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4. The Unique Art of Pantomime

"In the age of noise we live in, it is sometimes wise to listen to what silence has to tell us." Avital

It is no paradox that in a world full of noise, of commercial and inane advertising, the silence calls to us. Man, the artist, deeply concerned with his art, searches out the original spiritual source in order that he may dream and meditate, rediscover his Self, and give of himself in action and in contemplation to the art of silence. And silence is the true being of mime and the philosophy of using the speech energy only when it is necessary. It certainly seems to me that we communicate better in silence and movement than in words.

In the evolution of civilization, the essence of the human being has been hidden from immediate awareness. This basic fact has caused an attribution of the artistic sense to visions of the reaches of "other worlds," when in truth the reality of every human being is an Artist. This cannot be more simply exemplified than with the silent technique of Pantomime - the music of the soul.

The history of this nonverbal art goes back to times of primitive man. Having developed no spoken language as yet, the people of that time communicated through body movement, but the origin of pantomime as the theatrical form we now know has been lost in the past from the ancient ones who created it.

Since then, the art of mime has passed through various periods of glory and obscurity, now coming into a dynamic age of classical and contemporary forms. It is being heralded by some artists as a means of mind/body harmonization, and expansion of the centering of consciousness. More famous among actual perpetrators are Charlie Chaplin and Marcel Marceau, masters in the illumination of this art form.

It is known by practice and self-knowledge, that any art form springs up from a spiritual reality. Too many artists today have gone away from that spiritual reality, attaching themselves to only commercial and material aspects of the art. They have to find the way back to the spiritual source and its processes, remembering that any art form originates from the depths of silence, the self-search for cosmic expression of the essence of life, which is in all. Then, the artists contribution will open new spaces in our consciousness.

The Work of Decroux

To begin a short review of the art of mime, we shall look first to the work of the man, Etienne Decroux. Practically every contemporary mime has studied under this French master, who through his analytical study of the human body and its movements has created or rediscovered his own special technique of work. A kind of ABC of practice which he taught since 1931.

An actor in the theater and films from 1923 to 1945, Decroux has interpreted a large array of characters from the works of Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, Moliere, Tolstoy, Pirandello, and so on. He has directed and worked with the well-known film artists, Copeau, Gaston Batty, Louis Jouvert, Artaud, and Charles Dullin in Paris.

A brilliant actor and a born orator, Decroux entered the theater of Jacques Copeau to learn diction. Later, he became the apostle of silence, theoretician, psychologist, and master of mime. He worked with Jean-Louis Barrault long before the film, Les Enfants du Paradis, and had also as a pupil the well-known and well-loved Marcel Marceau.

Although Decroux studied with Copeau, it was not there that he developed his system of pure mime. From 1921 to 1928, he sought out the various aspects of mime that could be taught and followed through by the actor. His new school took into account the costume, properties, and best means of expression both in body and gesture. His creation of a new alphabet, the "ABC of Mime," was hailed with enthusiasm. The comedian, who had previously been only a kind of glorified marionette, came not only close to realism, but was also a new style of being and a new art form.

The pure mime is no longer a simple actor of pantomime using symbolic and comic gestures to achieve his part. He now partakes in the "Art of Silence." Decroux has said, "Ideas are incorporated in the mime work itself - otherwise, it would just be pantomime."

Decroux took into consideration all possible body movement - action, speed, and intensity in time and space. He defined clearly whether they were to express rational or abstract ideas. "All are geometrically calculated. Mechanical movement must become natural," he said. Analytical cubism and ideal presentation of the form seem to have the greatest influence in his teaching of the heritage of the old mimes. Decroux is a great admirer of Rodin.

Thus, he established a foundation of articulate and distinct movement. He localized the action, one step at a time, "une chose a la fois," only one limb at a time in motion. "The mime takes a step to begin something - not to come back to it later to redo it." It is only through complete attention to the extent of fulfillment of the action that one attains its real beauty. "The mime condenses space and time to the essence of it, he can represent the universe in the small space of a few square feet."

The actor may express everything with his body only. He can do this without words, costume, properties, disguise, even without facial mimicry. As all these all too often demonstrate how small, mediocre, talkative, and inexact a scene can be. The mime seeks to develop an art, an art which is a contrast to that of the dance. "Dance is ethereal. Mime is solidly rooted in earth," says Decroux. "Whereas dance with music throws off bodily bonds, the mime in comparison seems static and silent."

Decroux made a great case of exactitude and clarity in form and became a doctrinaire and severe formalist. He created a repertory - Mime Statuaire, or Mime Subjectif - a repertory of expressions of the human form. Fundamental examples of these are "The Sporting Man" and "The Man of the Salon," the former having a body bent forward and curved; the latter straightly erect.

Second and principally, Decroux made pertinent and vital what he calls the Mime Subjectif; that is to say, with the techniques of exact suggestive reactions and imagination, one "sees" an object that is not actually there. This seeing replaces the object itself. The Mime therefore, will fully evoke the concrete object through simple movements and gestures.

Jean-Louis Barrault

Then came Jean-Louis Barrault, the unorthodox pupil of Decroux, who asks the questions: "How can we express the silence, the solitude which is alive inside of us all the time?" "How can we recreate outwardly for all to see the intimate life which is lived in secret?" Mime, or the art of life which endures, makes endurable to the greatest possible extent the life we live - this art comes from a tragic or dramatic situation.

In his book, Reflexion sur le Theatre (1949), Barrault recalls that at the Decroux school nothing more than walking in place (a mime technique that give the illusion of real walking) was practiced for three months in order to perfect this particular technique. As in any field of endeavor, the simplest things are always the most difficult things to accomplish. To walk in control, one must understand that it involves being on the balls of the feet with the back straight, chest forward, head erect.

