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:London International Mime Festival:
REVIEWS

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BlackSkyWhite USSR Was Here
Pathosformel The Timidity of Bones
Compagnie Mossoux-Bonté Kefar Nahum
Etgar Theatre Eshet
Les Ateliers du Spectacle A Distances
Cie Bal/Jeanne Mordoj Eloge du Poil

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BlackSkyWhite
USSR Was Here
ICA | London International Mime Festival
20 January 2010

Pathosformel
The Timidity of Bones
ICA | London International Mime Festival
25 January 2010

Reviewed by Emma Leishman

Strongly emotive, deeply intellectually engaging and often disturbing… Reminiscent of Japanese Horror, or J-Horror films, the two productions that I experienced at the London International Mime Festival (LIMF) presented stark and shocking images, animating not only objects but also focusing on the re-animation of the body itself.

BlackSkyWhite’s USSR Was Here and Pathosformel’s The Timidity of Bones, both non-narrative productions, were strong examples of a wave of adult visual theatre using puppetry and animation that is now gaining greater momentum. It is a definite step away from the light-hearted ‘magicality’ of puppetry, which is often associated with the art form.

Mastering the same visual effects explored in movies such as The Ring (American version directed by Gore Verbinski), but purely using body movement, the two performers in BlackSkyWhite’s production entered a dimly lit stage as though possessed. The staccato and specific jerking of their bodies was both unsettling and mesmerising, with the grotesqueness and oddity of their appearance heightened by the use of neutral mask on one performer. 

While there was a moment of more traditional puppet manipulation, using a half- body puppet – which at times left you unsure whether the puppet was the manipulated or manipulator – this company instead explored the concept of manipulation via the performers themselves. Often the performers’ bodies were transformed into puppets that seemed to be manipulated by some unforeseen force.

This concept of ‘puppet’ was further intensified when, near the end of the piece, the male performer grabbed the female performer in such a way that, from the audience’s point of view, it appeared she had become a rigid doll. W ith every movement cleverly choreographed by the male performer, he finally turned the woman sideways (as you might pick up a store mannequin) and carried her off stage. 

The company used performance techniques inspired by Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. Here visual images are shocking and movement, light, sound, and puppetry take precedence over the written word. In this production the performers presented episodic moments, much like in a dream, of a world of fear and anxiety, accompanied by the use of a loud and penetrating soundscape that accentuated the foreb idding atmosphere.

BlackSkyWhite’s production challenged the concept of narrative by presenting a vision from the collective unconscious of emotions attached to memories. The performance was often engaging but there were moments when the pace of the piece did not match the energy of the performers, and perhaps editing and tightening the structure would increase the impact on the audience.

The Pathosformelproduction, on the other hand, was a perfectly paced 25-minute piece that immediately engaged its audience and cut through any layers of modern hermeneutics that as an avid theatregoer I had created.

Using only a white cyclorama, two performers and an eerie and unnerving soundtrack, this simple but disturbing piece of visual theatre soon become one of my festival favourites.

Again this production presented the body more as an object; as bones and skeletal forms. With puppetry the magic comes from an immediate emotional engagement with an inanimate object. So does that mean that in using the body as the direct site for manipulation we are more emotionally challenged?

Pathosformel’s presentation of the outline of bones and body impressions in a sometimes manic and fervent manner not only let the audience imagine the would-be story but also gave them leave to interpret the impressions as they saw them .  It was by no means a magical experience, but it was gripping.

These two Mime Festival shows remind us of the power of contemporary visual theatre – using puppetry as one of its multidisciplinary tools – to make a strong emotional or intellectual impression, becoming less about fantasy and more about the relationship between the performer and their body as the object.

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Compagnie Mossoux-Bonté
Kefar Nahum
Barbican Pit | London International Mime Festival
21 January 2010

Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

Wikipedia reports that Kefar Nahum was a small settlement on the Sea of Galilee in ancient Israel, inhabited roughly from 150 BCE until 750 ACE, most famous as the place where Jesus lived and preached. But Jesus is not the subject of Compagnie Mossoux-Bonté’s gripping work of object theatre: it is rather a portrait of the Demiurge, the flawed god of ancient Gnosticism who created the cosmos and everything in it. The material world to the Gnostics was evil and cruel, a direct reflection of the godhead’s own defects and eccentricities. The god-like animator (played by Nicole Mossoux) in Belgian-based Compagnie Mossoux-Bonté’s Kefar Nahum is less evil than neglectful. She brings life to scraps of material on an elevated tabletop surface, often by mixing bits and pieces with parts of her own body; lets these objects find a rhythm, a mode of existence; and when her creations become overly aggressive or cease to amuse her she hastens their demise, sending them hurling to the abyss below. Gradually the remnants pile up on the floor, creating a carpet of fossils, an archive of failures, a memorial to malfunction.

