Up in the Gods, Down in the Wings, Out in the Streets and Parks

Miriam (Mim) King: photo Dave Pickens

Dancer, performance artist and long-term Total Theatre Magazine contributor Miriam King offers a personal reflection on the archive

Upon exploring the wonderful resource that is the Total Theatre Magazine Print Archive, I was surprised to discover that during a ten-year period, from 2001 to 2011, I’d contributed 63 articles, across 23 editions of the print magazine. Looking through these, vivid and colourful memories popped up, as I remembered artists I’d met, places I’d been to, and performances and festivals I’d had the joy to witness or participate in. It prompted a reflection on my own journey as an artist, and how crucial the concept of representing the artist’s own voice is to Total Theatre Magazine… So here I present a memoir of sorts, of my life in performance, mirrored in a selection of articles published in the magazine.

As a girl from a West London council estate, popular forms of theatre entered my life at an early age. Growing up in the 1960s, my first experiences of seeing live theatre were Variety at the London Palladium, and Christmas pantomimes – I clearly remember Jimmy Tarbuck in Jack and the Beanstalk. Mum and me had standing tickets, far up in the ‘gods’. I thought the proscenium-arched stage, from this lofty height, was some form of fancy three-dimensional telly, and the performers looked like human versions of puppets. Later, I remember Peter Pan at Richmond Theatre, and trips to Olympia to see Bertram Mills Circus. A love of popular forms of entertainment have stayed with me throughout my life, which I wrote about in a Total Theatre Magazine article ‘Tricks and Turns’ (Issue 16-3/4, autumn 2004) – a reflection on what makes a good specialty act.

As a teenager, in the 1970s, I worked at Woolworths, and became friends with a girl called Bernadine O’Sullivan, also from Shepherds Bush. Together, we ventured out to see other sorts of shows. We had the Bush Theatre nearby, and the Gate Theatre, and not far away, Riverside Studios. One day, this theatre adventuring took us to the Cockpit Theatre – and there on the foyer wall was a poster advertising The Cockpit Theatre’s Youth Theatre Summer Project. After six weeks learning about stage management, lighting, sound, and costume, and afterwards working behind the scenes during evenings and weekends, I approached the director and nervously asked if I could be in the next show – and subsequently made my performance debut in a Cockpit Theatre youth theatre production called Ray Blaze.

What was especially exciting about being at the Cockpit Theatre was that my time working with the youth theatre coincided with the very first London Mime Festival, later known as the London International Mime Festival (LIMF) – which led to me tearing tickets on the door alongside Nola Rae. Actually, the first festival was in 1977, but then it was called the Cockpit Festival of Mime and Visual Theatre. This one, in January 1978, was the first under the new name – and I witnessed all sorts of inspiring shows, from Nola Rae to The Moving Picture Mime Show; and from Justin Case to Jango Edwards. In an article in Total Theatre Magazine called ‘London International Mime Festival – Then and Now’ I describe meeting the ‘dapper and gloriously corkscrew-haired Joseph Seelig’ who was then director of The Cockpit, and instigator, with Nola Rae, of this new festival, which is still running annually over forty years later! Also in that article, I say ‘being a huge David Bowie fan, I’d originally discovered mime via Ziggy Stardust. David Bowie had trained in the late 1960s with Lindsay Kemp, who in turn had trained with Marcel Marceau. Going to see or becoming involved in anything that had something to do with Bowie, I’d taken myself off to see Lindsay Kemp’s decadently sumptuous shows (like Flowers) in the mid-70s… My appetite was whetted and satiated by discovering in 1978 what more mime could be at that first London Mime Festival.’ 

There are very many articles in the archive about LIMF – 142 of them, in fact! For another personal perspective, see Desmond Jones’ ‘The London International Mime Festival - A Retrospective’ (Issue 3-1). 

