A West Virginia town is a mecca of mime

Deep in the Alleghenies an old and hallowed form of theater is being reborn every summer - and this summer more than ever.

Mime is one of the most ancient of arts. It harks back to prehistoric times when it was a basic - perhaps first - form of human communication. It evolved later as comic relief for Greek drama. And later still it reached a zenith in popularity as the centerpost of the famous commedia dell'arte of Italy. It ultimately influenced such antic film figures as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Red Skelton. But for most of the last two centuries mime has slipped into eclipse as a separate art form.

Now, masters of mime insist, it is in a renaissance. And a world center of its rebirth is here in Elkins, a culturally supercharged town on West Virginia's Potomac Highland, 200 miles west of Washington, D.C. For the past three years the summer-long School for Movement Theater (SMT) at Davis & Elkins College has turned the town into the new American mecca for mime. And this summer, to reinforce that budding reputation, SMT is hosting the International Mime and Movement Festival, only the second such world event ever held in the United States.

For eight days - July 3-10 - leading mimes, clowns, jugglers, dancers, and masters of the gestural arts will converge on Elkins from six nations.

Tony Montanaro, perhaps the foremost American mime, who rarely attends such festivals, will be here. He hails it as ''a major event in the world of mime. All mimes know of it and many are coming.''

Among those who indicated they would attend are several of the brightest stars in the mime-dance-clown constellation:

The US mime delegation will be made up of world-acclaimed artists and troupes , including Lotte Goslar and her madcap Pantomime Circus; Ronlin Foreman, one of mime's most eloquent young interpreters; Julie Portman, a leading link between classical Eastern and Western theater; Avner the Eccentric, a young Old World clown; Thomas Leabhart, the modern master of corporeal mime; and Dancers for Isadora, the foremost inheritors of the Isadora Duncan tradition. Joining them will be Mamako Yoneyama, Japan's foremost mime; Sigfrido Aguilar, Mexico's premier mime-clown, and his Comediantes Pantomima; India's renowned classical Kalamandalam Kathakali Theater troupe; Mime Omnibus, Canada's highly acclaimed mime troupe; and Yves Lebreton, a French clown-mime who hails from the rich Franco tradition of Jacques Tati and Marcel Marceau.

The eight-day festival will be bracketed by the seven-week School for Movement Theater, which is now in its third summer. SMT offers an intensive round of master classes in mime, juggling, masks, clowning, and dance representing the variegated world of modern mime.

The festival itself will concentrate an array of master classes, workshops, demonstrations, panel discussions, showcases, street performances, and stage appearances. All of the master performers teaching at SMT will be on hand for the festival, which will be open to the public and to students of mime from all over the country.

Michael Pedretti is the driving force behind both SMT and the festival. Under his direction the theater department at Davis & Elkins College has emerged in the past decade as one of the leading drama schools in the country. He originated the School for Movement Theater in 1980 as a summer program. He now sees it and its offshoot, the international festival, as major links in reclaiming for mime its once hallowed role in world theater.

From his unpretentious and cluttered office in the theater building on the tree-studded D&E campus, Mr. Pedretti surveys the world of mime and tries to put it into perspective: ''It is definitely in a renaissance. Last year there were four or more New York productions that featured mime in some form. Two years ago there were none. Moreover, mimes now are being seen in TV commercials. That is a relatively new phenomenon.''

Mr. Pedretti envisions the festival as a timely catalyst in the rebirth of mime now under way worldwide - simply by serving as a meeting place and showcase for the many different contemporary expressions of the art.

Tony Montanaro agrees: ''Any festival that offers such a wide spectrum of mime styles has got to be good for the development of the art.''

Thomas Leabhart reinforces both points of view. He sees the festival as ''a major spur to research in the field, a place for mimes to come to see what is new and best in their own art form.''

No event featuring so many of the world's great mimes, clowns, jugglers, and dancers is likely to be dull. The artists themselves will not only participate in festival workshops and discussions but they also will perform in the three different theaters on the D&E campus and take their art into the streets of Elkins itself.

