CORPOREAL MIME - A WORLD AT ONCE UNKNOWN AND FAMILIAR
By Corinne SoumI have often been asked to write about Corporeal Mime, Etienne Decroux and the relationship between our company, the Théâtre de l’Ange Fou, and the “Master of Modern Mime”. This time however, I must admit that I write this with particular pleasure knowing that it will be for a Brazilian readership, a readership from a country with which we have had a host of great adventures and intense relations.
Since we founded our school and company in 1984, numerous Brazilian students have shared our Corporeal Mime life, and some have become members of the Théâtre de l’Ange Fou, proving to be first rate collaborators. We have been to Brazil three times: the first to Salvador de Bahia where we performed a duet, Résonance, and taught classes at the invitation of Nadja Turenko (a student from 1990 to 1995, and life long company member of the Théâtre de l’Ange Fou); the second at Bello Horizonte through an ECUM initiative, and at the invitation of Ana Claudia Teixeira and Stéphane Brodt (both former students and members of the Théâtre de l’Ange Fou from 1992-1995 and 1989-1990 respectively) to participate in a Corporeal Mime conference; and lastly in 2005 to Sao Paulo to participate in a festival organized by SESC, where we performed our company’s show The Orpheus Complex thanks to another former student (1999-2006) and life long company member of the Théâtre de l’Ange Fou, André Guerreiro Lopes, who was magnificent in the role of Doktor Ahriman in that same show. During these different visits, be it for workshops, conferences or performances, the Brazilian public’s warm reception was unforgettable; leading me to conclude that there is a very special connection between Corporeal Mime and Brazil.
These three notable trips aside, I would like to recognize our Brazilian students who, among many others, entrusted themselves to us. These students include, but are not limited to: Maurice Rosenthal (company member 1989-1993), Paolo Trajano, (company member 1992-1993), Renata Collacao (company member 2004-2008), Nicole Pschetz (company member 2006-2007), George Mascarenhas, Alexandre Correa, Ilana Gorban, and Victor Paulo de Seixas, who commissioned this article. Many other past Brazilian students merit citation, but their inclusion would generate a list so long that it would risk being interminable for the reader. Nonetheless, I would like to acknowledge their integral role in our history and let them know that they are not forgotten.
Now, dear reader let me tell you some of the story of Corporeal Mime, the Théâtre de l’Ange Fou and of Brazil…
Our Beginings, The Foundation of Corporeal Mime and L’ecole De Mime D’etienne Decroux
Everything began for Steven Wasson, with whom I share my life, the direction of the school and company, and myself, when we met at the legendary École de Mime Etienne Decroux. We came from different backgrounds and continents: Steven is North American and I am French. My background lies in dance while Steven’s lies in theatre, music, the world of work, everything. Both of us, in our way, were looking for something, looking for another way to conceive of theatre, looking for a theatrical identity off the beaten track.
When I look back to the time spent at Decroux’s school, beyond the practice and apprenticeship in mime, I see a formidable hope that theatre could be a vehicle to change the world. A utopia linked to the body, a vision best summarized by a quote from Etienne Decroux, which we used as a prologue to our show dedicated to the reconstruction of his repertoire “L’Homme Qui Voulait Rester Debout” (The Man Who Preferred to Stand).
This difference with a capital "D" baffled more than one student. But did not at all seem to trouble Etienne Decroux who assumed "royally" this unusual position of the man who has invented a language and who sets about teaching it to others, as he has no desire to speak only to himself! Because of that and thanks to that, he little by little wove a veritable strategy of transmission, so that those who wanted could join him and continue to develop this art of dramatic corporeal mime.
To be in Mime is to be a partisan, a partisan of movement in a world sitting down.
Etienne Decroux was the Master of Modern Mime, but, he was also a great thinker. For this reason, his legacy continues to touch young people regardless of culture and nationality.
An apprenticeship with him, beyond the anecdotes of his volcanic personality, can best be understood as an absolute conviction in an apparently simple adage: the actor appears on stage with his body, therefore the actor must learn the art of the body.
But, which “art of the body”? Dance and many other movement systems existed which had already proven the test of time.
His art form, however, differed from others in that it concerns itself with the stylized reconstruction of the varied human corporeal behavior on a practical, imaginary, spiritual or metaphorical level for the purpose of theatrical representation. To participate in its realization demands that the mime apprentice not only have an appetite for physical activity in general, but also an understanding of representation that transcends divisions based on aesthetic codes.