So, that was the late 1970s… Art school followed, then, as a young mother, I began my professional performance career that took me, mid 1980s, into the early days of what was then called New Circus – which has always been well documented and celebrated in Total Theatre Magazine. That progressed into physical theatre, and dance. In terms of other influences, the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) was very significant. I’d picked up a leaflet at the ICA, in which an enigmatic photograph caught my eye. I booked immediately for the workshop, and for the same company’s production, called Red Zone. The company was Derevo – their first time performing outside of Russia. The company had been founded the year before (1988) by performer/director Anton Adasinsky, in Leningrad, USSR. The workshop, led by Anton, got into the very cells of my being. The work was everything I wanted to be doing; highly physical, intense, instinctual – down to earth yet transcendental. Afterwards, I asked, via their manager, if I could go and visit/work/train with them. The reply was ‘Yes, this is possible’. Via an interpreter, I said to Anton, ‘I think I’m coming to Leningrad’, to which he nodded a curt ‘Da’. Somehow, via fax machines, a visa was acquired and in April 1990, I got myself to Leningrad and the Palace of Youth, where Derevo had their studio. Derevo – winners of numerous Total Theatre Awards – are very well represented in the archive. See, for example, David Richter’s review of Red Zone when it returned to London for LIMF 1998, in which he says: ‘This is a purely sensual experience. Derevo create a mood that is both personal and universal: presenting the human body, without judgement, in all its glory, baseness, beauty and ugliness. Each scene takes us to extremes with physical, technical, visual, and emotional perfection.’ Then there’s Toby Mitchell’s report on the Critical Practice discussion on the Role of the Director in Physical and Visual Performance (issue 13-1, spring 2001), which featured Anton alongside other luminaries such as Cal McCrystal and Flick Ferdinando; and going further back, an interview with Anton by Emi Slater, called ‘Seeing Red’ (Issue 10-1, spring 1998).

In 1992, influenced by Derevo, and with an interest in Butoh Dance, I created Raukus Mir, alongside Barnaby O’Rorke, which combined physical performance with intense imagery, costume and music. During a two-year period we made our work outdoors in parks and on the Brighton sea-shore, and indoors in cafes and galleries. We performed at the ICA in London, in Czechoslovakian walled gardens, at The Zap Club in Brighton, in Berlin art galleries, and in tents at Glastonbury Festival.

After Raukus Mir split, I went on to perform solo work in all sorts of non-theatre spaces and places, often working in the landscape: from village alleyways in the Czech Republic, to an abandoned brick factory in Szechuan Province, China; and from the streets of Seoul in South Korea, to a cupboard at the Dome in Brighton – not to mention in the middle of a pond in a local park!

So, by 2001, I was in full flight as a solo performance artist. When Dorothy Max Prior became editor of Total Theatre Magazine, she asked me to contribute. My very first Total Theatre Magazine article, ’Last Exit to Helsinki’ (Issue 13-2, summer 2001) was about my attendance at, and participation in, Exit, a Live Art Festival in Helsinki, Finland. This Helsinki invitation had followed on from having been seen at a Live Art Festival in Koln. That had followed from being seen at a Live Art festival in Berlin… and so it goes! In this article, I describe a performance by Chen Ji from Beijing, from The People’s Republic of China: ‘He sits on the ground wearing a black and gold Chinese jacket and surrounds himself with an arc of bright blue alarm clocks. He winds them all up so they are set about him ringing and ringing. Many people can’t bear it and leave. Then he invites those who like time to come and help him wind up the clocks. Many people join him. He then asks all people who do not like time to come and help him smash the clocks to pieces with sledgehammers – springs and glass fly everywhere…’

This meeting with Chen Jin leads to an invitation to perform in The People’s Republic of China at an extraordinary performance art festival in Sichuan Province, entitled Open Art Festival, alongside artists such as Zhu Yu – often termed the most controversial and criticised artist in China. Curated by Chen Jin with fellow performance artists Shu Yang and Zhu Ming, it turned out to be an illegal festival – and one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life, as documented in ‘From Pigs to Popscicles’ (Issue 18-1, spring 2006): ’We were literally artists on the run, keeping away from the police. Much of the work was political and challenging in the extreme.’ This in contrast to the rather tamer China Live, seen in the UK four years later: ‘Here at the V&A, where was the dirt under the fingernails? My experience in China had been harsh and sometimes disturbing, but I’m thankful that I had the chance to see and work with these artists in their home country, rather than seeing them presented in these sanitised conditions as exotic-but-tamed foreign specimens.’

