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Bodyspeak: A New Look at the Art of Movement - Part 3

Part 3: Teachers and Lessons

From Decroux, Avital acquired the grammar of movement. He learned to analyze minutely, the complex maneuvers of corporeal mime and then to reconstitute the analysis in movements of elegance and simplicity. Decroux's approach was scientific, detail-oriented, and supremely focused, emphasizing physical concreteness and precision of execution. He could be a severe taskmaster. Moments of humor were startling: "Samuel and Solomon," Decroux pronounced to Samuel and Moni in the midst of a session,"I see I have a prophet and a king in here."

Decroux the idealist transmitted his ideals to his students: "The mime actor must have the mind of a novelist, the body of an athlete, and an ideal in his heart."(8)

From Barrault, Avital learned the poetry of movement. Barrault was as expansive as Decroux was contained, his art as expressive as Decroux's was silent. Barrault regarded the body as the vehicle of poetry itself. Moving away from "pure mime," he endeavored to synthesize mime and text: speak like an actor, move like a mime, he said. From Barrault, Avital realized that the whole body must be the mouthpiece of expression.

Decroux the scientist, Barrault the poet. Together they had invented "subjective mime"- as distinguished from the "objective mime" of the nineteenth century.

Objective mime is primarily concerned with production of the familiar mime illusions - the invisible barrier, walking against the wind, creation of objects in space, etc. - by a system of parallels and counterweights. In the nineteenth century these illusions were enjoyed for their own sake, as an element of the spectacle of the theater. In the twentieth century, largely through the investigations of Decroux, objective mime became a means to explore the relationship between a human being and an external object or opposing force.(9)

Subjective mime, by contrast, was an exploration of interior states: feelings, attitudes of being. Barrault defined it as the "study of states of the soul translated into bodily expression. The metaphysical attitude of the man in space."(10) Decroux "often in his lessons spoke about how an actor carrying a heavy physical weight closely resembled one carrying a heavy metaphysical one."(11) In Avital's view, mime concretizes metaphysics. Where other arts may represent a concept or truth - the dancer dances it, the writer writes it, the painter paints it, the actor speaks it - the mime becomes it.

Drama had its origins in the sacred. Greek drama developed out of the sacred arts of pantomime. By miming the actions of the gods, it was believed they were invoked and propitiated. Movement itself was a sacred principle. Heraclitus held that all was movement, flow, and change. Aristotle termed the creative principle the "Prime Mover ." Movement - in its infinite varying - is the basis of every created thing. As the very essence of theater, mime, in the estimation of Decroux and Barrault, was the means of returning theater to that sacred source. "In the beginning was the word. BEFORE the word there was motion, vibration, movement, the source of all life," Avital affirmed.

Through his own synthesis of the work of his great teachers, Avital realized, importantly, that as significant as the study of mime was for those with theatrical aspirations, its methods should not be sequestered in the theatrical preserve. He composed a brief fable, "The Dancing Egg" to illustrate his point. Mime, the elegantly simple, perfectly contained, dancing egg is cracked open - taken beyond its confines - to restore the past and nurture the future. The time-honored theatrical metaphor, "all the world's a stage," would finally have to be embraced in its full implications: that art and life become one. We might then achieve the condition, as in some cultures, where there is no differentiation of the two. (12)

But part of the task of apprenticeship for anyone learning to master a skill is to apply the skill in its intended arena. For mime that arena has traditionally been the theater. Marcel Marceau, Avital's third great teacher, provided an example of applying the art to the practical realities of performance. With Decroux, performance had been out of the question: it was not allowed. Mime was reserved for the laboratory. Marceau, on the other hand, encouraged performance. "Try your wings, Samuel," he said.

Indirectly, however, Marceau's particular form of expression was to contribute to Avital's growing conviction that the techniques of mime could and should be applied beyond the theater. Like Chaplin's Tramp, Marceau's character, Bip, is an Everyman. Bip appears in every imaginable situation - Bip in the Metro, Bip the Host, Bip the Gendarme, Bip in Love, Bip Looks for a Job, Bip Commits Suicide - provoking, by turns, both pathos and mirth. Marceau's work illustrated that mime was capable of representing the gamut of human experience. So successful was his creation, though, that Marceau became its prisoner.(13) Audiences were not receptive to Marceau outside of the character of Bip or even out of white face. Here was surely a warning of the creative hazards of theatrical performance.

As audience expectation rigidified, mime itself was to become, to a certain extent, the prisoner of Marceau's success. The silent, white-faced performance became synonymous with mime. Many who wanted to emulate Marceau's success, but who had neither his talent nor skill, donned white face and began to invade the personal space of any hapless passerby. But as Decroux, Barrault, Marceau, Avital, and also LeCoq (another renowned innovator) have demonstrated, mime is an art of great subtlety and complexity. It is not even, necessarily, a silent art. Pantomime is the term reserved for silent mime. Mime, on the other hand, may or may not be silent. It may use text or music. Silence, when it is incorporated, is like other gestures - a tool of expression.

But in the early 1960's, Marceau was just beginning to ride the crest of his fame, and through his efforts mime was gaining wider and wider recognition. Much can be learned in an encounter with an audience, and with the growing and receptive audience for mime, Avital embarked on the journeyman phase of his apprenticeship. He began to tour with Maximilien Decroux, Etienne Decroux's son, and then with his own solo show. In the meantime, Moni had left to New York. Samuel joined him there in 1964, to perform in the Pantomime Theater of New York, which Moni had founded, and in off-Broadway theaters. He also taught in New York schools.

In America, Avital felt many sensations experienced by other immigrants arriving from Europe: a mixture of terror and exhilaration. America was as vast and open as Europe was tight and restricted. In America, sans frontières, Avital felt he could breathe and expand.

After a few years of touring North and South America, Avital was appointed artist-in-residence at Southern Methodist University. In 1971 he was invited to perform in Denver, Colorado, and decided to take a side trip to the nearby university town of Boulder. Impressed by the physical beauty of the place and by the receptivity of the people he met, Avital agreed to perform in Boulder. The day after the sold-out performance, more than 200 people showed up for Avital's first workshop. He was urged to stay and within the year had founded his own school, Le Centre du Silence. The Boulder Mime Theater was formed a year later and toured locally and nationally for nine years. In 1975, Avital established The International Summer Mime Workspace, an annual event that attracts students world-wide.

Continue to Part 4: The Workshop Laboratory

"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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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.