On Wednesday this week I went to the launch of the London International Mime Festival. I was reviewing the later (and darker) of the two shows by Compagnie Non Nova that kicked off the famous festival. The festival itself was set up in 1977, and is the longest running event of its kind worldwide. Phia Ménard’s Compagnie Non Nova first appeared in the festival in 1996 – 18 years ago.
I turned up at about 6.30, got my ticket and, as it often is with these events, stood looking like a lemon for about half an hour. I didn’t know anyone. I recognised one or two faces, but didn’t manage to catch and hold their attention long enough to engage in conversation or self-introduction.
Joseph Seelig – the one founding member of the festival still involved – made a speech, thanking us all for being there, thanking those involved and inviting us to eat the chocolate fountain (a staple, I am told, of Mime London’s launch evenings every year).
Towards the end of the speech, I spotted a face I hadn’t seen in a long while – a favourite lecturer at university who taught me in second and third year, Dick McCaw. We had a brief chat and exchanged cards (he handed me a red enjoy-a-free-pizza card from Pizza Express), promised to get in touch and said goodbye. Two seconds later he returned, asked if I was alone (yes) and grabbed my hand, eager to introduce me to someone. We made our way across the room and were sidetracked when Dick spotted an old friend – Bill McAlister, who was Director of the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts in London) 1977-1990 – who he introduced me to as his great student. Next we spoke to Donald Hutera – Dance critic for the Times, who I’d met in December and had asked to read my last review – and a (rather merry) friend of Dick’s, Annabel. I later also spoke to Theatre Producer, Louise Chantal and continued a long conversation with Donald and Bill after Dick had left (he would see it tomorrow, before chairing the post-show discussion). Donald urged me to try the chocolate fountain – it’s really a staple of these launch events and not to be missed.
It was soon time to take our seats. I began watching the piece with a preconception taken from photographs I had seen of the first piece (shown at 5pm), of plastic-bag people floating through the space, of gentle playfulness. I knew that this piece would be different – darker – because I had read as much. But I wasn’t prepared for what I saw.
Vortex was gritty and visceral, a journey of discovery fuelled by self-destructive curiosity. It was hard to take in and almost unbearable at times. In the final moments, after the lights had faded, you could have cut the tension with a knife. There was a long, very dark pause before the lights came up. Still wide-eyed with her self-discoveries, soloist Phia Ménard stood and bowed in what seemed slow-motion after the frantic energy previously displayed. Nobody clapped. She left the stage. Only when she returned to the space, blanket-clad and somewhat more human-looking for it, did applause erupt and not stop. Astounded though they were, the audience was clearly utterly impressed by Vortex.
Though I made notes throughout the piece, it took a long while for me to formulate my thoughts and to express how I felt about the piece. I would normally attempt to write a review the same night with the aim of publishing it the next day at work. But this one needed more time to stew around my brain. Perhaps the stewing time made for a better read in the end. Either way, here it is:
The London International Mime Festival opened on Wednesday night with two pieces by Compagnie Non Nova at the Platform Theatre, Central Saint Martins. A veteran attendee of Mime London, Phia Ménard presented both works, in which invisible forces take the lead and shape our perception of identity. The second piece, Vortex, is comical, arresting and visceral in just the right measures for it to be a truly memorable production. Although not beautiful, Vortex is an astounding visual piece that plumbs the depths of identity, leaving surface beauty far behind.
Click the link in the title to see my review in full on Bachtrack.com where you can also read a review of Cie Non Nova’s gentler piece, L’Apres-Midi D’Un Foehn, also known as the plastic-bag ballet.
Today is your last chance to see these two wonderful pieces!