1. An Art and a Craft
In this sense corporeal mime is not a codified language but delivers a technique that allows the practitioner to envisage the representation of human adventure from multiple points of view.
In Corporeal Mime there is not just one way to be or to do, there is, however, a vast inventory of movement that can serve to represent the world through the vehicle of the body and its actions.
One might tell me that this exists in dance in terms of theatricality and choreography, but, what seduced me about Decroux’s vision was that, from the outset of an apprenticeship, there was a study of the behavior of men and women which went beyond grammar. The mime student learns to represent the whole spectrum of movement from the smallest daily gesture, like picking up an object, to spatially expansive movements, such as the representation of athletic actions or the thinking body, representing the meandering labyrinths of thought through the displacement of the body’s different segments. All this is taken into account in the training of a mime student, regardless of their level and is not simply a director’s choreographic whimsy or personal taste.
2. States of Action
Another very important point of study that pleased me greatly, that set this corporeal technique apart from others I had encountered, was the representation of different states as integral parts of the work. No one in a dance class would learn to appear tired, frightened or suffering. Imagine a dancer who, during a class, had to show pain while doing a battement de jambe! Though this may exist in choreography, it is unimaginable as a pedagogical element during dance formation.
In traditional western theatre these states are studied, but in terms of their relation to the spinal postures and expressions of the hands and face. The body has been merely utilized as an envelope into which interpretation slides, or it has been bypassed completely with states of mind being expressed by text or even music. The traditional western actor will deliver a photographic and psychological portrait of the mental state in question, and without a doubt they know how to do the latter admirably. But rarely will this traditional kind of actor render a stylized corporeal representation of these states, let alone attempt to express nostalgia or despair through extraordinary movement that can unravel as autonomous expression in time and space without the crutch of sound or voice. This would require pushing oneself beyond posturing or presenting a photograph of a state physically but without going so far as to dance. Incarnation, transposition, stylization: herein lay the questions of representation with respect to choice, style and convention.
3. Making Visible the Invisible
What immediately struck me in the course of study proposed by Etienne Decroux was that the corporeal mime does not simply mimic that which is seen by the naked eye. A mime also accepts to show, through the body, all the hidden resonances of an action. It exposes these hidden resonances that in life are not manifest through movement, but rather are thoughts that displace themselves and journey through the mind. The corporeal mime actor accepts the challenge of making visible the invisible, to give movement to that which in life would be an immobility, or to the contrary, to take an action and stop it mid-way or slow it down or speed it up.
Thought and its physically stylized representation as well as materially motivated action are within the scope of the corporeal mime’s theatrical action. The mime must be able to pass with elegance from that which is readably identifiable to a sequence of movements and actions that are the portrait of mental activity. When he described theatrical representation through the prism of corporeal mime, Decroux spoke of the “conceivable impossible” in which “movements should be recognized and unknown at the same time.”
I should specify for the reader that under no circumstances would I try to prove that the mime actor is more interesting to watch than the dancer or the traditional theatre actor. I’m simply stating the differences in approaches to representation.
4. Mime transcends race and origin
The last fundamental point that struck me at the beginning of my apprenticeship, and I will return to this point again later with respect to Corporeal Mime and Brazil, is that in the theatre of the body, this Théâtre du Mime Corporel (Corporeal Mime Theatre), distinctions along the lines of race and social class are so much less rigid than in a traditional text based theatre. A corporeal mime is not confined by race. For example, one of Decroux’s most famous pieces Le Menuisier (The Carpenter) can be played regardless if a mime is white, or black, or Asian… What matters are his actions. He is not restricted by his ethnic origins.
5. Etienne Decroux’s School
Let us speak for a moment on how one was taught at Etienne Decroux’s school.
a. A most unique school
This extraordinary school was immediately set apart by it being situated in his house. We were invited as guests, not as consumers. I’ve often had the opportunity to write about the strange fact that this school did not promote itself through advertisements or marketing, but it, nonetheless, welcomed great numbers of young people from all over the world through its doors. A potential student heard of the school, a friend that recommended it to him, but they would not find it in any official theatre school listings. To add to this clandestine air, inscription in Etienne Decroux’s school was merely a formality, a disconcerting simplicity. To do so, it sufficed to contact the school, at any time of the year, by phone or word and express an interest in taking the classes. If places were available, the applicant was invited to come to the school and try out a class. The difficulty consisted not in the process of inscription, but rather, in following the classes. The school was one of a kind!
