ETIENNE DECROUX - AN UNALTERABLE IMPRINT
By Corinne Soum
The first time I met Etienne Decroux, he was already a respectable age, as he himself was pleased to point out: 80 years old. What vigor, what presence! Of course, as others were before me, I was immediately and completely spellbound by this flamboyant being. Unlike certain of my classmates who had come from foreign countries to study with him, I was not surprised to hear a precise and poetic speech (with faultless diction) from this great man, or to discover gestures, simultaneously powerful and engraved, peculiar to Dramatic Corporeal Mime; on the contrary, it was as if this universe, which he permitted me to enter, represented everything I had always looked for, everything I had expected from artistic expression. Dramatic Corporeal Mime, as conceived by Etienne Decroux, is, at the same time, the quintessence of a certain French culture, inherited from surrealism, and a universal great discovery; it is simultaneously the past and the future.
When I saw the house at the end of the garden, a small structure which seemed to spring directly from the imagination of the Dadaists, I knew, in moving toward the front door and in hearing the crunching of gravel under my feet, that I was on the verge of beginning the most decisive experience of my artistic life. My heartbeat supported this intuition, and subsequent years have confirmed more than I then hoped.
What I didn't suspect is that not only would I receive at Decroux's school the most precious education there is, but that I would also, in his circle, meet Steven Wasson, whom I've subsequently had the joy of marrying and with whom I shared this uncommon apprenticing.
Steven came from a world very different from mine; he had crossed the Atlantic and, thanks to the vigilance of Thomas Leabhart, was already experienced in the vocabulary of Dramatic Corporeal Mime. Well before I was conscious myself of the feelings I would later experience for Steven, Monsieur Decroux never ceased to sing the praises of this "young American." Decroux found he had a political presence; by this, Decroux meant a certain determination. I could say that Monsieur Decroux married us.
How much there is to tell about the years spent in Boulogne-Billancourt! Our life was the life of Monsieur and Madame Decroux. This period of intense study, in which we bent our bodies to the discipline of Dramatic Corporeal Mime, to exercise, to rehearsal, to teaching, was serious and light-hearted at the same time.
When Monsieur Decroux, after a rather solemn class, invited us to the room at the back of the house and asked us to become, in his words, his lieutenants, to live under his roof, we didn't know whether to laugh or cry, to throw our arms around his neck, or to run into the garden and jump for joy. For us, at that time, the frontiers of the world were the walls of 85 ave Edouard Vaillant in Boulogne- Billancourt. Of these times I keep an impression of inexpressible joy.
Daily life presented difficulties, notably financial ones. The rhythms of days left us exhausted at night. In effect, in addition to artistic work, we performed diverse tasks: cutting wood, running errands and other activities, everything punctuated with the legendary temper tantrums of the Master. I remember that time, as one remembers one's childhood, as a country where the weather was always fine.
The work, under the direction of Etienne Decroux, was rare in quality and intensity. Steven and I were, and still are, among those who adhere completely to the language he developed. This commitment does not exclude, of course, questions or doubts, and least of all, difficulties. But we understood that we wanted to know the full scope of this reading, this representation of the human body and of its powers of expression.
Among the discoveries which filled me with admiration was the realization that, to serve his Art, Etienne Decroux had been able to conceive a study which, like all other body work, dealt with movement of the weight of the body and virtuosic flexibility of the trunk, but also with the more subtle and often forgotten realms of eye movements, with intensity of regard, indicating lips partially open or not, and with the movements of the hands. What science, what patience! It was as if this man had succeeded in embracing the totality of Western human experience, and possessed the ability to retransmit it.
As corporeal mime tells the story of humankind as a faithful and sensitive witness, I cannot imagine a world foreign to it. All Decroux's students have lodged in their minds his famous phrases, of which he possessed the secret, and which, as proverbs, were able to synthesize many answers. One of them in particular struck me. Observing a certain awkwardness in the use of my arms as I performed an exercise, Monsieur Decroux asked me, "What do the arms do? All speech!" This affirmation represented for me a decisive stage in the understanding of this art. Actors call up emotion, traditionally, thanks principally to their mastery of spoken language; Etienne Decroux proposed the language of movement, and ours is the task of conjugating it infinitely.
To be a student, and then teaching assistant, of Etienne Decroux was of course above all to be a member of a school. It was a school not like the others, far from institutions and their criteria of age and money; to enroll was to become a part of house or firm, and that spirit of camaraderie was inherited, without doubt, from his father's Freemasonry and from the spirit of the artist's workshop.