Biblical echoes permeate the work. In the beginning is the void, a rustling mass of white. From this emerges the creator – in gas mask and white ruffle collar – and her creation, similarly attired but with a body crafted from the creator’s hands. But this simple-minded creature is not long for this harsh world of homicidal pogo-legged spider creatures and dancing coils that attack the creator’s throat. A haunted soundscape (live electronics by Thomas Turine) of clicking and cranking sounds, harsh winds, rumbles of thunder and buzzing insects permeates the stage, sometimes anticipating action, sometimes responding. The world is not without its seductions and flashes of humour. A dildo-like creature bounds across the space. On a verdant plain, the turbaned Demiurge exchanges glances with and makes love to a colourfully seductive watering can. Yet despite her powers, she cannot resist the rhythmic cycle of creation and destruction. The Demiurge is reduced by her creations, stripped of her protective garb, cajoled and threatened by her mute creations. Her decay is gradual, but terrifying. Her hands continue to writhe even after stripped of the costumed accoutrements that define character. Her body is rocked and tossed. She assumes a veil – a sartorial prayer? – but is stripped eventually of all her garments, an abject figure who echoes the gestures of her creations, without dignity, porous to the world. Her whole body becomes possessed by the energy of creation, fragmented and torn and lifted to the edge of the precipice, crouched at the rim of the abyss. She leans forward, lured to her certain destruction below.

Kefar Nahum is gripping from beginning to end, skilful, inventive and filled with energy, an extraordinary and necessary work of puppetry.

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Etgar Theatre
Eshet
Purcell Room | London International Mime Festival
21 January 2010

Reviewed by Penny Francis

I didn’t know my Genesis (the Genesis of the bible that is) well enough to work out the storyline of Etgar Theatre's Eshet (Wife). That is not to say that I did not enjoy and admire it – I did, especially the corporeality and manipulation of the performer-dancer-puppeteer playing the unfortunate wife expected to carry on the family line by bearing a son. Her bad luck lay in the death of one after another of the two oldest brothers before she could ‘do her duty’, leaving only the youngest, still a child. Forbidden to consort with anyone outside the family, she disguised herself as a street walker and prolonged the family line by seducing the boys’ father and conceiving twins. The twins were clearly very significant as we saw them as projected pictures growing in the Eshet womb – but without any explanation as to their significance, at least not in English. I discovered later that they would be the ancestors of King David, ten generations down the line.

The award-winning production, now about seven years old, was in sung Hebrew with the story in English, quoted from Genesis, projected on a rear screen. Two human performers, Renana Raz and Yuval Fingerman, interacted with effigies of the three sons, each with lifesize hairless heads criss-crossed with seams that recalled deep, stitched wounds.

The puppet technique was new to me, and, I imagine, difficult to master. The papier maché head was intermittently carried on a neck-rod attached to a shoulder ‘hanger’ which also carried a modern blouse masking the body to the waist of the puppeteer. The head was sometimes on the neck-rod, sometimes removed and manipulated separately, symbolically. During the seduction of the father by the wife, for instance, she takes his head into her hand: he has lost his head. To portray the whole body the natural lower part of the performer had to marry with the upper artificial part and the head. Both players effected this with remarkable subtlety and grace. Renana Raz’s success at maintaining the illusion of a whole person when holding the separate head in front of her own was for me the most memorable aspect of the show – that and the precise choreography of the whole piece, directed by Elit Veber.

The stage was dark and almost bare except for a ramp with steps and a few chairs; also a table which held panels as coffins of the dead brothers. The story was almost impenetrable, but was supported by music and the sung words of Genesis, which provided a beautiful accompaniment to the action and perfectly integrated with the show’s poetic style.

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Les Ateliers du Spectacle
A Distances
ICA
London International Mime Festival
23 January 2010

Reviewed by Beccy Smith

Les Ateliers du Spectacle are masters of the intriguing object, but it’s perhaps an extraordinary fascination with the logic of materials that their work requires.   In the ICA’s deep stage space we’re greeted by an ascetic white light and a sense of blankness around the discretely intriguing object installations. It is clear they are to be the evening’s sole focus. And they seem to promise much: each a very distinct collage of string, cogs, hammers, pieces of chain, cloth and pulleys, drawn between bespoke wooden frames whose function is teasingly obscured.  The aesthetic of the whole is both rustic (wonky wooden footstools; a knitted sign bearing the show’s title) and clinical – each static installation bristles with the precision of an assembly of medical instruments.

As the show progresses each installation is activated and explored by a figure cast as a mysterious puppeteer (played with verve by Jean-Pierre Larroche); using a range of cunningly constructed threadwork around the stage and with the help of a silent stage manager dressed as a sort of Elizabethan pageboy he activates each scene, sometimes bringing sound and spectacle, sometimes destruction and disaster.  He is the arch animator whose presence activates the predetermined material logics of (his?) installations.  Initially shy, remaining hidden amongst his works, his gradual extroversion drives the piece forward so that, by the time he reaches his final scene, he is reciting French philosophy to us while demonstrating the relationship of inevitability to surprise with the assistance of a range of cunning pulleys, a long table and a glass of water.