When Steven and I were students it seemed as if the place was bursting at the seams with students, yet each of us had the impression that, in having been accepted, we had access to a treasure for which we had each been destined. We felt as if, in some way, we had been chosen. We felt as if we were a part of a political party that worked in secret for the future of theatre. This party had no badges, no cards, no uniforms. We were captivated in the presence of a true master, who gave us the sensation of being part of a great work: the elaboration of Corporeal Mime.
b. An autonomous art form
It is important to understand that, regardless of influences and friendships (Jacques Copeau, Charles Dullin, Louis Jouvet, Gordon Craig, Antonin Artaud etc…) attributed to Etienne Decroux, what he taught, Mime Corporel Dramatique was a subject of which he was the exclusive originator and the only one to teach it. Of all the great actors that emerged from the wake of Copeau and the famous Ecole du Vieux Colombier, he was the only one to develop the idea of a physical theatre with a unique, precise, transcultural, and autonomous technique. In no other existing theatrical or corporeal technique or any other contemporary methodology does one find Corporeal Mime’s specific vocabulary, which was developed and refined little by little over decades of focused work. Furthermore, knowledge of Corporeal Mime’s vocabulary and its practice are a prerequisite for the actor who wishes to play any pieces found within Decroux’s repertoire. This repertoire does not consist of works that operate within an existing literary or dramatic context, but rather they are original creations that work primarily in reference to Corporeal Mime’s unique and autonomous vocabulary.
c. A specific vocabulary and modes of articulation
Within the technique, each corporeal possibility has been named, forming a detailed vocabulary of movement that captivated me immediately. These corporeal possibilities are concerned with the representation of objective and subjective actions that stem from the reality of life, be they in relation to matter, nature, human behavior or social interactions, states of the heart and soul, the representation of thought or memory.
In order to facilitate this representation Decroux developed a system for the articulation of the body, space, intention and action. The body is articulated following what he called the organs of expression, which can be mobilized in an isolated or combined fashion and articulated in space in opposing or complimentary directions. Positions in space are further enhanced by the articulation of intention through the use of dynamorhythm, which has to do with the body’s speed, muscular intensity in a movement, and the crystallization or immobility of a gesture or attitude. These actions can be further articulated at different moments in order to best serve a practical or symbolic purpose.
This articulation gives rise, within Corporeal Mime’s theatrical representation, to a phenomenon of a heightened interplay between space and time. Decroux allowed us to discover that “space replaces time and time replaces space.” Meaning, for example, that two actors can inhabit the same space, but through careful placement we can represent that one belongs to the here and now while the other is but a lingering memory or a figment of the first’s imagination. Similarly, the use of space can allow for the distortion of the notion of time, as illustrated by the magic of the Marche sur Place (walk on the spot) famously developed with Jean Louis Barrault. This walk, where the actor enacts all of the inter-corporeal movements of walking without moving forward in space, calls into question the passage of time. While the audience reflects upon what it sees, thoughts begin to displace and journey far from the fixed physical space causing time to lapse and crumble. The body as a conduit for thought moves but without advancing: movements repeated in time but fixed in space thereby become a portrait of time passing.
d. An open system
Corporeal Mime is a system of theatrical representation without limit, much like that found in music where it is ever possible to invent new combinations of sound. The different conditions of men and women have been taken into consideration, such as in work and dream, activity and rest, movement and immobility, past and present. Decroux addressed these human discrepancies through the creation of four categories of styles of play:
- l’Homme de Sport (Man of Sport) where the actor shows his effort.
- l’Homme de Salon (Man of the Drawing Room) where the actor hides any trace of effort.
- l’Homme de Songe (Man of Daydream or Reverie) where the actor represents the waking or conscious dream.
- La Statuaire Mobile (Mobile Statuary) where the actor represents thought.
These categories are by no means exclusive or fixed and can merge into one another depending on the context. Likewise, no one aspect of movement is more glorious than the other. There is space within this physical art form for youth and age. A mime actor’s movement should not and cannot be limited to a fixed mode of execution. Corporeal mime looks to paint a picture of the whole human adventure, including the evolution and transformation of movements and gestures that comes with age and experience. Youthful virtuosity may be determined by quick inter-corporal or spatial displacements, however there is also room for a maturity that may be slower, but restores the weight and gravity to that which is being represented through the body.
