Photomontage of a white faces with dark smeared eyes against black background, and stylised leaves


Live and layered: London International Mime Festival 2022

Read Icon Read
Time Icon Pink 10 min
Short & Sweet, by Thick & Tight (Daniel Hay-Gordon & Eleanor Perry). Photo ©
S pink identity

Channelled online in last year’s edition, LIMF 2022 reopens its many-faced, multi-sensory playground of live communication

It has been a weird couple of years. Masked and isolated, we’ve learned to rely on a gestural language of raised brows and smiling eyes. In Zoom meetings, we’ve become used to companionably lamenting the strangeness of video interaction. It is clearer than ever that communication is a layered and multi-faceted endeavour.

The long-running London International Mime Festival is a celebration of storytelling at its most experimental and determined, but this year there’s also a revelatory pleasure in the medium. There are no emails or lockdown soft-launch Twitter leaks here, no communication by miscommunication. Whether juggling the vagaries of political and personal identity, sketching aliens, baking bread or embodying gods, LIMF 2022 is an uplifting reminder that we can dare to say more than anxious commentary on the pandemic. Sometimes deliriously successful, sometimes falling just short, the performances this year nevertheless speak of a thrilling ambition to close the gap between display and comprehension, celebrating the power of live communication.

Jean-Daniel Broussé, (le) PAIN (FR)

Jean-Daniel Broussé, the son and grandson of a baker, is ending a family tradition. With the whimsical delivery of a stand-up comedian and the luscious, easy physicality of a street dancer, he grapples with the difficulty of stepping back from the legacy of the French family-run baker.

Watching (le) PAIN is like watching the performance equivalent of a patchwork quilt being sewn in real time. Disparate elements of memoir, demonstration and pure dance are stitched together to create the multi-hued whole. Broussé cheerfully demonstrates the work of breadmaking live on stage, with as much flourish and drama as he manipulates his body. He plays traditional French bagpipes, tells us a story in Occitan, offers us video interviews with his parents, and ends by feeding us freshly baked bread.

Broussé brings levity and wit to his physical storytelling. In one memorable segment, he folds himself into a full-body lycra sack and performs – with acrobatic sarcasm – the chemical process of bread rising. His mime of attempting to pass a stool is hilarious and stomach-piercingly evocative.

If this all sounds like a crazed cornucopia of disparate delicacies and skills, that’s exactly the audience experience. This short, small-scale piece couldn’t be longer or larger, or play to any but the most curious audience. But this might be (le) PAIN’s strength: in its very intimacy and specificity, it feels like a gift – to us, to Broussé family, to his own history.

Ka Bradley

Theatre Re: Bluebelle (UK)

Am I just too, you know, dancey? By rights, Theatre Re’s Bluebelle should have tickled my pleasure points. It’s a satisfyingly twisted, Brothers Grimmish tale of a barren queen and king who long for a child, and make a fateful pact with a fairy who grants their wish. (Newsflash: they don’t then live happily ever after.) It’s also big on atmosphere, with much moody sidelighting, and splendid folk-goth music played live on stage – a meandering montage of hurdy-gurdy rhythms, shiversome melodies and mysterious dissonances. The stagecraft is a delight: there are rope-pulley systems that hoik around props and scenery, cardboard crowns in the shape of antlers, an outsize coat that fits two villains at once, and much changing of costume and makeup so that the cast of six (including the two musicians) get to play a whole range of different characters. And the physical theatre – grotesque witchery, swirling magicians, questing gallops, lonely wanderings – is the stuff of good storytelling.

Perhaps that’s where my problem is: storytelling. There’s so much of it. It’s quite hard to follow, what with the tangled plot and multiple characters, each scene following fast on the heels of the last. There’s not much time for the pleasures or the depths of lingering longer – to feel the ambivalent beauties of Bluebelle’s solitude when she’s trapped in a translucent ball, the physical pain and personal elation of the queen as she gives birth, the enticingly orientalist undulations of the magicians as they cast their spell. I wonder if a choreographer rather than a theatre director might have been less tethered to plot, and given more leeway to savour and sensation. Or am I being too dancey?

Sanjoy Roy

S pink identity
tall man with beard dressed as Twiggy in bright yellow short tunic-skirt, lime green tights and boots
Harry Alexander as Twiggy in Short & Sweet by Thick & Tight

Thick & Tight, Short and Sweet (UK)

Eleanor Perry, one half of Thick & Tight, is sadly only able to perform via video link thanks to Covid. Despite this Age of Pandemic inconvenience, Perry’s charismatic co-creator Daniel Hay-Gordon and their anarchic band of Pierrots keep the candles burning at both ends.

Short and Sweet deserves a cabaret audience – one that isn’t shy of whooping and slamming the tables. This is most obvious in ‘Vicious’, a solo featuring Connor Scott as punk rocker Sid Vicious. Scott’s spasming and gangling, his snarls and his head-bangs, are eerily redolent of the real Vicious – yet the punk energy dissipates in the respectable auditorium. Some scenes work more seamlessly: Harry Alexander strutting as the eponymous model in ‘Twiggy’ commands breathless attention; Azara Meghie in ‘Finding Grace’, a celebration of Grace Jones, combines breakdancing with spoken word, and is so warm, so conspiratorial, that it’s impossible not to cheer.

‘Cage & Paige: We Could Go On’, pairing avant-garde composer John Cage (Hay-Gordon) with prima donna of West End musicals Elaine Paige (Perry, on-screen), is Thick & Tight at their hilarious, evocative and moving best. Even appearing remotely, Perry summons the astounding magnetism that made her Princess Diana, in A Night with Thick & Tight, one of the highlights of the 2019 London International Mime Festival.

