Thursday, Jun 13th 2024

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Moving Body and Mind: A New Look at Mime

by Jane Evenson

It's been some years since white-faced mimes have disappeared from the sidewalks and malls of America. Such is our propensity for turning subtle art forms into fads. But mime has never really been far from the scene. Its classic techniques have been adapted by performance artists, new vaudevillians, "movement theater" virtuosos, and the theatrical wizards of the spectacular "Le Cirque du Soleil." Marcel Marceau, in his 70's, still plays to sold-out houses and has shown the ropes - invisible ones - to Regis and Kathie Lee.

The writer has discovered that Samuel Avital - mime, movement trainer and founder of Le Centre du Silence in Boulder, Colorado - practices a remarkable form of mime.

"Man is the greatest mimic of all animals," said Aristotle, "and it is by mimicry that he acquires his earliest knowledge." In other words, we learn by miming. At some point, though, we lose touch with this tool of spontaneous learning, perhaps when we are taught the lesson of "Simon Says": you can only mimic Simon when he gives you permission, and if you succumb to spontaneity, you're out of the game. By these and other not-so-subtle methods, we're taught to curtail spontaneous expression.

Samuel Avital, mime artist and movement trainer, uses the tool of mime to revive spontaneity and awaken an elemental creative capacity. The effect can be stunning. One of his students, storyteller Dot Ormes, gives her impression: "Working with Samuel is somewhat like being the over-curious sorcerer's apprentice. Enticed by the deceptive simplicity of the work, I dive in and suddenly find myself drowning in a flood, with brooms marching endlessly back and forth carrying even more buckets of water to douse me. In the nick of time, the flood subsides. The Mimagician returns, grabs me by a soggy collar and we turn back to page one in the Book of Silence. . . .There is no superficiality here. To slide easily on the surface of mime-form would be a betrayal of this art."

BodySpeak™ - the method Avital has developed out of his experience as performer and trainer - takes a new look at mime. In its precise analysis of physical movement it might be described as bodywork. In its creative expressions it can look like dance. In its slow-motional meditative aspect it resembles Tai Chi. It incorporates elements of physical discipline and at the same time develops an extraordinary capacity for mental focus.

BodySpeak™ is a method - subtle yet direct - of activating creativity by activating movement. Many of its specific techniques derive from mime, but in a new realization. It is an art form and more. "Mime is not the destination," Avital advises. "It's the launching platform."

Imagination becomes an animating principle: not just a manipulation of mental objects in a mental landscape, but a physical embodiment of the image or concept. The distance between thought and action is compressed in both time and space. Through a subtle dialogue of action and response, a skill is developed that might be termed "deep orientation." Psychic space and physical space merge and one learns to navigate the mental/physical terrain.

Avital's unique realizations grew out of the ground-breaking tradition of his great teachers, the twentieth century French mime masters: Decroux, Barrault, and Marceau. Avital's "Journey from Thought to Action" is an eye-opening weekend event. . . .

We introduce ourselves first, with words, then, without. Group commentary follows, with each participant relating the dominant effect of each silent presentation: "The One Who Was Shy," "The One Who Walked in Circles," "The One Who Blew Kisses," and so on. The comments are brief and impressionistic. We take in information and give it back in a new form.

Another exercise, "Act and React," illustrates this principle in a most startling way. We begin by walking around the room in a group. There are twelve of us, a comfortable size. On Avital's cue (the staccato note of percussion sticks) we freeze in place and carry out an instruction: represent an emotion or utter our exact thought at the moment the sticks are struck. The purpose: lubricate our wheels and get us to manifest our thoughts freshly, spontaneously. Avital selects a few of us to hold our poses. The rest of us move around this living statuary, offering our own insights or marveling when someone has achieved the very essence of immobility.

Then comes the magical moment. We walk the room once again randomly and then, the instant the sticks are struck, take a pose in response to whatever has occurred in our vicinity. No other instructions are given - just act and react to each other instantaneously. We are startled to discover a coalescence: our groupings have meaning as if a sculptor or director had premeditated the tableaux. The effect is as stunning as if a chemical compound had suddenly precipitated out of a solution.

The lawyer who spent her professional life "wading hip-deep in language"; the physicist, the doctor, and the engineer on their spatial odyssey; the 75-year-old ski-bum trying something new; the shy woman who thought she could not feel safe in a "theatrical" environment; the artist, the writer, the antique timepiece restorer, the professional storyteller, and the scholar - each followed a golden thread. There was something here for everyone.

