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Alexandra

Mimes and Miming

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I was watching a video of Nureyev the other day and, despite how much he said he hated mime when a young dancer, by the time I saw him, he had come to terms with it. I thought he mimed beautifully -- clearly, and the hands themselves were beautiful. I "learned" the basic mime gestures from him. He could put the intent into the gestures, and I always knew what he meant.

Who are the great mimes you have seen? Whether in strict character roles (Coppelius) or, as I'm remembering Nureyev, in the classics?

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I thought Carla Fracci's mime in Giselle

was exquisite. She was so poetic.

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Freddie Franklin was wonderful. Whether as a prince or a wisened old character, his ability to convey words through gestures taught me tremendously.

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What are the characteristics of "good" mime versus "bad" mime? I haven't really seen very much mime- being in a Balanchine based company, and I have only performed small amounts of mime in the Nutcracker ( a traditional version during a guesting)- so I have a sense that it needs to be believable, as well as pretty- but I know there is more to it than that. Are there any examples of "bad" mime- (sorry to ask for that) and why?

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To me, good miming is clear and simple and (this is the Bournonville tradition) comes from within. Bournonville mime is more conversational; he believed it was dancing -- "pantomime is the dance of the turned-in feet" -- and when it's staged and danced properly, the mime looks like dancing.

To me, "bad" miming is when it's just the gestures without the feeling, when it isn't clear, when the dancer overacts and becomes cartoonlike, when you know the character has been put on like a suit.

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I love all mime, and any I see nowadays is wonderful! But among the pieces I really loved was Fredbjorn Bjornsson (Royal Danish Ballet) as the nice troll Viderik in A Folk Tale. His agony at hearing the bells from the church and his pain when Hilda insisted on giving the gold away was so perfect. I feel so privileged to have seen such a great artist. Recently, I was impressed by Guillaume Graffin's Radjah (ABT spelling!) in La Bayadere. He made such simple gestures as getting up and walking so powerful and threatening.

As for the question, what is bad mime, I think a good example is ABT's Carabosse, who camps it up no end, almost winking at the audience, making a broad joke of being Bette Davis playing Queen Elizabeth I. It absolutely destroys the power and dignity of the part. ABT's Madge, too, can sometimes be very jokey.

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The problem is that there is not much chance to see any mime, much less really good mime, in the repertory presented in recent years in NY or, I suspect, elsewhere.

At City Ballet, Alexander Ritter has impressed me with how he handles the mime in the role of Drosselmeyer in the Nutcracker. In watching him I discovered that there is some really nice mime in that role.

In that role Ritter is, to begin with, very elegant in his carriage and posture from the feet right up through his body, so that his entire figure, and not just his arms and hands, take part in the mime.

His gestures and hand and arm phrasing are then very clear, so that the grasp of the meaning is instantaneous for the viewer, and I think that that is so important, because the beauty of mime is, really, the instant moment that you visually understand the phrase. On top of this, Alex Ritter also uses his face and his eyes very nicely in those passages, so that you see him make eye contact with the person he's miming to and see his face take part and convey what he's conveying. I'm thinking in particular of the passage where he greets Marie, touches his head between his eyes, and gestures with respect to her size, as if to say "I see that you have grown." Or also the passage where he sets the Nutcracker Doll down after fixing it, while Marie sleeps, and while predicting the rest of the action in Act I, through sympathetic magic makes the doll grow.

Come to think of it, his nephew (the little prince) also has a nice mime passage at the beginning of the Land of the Sweets, where he recounts his own heroics in the battle against the mice or rats. Zachary Yermolenko (baby Baryshnikov)has been rather good at that for several years now.

Is there a dictionary of mime phrases?

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I can't think of a dictionary of mime phrases, although I've read articles about different gestures over the years. I think that Joan Lawson has written about them in some of her books about ballet history. Some are difficult to decode -- I think the sign for "beauty" is not intuitive (encircle the face with the hand), but when Makarova crossed her arms, threw her head back, and dove off the rock, I think it would be hard not to realize that she's saying "I die!!!" And Giselle's Mother's mime scene is clear, at least in its general outlines.

During the high tide of Petipa in Russia, I've read that the balletomanes took classes in mime, and also that Petipa tried to make up mime gestures to express some complicated concepts. (Fokine thought this was silly, and tried to eliminate mime, making dancing itself expressive.)

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