Naming the Man with his Horse

Feature in Issue 6-2 | Summer 1994

Like any living art, mime is characterised by a continued rediscovery which brings new meanings to the term ‘mime’, thereby making the artform relevant to the times we live in today.

I see mime as an essential form of expression, and not an artform which defines itself through a mixture of styles of theatre. Mime relates in the first place to that which is essentially human, and secondly to movement.

I know that the artistic engagement of the situation on stage is never black or white and that the question of whether something is ‘mime’ is not necessarily the first question one asks when creating a piece of work. But I feel we need to look at what the essential qualities of mime are.

If one looks at the lack of nuance associated with mime work today we see that people automatically call everything which doesn’t smell of the ‘Disneyfication’ of mime ‘dance’. Not that what happens on stage is ‘wrong’. It’s far more to do with what happens before and after the performance, when people come up to you and congratulate you on your beautiful dance, or come and ask ‘when you’re going to dance again?’. A lot of people think they don’t like mime, while a very big part of the contemporary dance field has had huge influences from mime, or is even first class mime. Good mime sits well in the dance world – but why is mime never mentioned?

Nevertheless, what we like is not only related to the quality of what we see, but also on our ability to perceive, which is dependent on how we communicate with each other. Not mentioning the word ‘mime’ when it should be mentioned, means that the audience often is led to perceive it as ‘dance’ when it is in reality contemporary mime. The significance of mimic art then gets given another name, another ‘horse’. This vision of the arts is one of the underlying factors indirectly responsible for the continued ‘Disneyfication’ of mime.

There are some more important reasons to talk about mime: why shouldn’t we see mime as a discipline or a style? Often mime needs to be recognizable as (‘Disneyficated’) mime before the word mime is used. A perfect example of a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’? Mimes, particularly those who come from a particular training or school, create this situation themselves because they see mime as too hard a discipline or style. A third reason is that a dancer often looks similar to a mime, s/he also uses their head, trunk and limbs. With such similar means of expression, it’s not easy for a member of the public to recognise the specific qualities of a mime. In spite of reality, mime seems to be a field of art which is very defined, whereby the term mime seems to have nothing in common with art and creativity. We need to do as much as possible to represent mime as an undefined artform wherein several images can be possible. When you say ‘I’m a mime’ more than 90% see mime as the white-faced figure, aka Marceau. But do we say ‘Oh, you’re a dancer so you must be like A.T. Keersmaeker’?

A performance will tend to be more mimetic or dansant, more body-plastic or spatial. Many elements are used to create something and the preference or order of these elements depends on the author; e.g. where the mimetic element becomes more important than the dance, then the creation becomes more ‘character’ mimetic.

For programmers it’s very important that they realise that the constitution of the mime-art has changed as in many other arts, and they should work to detect these changes to help create a new image of the mimic art.

In mime there exists a difference between mime and miming. Miming can’t be taken literally anymore. Critics shouldn’t look for people who are miming or place so much on the technical characteristics associated with mime. They should be learning to see that a performance is often the personal creativity of the mime and should learn to detect what comes together in contemporary mime.

Looking to the mimes themselves again, they often create characters which lead mime to appear droll and comical. Mimes are using their bodies, just like dancers. The traditional difference is that mimes, while creating a personage or figure, are basing their mimic representation on a natural ‘proportion’ of the body. The social context is far more realistic than in dance. This ‘proportion’ concerns itself with the communication of the body, which, traditionally understood, comes from the side of the body to where the face looks – the front.

That is how the crystallisation of a certain style of mime with strong accents in the face emerged, and why people started to think that mime was a facial matter. Clearness in a body with natural proportions leads fast to a social stereotype. But stereotypes are too one-sided to represent the contemporary complexity. They are simply no longer credible. In dance, every part of the body is the face, with the accent thereby being on the movement rather than a figure or person.

However acceptable one-sided characters were forty years ago, nowadays audiences find it difficult to be fascinated by them. Mimes get stuck in these duos depicting ‘the smart and the stupid’ and forget that mime has a lot more to offer which is representative of our time. The audience ends up seeing mime as a droll style and mime ends up projecting a very narrow understanding of imitation.

Today’s approach of the mime to developing movement languages while respecting the representation of the person and character needs to be respected and recognised along with the value of new contemporary mime as relevant to today’s society.

Yurgen Schoora is a mimographer and performer based in Marke, Belgium. Excerpts from written articles, notes and the essay on mime ‘Mimic: mime after mime!’.


This article in the magazine

Issue 6-2
p. 17