Monsieur and Madame Decroux decreed household rules which we followed with an almost childlike joy. The classes, separated into different levels, presented simultaneously the systematic characteristics worthy of a class in ballet, and at the same time, as a sign of genius, continuously renewed qualities of improvisation and of fantasy. Decroux knew how to repeat an exercise and give you the impression that you had invented it; he knew how to establish a rigorous program and then take flight into regions apparently far from the original study. The teaching was masterful, and each student felt that Etienne Decroux was speaking directly to him.
The rehearsals, which were held at unusual hours like 7 o'clock in the morning and 9 o'clock in the evening, were different from classes in their spirit and their content. In these meetings, which were reserved for assistants and other selected individuals, pedagogy moved aside, making way for an overflowing creative inspiration, giving place to a completely metaphoric language, where the guidelines for the work were poetic and explanations almost allegorical. Steven and I were forced to become the most sensitive instruments possible for the creation of new pieces and also for the re-creation of large parts of Decroux's repertoire. At that time, the themes which inspired Decroux turned around the complexity of love relationships and the relationship to God.
Everything came from a gesture, provoked by poetry, a quotation or a memory. To explain Decroux's creative processes is not within my aesthetic jurisdiction. However, I keep a lively vision of his astonishing ability to transcribe simultaneously an emotion or a thought into movement, and from this point of departure, which owed much to a volcanic eruption, he brought into play his well-honed skill in developing corporeal paths. He had, one could say, some of Bach in his way of knowing how to mix inspiration and organization.
Etienne Decroux also had the gift of showing you the best of yourself. This insightful alchemy among psychological tension, respect for corporeal geometry, and the originality of themes, necessarily required going beyond one's self.
I experienced a moment of indescribable panic the day I heard his sonorous and gently mocking voice say, "There you are, stretched out in a hammock - right, and you are remembering a little sparrow taking a bath. Go ahead, improvise!" But, as always, the miracle worked. A small direction as to the beginning, a song he knew to sing at just the right moment, the intense way he had of observing, which eliminated everything ordinary. A movement of the chest was enough, a breath, and you give birth, under his direction, to combinations of movements you would not have been capable of alone.
I was able to admire at my leisure the way Decroux worked with Steven. Decroux knew how, while exalting Steven's physical abilities, to touch his sensitivity. Without ever having truly questioned Steven, he knew how to touch the deepest motor of his personality: his faith in and his commitment to God. The piece "The Prophet" is doubly beautiful because its form unfolds in the space with virtuosity, and because it illuminates Steven's heart, his best and most attractive part.
Work on the repertoire was equally passionate. Etienne Decroux as author was always the first to cast a critical eye on his own creations, and he gave himself happily to his erudite refashioning of "The Carpenter," of "The Washerwoman," or of other famous morsels, always joyous to be able to reinvent, as if he were in search of the perfect instrument. Studies were always more difficult. Our period at the school was characterized by a kind of triumph of mobile statuary [Decroux's term for an area of technique which included segmented movements which moved interspatially as well as intercorporeally], exploding in three dimensions, and more and more subtle arrangements of dynamo rhythms [a term Decroux coined to describe the weight, speed and path of a movement].
We were always filled with admiration before the ever-increasing complexity of his concepts.
On this side of the Atlantic it is often good form to say that one has moved out of the shadow of the Master, that one has liberated oneself. Steven and I do not at all share that way of expressing ourselves; there is no liberation because there was never a prison. There was instead a considerable impetus that permitted us to create a school and a company in order to share with others what Decroux gave us.
The daily teaching, the creation and performance of pieces, allows me to say today that the mastery of Dramatic Corporeal Mime gives larger and larger expressive possibilities, that it allows all dramaturgical daring, that it aids in surfacing treasures of invention and of imagination that one has in one's depths. The practice of this art is a language for the soul and for the intuition.
At a time when all countries are refinding their independence, when liberty breaks forth where one does not expect it to, I am proud to belong to a family of pioneers: that of Dramatic Corporeal Mime.
The theatre, after having rejected it, tries today to reclaim it, and modern dance is happy to find ancestors in it. At the risk of shocking, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Dance and of the Theatre, this art will stand on its own, thank you very much. I reclaim the name mime, and I encourage my colleagues to write this word large in the history of art.
The opportunity to be confronted by the vision of a master occurs but once in a lifetime. Steven and I will never forget the gaze of Etienne Decroux, the gaze which pierces the soul and which knows how to invent always more surprising landscapes.
The mark he has left in our hearts is unalterable: It is a message of love for Humanity.
Corinne Soum and Steven Wasson are co-artistic directors of Théâtre de l'Ange Fou in Paris.
Translated by Thomas Leabhart
Mime Journal "Words on Decroux" 1993