"Every artistic genius is a specialized type of mime," M. J. d'Udine observed after studying with Dalcroze, an innovator in the arts of movement who influenced Decroux and many others. In my weekend tour of Avital's atelier I realize the full truth of this insight.

One of the classic illusions of mime, the creation of a box in space, becomes "A Moving-Box Encounter." First, we form the box by parallel movements of our hands. We enlarge it or contract it so it becomes big enough to lean against or small enough to pop in our mouths. We move around the room silently carrying our cube of space, then transfer boxes back and forth to one another: this moving meditation had become a careful and tender, silent, dialogue.

The physicist came because he was curious about mime. "There had to be something behind objects that lay deeply hidden," said Einstein in reflecting on his childhood initiation into the mysteries of the compass. This is a territory explored by mime that would interest a physicist: MimeWorld where the MimeMagician plays with the laws of motion and sometimes upends them, defying gravity and creating objects in thin air; where eye-knots are tied in superstrings; where MimeTime is an arrow that bends back on itself; and MimeSpace, the moving box, is the original hypercube. Parallels, counterweights, "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction" - physicists, engineers, and mimes are well-equipped to understand such things. And the mime embodies the knowledge.

"Apart from the five senses," Decroux wrote, "there is nevertheless one that serves the mime." He couldn't put a name to this sense and, until quite recently, "kinesthesia" had not been given the status of being considered a "sense." It is this faculty that is activated and heightened through the explorations of mime, and that makes mime a true physics of the body, as well as an art.

By means of kinesthesia, the "common sense," the senses work in conjunction. Sight and hearing reciprocate to help us judge distance and relationships between objects. Sight and touch also work together. We could not walk a straight line toward a destination if they didn't.

Avital's "Eye-Knot" exercise dramatically illustrates the intertwining of sight and touch in kinesthetic space. Two people stand facing each other. They make eye contact and visualize a cord connecting their eyes. The goal is to move in such a way as to "tie" a knot in this cord without "breaking" it. Participants typically become so absorbed that when Avital comes stealthily with his imaginary scissors and "cuts" the cord, they are startled and fall to the ground!

In its fullest sense, kinesthesia expands imagination. With "image" at its root, imagination centers on the visual sense. Yet when we fully "imagine" something, we have a complete sensory experience and feel kinesthetically present - as in Avital's mask session.

In "Facing the Mask" participants do not sit or lie passively with eyes closed while the narrator takes them on a meditative journey. They are active: looking at the mask, putting it on, moving around the room, then slowly and deliberately taking on various postures and attitudes as prompted by the teacher, and finally, removing the mask to ponder it once more. The experience has the aesthetic elegance and meditative feel of Japanese Noh. Mark Olsen, another of Avital's students, describes the session as "a slow, gentle handshake with the lion inside."

In Avital's world, mime is not a spectator sport. A long-distance runner who studied with Avital speaks about the effect of the training. Each physical improvement is accompanied by another, subtler change. Her motion "is more directed and organized." She runs "with less effort." She is also "beginning to feel or sense a very subtle internal circular movement of energy - an ebbing and flowing, a rising and falling." At the same time she is more able to feel her own source of power and motion. She calls the experience a feeling of "deeper will." "Best of all," she says, "I make the decision to be running this way now. Before I would have this experience randomly or accidentally."

By practicing Avital's perceptual exercises she experiences increased perceptual dimension, as if she is fully embracing, with all her senses simultaneously, the terrain through which she runs. She feels she no longer just runs past scenery: "I am now able to draw on the power of things I am running by." She is careful to explain that her experience of this is something much more focused and intelligible than "runner's high."

Morris Berman, in Coming to Our Senses, speaks of "something obvious" that "keeps eluding our civilization, something that involves a reciprocal relationship between nature and psyche, and that we are going to have to grasp if we are to survive as a species." He says this relationship "hasn't come together yet."

There is a way it can: a method that is a physics of the body as well as an art form, that unites aesthetic cultivation and physical discipline, that integrates body and mind in service of imagination and creativity, that activates deep sensibility and a deeper will and permits nature and psyche to link up on a morning run - a bodymind compass known as BodySpeak™. . . and an altogether new look at mime.


Jane Evenson is a business consultant and writer who has developed an active interest in the movement theatre arts.

"Samuel brings awareness to the soul of people and gives the artists who work under his direction the need, dedication, and love for the world of silence and the beautiful art of movement."


- Marcel Marceau, BIP 1961

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P.O. Box 745
Lafayette, CO 80026

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About LCDS

LCDS is an independent school for self-discovery through the human Arts.  The school offers seminars and workshops teaching the concepts of Theater, Mime, and Movement.