New York

Mabou Mines

The Performing Garage

The Mabou Mines is a performance group intensely preoccupied with the metaphoric possibilities of gesture and movement. They specialize in a variety of mime reminiscent of someone like Charlie Chaplin. For Chaplin, a key technique was the switch image: in The Pawnshop, Chaplin opens a broken alarm clock with a can opener, then sniffs the contents to find out what is wrong. The image of the clock is no longer merely denotative, for through these two simple gestures, the audience recognizes a second object in the clock—a sardine can. The kind of shift of attention involved in Chaplin’s switch image provides the basic esthetic motive behind Mabou Mines. A spherical lamp in a pail becomes an eyeball in the context of the dialogue. The lamp falls out of the pail, momentarily transformed into the image of a tear. Props and gestures function metaphorically for Mabou Mines, involving the audience in a constant play between sensations and imagination.

Mabou Mines’ Animations contains two parts: Red Horse, 1972, and B-Beaver, 1974. As the titles suggest, it is the “animal” in “animation” that the troupe focuses on, defining the process of animation as the evocation of theriomorphic imagery through gesture.

In Red Horse, Joann Aklaitis, Ruth Maleczech, and David Warrilow rehearse a series of variations on a theme of horse and rider while lying on the floor, a low platform of 20 square panels of polished wood. Behind it is a rough wooden fence, about nine feet high, that looks like a fragment of rodeo corral. Parts of Red Horse are played standing, but the most striking images are played flat against the floor. The optimum view is from above the performance area.

Two performers supply the four legs of the horse; the third is the rider. Freedom from gravity and the problems that balance usually presents to this kind of illusion allows a high degree of mimetic precision especially in terms of striking “horselike” cadences of movement. Since the floor is wired for sound, the actors can tap out an aural cadence to accentuate the illusion of a horse in motion. This image recurs throughout Red Horse; the horse trots, gallops, and canters. The rider also changes. From a rhythmic post in one instance, the rider will shift to a jockey’s high post in the next. From an image of Genghis Khan charging across Asia, the mime may change to an image of Pegasus and Bellerophon.

The bareness of the playing space accounts for the effectiveness of the groups’ switch images. The images played against the floor transform one’s perceptual framework not only in regard to performances, but also in regard to the space. At one point, the horse image fragments; the performers counterfeit somersaults against the floor and reassemble into a horse again, but with a different rider and a different spatial orientation. This process triggers memories of animated films, such as Harry Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magic. In Red Horse, the “animation” process refers. directly to its popular meaning insofar as, playing against the floor evokes both the shallow space and gravitational freedom of certain types of animated films. Transforming the literal floor into a horizon or backdrop is physically liberating, momentarily destroying one’s sense of weight.

In counterpoint to this spatial revaluation of the floor, the performers drape themselves on the fence during a blackout. The lights flash; the actors’ postures suggest lying rather than hanging, an illusion that makes the wall into “the floor,” and asserts the converse of the major illusion of the piece that makes the floor into “the wall.”

The text of Animations, by director Lee Breuer, gives language a central role. Speech, both spoken and taped, functions as commentary and dialogue, but never as narration. Language here is highly eroticized. Phrases are composed according to Klang associations. The language of both parts of Animations is a word salad seasoned with equivocations, puns, and homonyms. Everyday metaphors lose their descriptive, referential properties and become literal. Logical and narrative speech progressions are consistently derailed and displaced by concrete associative patterns like those found in the language of psychotics.

Language here does not narrate, but it still functions as a ground for action. The associative disposition that governs the relation of word to word also governs the relation of word to action. For example, the text of B-Beaver suggests that the beaver is undergoing a mental breakdown. The metaphor built into the concept of “breakdown” is dramatized through the breakdown of the set—it is literally torn apart.

The dramatizing structure in which gesture is mediated through language provides a rich source for switch imagery. In Red Horse, a reference to “the crack” (meaning “crack of dawn”) is matched by an actress snapping a towel like “cracking” a whip. Esthetically, the situation is based in the recognition of a concept or a word through gesture. The very distinctive relation between language and gesture that dramatization purports situates the switch imagery on an ontological terrain somewhere between dream imagery and the symptoms of conversion hysteria.

The relation of performance techniques in Animations to the primary processes of the unconscious is made quite explicit in B-Beaver. In the set for this animation, an eight-foot sectioned ramp slopes from the top of a platform raised about four feet. Hanging above the platform are four long, dirty, floral patterned curtains. The significations of the set are highly labile—it can serve as a beaver dam or a boat; it can become a body with the curtains manipulated like arms, or it can represent a mind in a severe state of dissolution.

B-Beaver begins with a monologue by Fred Neuman. As the title suggests, he has a stutter rife with parapraxes. His cheeks and brow are rigidly tensed. He moves his leg in a way that suggests a powerful effort against an invisible constriction. He is an emblem of anxiety that the word salad seems to identify in an elliptical manner as an eager beaver, a rodent in a rat race, designing dams unto damnation.

Other performers pretty much function as radiations of the Neuman/beaver ego. Often the ensemble represents an intrapsychic population: five performers lie on their backs manipulating a bathrobe with sticks that hold it aloft and outstretched, like a sail. Their bodies undulate as if buffeted by waves. The lack of autonomy symbolized through the puppetlike manipulation of the bathrobe is amplified through the switch image of a boat in water which evokes the psychologically charged concept of “floating.”

In the main, the recurring references to ego dissolution in Animations seem nothing more than a kind of frame—or a pretext—for the invention of switch images. Mabou Mines is not concerned with the thematic possibilities of extreme psychological states: with explaining, for instance, the origins of psychosis. Nor are they concerned with the dramatic pathos of madness. Rather, Mabou Mines plays psychosis for comic effect. One recalls how Fliess’ complaint to Freud—that dreams are funny—led Freud to claim that the structures of the primary processes supply the ground for jokes. Mabou Mines uses that discovery quite explicitly, reveling in the sight gags of regression.

As a company, Mabou Mines is very accomplished. However, one also has the feeling that the performers are stronger than the textual materials they employ. Though the psychological données of the text justify the predominantly associative structure of Animations, they do not successfully unify the work. Both Red Horse and B-Beaver are highly episodic. Little attempt is made to articulate transitions between clusters of sight gags and Klang associations. As a result, one experiences both parts of Animations as often disjointed concatenations of isolated routines or attractions. This failure to organize the temporal parameters of the piece makes the whole of Animations somewhat less than the sum of its best parts.

––Noel Carroll