the movement remains stable. With motion capture, the camera sees the action at 360 degrees and thus allows the image-maker to see the action from any angle and move in or away from the action at will and at varying speeds. Aside from its scientific use related to biokinetics, physical therapies, and athletic performance, motion capture provides the basis for movements and actions performed by characters and objects in many video games, 3D animations, and live action motion pictures. Occasionally theater productions have used motion capture for unusual spectacular effects, such as The Royal Shakespeare’s 2016 production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which the performance of the magical character Ariel was a projection achieved through motion capture. But motion capture is most likely to operate most significantly in projects that are independent of live performance—in performances intended for digital distribution and consumption. The main reason for using the technology is to extend the movements of the body beyond the moment of their performance, to show how a movement inhabits other bodies, things, or spaces, to show how movement or action has a “life of its own,” so to speak, independent of the bodies that perform it (cf. Jochum 2014). The problem with motion capture in relation to pantomime is that the potential of the technology greatly exceeds the imagination of those who might use it. Digital image technology requires a different kind of pantomimic imagination and a different approach to what pantomime “says” or “means” in relation to audiences who exist outside of the conventional live performance culture. For example, motion capture might be an effective way to reconstruct ancient Roman pantomime within different performance contexts or in relation to competing ways of performing the roles assumed by the actors in the ancient performance spaces. But perhaps the power of motion capture is more alluring when applied to achieving the ancient Roman pantomime goal of revealing the “metamorphosis” of the body, of showing how an action transforms or migrates from one body to another. Such an application may require a pantomimic narrative imagination such as the Romans possessed but which seems completely outside of the modernist or postmodern performance imagination, for at the moment, pantomimic action achieved through the technology remains overwhelmingly subordinate to cinematic narratives that depend heavily on a great deal of speech to “explain” the action. It is largely in video games that motion capture-derived pantomime, with intensely realistic imagery, sometimes renders speech “unnecessary,” as Bergman remarked. The future of robotized pantomime perhaps resides in digital image technology, whereby motion capture can build large databases or dictionaries of movements and actions from which consumers can purchase or at least download specific tropes and apply them to arrays of model bodies and objects to construct their own narratives for distribution across digital media that quite possibly replace or diminish the need to consume already made narratives. In this future, the virtual reality does not replace “live” reality; it simply has more authority than live reality insofar as it is a record of life rather than a memory of it: to construct identities through robotized pantomimic actions intensifies pressure on consumers to model themselves after the images they create and after the narratives they share, which probably means that their lives and bodies would “metamorphose” in relation to images or pantomimic objectifications of themselves that they control. In this respect, Mossou’s Katafalk, which hauntingly depicts how the electronic image “enters” the body and defines the self, seems prophetic. 

            But robotic pantomime probably has a minor place in the general future of pantomime. After all, dance has always been a much more effective way to robotize human movement than pantomime, which has led to perpetual tension between dance and pantomime since the eighteenth century and made pantomime such a troublesome phenomenon in relation to societal efforts to regulate the performance of speechless bodies. Nevertheless, the general future of pantomime increasingly entails performance designed explicitly for video and digital media distribution. The London Mime Festival and postmodern performance companies associated with “mime” or voiceless performance rely on video to promote their existence, even if the videos merely record performances designed for the stage, and the scope of this book is the result of access to videos of performances that otherwise would remain, if they existed at all, highly local cultural activities rather than the “international” art proclaimed by the Festival. Unlike the mime culture of the 1970s and 1980s, voiceless performance groups show less inclination to establish schools as a reliable revenue stream, probably because schools today must accommodate much greater accountability and are much more vulnerable to liability laws. Instead, performance groups favor collaborations with theaters and organizations in different cities or countries in the awareness that their audiences will grow in relation to a particular demographic class of international spectators rather than in relation to an expanding demographic diversity within a stable or growing local population. Voiceless performance tends to “travel” more easily than speech-dependent performances, and as is evident from the history of pantomime, audiences have displayed far greater interest in pantomime than performing arts institutions have cared even to acknowledge. With the decline of the school-oriented mime culture since the 1990s, voiceless performance has expanded considerably in scope and quantity, especially in Europe. Yet the postmodern attitudes adopted by many performance groups stress the advantages of blurring rather than clarifying distinctions between pantomime and other forms of voiceless performance, partly because pantomime seems like an “old” phenomenon that lacks the innovative significance associated with “intermedial” performance and “postdramatic theater,” even though pantomime in its manifold postmodern incarnations in the twenty-first century hardly seems less innovative than other forms of postmodern voiceless performance. But postmodern pantomime does seem less innovative—or perhaps less ambitious—than its modernist manifestations, which provokes scrutiny of the ideological implications embedded within postmodernist performance aesthetics. 

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