The first "must" for the student of mime is the control of the spine, vertebra by vertebra. All gestures, all body position - the arms, legs, chest and head - are regulated through the positioning of the spine. This represents the fundamental basis for the individual mime's style.

Barrault's first triumph as a mime was "The Horseback Rider," which later became such a marvel of grace and imagination in mime that it has become legendary. He received acclaim for the film, Les Enfants du Paradis. A special ballet-pantomime was adapted for this film by Jacques Prevert, which Barrault performed with Etienne Decroux and which he later incorporated in the repertory of his theater. Today, Barrault is a speaking actor.

Marcel Marceau

This great mime genius studied in 1944 with Dullin and Decroux for two years - a relatively short period of training, in which he made himself known."Mime is the drama of the human being in his most secret aspiration,"

Marceau says. "In identifying ourselves with the elements that surround us, the art of mime makes visible the invisible, and makes the concrete the abstract."

Marceau is incontestably the most noted mime of our day. In relying on all he had learned from Decroux about the old techniques of the Great Debureau, he nevertheless created his own personal blend of pantomime and mime which included as well some elements of the clown and the music hall. His style of exercises present the grammar of the Decroux school in simple examples such as walking in place, walking against the wind, pulling fishing lines, and so on. Alone, Marceau accomplished a seeming miracle: a single person on stage, without props, without special lights, without music, but who, through a series of simple changes of gestures, succeeded in filling the stage space with characters - a performance of solo interpreter that kept the audience on the edge of their seats.

One of Marceau's most poignant studies, "Childhood, youth, old age, and death," while obviously derived from the work of Barrault, bears nevertheless Marceau's own stamp - his "Poetic Halo," as it has been called. This Halo is gesture which must inspire and reveal. The mime actor must vibrate with gesture as do the strings of a harp. He must be lyrical or almost musical, and thus transforms mere gestures into a bodily movement. Even in standing still, there must be fluidity.

At the peak of his career, Marceau seems to perform alone in his work; yet in the beginning his work is aimed at ensemble mime. "There are times on stage when one cannot make all expositions of one self," Marceau declared in a conversation with Herbert Ibering in 1956. "Alone, I would never have been able to mime the story of the "The Cloak." Alone, one can only express a certain person in a particular element. For example, a man climbs a stairway, then becomes the stairway. Bip (the personage creation of Marceau), playing the role of the lion tamer, gradually reveals himself as the lion. He catches a butterfly, and the simplest movement of the hands becomes the butterfly. These situations are clearly seen by the public when the mime is alone on the stage.

Conclusion

After this brief presentation of the work of these masters of the art of mime, we must know then, that actually there are very few who practice it, which is understandable because of the long, hard training that one must go through, and the strenuous exercises one must practice in order to develop a fit body.

In my experience and practice, it is indeed so. The techniques of mime can help one integrate one's mind and body. Harmony of the mind develops through using one's imagination and becoming aware of the movements, actions, and reactions one has used in presenting one self. When the muscles and breathing are truly moving in tune with the mind, the psyche is free to experience the meanings of subject and object, time, space and consciousness.

It is said that the art of mime is outside or rather beyond all instinct. To develop it, one must continuously work on supple and strong exercises for both the mind and body. The mind must be constantly awake and aware. One needs to develop a strong will without defiance or weakness. The student of mime must have an ideal within his heart. Only through complete attention to the exact fulfillment of the action can one attain its true beauty. The mime must be able to miniaturize space and time. He condenses an eternity in gesture.

Because silence is the foundation of mime, the artist is challenged to invent new ways to symbolize and communicate ancient truths. For this reason, this art centers around universal situations. When a mime treats war, he does not say which war. It is war, transcending the boundaries of languages and countries. The mime uses no texts, no sound, and no set, for the only text is the actor himself and the audience is the set. The mime thus, creates a total, relevant experience akin to the ritualistic and religious origins of theater, and the time, before the actor and audience become separated by invisible, psychological barriers.

Therefore, self awareness is the key word and the core of this work. It is not a simple matter to gain control over the body "so that the elbow will listen to you." It takes work, but, I am confident that anyone who wishes can learn.

All this can be achieved by that attunement to the spiritual reality we mentioned before. Until the so-called artist is in touch with that source to discover his ultimate creativity with himself, we are not going to see or experience any light in the arts. In mime, the performer, the performed, and the performance have to be embodied in one person. Thus, it is necessary to train one's self to tune to the vibrations of the audience and with silence - the helper on the way - towards achieving that unity among all those present.

In fact, it is meditation in action - a performer, an audience, and silence; all in the same space, sitting quietly and SEEING the reflections of themselves. It is as if the thought has taken form, and with the image that speaks, there is communication. However, it is known that words do not describe the essence. They are symbols to reality. The mime has the ability to embody that essence and let it shine through motion in silent space and express it clearly.

For me, mime is more than an art. However, it is a way of life. It requires metaphysical as well as physical awareness. It is an extension of the life force for channeling the energies. It is a symphony of being.

In this age of noise we live in, it is sometimes wise to listen to what silence has to tell us. Rhythmic inner music, which is in us at all times in only to be discovered in order to know ourselves and to live better. This after all, is the purpose of the art.

"Samuel brings awareness to the soul of people and gives the artists who work under his direction the need, dedication, and love for the world of silence and the beautiful art of movement."

 

- Marcel Marceau, BIP 1961

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About LCDS

LCDS is an independent school for self-discovery through the human Arts.  The school offers seminars and workshops teaching the concepts of Theater, Mime, and Movement.