Classic pantomime and visual theater
Some of you might have missed it, but Marcel Marceau died last year at the age of 85. His name of course is synonymous with pantomime, and when my friend Wolfram von Bodecker told me of his passing, I said to him that all of Marceau’s pupils should gather together for a wake and, dress up as the master, and comically mime an orchestra playing the funeral march in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. ‘Sort of like a mime version of Being John Malkovich,’ I commented. To be honest I don’t know if Wolfram, himself a damn good pantomime and one Marceau’s last pupils, really liked the idea, but he reported later the gathering was rather quiet.
Still, a legend has passed away, but before you think that the world of classic pantomime has disappeared, think again, because Wolfram’s productions together with his partner Alexander Neander have shown me that quite the opposite is true. Not only have the two been able to carry Marceau’s torch forward in their own Compagnie Neander & Bodecker, they have also been able to transform the art of pantomime into a world of modern ‘visual concert’ which in itself is drama at its best.
For me as a viewer it’s as if Marceau’s legendary ‘Bip’ has grown up on a grand scale. The two have their sketches of course; I was yesterday at an incredibly funny performance of ‘Silence!’, in which Wolfram and Alexander showcase their own work One of my favorites is their ‘French café’ scene where the two depict an altercation between a waiter and a diner over a overcooked piece of steak. The argument breaks out into a fight which then develops into a ‘Mission Impossible’ like chase scene. Masters of their art, Wolfram and Alexander run through, kick down, and block imaginary doors, jump down elevator shafts and smoothly return up on imaginary escalators, drive race cars and chase each other on wild horses. The audience went wild with laughter, and although I have seen the sketch many times before on video, seeing it performed here just underlined yet again how exciting, entertaining, and yes- although I hate this word- how interactive a live performance can be.
For an encore, the two did their parody of Bobby McFerrin and Yo Yo Ma’s Musette, which can be seen on You Tube unten.
(or, if you can’t access it there, search under ‘A Concert in Pantomime’.) It is a hilarious introduction to their world.
But for all of the silliness aside, Wolfram and Alexander have a serious face as well. Just take a look at ‘Our Earth’, you’ll see a simple and yet frightening statement about the destruction of our planet. The message here is hammered in all the more through the music of Philipp Glass, with whom the two have also worked together personally for a different visual performance of Glass’ symphony ‘In the Upper Room’. Performed in 2003 at the New York Metropoliatn Museum of Art together with the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester under the direction of Dennis Russell Davies, ‘In the upper Room’ is almost Shakespearean in its drama. It conveys the tale of a writer who gets so caught up in his own writing that he gets caught in a rivalry with his own main characater, and despite his attempts to rewrite the story again and again, he ultimately gets slain by his creation. It’s a classic Romeo vs. Romeo drama.
And it is with this element of drama that the two are looking forward into the future. Their performances range from the wildly abstract ‘L’Etoile filante’ (‘Shooting Star’) first performed at the ECLAT 2000 Neue Muisk Festival in Stuttgart together with the Arditti Quartett London and the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, to the hugely popular children’s program ‘Bonjour, Monsieur Satie’, based on the life and music of Erik Satie and performed regularly at the Konzerthaus Berlin. ‘One of the best productions of the year’ was the praise given to them by the Berliner Morgenpost in 2005 for their production of ‘Out of the Blue’, and already when they began as a mime duo back in 1996 they were awarded the Berlin Publikums Prize for their work. Since then they have gone on to tour Europe, the United States, South America, as well as Taiwan, China, and Japan- quite high achievements for the two.
With all of this, I’m just amazed by the strength and beauty of their visual storytelling. Out of thin air Wolfram and Alexander are able to create images of rain, long armed thieves stealing jewels, giants fighting dwarves, furious musicians, martians from outer space, and children playing with giant soap bubbles, you name it- I think they can do it. Its amazing to watch, and in the end it all boils down to this for me : the ability of taking us in the moment out of our sometimes monochromatic, barely three dimensional world and putting us into a space where the fantastic world we had as children is acted out before our eyes. And for me this reawakening is a direct, head on confrontation to the adult world we live in, and simply put, although it’s quite demanding, it is extremely refreshing and rewarding to watch.