In a dark room, a man is slipping off an armchair, looking upwards at the woman who has leaned forward to kiss - the armchair, not the man


Mime Time

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Triptych by Peeping Tom. Photo © Virginia Rota
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A newbie and a has-been take separate routes through the London International Mime Festival

So that’s the end of the London International Mime Festival – at least, as we know it. Founded in 1977 as a one-off event, it grew to become an important landmark in the city’s cultural life. Still directed by its founder Joseph Seelig, alongside Helen Lannaghan since 1986, it has certain word-of-mouth, under-the-radar appeal that draws strength – perhaps counterintuitively – from its sheer oddness and unclassifiability. The very word ‘mime’ masks the varied, genre-busting faces of the festival, which freely incorporates visual, physical and object theatre as well as dance, circus, puppetry, and more besides. The result might be a bit of a headache for marketing, but is often a treat for audiences. For dancegoers such as myself, LIMF has served as a refreshing annual outing from the sometimes hermetic contemporary dance scene, bringing its own offbeat sensibility, its mix-and-match aesthetics and always with an eye on the audience.

The festival’s future direction remains undecided, but it is clear that it will be much scaled down. To mark the end of the era, Springback sent a first-timer (Georgia Howlett) and an old-timer (me) through some of the dancier parts of LIMF 2023, its 47th edition. Read our reflections below, and please join us in saluting LIMF for its inimitable mime times.

— Sanjoy Roy

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A woman and man in loose onesies stand side by side, juggling balls between them
Sean Gandini and Kati Ylä-Hokkala in The Games We Play. Photo © Gandini Studio

2023 marks the first and last year I will watch the London International Mime Festival in its current form. As a newbie, my preconceptions of mime didn’t last long, and my experience of LIMF, abundant with quirks and charms, was a liberating affirmation of the power in the art of suggestion. Performers under the mime umbrella utilise an ever-fluctuating dialogue between disciplines to tell their story. Without language, a piece might be subject to ambiguous interpretation. And yet, just like dance, the urgent presence of the body in its interchangeable states conveys emotion that words can’t articulate.

Two pieces into my festival journey, dualisms came to mind. Can creativity be exercised like a skill? The Games We Play by Gandini Juggling (UK) hovers somewhere between skill and art, mind and body. A duo for more than 30 years, Sean Gandini and Kati Ylä-Hokkala are received warmly with their nerdy and satisfying musings in the frame of a very serious, very silly, history lesson. The dreaded drop of a ball is not a failure but an opportunity for reflection, coloured juggling patterns can be translated to ‘life itself’, and these patterns personified to artists and their quintessential styles; the vibrant Hockney blue, the splatter of Pollock – alas, juggling is not simply throwing and catching.

Strange anecdotes of circus animals and three-armed prodigies are told while Kati, comedically mute, prepares the props for their witty interpretation to follow, such as a romantic, entwining duet (or rather ensemble, if you include the balls). Juggling exists as meditation and circus, rhythm and maths, art and even magic. Each game proves an adaptability to the risks of another unpredictable body, not to mention balls. Evidently, I have only scratched the surface of this niche world, but the idiosyncrasy and synchronicity is mesmerising.

Alexander Vantournhout and Axel Guérin, Through the Grapevine

Similarly arithmetical, Through the Grapevine by Not Standing (Belgium) is like a candidly formed equation. On a white trapezoid stage, Alexander Vantournhout and Axel Guérin, wearing only beige shorts, compare their measurements like two incredibly bored children. They are disproportionate (one much taller than the other), yet clamber into counterbalances as if they were carbon copies. Freaky four-legged creatures move and mutate with heads emerging from peculiar places. When things get complicated, it is like the magicians’ cups and balls trick, the source of a limb unclear in a shared ownership of bodies.

Later, the extremity increases, though the deadpan, endearing disposition remains. Besides the clumsy smack of skin on skin, and the subsequent audience laughter, Through the Grapevine is a silent and spacious game of immutable trust, bodies reborn in the context of another.