The piece which leaves the deepest impact is ‘Ode to Edith’, inspired by poet and iconoclast Edith Sitwell, once memorably accused as being ‘as ugly as modern poetry’. Performed with voluminous charm by members of the Corali Dance Company, it feels as if it harkens back further than cabaret, to a symbolically laden medieval mystery play or a subversive Saturnalia. Using simple, almost ritualistic movement – gestural, signalling, private yet communicative – to a soundtrack of an interview with the dignified and witty Sitwell, ‘Ode to Edith’ feels like a work of true and pure pleasure in creation.

Ka Bradley

Cie 111 – Aurélien Bory/Shantala Shivalingappa: aSH (FR)

Aurélien Bory is a French – what? Single words (director, scenographer) seem misleading, so perhaps a sentence will do: Aurélien Bory makes multidimensional performances which treat the human presence not as primary, but as one of the many elements of theatre, including sound, set, costume and light. Shantala Shivalingappa is a French-Indian kuchipudi dancer, a classical Indian form which really does place a focus on the human body – face, feet, fingers and all. Their encounter is the third of a trilogy of collaborations between Bory and some distinctive, border-crossing female performers (French flamenco artist Stéphanie Fuster, French-Japanese dancer Kaori Ito).

The piece, then, is the meeting place of two sensibilities. In aSH, Shivalingappa channels the presence of her namesake Shiva – god of the dance, and destroyer of worlds – while Bory provides her cosmic setting – a sheet of faintly metallic paper, as inscrutable as Rothko painting – and live percussionist Loïc Schild her sonic space, his electronic instruments miked to the wall behind the backdrop, causing tremors in the paper as if the sound itself were footsteps.

Shivalingappa is a supremely assured presence, traversing the geometries of the foreground with placed footwork, inclined torso and angled arms. She sifts white powder onto the floor, her patterned steps gradually forming a circular design as exquisite as a Hindu mandala or the tracks of a figure-skater. Later, the powder puffs into clouds as she beats the backdrop, and the paper itself falls to reveal the implacable sonic wall behind it.

It’s a divine dance, a poetic spectacle, a mechanical curiosity – and strangely lacking in warmth. The cosmos is indeed cold.

Sanjoy Roy

Stereoptik, Stellaire (FR)

Remember being taken to a Planetarium as a child, or seeing your first magic lantern show? Stellaire takes you back to that visionary awe. Stereoptik – Romain Bermond and Jean-Baptiste Maillet – return to LIMF with their first show since 2016’s Dark Circus, and it’s galactically splendid.

Stellaire is a journey through all of Creation. This isn’t as bold a claim as it might seem: it explores the formation of the universe, the shape of our galaxy and the life cycle of our sun. Simultaneously, however, it is a love story between a man and a woman, recast in their romance as explorers of outer space, both literally (they fly to distant planets), and metaphorically, because what is love but an exploration of the stupendous internal stardust of emotion?

Stellaire is also a peek into creation with a small c. Though the core narrative is shown on a screen, Bermond and Maillet are visible on either side of the stage, using projection, chalk, ink, silhouettes and sketches to create the story in real time. Part of the thrill of Stereoptik’s work is being able to see the scaffolding: hands sketching with charcoal or scattering sand; storytellers at the sidelines squirting teal and tangerine ink into empty aquariums; covering lightboxes with black card cut-outs; or even just playing the instruments. This is mime at its most literal: bodies employed to tell a story without words.

The tone is exquisitely managed. Each time Stellaire appears to veer into sentimental profundity (about love, or the size of the universe), something playful and invigorating undercuts the self-serious mood. Our star-striding couple land on an alien planet and appear to watch a reflection of their relationship in the bodies of two alien creatures – except the alien creatures merge to become the face of Albert Einstein. We gaze in awe at the marbled, layered, drifting landscape of a dream world, only for it to morph into a cool alien synth gig. Falling somewhere between art-house sci-fi, commedia dell’arte and children’s television, Stellaire is a highlight of the festival.

Ka Bradley

Blue Quote Mark

Dives with some gusto into the gap between seeing and looking, us and them, and you and me

Blue Quote Mark

The PappyShow: What Do You See When You Look at Me? (UK)

There’s a scene in The PappyShow’s What Do You See When You Look at Me? which projects a video of a professional synchronised swimming team – highly skilled, identikit young white women, every one of them trained to within an inch of each other – while the live cast on stage, a disparate bunch of ages, races, genders, body shapes and abilities, perform some Busby Berkeleyish canon-choreography in an assortment of swimwear. In comparison with the team, they are a very scrappy bunch. Also: a lot more human.

The performance is in some sense about diversity – of race, gender, ability, sexuality and age – but rather than a tickbox, checklist approach, it dives with some gusto into the gap between seeing and looking, perceiving and conceiving; between us and them, and you and me.

The cast introduce themselves with affectionate clichés that are rudimentary stereotypes nonetheless: a sing-song Italian accent, kung-fu kicks, bhangra dancing. Later, a fashion parade exaggerates and furthermore mismatches the stereotypes: a black woman in a wheelchair rolls up in Breton sailor drag, complete with boating hat, striped jersey and baguette; an East Asian man sports a Rastacap and dreadlock wig; a white woman with a crutch walks on in a black facemask.

Later still, they apologise for the cultural appropriation – but characteristically, this becomes less a position statement than an opportunity to riff on the gaps between the making, meaning and believing of apologies: they poke fun at each other’s duplicitous expressions of regret (‘I’m sorry I portrayed violence to give the show more drama’), and quote topically from the UK prime minister.

The devised format and workshoppy feel make for patchy evening, and the cultural diversity theme could have made for a stilted one; but the ambience is very convivial – we’re all in this together, somehow – and no one, whether on stage or in the audience, is reduced from a person to a position. We are all more than we seem.

Sanjoy Roy

You may also like...