‘Everything on the stage is alive… the actors and the dancers aren’t there to “create” pictures… the stage picture is an object with its own existence, hinting
at the inexpressible, a thing of dreams, made of
movement, gesture, object, rhythm, light…’
These are the words of theatre-maker Patrick Bonté, one half of the Belgian creative partnership Mossoux-Bonté. The other half of that partnership is dancer-choreographer Nicole Mossoux, and since meeting in 1985, the pair have created twenty-two live performances and three films that sit ‘on an edge between dance and theatre… conveying meaning through visual image’. Every piece they create, says Patrick, ‘begins with an idea or the wish to explore a theme, even if we don’t know exactly what form it will take’. Each relies on choreographed movement, yet underpinning the choreography is a belief that ‘the movement work is interdependent with the space… movement has its own logic, but it’s always framed by the space’. These works also have in common a desire to explore the interior world – imagination comes first, the question of performance languages and structures comes second. Their performance thus takes many forms, and incorporates many modes of practice (including dance, mime, puppetry, mask, object theatre, and shadow play).
Over the years, the company have performed in over thirty countries, including UK appearances at The London International Mime Festival on a number of occasions, and more recently at the Manipulate Festival of Visual Theatre in Scotland. The festival’s director, Simon Hart (like LIMF directors Joseph Seelig and Helen Lannaghan) is a firm fan of the company: ‘I chose Compagnie Mossoux-Bonté to appear in our first festival in 2008, having seen Light! at the 9th Festival of Shadow Theatre – in Schwäbisch Gmünd, in Germany – the previous year. I think that their work is always fascinating and challenging, and I particularly liked Light! because of its fearless and compelling combination of modern dance and shadow theatre. Using only light and the shadows cast by the dancer’s body and movement, the piece is a very beautiful, and at times very disturbing, meditation about – what? To me, about loneliness, about the struggle to overcome and reconcile aspects of our personalities we would rather ignore… but then I could be completely wrong!’
This ambivalence, he believes, is one of the strengths of their work – each piece they create can sustain multiple interpretations. It’s a view that would seem to be corroborated by Patrick Bonté: ‘Our shows are more about suggestion than expression,’ says Patrick. ‘The spectators are like guests invited into a world in which we hope they’ll be able to construct their own images; set out on their own adventures.’
In 2009, Hart asked the company to return to Manipulate with what dance critic Donald Hutera describes as their ‘signature piece’, Twin Houses. ‘I was attracted by its combination of creative techniques,’ says Hart, ‘dance and, in the main, quite traditional puppetry. I was struck by how effortlessly the dancer brought vividly to life a variety of body puppets, each of whom was in some way an alternative version of herself – again to my mind a piece about struggle and reconciliation.’
Nicole Mossoux is the solo dancer-performer in this piece, although it can be hard at times to really compute that she is alone on stage, as it seems to be peopled by so many other bodies (she is joined – conjoined with mostly – up to five mannequins for much of the show). How, I ask her, did the idea evolve? ‘Twin Houses tells first and foremost of an important relationship with puppetry,’ she says. ‘How can this figure be progressively “charged” and made to give the illusion of life? Concentration of movement must almost exclusively be invested in the puppet, while the role of the actor must stay in the background as much as possible.’ She is well aware that puppets have a power to work deep into the psyche, and cites Freud’s 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’ as an influence, noting that in certain primitive societies there is a lack of distinction between the animate and the inanimate. She speaks of the use of the puppet as ‘an echo of the same thing, an obsession tied to “the double” and to the tendency towards the schizophrenic’, which she describes as ‘the body torn between two opposing meanings, between two different rhythms… a feeling that unity is impossible’.
Before creating this work, Nicole had no experience of puppetry or animation per se. Yet her dancer’s sensibility came to her aid, and she speaks of seeking out the ‘stable centre’ and finding the ‘vital point’ of each mannequin, in the nape of its neck. For her, the aim was to ‘find the place where the body of the manipulator and that of the figure meet’. At the same time, she says, ‘the performer must efface herself, giving to the figure the appearance of taking all the initiative, of “thinking”, of having an interior world to express, so that the two present seem to be equal, to the point that you don’t know who is the live one and who is not’. She speaks of the process of animation in a way that reflects on the literal meaning of the word: ‘a form of projection in which one could be said to be destined to breathe life in at the same time as giving it away; to be totally centred, so as not to lose hold of this projection, as one would cling on to kites struggling in a cross-wind’.
Twin Houses is the only production to-date that has featured animated mannequin-puppets, but new work Kefar Nahum (presented at Charleville Festival September 2009, and coming to the 2010 London International Mime Festival in January) features puppetry of a different sort, which the company describe as ‘a world of objects, objects made of nothing, collected haphazardly during tours, to which we attribute a soul, human desires, animal impulses. Incarnate, devour, incarnate, devour. They reinstate the supreme shambles that is humanity.’ Nicole Mossoux talks of finding the ‘internal coherence’ that makes objects what they are – what it is, for example, that makes a rock a rock. She speaks of the manipulating hands becoming ‘the skeleton of the object’ in a quest to find its quintessential form.
In other works, such as, for example, Katafalk, Lucas Cranach, and Nunakt, the company has explored the use of mask, including whole-body-mask, and the interplay between choreography and costume (a form of design-led performance practice that doesn’t really have a name, pioneered by the Bauhaus sculptor Oskar Schlemmer). For a dance-theatre choreographer such as Nicole Mossoux, the appeal of mask work is the emphasis that it forces upon the body, which without the face becomes the centre of the expression of emotion: ‘if the face takes charge, the body doesn’t have to do much; with use of the mask, the body can be released and put to work’.
For both Nicole Mossoux and Patrick Bonté, the heart of the work is a quest for a theatre that really values the use of a three dimensional space, exploiting all possibilities to use that space to the utmost; a theatre that is happy to use whatever performance languages are the most appropriate for each project; and, crucially, a theatre that is brave enough to step into the unknown and wait to see what emerges in the process of creation.
A last word from Patrick: ‘in the future, we hope to continue to explore performance languages; to create forms from ideas about which we have no idea at the start of the process. The unknown attracts us – we can’t imagine working any other way’.
This feature is a slightly modified version of the profile published in Animated Bodies – A Review of Puppetry and Related Arts (Animations in Print Volume 3), a beautiful 64pp paperback edition which is available to purchase for £15 from the Puppet Centre Trust. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
All quotes taken from interview with the author, in conversation and via email. Translation by the Animations editorial group, with special thanks to Penny Francis.
The author met with the company whilst they were performing at the second Manipulate Festival of Visual Theatre 3-7 February 2009, presented in collaboration with Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. The third Manipulate will take place 1-6 February 2010.
Kefar Nahum will be presented at the London International Mime Festival 2010. See preview news item in this edition.
For more on the company see www.mossoux-bonte.be