If this is spacious, The Nature of Forgetting by Theatre Re (UK) is wonderfully crowded. Onstage are four performers, two musicians, a clothes rack and a raised wooden platform. Tom (artistic director Guillaume Pigé) is cared for by his grown-up daughter Sophie (Louise Wilcox), who he mistakes for Isabelle, his deceased beloved wife. Theatre Re uses the characteristics of dementia to paint Tom’s life. Muddled places, a memory wearing the clothes of another, a lingering detail – they fuel Tom with rage as he time-travels, the full picture eluding him.

Matilda-esque school desks set the scene for boisterous teenage years, spinning with young love. Clothes and props fly as we whizz through a patchwork kaleidoscope of visual theatre. Live musicians bolster a rambunctious soundtrack, meticulously reactive to every facial expression. Dialogue is often drowned, but their explosive physicality persists. It’s hyperactive, which only emphasises Tom’s vacant stare in present-day scenes, where he misplaces his daughter’s name as he does his tie, prisoner of his faulty memory. Once these blazing memories of youth simmer down into the past, a long silence is cast, broken finally by a frenzy of applause.

Trailer for Peeping Tom’s Triptych

To compare these pieces seems to reduce them to their similar parts. But inevitably, the resonant traces of the last finds a point of connection in the next. The Nature of Forgetting finds echoes in Triptych by Peeping Tom (Belgium), when one performer laments: ‘my memories are running away from me’. If any themes exist between the two, they are enigma and spectacle.

Triptych – adapted from three pieces made by directors Gabriela Carrizo and Franck Chartier for Nederlands Dans Theater between 2013 and 2017 – weaves together three stories: The Missing Door, The Lost Room and The Hidden Floor, each a loose narrative with dreamlike logic – i.e. no logic. The rules of physics are capricious as bodies that plummet over balconies reappear, and a whirlwind repeatedly sweeps them into a tornado, spiralling like a restless thought. Movement itself is vulgar; a slap, thrust and fling of flesh, and the dancers spin themselves dizzy before throwing themselves high, landing as if boneless. With each other, no less force is used; the sex scene is a backbreaking confusion of limbs that knots across the floor. The latest addition, The Hidden Floor, screams Guillermo del Toro with its sub-aqueous, green-blue stained walls and persistent drip of water. Sunken like an amphibian purgatory, the dancers are stripped naked, stabbing ghost food like wet-haired ferals.

A choreographed set change is the fluidity between stories, complete with an ominous backdrop of sound. In this unstable reality of prolific illusions, the only consistency is that nothing makes sense. This is Peeping Tom, off-taste and voyeuristic, lurid and hilarious, not unlike the feeling of a nightmare that lingers, even when the memory of it has fled.

LIMF left me in awe of the myriad of ways the body can speak, spin fantasy and craft illusion, without straying from the simplest, most universally felt emotions: love and loss, apathy and wonder, to name a few. My perspective as a naive latecomer is new, but the afterthought is nothing original: we exist only in relation to others. For me, the essence of LIMF is in the language of bodies, the paradox in trust as both risk and safety, and the yearning to understand each other in whatever way we can.

— Georgia Howlett

Materia by Andrea Salustri

In the cult TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there’s a moment when Buffy boxes the air in front of her to show a friend how she had beaten up a particularly annoying demon. Buffy reckons the demon got what it deserved, but her friend retorts: ‘Nobody deserves mime, Buffy.’

If you laugh, you understand that mime has a spectacularly uncool reputation. Yet the London International Mime Festival has developed a pretty cool one: idiosyncratic, offbeat, inevitably a bit hit-and-miss but always with some surprises and delights; and it attracts a very mixed audience.

Usually, theatre places the human being as its subject, even if (as often happens at LIMF) that being appears in puppet form. Not so in the hour-long performance Materia by Andrea Salustri (Italy/Germany). Salustri, its creator and sole live performer is more like an assistant to the materials that take centre stage – polystyrene, in the shape of balls, sheets and granules, their drama driven by physics, not narrative. A ball hovers, as if by magic, over an upturned circular fan; two sheets seem to advance and retreat in the currents of wind machines, like stiff gentlemen suspiciously sussing each other out; a bucket of granules becomes a cosmic cloud, flashing with starlight. Even in the dance that Salustri performs, it’s the polystyrene tile wobbling on his fingertips that takes the lead: he simply follows its precarious path.

