The London International Mime Festival takes place next month across the capital and, in its 38th year, it promises to be more striking than ever. Forget Marcel Marceau being trapped in a box: since it started in 1977, this festival has consistently pushed the definition of mime to snapping point.
Across this year’s four-week programme one can find juggling, clowning, physical theatre, circus, puppetry, acrobatics, dance and magic. And if evidence were needed of the festival’s continued dynamism, it will be provided by two unforgettable shows kicking off proceedings: L’Après-Midi d’un Foehn and Vortex, both the work of the French performance artist Phia Ménard and her pioneering company Compagnie Non Nova.
The first, L’Après-Midi d’un Foehn, was a major critical and audience hit at last summer’s Edinburgh Festival, winning a Total Theatre Award, and it will appeal to both small children and adults. Supermarkets might want to kill off plastic bags, but this show brings them alive, making them morph into beautiful, haunting art. It starts with a silent performer on stage delicately cutting up coloured carriers and then sticking the pieces back together with tape to create human-like figures. Rising into the air, they miraculously start to dance to the music of Debussy, pirouetting, leaping and even holding “hands”.
The second show, Vortex, is a more violent, confrontational, distinctly adult counterpoint to L’Après-Midi … Ménard appears herself this time as “the alien”, dressed in an oversized black suit and bandages like an obese Invisible Man. Costumes are then dramatically peeled away, abandoned layers rising up and blowing around to create more dancing creatures. The result is a breakthtakingly primal depiction of rebirth.
Ménard formed Compagnie Non Nova (motto: “not new, but in a new way”) in 1998, at first to develop her ideas around juggling and add extra risk to the art. In the show PPP, for instance, Ménard juggled balls of ice that were so cold they could cause burns if held for too long but would shatter if dropped. Ménard smiles as she describes her philosophy of pushing the bounds of “injonglabilitié” – “unjugglability”. She also juggled with cacti, pushing herself to the limit and putting herself in constant danger of injury.
Compared to this, and to the dramatic unfurling of Vortex, the dancing bags of L’Après-Midi … are more benign. The initial germ of an idea for the show came from an experience she had while working on a project about movement in the Natural History Museum in Nantes. Walking around the museum in the middle of the night, she was acutely aware of the stillness, and brought in some fans so she could make the fur on the stuffed animals rustle. “The museum suddenly became a graveyard into which I decided to reintroduce life,” she says. Then, on another occasion, the sight of a pink plastic bag floating through the air “like an unexpected visitor” gave her the idea of making bags into balletic creatures.
The next project Ménard has in mind is “something to do with sweat”. When she was growing up, there was a distillery nearby and Ménard was fascinated with the way that drops of alcohol were slowly extracted. Thinking back to it, it reminded her of the way we sweat. “I wonder if our sweat is the best of us, because as a liquid it ties us to nature,” she says. But though, in the future, she might be exploring what comes out of the skin, Ménard has already set the benchmark very high with two shows that truly get underneath it.