Decroux was both strict and generous. He demanded complete attention and yet showed great patience for our stammering. There is enough material to write a book about his school and teaching, however I will restrict myself to his method of creation as Steven and I experienced it when we were his assistants.
e. Decroux as creator and director
Between the two of us, we had the great fortune of having four of pieces created on us by Etienne Decroux: a solo piece on Steven, Le Prophet (The Prophet); two solo pieces on me, La Femme Oiseau (The Woman Who was like a Bird) and Le Fauteuil de L’Absent (Chair of the Absent One); and a duet Le Duo Amoureux dans le Parc Saint Cloud (Love Duet in the Parc Saint Cloud). Needless to say, this experience of artistic creation under the direction of Decroux was undeniably crucial for our artistic and pedagogical path.
For the most part Decroux had a very particular way in creating his pieces which he called la métaphore à l’envers (the reverse metaphor), which he described very well in his writings as follows:
Dans la littérature, la métaphore consiste à avoir à l’esprit une idée que nous appelerons spirituelle, et pour lui donner de la solidité on recule vers la matière pour lui trouver une analogie, il semble que le mime soit le contraire: il fait d’abord une chose qu’on pourrait appeler matérielle et le spectateur à l’occasion de s’élever à une idée que nous appellerons pratiquement spirituelle. Le littérateur dira de Diderot: ¨C’est un esprit vaste¨ il est donc parti de l’esprit pour aller vers une chose qui s’offre à nos sens physiques. Or les choses sont vastes dans la matière avant d’être vastes dans l’esprit de Diderot. Le mime fait la chose, et le spectateur en voyant la chose matérielle pense à son analogie avec le spiritual. (Les Dits d’Etienne Decroux, p. 105)
In literature, metaphor consists of having in the mind an idea, which we will call spiritual, and to give it a form we step back to the material world to find an analogy. It seems as if mime is to the contrary. The mime begins by doing an action we could call material and the spectator is the one that elevates it to an idea we could almost call spiritual. The writer would say of Diderot, “His is a vast mind.” Thus, he began from the mind to go toward something that touches our physical senses. However, things are vast in matter before being vast in the mind of Diderot. The mime does the action and the spectator, upon seeing the material action, thinks of a spiritual analogy
This confidence in the ability of action to suggest an idea can be found not only in what is mimed but also in the creative process itself.
Le Théâtre ne sera digne de ce nom que lorsque celui qui agit refusera d’obeir à celui qui écrit. D’abord il faut improviser sans même savoir sur quoi, ainsi trouver un thème puis un second, puis un troisième. Il faut donc agir pour penser. En mettant un ordre logique dans les idées rencontrées en bougeant une pièce se dessine…
Theatre will only merit this title when he who acts refuses to obey he who writes. First one should improvise without even knowing on what one is improvising. Then a theme will be found, followed by a second, then a third. Therefore one must move in order to think. Through the creation of a logical order of ideas encountered through movement a piece begins to draw itself…
The creative work that we did under Decroux’s direction followed this method..
The pieces Decroux created on us began from improvisational work. We were not given a theme but a poetic citation, a memory, or a refrain from a song. We were then simply told to “do something.” One of us would then enter the “stage” space of the studio and assume a starting position of perfect immobility in a neutral posture. In this hyper-alert state of immobility with heightened consciousness we would have an ability to be in the moment and gain access profound personal and collective memories. A mosaic of memories, imagined and experienced, would give rise to a movement of the trunk, a movement of an arm, a displacement. A pure movement: free from imposed meaning, representation and the constrictions of the word. We became uninformed matter waiting to be sculpted, not as characters in search of an author but as movement seeking a story.
I saw this phenomenon with Steven and I lived it myself. Once Decroux was inspired by an action’s form or rhythm he would begin to construct a piece. Little by little a theme would emerge through exhaustive elaboration and exploration. Decroux had the genius of choice, as put by Jean Louis Barrault in the documentary film by Jean Calude Bonfanti, Pour Saluer Etienne Decroux.
Once a theme was settled upon, Decroux continuously strived for perfection and as a result didn’t like completing a piece. He was continuously searching and digging for something greater; he did not like the anecdote. This continuous refinement of ideas resulted in a predilection for pieces that were short: five to ten minutes at the most, save for a few exceptions of ensemble pieces.
