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Donald Hutera speaks to Helen Lannaghan about this year’s tasty and tantalising London International Mime Festival

[Image: Compagnie Yoann Bourgeois: Celui qui tombe (He Who Falls), UK Premiere, LIMF]

I give a pleasured ‘Aah’ - for it’s arrived! For certain avid, largely alternative and London-centric theatre-goers January can’t arrive soon enough. Why? Because it’s mime time again - the month, that is, when Joseph Seelig and Helen Lannaghan, long-time co-directors of the London International Mime Festival (LIMF), unveil for our delectation what they deem to be the best contemporary visual and physical theatre from the UK, Europe and beyond.
To this veteran Festival-watcher the 2016 edition looks like one of the most tantalising in recent memory. I asked the aforementioned dynamic duo for a show-by-show run-down of what’s on offer (see below). But first I threw a few contextualising questions in their direction via email, seeking a bit of up-to-date background for how they do what they do, the kind of work they’re  interested in presenting, and how that fits into a bigger global picture. Although it was Lannaghan who replied, anyone who knows how closely she and Seelig function will probably be able to detect his voice through her words.
Donald Hutera: During the past four decades the LIMF has helped UK audiences redefine the term ‘mime’ in the widest possible sense. How healthy is the international scene these days?
Helen Lannaghan: Healthy indeed. There’s lots of exciting and interesting new work in circus-theatre, puppetry and object-theatre, as well as more of the sort of live art/extreme dance that we’ve been promoting in recent years. (For example: Romeo Runa’s The Old King, and Kaori Ito’s Plexus directed by Aurélien Bory). France above all, but also Belgium, Spain, Sweden, Finland, Japan and Australia, are countries producing much of the best work today.
DH: And in the UK?
There’s long been a strong visual theatre tradition in the UK, which this year at the LIMF is represented by new work from aerialists Ockham’s Razor, mask theatre ensemble Vamos, The Wrong Crowd and Al Seed – all of them London premieres. Gecko and Blind Summit are also amongst UK’s leading companies, and this year they’re teaching workshops rather than performing in the Festival.
DH: How far afield have you had to go to select the work, and what are your major sources?
For budgetary reasons, apart from any others, most of our travel is limited to Europe but one can see the world in Europe these days. We go to certain festivals regularly, such as Avignon, Edinburgh, Kunstenfestival in Brussels and Fidena in Bochum, Germany but also to many others depending on their programme. And we’ll travel to see a particular show wherever that’s feasible if it’s something we think – from advice we’ve been given, or a DVD – would be worthwhile.
DH: I count eighteen shows in four weeks on the Festival’s 2016 calendar – four from the UK, three apiece from France and Belgium, two from both Spain and Germany, and one each from Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden. What’s the approximate ratio of shows you’ve seen or considered versus shows actually selected?
Of shows we’ve seen in live performance it’s about 10%. Of unsolicited DVDs received we maybe follow up 5%. It’s a carefully curated festival and the selection process is rigorous. It’s also the case that not everything we want is affordable or available, or stageable.
DH: How inundated with pitches or possibilities are you?
We do receive a large number of proposals. Most don’t come to anything – a glance at the accompanying material or DVD makes it obvious the work isn’t appropriate for LIMF for one reason or another. I suppose a few things slip through the net in this way, but not too many. If something looks really interesting we’ll go and see it.
DH What about long-time artistic relationships versus fresh discoveries?
We have long-term creative relationships, following the work of artists we like and whose work has been appreciated on previous visits to LIMF – Aurélien Bory, Mathurin Bolze, Gandini Juggling, Mossoux Bonté, Ockham’s Razor and Josef Nadj would be some examples. But we don’t take all their shows because not everything is always appropriate for the festival. Is that cherry-picking? Well, sometimes that’s legitimate. But it’s also lovely to discover fresh work by new artists to LIMF, and this year these include BabaFish, Yoann Bourgeois, Stereoptik, The Wrong Crowd and David Espinosa.
That’s as good a cue as any for a quick stroll through the Festival programme, with Lannaghan (and Seelig’s) thumbnail tips on why you need to try and see…
Jos Houben and Marcello Magni: Marcel (Shaw Theatre, Jan 9-12)
‘Last time we opened with a young company in its first show [the award-winning Bromance by Barely Methodical Troupe]. This time it’s a new show from two very distinguished and experienced performers, original members of Complicite, in a masterpiece of physical comedy that takes us back to that company’s early days. Marcel was instigated by Peter Brook, who asked Jos Houben and Marcello Magni to create ‘something funny’ for his Paris theatre Bouffes du Nord.’