Live Art and Butoh, with a focus on the body at the heart of art-making and performance, is at the root of my work. An interest in Butoh has been with me since I first saw Sankai Juku in the 1980s. I think I went along as I’d seen a poster where the performers, with white faces and shaved heads, looked akin to Lindsay Kemp. I continued to see Sankai Juku perform whenever the company were in the UK, reviewing Kagemi at Sadler’s Wells in 2003. In summer 2003, I wrote about the ‘Dancing on the Borderline’ festival, produced by Marie-Gabrielle Rotie for Butoh UK, in an article of the same name in issue 15-2. 

My own work is strongly linked to and influenced by Butoh – ‘a dance breathed out of darkness and born into the naked light’. I co-founded BUTOH Brighton with Carolina Diaz, Yael Karavan and Yumino Seki. I continue to explore the body in stillness, in relationship with the earth, with gravity and a desire to move. What’s the impetus? Where does the desire to move come from, and where does it take us, if anywhere at all. Do we need to move? What is it just to ‘be’? Where and what is the point or place of connection? What and where is desire, and where does this desire take us? This research helps us to understand our place in the world, and our connection to others.

Along with Butoh dance and Live Art, the late 1990s saw a new strand to my work – an involvement in Dance for Camera. I found this to be a way to create work that could take the viewer/audience out into the landscape, with the capacity to zoom in to detail, texture and minute movement. I was fortunate to receive the first South East Dance, Dance for the Camera commission. The following years, I went to Dance for the Camera festivals around the world, from New York to Sydney, to screen my work. My article ‘Moving Pictures’ (Issue 17-2, summer 2005) discusses the ‘ inter-relationship between live performance and film’ then goes on to talk about the state of the art for Dance for Camera work. The later ‘I Am a Camera’ (Issue 21-1, spring 2008) reports on the UK’s Dance for Camera festival and conference.   

I’ve been fortunate to receive artist’s residencies, such as the Creative Space residency at The Point in Eastleigh, where I created a special space within a former public library, which was about the essence of reading, and where it can transport us to. This was reflected on in a three-way Being There article (issue 20-2, summer 2008), a kind of alternative review, written by Dorothy Max Prior, Gregory Nash, and myself. Gregory said of the project: ‘The Reading Room brought Miriam ‘Mim’ King as a singular artist (performer, archivist, film-maker and purveyor of fine atmospheres) together with members of our community on a very particular journey; a project that used a piece of local history as a starting point for an event that signalled both an ending and a beginning…’ and Dorothy Max Prior says: ‘It’s a delicate piece that very ably draws together the elements of a lost institution, flagging up the strange mixture of liberation and repression that the typical local library once represented in public life.’

My very last article for Total Theatre Magazine in print was about my artist’s residency at The Point – ‘What’s the Point?’ (Issue 23-1, spring 2011) – which looks at The Point’s evolution as a Creation Centre, supporting a wide range of artists and practices. 

January this year (2019) saw my return to The Point, and I was pleased to see a book from my Reading Room residency still there, ten years later, displayed in its own showcase, permanently open on a page where one can read the bard’s immortal words: ‘All the world’s a stage’. I was there as an invited artist on Gravity and Levity’s Vertical Dance Forum. I had the opportunity to move in different ways – for example, through climbing harness and line – in order to work from a different axis of gravity through the body: to push away from walls; to rotate in mid air; to be suspended between ground and above, as if the very air had become water. A marvellous opportunity to experiment physically, to learn something new, and to further my Butoh practice! 

Also, rather wonderfully, I am now back working at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone, where my performance days began. I’m involved as a practitioner in their Theatre Maker project, which is a programme of classes, workshops, scratch nights, and showcases that support individuals and companies working on original theatre.

My career has been a pathway, a labyrinth – with surprising twists and turns, and some circles of return. At the centre is a desire for connection, and some kind of appreciation of being.