The design is all black and white – no emotional human colour here – and the sounds are largely amplifications of the actions on stage; yet there is certainly dramaturgy in the crescendi and lulls of action, and drama as well as wonder in this work. It’s good to see the material world given primacy on stage; good, too, to read that all that polystyrene is not thrown away (I did wonder) but rather gathered up to be biodegraded by a special species of worm, Zophobas morio. All hail the non-human, I say.

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A man in a dark formal suit and Marlene Dietrich wig and makeup, body writhing as if to heavy metal music
Edd Arnold as a ‘thrash-metal’ Marlene Dietrich, for Thick & Tight (Daniel Hay-Gordon and Eleanor Perry). Photo © Rosie Powell

Daniel Hay-Gordon and Eleanor Perry – aka Thick & Tight – have become LIMF regulars in recent years, having carved out their own art-trash niche by mixing cabaret, drag, lip-synching, history and iconoclasm, often in the form of single-scene numbers that mash together incompatible characters: Miss Havisham (from Dickens’ Great Expectations) and Queen Victoria, for example; or highbrow American sound philosopher John Cage with middlebrow British musical theatre star Elaine Page. In their LIMF evening, they also feature collaborators Vidya Patel (in a jagged Indian-dance response to a colonialist commentary by Winston Churchill), Oxana Panchenko (a steppy, highly technical character dance to Boney M’s Rasputin), Edd Arnold as a thrash-metal Marlene Dietrich, and the Corali Dance Company for people with learning disabilities, who multiply the image of eccentric aristocrat Edith Sitwell, or duet with Hay-Gordon in part-parody part-homage to Royal Ballet luminaries Sir Frederick Ashton and Dame Margot Fonteyn.

Crucially, these encounters are underpinned not just by idea, attitude and imagery, but by dance and choreography. Perry and Hay-Gordon are highly skilled dancers themselves, and attract others of similar calibre. Often, they’ll break up their characters’ exaggerated actions into almost cinematic frame-by-frame moves, so that the choreography comes to feel less like the parody/homage mix that it presents, and more like a kind of glitch art. The result is equal parts entertainment and derangement, and very unnerving.

Cit Mossoux-Bonté in The Great He-Goat

Cie Mossoux-Bonté (Belgium) have long been associated with LIMF, and have a particular and peculiar affinity with the weird and the eerie, realised through uncanny fusions of the human body with costumes, puppets and prosthetics, and supported by canny stagecraft using light, sound and a conjurer’s way with misdirection to accomplish tricks of disappearance and transformation.

There’s a concept behind their 2019 piece The Great He-Goat: gallery attendants in a museum are gradually consumed by the images of Goya’s celebrated Black Paintings. You don’t, though, need to know that to feel the force of this spookily unsettling work. At the start, there’s a row of people in formal dress; but only later do you come to realise that only some of them are alive. The rest are the dismembered heads and limbs of puppets, their faces dreadfully lifelike, artfully deployed by the performers so that they become active parts of the surreal scenes that follow. Two women in deathly white seem to have eight legs between them. A face floats in the shadows, transmigrating from body to body. Several times, figures fuse such that you can’t tell which parts are flesh and which prosthetic, until the illusion is suddenly and shockingly ripped apart – only to form another illusion.

Into this disturbing world wanders the figure of a young girl – which only increases our unease. There are scenes of unnerving interrogation, of monstrous voluptuousness, of ritual flailing and finally a kind of black sabbath. If the piece lacks narrative drive – it works by accumulation, not progression – each unnerving set-piece casts its own black-hearted spell upon the audience. The weirdest thing: walking back outside into real life after the show, and finding it other-worldly.

— Sanjoy Roy