This section does not appear in the PDF version of the pantomime book due to file size that makes downloading the PDF cumbersome. I am very grateful to Ariane Martinez for helping to create this post.
An exceptionally imaginative example of postmodern pantomime is a 2021 video performance piece by French contortionist Elodie Guézou (b. 1987) (ARTE Concert 2021). The six-minute piece, which does not carry any discernible title, is an interdisciplinary project insofar as the power of the performance depends on the way a video camera views the pantomime. The video does not document a pantomime performance; rather, the camera is an active element of the performance. A collaborative authorship is therefore responsible for the creation of this piece, with the video director, Matthias Castegnaro (b. 1988) providing an unspecified measure of creative input on what I will call the “lighthouse production.” Well before this production, Guézou had demonstrated a multidisciplinary approach to performance, having studied at the International School of Dramatic Corporeal Mime in Paris, and then acting and dance at different Parisian schools as well as circus performance at the circus school in Lomme. She began her professional career as a singer before migrating to acting in theatrical and video productions, modeling, contortionist performances, and modern dance pieces (Guézou 2021). In a 2019 interview with theater historian Ariane Martinez, Guézou explained how contortionist-circus performance gave her a sense of authorial control over her performances: “Since I have been a circus performer, I legitimately feel myself to be an author. The circus artist choreographs and forges her movement from her unique bodily abilities, from her way of (de) shaping her body. […] But when I was only an actress, I didn’t feel like an author, I felt like a technician of an artistic language” (Martinez 2021: 143). Her contortionist-dance performances attracted the attention of videographers, who, however, were unable to build her performances beyond what they were without video. In 2015, she first attempted to subjectivize her contortionism by attaching a small video camera to her forehead and contorting herself before a studio mirror, so that the video viewer saw her contortions as she herself saw them, a concept that she developed more fully in a 2020 video (Guézou 2015; Guézou 2020). While these “exercises” created an almost erotic intimacy with the body of the performer, they magnified the impression that the performer can never see her own performance as well as some “other” person who sees her in a way that is independent of what she controls through her body.
The performance space of the lighthouse project is a lighthouse near Caen, Guézou’s birthplace. The piece is one of many commissioned by the French-German television channel Arte to provide performance opportunities for acrobats and circus artists who could not perform in theaters during the pandemic. After an opening external shot of the lighthouse dome against cloudy skies, the video cuts to the interior of the dome with Guézou standing, her back to the viewer, and gazing through a window at the land and sea below. Wearing a sleeveless gray tee shirt and black tights, she arches completely backward, face upside down to the camera, placing her hands on the hardwood floor of what is apparently a small, elegant apartment at the top of the lighthouse. This movement initiates a series of contortionist-dance movements. She lifts her legs into the air, scratches her left calf with her right foot, walks belly up and backward on her hands and bare feet, uses a pole in the room to push herself upside down as she turns herself. still upside down, to stretch her body against a lattice of frosted little windows [Figure 1].
She slithers down and swerves into an adjoining small room, a kind of kitchenette, where, standing on her left foot, with her right foot raised and curved, she opens and sips from a bottle of fruit juice. She then swivels into another adjoining small room with a bed, where, with her toes, she grabs a cell phone and slides onto her belly on the bed, where, with her toe, she scrolls messages on the cell phone [Figure 2].
Finding nothing of interest on the phone, she returns to the room in which she began the performance and performs a gyrating contortionist dance arched back, belly up, on her hands and feet. She twirls around the floor, twists around the pole, and hoists herself into a contorted headstand before coiling around the pole [Figures 3, 4, and 5].
With this dance, music enters the soundtrack, a melancholy piano-cello duet, although the video does not identify the composer; the sound engineer is François-Xavier Couillard. Following the two-minute dance, she rises up, moves to a window, opens it, and jumps out of it. The camera, now outside the lighthouse, views her as she floats suspended in the air by a cable attached to the dome apartment. The music is gone, and the sound consists of bird cries and wind. Guézou pushes herself off the wall of the tower, swings back and forth several times, and performs somersaults in the air. The performance concludes with Guézou bouncing back and forth off the tower wall. As with the interior scenes, the camera views her from different angles and lens settings, although the interior scenes rely more heavily on wide angle lens shots [Figures 4, 5, and 6].
Throughout the piece, the camera (and editing, by Nicolas Millet) construct a freedom to view her that is very difficult and perhaps even impossible for a human to obtain, except through mediation, such as shots of her dancing taken outside and through the window of the dome apartment.
In her brief commentary on the piece at the end of the video, Guézou says that when she first saw the lighthouse, it awakened in her the desire to pursue an unusual movement toward freedom. The piece does evoke a vaguely fairytale, princess-trapped-in-the-tower atmosphere. Guézou moves about the sterile apartment alone and restlessly, as if pushing herself to find some durable pleasure in her body, in a movement or pose that will release a dormant, liberating energy. She explores her tactile attachment to various surfaces: wood, steel, glass, plastic, and cloth, although she cannot sustain any of these attachments. Communication with the outside world, as represented by her momentary, bored scrolling of her cell phone, is incapable of releasing this energy. The polished, elevated domestic environment compels her to contort her body and pressure it to make the leap into a vast, freer space. Nevertheless, the cable tethers her to the apartment. The final, exterior images of the piece exalt the idea of freedom as a soaring suspension above the world and the rest of humanity. But this idea of freedom stems from a condition of isolation and loneliness that neither domestic comfort nor digital technologies can transcend. Within this isolated condition, movement toward freedom can only emerge through the heightened awareness of one’s body offered by contorting it, by pantomiming, by dancing, by assuming that only a camera can see one’s body with any accuracy. If the world both within and without the lighthouse cannot release one from a fundamental isolation and loneliness, then movement toward freedom depends on a pleasure or happiness in one’s own body rather than pleasure in another’s. In the end, Guezou remains alone, and, in the final shot, even her body is eclipsed by the tower wall itself.
This performance reveals the potential of postmodern narrative aesthetics to move pantomime in a rewarding new direction. Guézou constructs a complex narrative in a highly compressed time span, six minutes. She uses contortionist action to construct pantomime. These actions signify restlessness, body awareness, and the necessity of finding an internal, body-centered idea of greater freedom. They construct a narrative depicting the desire of a solitary person to achieve freedom, the release of a liberating energy locked within her body, which is in turn locked within an isolating domestic environment. But the performance of this narrative depends on an interdisciplinary or “intermedial” aesthetic, the blending of contortionism with dance and circus acrobatics, the sophisticated use of video technology, and the alternating use of natural sounds and music. Perhaps, though, the most salient dimension to the performance is the choice of the performance site: the lighthouse. It took considerable imagination to see the lighthouse as a place for pantomimic performance. But you do not see new spaces for pantomime unless you feel within yourself the desire to free pantomime from the spaces in which the world has locked it.