Decroux loved the essence of things and had little interest in the explanation. It is not by chance that his favorite literary form was poetry. He loved at the same time the action and the perfection of the form that came from his love of sculpture, and I will quote him once again:
Je suis ce que vous pouvez appeler un spiritualiste matérialiste. C’est à dire que le spiritual s’impose à moi quand il donne forme au matériel.... les choses ne commencent à m’interesser que lorsqu’elle se matérialisent.
I am what you might call a spiritual materialist. That is to say that the spiritual imposes itself on me when it gives form to matter…things only begin to interest me when they are materialized.
What might appear to the reader as a dogmatic approach to artistic creation, in fact, always gave birth to very original work, in total harmony with the inner depth of the interpreter.
The pieces Decroux created on us did not start from a psychological study of our personalities, but in fact, the results arose like a perfect portrait of what both of us intimately were. For example, during the creation of Le Prophet on Steven, Decroux posed no questions to him with regards to his spiritual beliefs, nor asked him to mime something mystical. Everything evolved from different improvised gestures and actions, sometimes arriving by chance. The extraordinary thing is, the piece that was born reflected Steven’s principle preoccupation of attaining a transcendental knowledge. When approached head on, a subject so close to his heart may have caused hesitation on Steven’s part. The circuitous route used by Decroux to achieve this end was in fact a gift bestowed, not imposed.
The same could be said of my experience developing La Femme Oiseau, a pure reverie on the inexpressible, the nothing, of those in between states; states where people are not outwardly productive, but are actively reflecting on life through the prism of the memory. No doubt, if this subject, or state, had been imposed upon me by Decroux (“Don’t do anything, just remember….”), I would have been deeply embarrassed. This corporeal daydream was born little by little with people and things passing through actions like clouds across the sky, a state that I had often witnessed in my mother who had the gift to see poetry in the very smallest things of life.
Another very important aspect of our formation under his direction was our apprentiship of certain pieces of his already existing repertoire, and Decroux’s insistence and suggestions of what we were to do with these pieces.
He had us viewing films of his earlier pieces and heard tales of their creation and evolution. With him, for example, we reworked two of his pieces, Le Menuisier (The Carpenter) and La Lavendiaire (The Washerwoman), which Steven had incidentally learnt with his first teacher, one of Decroux’s previous assistants, Thomas Leabhart.
I always had the impression that Decroux saw in us the possibility of transmitting the fruits of his labor to ensure that this work would live on after he was gone. What he offered us was so rich it quickly became apparent that, with the acceptance of this gift, would come the responsibility of teaching it to future generations. This is what we have done, and if today numerous people across the globe know a portion of Etienne Decroux’s repertoire, for the most part, it is because of our perseverance in conserving, teaching and performing this repertoire. We created a show in 1992 dedicated to this work, L’Homme Qui Voulait Rester Debout (The Man Who Preferred to Stand), in order to give new life to what would otherwise be a collection of archival photographs or film footage. We never rejected his repertoire, and believed in its artistic and pedagogical value at a time when almost no one else did.
g. Vocal Mime
I would like to now touch upon one of the little known researches of Etienne Decroux that remains today unfinished: vocal mime. Decroux, movement theatre virtuoso, was, before anything, a great actor in speaking theatre and a remarkable orator. I remember how his famous Friday night conferences, where he would call together the student body and an occasional special guest, left an unforgettable impression permanently engraved on the memory on those who had the fortune to attend. In these sessions he would answer and elaborate upon questions asked by the student body. His ability to be passionate alongside his virtuosity of thought reminded us more of a political orator of the early 20th century rather than just an actor. A great improviser, Decroux was capable of putting passion into every single answer. It would be wrong to think that Decroux had chosen the art of mime because of a lack of mastering spoken language.
Moreover, he imagined the creation of a spoken language that was uniquely destined for theatrical representation, but was not singing. This took as a starting point the deconstruction of words in the French language into auditory units which were then classified according to their expressive and evocative possibilities. This systematization no doubt originated in the diction exercises that he loved, where, for example, groups of vowels and constants were separated in order to master their pronunciation. Decroux imagined that this could result in something more than vocal virtuosity, and that it could lay the foundation for a new dramatic language wherein the voice of the actor could become a vehicle for theatrical expression beyond the primary meaning of the words. Therefore, a language unknown, where the significance would not be understood by the code of habitual spoken language, but by the impression produced by the combination of new sounds. It would be an unedited but universally comprehensible language within the context of theatrical representation because it would speak to the imagination.