Jos Houben: The Art of Laughter (Shaw Theatre, Jan 10 only)
‘What makes us laugh – whether we want to or not! By now a ‘must-see-again’ classic, featured at LIMF for the fourth time.’
Ockham’s Razor: Tipping Point (Platform Theatre, Jan 11-23)
‘Without doubt the UK’s leading aerial theatre group. Daring, elegant, original work on equipment they’ve designed themselves.’
Trygve Wakenshaw: Nautilus (Soho Theatre, Jan 11-23)
‘Very clever, very witty, very close to the bone.’
David Espinosa: Mi Gran Obra (My Great Work) (Tate Modern, Jan 14-17)
‘LIMF’s first collaboration with Tate Modern is an extraordinary large-scale spectacle in miniature, and a part of the gallery’s Alexander Calder exhibition.’
Al Seed: Oog (Jacksons Lane, Jan 15-17)
‘A phenomenal performer who has worked with major Russian artists like Derevo and BlackSkyWhite. Bold, daring, thought-provoking material. He should be much better-known.’
BabaFish: Expiry Date (Barbican Pit, Jan 19-23)
‘Anna Nilsson, the show’s co-creator, said the inspiration came at the precise moment she was rushing downhill on her bike. Her grandmother had just died and she was thinking a lot about ‘What makes a life?’ and her answer was ‘Small, ephemeral moments of ecstasy and beauty.’ Since nothing is constant, all we can do is to appreciate things when they happen.’ Expiry Date takes place in the midst of a Heath Robinson-esque set that marks the passage of time in wonderfully inventive ways.’
Xavier Bobés: Things Easily Forgotten (Southbank Centre, Jan 21-24)
‘A show for five people at a time, this is a precious hour as you’re invited to examine the contents of a series of beautiful vintage biscuit tins that contain memorabilia from the time of Franco’s Spain. It engages all the senses – but it’s already completely sold-out!’
Alexander Vanturnhout and Bauke Lievens: Aneckxander (Jacksons Lane, Jan 22-24)
‘No words, no clothes, a long neck – and a seriously original first show.’
Jakop Ahlbom Company: Horror (The Peacock, Jan 25-26)
‘Inspired by classic horror movies, a journey into fun and fear, genuinely scary and frequently very funny. It’s the latest work by the same company who presented sell-out hit Lebensraum at Southbank Centre at LIMF ‘14. It’ll have you shuddering at the edge of your seat!’
The Wrong Crowd: Kite (Soho Theatre, Jan 26-Feb 6)
‘This is a poignant love story to the wind, freedom and the joy of play.’
Stereoptik: Dark Circus (Barbican Pit, Jan 26-30)
‘Created for the 2015 Avignon Festival, France’s major cultural event, Dark Circus is about a disaster-prone circus created in front of your eyes using projected drawing materials (e.g., chalk, ink, paper) and live, improvised music.'
Circa: The Return (Barbican Theatre, Jan 27-31)
‘A new show from the group whose Opus combined acrobats and a leading string quartet. This time it’s acrobats and singers in a story of displacement and longing. A major work.’
Familie Floez: Infinita (The Peacock, Jan 28-30)
‘Germany’s mask-theatre masters. A journey from nursery to old people’s home with the same group of bickering characters showing how little we change as we progress through life. A hilarious study of one-upmanship.’
Vamos Theatre: The Best Thing (Jacksons Lane, Jan 28-31)
‘Mask theatre is flourishing in Britain in the hands of this group, based in the Midlands and now gaining an international reputation. A bittersweet tale of 1960s’ romance featuring beehive hairdos, 45rpms and broken dreams.’
Figurentheater Tübingen: Wunderkammer (Barbican Pit, Feb 2-6)
‘For connoisseurs of string puppetry this company is world-class, featuring three disciples of German master marionettist Albrecht Roser. For the general public it’s a magical hour of artistry, humour and astonishing invention.’
Compagnie Yoann Bourgeois: He Who Falls (Barbican Theatre, Feb 3-6)
‘For once the cliché ‘gravity-defying’ holds true. Six top-notch dancer/acrobats on a wildly unstable, suspended platform seek to reach their destination.’
Svalbard: All Genius All Idiot (Jacksons Lane, Feb 3-6)
‘Off-the-wall ‘new circus’ from Sweden, home to one of Europe’s most impressive circus schools. Absolutely Nordic.’
Adds Lannaghan, ‘Plus there are, as I’ve already said, workshops – including extreme puppetry with Blind Summit, mask work with Familie Floez, physical theatre and devising with Gecko, marionettes with Figurentheater Tübingen and mime-clown with Nola Rae – and films. You can enjoy the Technicolour spectacle that is Trapeze, starring Tony Curtis, Gina Lollobrigida and real-life aerialist Burt Lancaster in a circus-set love story with a dramatic twist, or Charlie Chaplin’s classic The Circus in which his tramp character is chased by the police into a circus where he unintentionally becomes a big hit.’

London International Mime Festival 2016
Sat 9 Jan - Sat 6 Feb 2016
Barbican, Jacksons Lane, Platform Theatre, Shaw Theatre, Soho Theatre, Southbank Centre, Tate Modern, The Peacock
Donald Hutera writes about dance, theatre, live performance and the arts for many publications and websites, including The Times. He also curates GOlive and is a co-founder of Chelsea Arts Collective aka CAC.