Make Mime Music

Feature in Issue 22-1 | Spring 2010

Looking at the programme for this year’s London International Mime Festival, it would seem that the sound design was central to several shows. Charlotte Smith sees, hears, and reports back.

Zimmermann & de Perrot’s Öper Öpis has a frenetic soundtrack. Dimitri de Perrot makes mixing into a new sort of mime, throwing vinyl like flying saucers and using the bright, triangular wedges of the set on his turntable. At one point he even gets trapped in his own wires, dancing upside-down with them wrapped around him. The audio includes jagged beats, scratching, a waltz, seagulls, laughter, a few seconds of a torch song, bells, timpani and a traffic jam. De Perrot holds a mic to capture sounds that are then remixed and replayed, such as Eugénie Rebetez slapping her thighs as she gyrates in a deep pink dress.

So although Öper Öpis is said to be driven by the sound, it’s hard to say exactly who’s driving whom. The interplay definitely works well, with Martin Zimmermann undulating like a bendy record, lithely in tune. Even the furniture follows suit, as chairs, a table and bodies slide and collide, or a speaker is used as an object. And the simple things are effective, such as when some of the five circus artists collaborating with Zimmermann and de Perrot dance and nod rhythmically.

But Öper Öpis, translated as ‘something someone’, also goes further. The sound may fade into the background as you watch breathtaking acrobatics, with the performers swung, balanced, thrown and pretending to wobble. Gentle clowning uses body shapes such as concave and convex bellies, and there are physical jokes with mirrors and a painted replica of a performer. No single story thread emerges, but a vivid, zany aesthetic and possibly a sense of alienation. It’s an electric mix.

Kefar Nahum by Compagnie Mossoux-Bonté is much more sombre. Inspired by the artist Henri Michaux, it shows a deity who distorts his own creation. That’s with the programme notes… Without the programme notes, there’s a vaguer sense of menace, metamorphosis, an Edward Scissorhands-style nightmare. Puppets suggesting unformed or unknown animals fight with their puppeteer. An orange watering can starts to look like a Black & Decker power tool that the performer then seems to kiss.

The on-stage sound is apt and synchronised, suggesting everything from cicadas to an underground car park. It’s created live with a laptop, keyboard and mixing deck by Thomas Turine of the Belgian rock group Major Deluxe. The noise could be interference, a clattering train, electronic birdsong, a frenzied heartbeat, or a swarm of mad mosquitoes. However, despite the agile puppetry and distinct mood, Kefar Nahum sometimes lost momentum, becoming oppressive and slightly monotonous.

Sture Ericson’s score for Rankefod by Kitt Johnson is similar in some of its buzzing insect, crackling, gurgling and gathering storm sounds. The audio is integral to the piece, but offstage and less prominent; it functions effectively in a conventional way. Instead, the intense corporeality dominates, a physical language of rapid movements, semi-naked, to tell the story of evolution. The effect is uncomfortable if impressive: a body wriggling out as if from a chrysalis, trying to break free, with flapping wings, grasshopper awkwardness, wobbly limbs and fluttering hamstrings.

Collectif Petit Travers combine classical elegance and dark humour in Pan-Pot, a piece for three jugglers and a pianist. At its height, it’s a firework display, with flurries of small white balls cascading and exploding. But along the way there have been many teasing details: a single, outstretched hand, sideways glances and throws, balls dropped on purpose, and a man who becomes a mannequin with frightening precision. Three Frenchmen in black suits juggle with moving symmetry, then things suddenly switch and a single man is left stranded or horizontal (‘travers’ means both foible or quirk and askew or across). Pan-Pot is dextrous and lucid, taking you back to childhood while giving a glimpse of death.

A concert pianist, Aline Piboule, plays live on stage. Bursts of sound are interspersed with silence. The juggling and music can come together perfectly, like a quartet, or be more at odds. Some pieces are familiar, such as the Mozart variations now known as ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’, and others elusive, from composers including Bach, Beethoven, Dutilleux, Ligeti and Liszt. The accompaniment is both original, and traditional (like the piano playing to silent films).

Zimmermann & de Perrot’s Öper Öpis was seen at Barbican Theatre; Moussoux-Bonté’s Kefar Nahum at Barbican Pit; Collectif Petit Travers’ Pan-Pot at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre; Kitt Johnson’s Rankefod at ICA. All shows seen January 2010 as part of the London International Mime Festival. www.mimefest.co.uk

Öper Öpis and Kefar Nahum were presented in association with Barbican bite 2010. www.barbican.org.uk/theatre

This article in the magazine

Issue 22-1
p. 31