Decroux went so far as to create long lists, which he had me conscientiously recopy, of sound groups, such as words that end in -ance(résonance, partance, etc) and would classify them into a category of expression that he called l’envol.Decroux undertook this at different times during his life, but this project remains unfinished. “I didn’t have the time”, as he says in the film, Etienne Decroux à Amsterdam. However, I think that over time he came to realize the limits of this utopian vision. Expressive evocation is deeply linked to the culture of a given language that this project would have necessitated the deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction of all languages spoken on this earth. An assemblage of spoken sounds would not have the same impression on a native European language speaker as on someone that speaks a tonal Asian one. A spectator’s relationship to language based on cultural origins will drastically alter the reception of the represented language structure, be it known or unknown. As a result, this project, as passionate as it was, ran the risk, contrary to mime, of being divisive rather than uniting.
6. Our School
When we left Decroux and his school, we immediately began to teach. It was imperative that we transmitted what we had learned to others. This urgency resulted in the creation of the Ecole de Mime Corporel Dramatique de Paris in 1984, which we moved to London in 1995. It is a great pleasure to teach what Decroux transmitted to us, from elementary exercises to the elaborate repertoire, including the pieces he created on us. Students come from around the world and discover, beyond the linguistic and cultural differences, common points thanks to the universal language of corporeal mime.
7. The Style of The Théâtre de l’Ange Fou
At the same time, we created our company, the Théâtre de l’Ange Fou. We started with a duet with Steven and me, La Croisade (Crusade), which we played in many countries and continued until such time that we could create pieces with numerous company members, of which ninety nine percent were formed in our school prior to joining our company. Nowadays, theatre pieces aside, we have added another dimension to our work: the creation of films. For the moment we are not creating pedagogical films, but fictional ones drawing on the infinite possibilities of corporeal mime.Corporeal mime remains our primary mode of expression, regardless of the form it may take: it is the language through which we express ourselves. A spectator might conclude that what he or she sees is very different from the repertoire of Decroux. In our shows we have highly worked texts, dialogues between different languages, a work with objects, props and sets. Music plays the role of a true partner; and the actors’ costumes are character costumes, vehicles for transformation.
With the establishment of our theatre company we immediately chose to work on full-length theatre pieces, like La Croisade, due to the fact that the themes that we engage are not suited to shorter works. Ninety percent of our work is focused on the search for identity and the spiritual self within personal and societal chaotic contexts. We have chosen not to be constricted by traditional narrative rules since they can undermine our artistic aims. In doing so we seek to depict a dialogue between intimate individual and universal dramas, paint a portrait of the labyrinth of the conscious mind, and create analogies between afflictions of the spirit and those of the external world. We construct our shows as journeys where the characters journey through different places and times that reflect the wanderings of their imaginations.
b) A Family of Characters
Over time in the creative process we have developed a semi-fixed family of characters that reappear from show to show and are confronted with new legends. This personal “commedia del arte” includes angels that can be masculine or feminine, mysterious or Chaplinesque; also included are a devil, dictator, and even a mad alchemist. We always have bureaucrats, the lost soldier, warriors, and of course a main protagonist, male or female, that we call “Le Jeune Homme” or “La Jeune Femme”(the young man or woman)…Monstrous children, and the woman of dreams…a strong mother figure, a distant father… and we always use allegorical characters such as Death, Time, Illusion…
It goes without saying that the structure used for the corporeal construction of our characters is profoundly influenced by Decroux’s work. He brilliantly created archetypes, a kind of modern mythology, which can be passionately explored to develop a character’s physical comportment, even ones belonging to another universe.
In my work, I am inspired by Decroux’s work to create corporeal metaphors, which I try and find when I build characters for our shows. I do not look to replicate them verbatim, but rather try to engage an essence, a relation with the ground, with weight, an articulation in order to find the life of a character. And vise versa, this process, and the characters it produces, also nourishes my interpretation of Decroux’s pieces.
c) Metaphor machines
What I have described as a family with regard to character can also be applied to scenes that we turn to again and again. These “metaphor machines” are, for example, scenes of walking, parades, battles, and administrative scenes, love duets and strange dances….
In our work we look to create a strong relation between the mime actor, objects and scenery. Nothing is taken for granted, even the most mundane object, a chair, table, bed, umbrella, bottle, newspaper, or handbag, becomes an extension of the actor’s movement. Objects are manipulated and move such that they surpass their original and intended use and become conduits for meaning.
