Whispers is one of those Mime Festival shows that doesn’t quite fit into any category, at once both dance and object animation, it is also neither of these. And, although there is only one performer visible on stage throughout (Nicole Mossoux) she almost certainly isn’t alone. Moreover, though the work originated out of an interest in finding ways for a performer to make their own soundtrack to accompany their movement, it is Colette Huchard’s costumes that appear as chief amongst the expressive tools at Mossoux’s disposal.
Using Huchard’s designs, Mossoux is able to conjure an array of characters, human and non-human alike. Skirts shrink, different jackets morph into strange creatures, whilst headdresses seem to come alive of their own accord. Central to the life of these ‘costumes’ is their materiality: the velvet sheen of Mossoux’s ‘base’ dress, which seems to make her body outline disappear into the blackness of the stage as if in a haze; the pale-pink ruffles of a what looks to be a baby’s jacket but here serves, as first, an elaborate wig before transforming into a curious headless puppet; and a striking red glove, the beak of one-legged ‘goose’ before Mossoux tears it from her hand and discards it into the darkness that surrounds her.
This darkness is key; Mossoux Bonté’ (Nicole Mossoux and her collaborator of 30 years, director/scenographer Patrick Bonté) conjuring the sense of a rich dreamworld surrounded by a bleak and hungry void. The lit areas are constructed in such a way that, as in mask performance, Mossoux only needs to make a small shift in her position to radically change the character she is channeling. It is also clear to see, by in the way in which Mossoux and her animations are made to standout from, or disappear into, the shadows, the company’s starting point of the paintings of Johannes Vermeer. In a way Bonté uses light to achieve a sense of bas-relief, and, more astonishingly, a sense of ‘folds’ of light; folds that seem to release Mossoux from their clutches only to grab her again, pulling her back into the dark.
Mossoux manipulates the folds of her body as expertly as she does the folds of the costumes. Her movement, particularly her evocative facial expression, has at times some of the qualities of Butoh: the disarticulation of a limb, or a rapid trembling followed by stoney stillness. This makes her as mercurial as the costumes, such that the combined effect of costume, light and body is such that Whispers seems to hover in a strange unfixed territory, moving without a singular direction but nonetheless covering a great deal of ground.
But of course, the title Whispers implies that this is a piece about sounds. The soundtrack is produced by a combination of Mossoux’s actions (a scratch here, a tap of the feet there) amplified and engineered by Thomas Turine, and the foley sounds of Mikha Wajnrych (hidden out of sight in the dark void. Whispers then is performed by a trio (Mossoux and her two musician/technician partners), and it is the work of this trio that craft the thread of the work, creating a rhythmic and sonic score that the visual world appears to surf on top of.
Whispers is by turns beautiful and confusing. No single stage image or character remains for long, with a succession of shifting and changing figures created and discarded – there is no character or even motif development here – and as Mossoux arrives in her final position, on the edge of the stage facing out into the auditorium, it feels as if you too are emerging from some strange fantasy.