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London Mime Festival at the Barbican

Posted on March 1, 2022

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Pictured: Shantala Shivalingappa in asH, a piece by Aurélien Bory. Part of the London Mime Festival. Photograph by Aglae Bory.

Over the years, London’s annual Mime Festival has developed into a grab bag of theatrical activity meshing movement, music and speech. Its international array of artists attracts viewers of all ages, who are possibly the boldest adventurers around because they never know what to expect.

In the Pit at the Barbican Centre, Thick & Tight produced a clutch of short pieces, Short & Sweet, that ranged from nonsensical portraits of Rasputin and Edith Sitwell – do you know who they are? – to a pretentious take on Noh theatre, an example of contemporary choreography that gives it a bad name.

For four minutes, Harry Alexander impersonated Twiggy at her go-go-dancing coolest, wearing a yellow minidress and vinyl boots and lip-syncing her wispy voice. For ten minutes, a small muscular woman, Azara Meghie, projected Grace Jones’ edgy aggressive manner and throaty singing. For another four minutes, Tim Spooner and Daniel Hay-Gordon, one of the company’s founders, mimicked a chattering housewife raving about some net curtains. I later learned that “Curtain Lady,” on which they based their routine, is a YouTube sensation, but I couldn’t make head or tail of it on stage.

Connor Scott’s eight minutes as Sid Vicious involved an air guitar, more lip syncing, and wildly thrashing limbs and jumps that transformed a lack of inhibition into a dangerous tool of self-harm. Distinctively, Scott’s crazed performance drew an electrifying portrait out of a physical scribble. Most of the other selections, intended to “celebrate and showcase people in all their differences,” looked to me like old-fashioned parody, or karaoke with imitative gestures, wrapped in the post-modern reliance on references for content.

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Publicity image for Thick & Tight’s Short & Sweet. Part of the London Mime Festival. Image by Darren Evans.

The following night, in the Barbican Theatre, the French designer/scenographer/director Aurélien Bory led the Indian kuchipudi dancer Shantala Shivlingappa and the percussionist Loïc Schild into an hour-long duet, aSH, designed expressly for their remarkable talents but dominated by Bory’s scenic effects.

Behind the solo Shivlingappa choreographed for herself hung a gigantic role of metallic paper with a presence as commanding as hers. While she explored the many faces of Shiva, the Hindu god of dance, creation and destruction, the paper rattled, billowed, threatened to swallow her, and inadvertently stole her delicate sinuous thunder.

Pulled downward, the silvery backdrop became a floorcloth on which Shivlingappa painted a spiral of liquid before sifting ashes over it. At the heart of her dance, her feet traced patterns of interlocking curves in the ash, recalling the Indian kolam, a flour drawing created on the ground in the morning, then erased by the wind and redrawn the next day. Only those hypnotic moments let us absorb Schild’s fascinating rhythms and Shivalingappa’s elegant lyricism and taut focus without distractions. 

As it was hauled up to hang vertical again, the foil shed its ritualistic images and offered its remaining dust to the dancer, who pressed her body against it in a broken frieze of angular poses.

Longing to see more of her and less of the director, I found the décor intrusive rather than inspiring. Though I understand it was meant to partner the performers, its malleable shining surface and amplified sounds nagged constantly for my attention.

The London Mime Festival has apparently evolved into the new Dance Umbrella, that is, the occasion for discovering unclassifiable artistry we might never have found any other way. Though I’m all for experiments bearing any labels they choose, I hope that Shivalingappa will return to London in a season with a different title. Perhaps then her splendid dancing could have the stage to itself.

 

Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at http://barbaranewmandance.net

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