We also create objects specifically for shows like an enormous book, a doorway that opens to different spaces thanks to a rotating platform. These objects belong to what I call “a world at once unknown and familiar”. They belong to a collective imagination but are not part of our daily lives.
We further distort reality by the transposition of objects and sounds into environments where they would not usually be found. For example, a bed set outdoors at the sea side or the sound of wind in the dining room…
Films created by Steven play a very important role in the productions of the Theatre de l’Ange Fou, intensifying the atmosphere of the waking dream, portraying another facet of the mind of the characters.
f) Corporeal Mime and The Théâtre de l’Ange Fou
Let me recapitulate the fundamental rules of Corporeal Mime:
- Articulation of the body
- Articulation of action
- Articulation of space
- Objective and subjective illusions
- Reconstruction of reality
- Multiple view points
- Making the invisible visible
- Amplification and/or simplification of daily gestures
- Space replaces time, time replaces time
- Thought integrated into action
- Reverse metaphor
We integrate all this into our work. If I might permit myself to use analogy it would be the following: We speak the same language as Decroux, which he taught us, but we have different stories to tell.
8) Corporeal Mime and Brazil
The connection between Corporeal Mime and Brazilian actors has always been strong, starting at Decroux’s with the sadly departed Octave Burnier and continuing with students in our school in Paris and London. This connectivity, in the time of Decroux, could easily be dismissed as being a remnant of the historical cultural liaison between France and Brazil. But now, other reasons must be found. In the Americas, including Brazil, there is a thirst for theatre that is not derived from literature. It is this yearning for a new theatre compounded with mime’s ability to transcend race and origin which makes the form appealing to Brazilian actors. There are no white, black, Indian, Asian roles as dictated by scripted theatre. With mime everything is open. One either invents ones own work, or interprets existing Decroux repertoire that is based solely on possibilities of corporeal expression independent of race. This technique can have any identity; it is not exclusive but rather is unifying, as is any corporeal technique.
I am not going to fall into the cliché that Brazilians have a different relationship to the body. It is dangerous to ascribe physical qualities to some people over another. This can easily lead to racism. I can, however, say that in the Brazilian students that have crossed under our threshold, we have found an openness of spirit and acceptance of the idea of a new form of theatre. It is this openness of spirit that allows them a corporeal comprehension of theater without rejecting other traditions, yet not remaining trapped within their confines.
Of course Brazilian students that come to us don’t know exactly what an apprenticeship in Corporeal Mime means. They come to discover Europe and enhance their skills and knowledge, thinking that language won’t be a barrier to understanding a new theatrical technique. Once in school they are generally seduced by the fact that they can excel through the body in an old world technique without having to reject their modernity or racial and social identities. It is beautiful idea to think that physical theatre can link the old world with the new.
During our travels in Brazil I noticed, in spite of the different social and economic difficulties, that the prevailing attitude, a mixture of “anything is possible”, modernity and tradition, is similar to that of Corporeal Mime. The art form accepts and legitimizes any urbane experience from the most sophisticated to that of the bureaucrat to that of the worker or farmer: any model is accepted. The Brazilian public is warm and moved by the beauty of a gesture, ready to embrace different cultures and most importantly ready to share their emotions and reactions with the performer. The Brazilian is anything but blasé.
In 2002, I was invited by ECUM to attend a conference at Belo Horizonte at which I saw a show put on by teenagers from the “Favellas”. What I saw transfixed me. Their physicality and manner of moving was like that of Corporeal Mime: their spinal columns undulated; they held themselves immobile; they had a taste for metaphor. My conviction as to the universality of mime as an art form was reinforced. It was reinforced once again in 2005, when we presented our show The Orpheus Complex in Sao Paulo. The public’s incredible reception made me certain that mime contains ideas seductive to Brazilians, beyond the borders.
I don’t want to convey a naïve or idyllic portrait of Brazil. From my experience I can only say that there exists a very strong link between Etienne Decroux’s vision for physicality in theatre and this country always in motion and searching for something new.
Brazil invented Cinéma Nouveau and Cinéma Marginal so it’s not surprising that this country has welcomed with open arms this new theatre, this theatre of Corporeal Mime.
I hope we have numerous occasions to return to this fascinating country and that we will always have Brazilians as members of our school and company.
Co-director with Steven Wasson of the Théâtre de l’Ange Fou and the Théâtre de l’Ange Fou International School of Corporeal Mime.
London, May 2009