Twice our enigmatic puppeteer abandons his object play and heads to a huge upstage canvas where, his back to us, playfully peering at his face in a tiny mirror, he creates giant self portraits, in which his own face becomes objectified, arriving via a series of discrete, ambidextrous colours and lines. 

The lighting is beautiful throughout, a reminder of its invaluable role in object work, offering even the smallest object its moment in the sun and at times creating a poetic texture which the aesthetic as a whole resists.

Two scenes are breathlessly virtuosic. In one, after a very necessary read through of Lear and Cordelia’s final moments from Shakespeare’s tragedy, the scene is re told via a tall cabinet of objects which perform one syllable at time.  It’s exhilarating to watch, and only a shame the scene relied so extensively on a working knowledge of French to fully appreciate its wit. In ‘No Effect without Cause’ Larroche and his miniature projected image present a dynamic duet, part-chase, part competition, as he creates and erases a variety of surfaces – including mobile clay and, most excitingly, spray painted glass – to keep up with his slowly propelled projector as it makes a slow journey on castors across the stage.  Itself a duet with a bouncy, original electronic score by Michel Massou, this was one of the most satisfying uses of digital projection I’ve ever seen.

This is a paradoxical show that showcases the innate qualities of materials, waiting confidently with us for wax to melt, for thread to disintegrate, for the weight of an object to cause it to drop; yet at the same time it is undoubtedly the foregrounded protagonist who is running events and leading us on the journey of his own transformation.  For the audience, it is tempting to have our heads turned by the more accessible moments of human interaction (albeit with an image) and the flashes of anthropomorphism in trembling stools and recalcitrant hammers.  But the show is especially arresting for its uncompromising gaze at its material world: operated meticulously, in real-time, this is a show which asserts objects’ centrality to an exploration of human will, language and art. 

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Compagnie Bal / Jeanne Mordoj
Eloge du Poil
Barbican Pit | London International Mime Festival
27 January 2010

Reviewed by Darren East

‘Women, how do you live without beards? Are they on the inside? Don’t they itch?’ Jeanne Mordoj asks, early in this hour-long solo show (devised with director Pierre Meunier), a sequence of playful circus-inspired acts interspersed with gnomic asides. She, of course, is wearing her beard on the outside. The programme dryly notes that Mordoj spent three months in Eastern Europe looking for fabled bearded women; elsewhere, she admits she never found them: ‘Always the woman with the beard is in the next place.’

But despite the title, the playful take on the gender politics of the bearded woman seems ultimately a minor thread of the piece, if a useful framing device; Mordoj’s beard functions rather like the clown’s red nose, the smallest mask that serves to reveal rather than conceal. Not that this is in the usual sense a clown show: Mordoj doesn’t play, as such, to the audience. There are no moments of comic release when her tricks go awry, or any pathos of clownish vulnerability. She plays rather across the audience, aslant, a weirder, more unsettling presence – always engaging but never quite giving. This gives all her acts, even the (somewhat) more conventional ones – such as an elegant slow dance with balancing sticks, or a routine that makes flowing ribbon from a torn sheet of paper and a hula hoop from a tyre – an enchanting but eerie eroticism.

And a large part of what is revealed is a very puppetesque concern for the life and death of inanimate objects. One thread of the show follows squabbling animal skulls, a ram who lip-syncs to Schumann lieder, consistently interrupted by a pair of ventriloquised teasing badgers. The badger skulls are punished by being thrust in a metal box by Mordoj and then lowered by a gallows into water. On the box’s reopening, one of the skulls has ‘drowned’, and the other – to the audience’s audible relief – has survived. At least, long enough to tell us a strange tale of how he met his original death in a bizarre snail-eating contest. And the shells of these snails we had already seen in a sequence where Mordoj rolled around the stage, picking them up with her feet and dropping them into a large metal dish balanced on her head.

And then, most memorably, Mordoj cracks open some eggs and slides their yolks, one by one, on an exhilarating and perilous journey along her arms and across her body, in order, she says, ‘to give the unborn and never-to-be-born a taste of life’. At this point, when Mordoj’s (distinctly masculine, if unbearded) assistant, having consistently brought necessary things on and off stage, gently towelled off her arms, I briefly wondered how far the definition of a one-person show extends, and whether there might be something gained here by stretching it further. But this is Mordoj’s world, and after all these antics, the finale, which sees her burying herself in earth accompanied by a chorus of wire-operated singing skulls, is fully fitting to whatever tangible but teasing logic holds the show together.
It was pleasing to see a Mimefest show which so clearly prioritised and played with small-scale, human skills rather than extravagant spectacle – you could almost imagine this show working in the village squares whose freak shows and soapboxes it is doubtless inspired by. And this is a performance realm where puppetry, with its explicit ways of playing off life and death, and authority and helplessness, is fundamental.


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