The week-long festival opens over the July 4 weekend with a party at one of the hilltop mansions of Elkins. Ambassadors from several of the nations represented in the festival are expected to be present, along with a sprinkling of US officials and the artists themselves. On July 3 the festival will officially begin with a parade of mimes through the streets of town, featuring, among other oddities, the School for Movement Theater's Imaginary Mime and Movement Band, described by one local wag as a very unsound organization.

Three of the week's dozen major stage performances will play in the college's spacious Harper McNeeley Auditorium during the three-day weekend. And on the final night the sky over the campus and town will explode with fireworks. Then the festival will settle down to the serious business of the week.

Mime as a theatrical form has split into many branches and spread rapidly over the past decade. For many years it was virtually synonymous in the public eye with France's great Marcel Marceau, the silent, white-faced master of illusion mime. With only his expressive and supple body, he created a world of illusions and weaved whole stories entirely from gesture. He is unquestionably the most prominent pioneering figure in the rebirth of the art.

Marceau, however, is but the tip of mime's iceberg. Knowledgeable mimes respect him as the wedge that drove mime into the modern consciousness. But they also know that he stands on the shoulders of two even greater and more influential 20th-century masters and teachers - Etienne Decroux and Jacques Le Coq, both of France.

Virtually every mime in the world today has been profoundly influenced by Le Coq and Decroux, who was Marceau's teacher. Many of the world's finest young mimes are disciples of both. ''And these three,'' says Mr. Pedretti of Le Coq, Decroux, and Marceau, ''have influenced everybody.''

That doesn't mean that those three masters dominate everybody. Rather, their teaching has spawned a coterie of very individualistic artists and styles, nearly all of which will be represented at the July festival.

In recent years the school that was rooted in the genius of Etienne Decroux spawned a second major school of mime - Marceau's illusion mime being the first - called corporeal mime.Instead of telling a silent, but clear story with the body - a love story, for instance - the more sophisticated corporeal mime attempts the more complex task of probing the essence of love itself. Not only is no story necessary, none is wanted. On the theory that the human body can move in three ways - rotate, tilt, or bend - corporeal mime manages to portray a world of emotion only from the waist up.

Today's foremost young practitioner of corporeal mime is Thomas Leabhart, a disciple of Decroux. ''Mime,'' he explains, ''divides the body into parts in much the same way a musician divides sounds into notes.'' In that way, in Mr. Leabhart's view, it can imitate ''all things.'' The face need not even report for duty. The body's the thing.

What all of the mimes at the festival will have in common is the language of gesture. Yves Lebreton, the French clown-mime who has been compared to Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, calls it the ''language of the body.'' All good mimes speak it fluently. To Lebreton it addresses the human heart as eloquently as music.

It is not as easy to ''speak'' as it may look. Avner Eisenberg, clown, juggler, master of the slack wire, and acrobat, who is known through the mime world - with good reason - as Avner the Eccentric, says: ''Mime is extremely difficult because of its simplicity. It's the ultimate in simplicity - a bare stage and an actor is all it needs.'' That, and a feel for the language.

Mamako Yoneyama, the premier mime of Japan, will join Avner and Lebreton at the festival, bringing with her a kindred point of view. She compares mime to haiku poetry. Like haiku, mime is a brief statement that inspirationally expresses all of life's phenomena as existentially and as economically as possible. Those few economical movements ''dropped into the pond of silence'' become in her hands a mysteriously profound expression of art. And she becomes, in Mr. Pedretti's view, a great and creative spirit who ''brings the quiet strength of the mountains to her work. She has a soul that bridges East and West.''

Not all mime, contrary to popular opinion, is silent. Wordlessness is not a condition of the art. But movement, not words, is mime's indispensable part. Words can be there, and often are, but what carries the day and conveys the meaning is the movement.

Some mime can be noisy even in silence. Lotte Goslar's Pantomime Circus, for instance, can turn even a silent stage into a shambles without a word being uttered. Described by one critic as a cross between Isadora Duncan and Fanny Brice, Ms. Goslar, an escapee from Nazi Germany, is today - in her 60s - one of the world's greatest dance-comics.

While the Pantomime Circus is rubber-faced wackiness, Dancers for Isadora, another of the troupes that will participate in the festival, is all gliding elegance that attempts to bridge the world of dance and mime.

Lance Westergard, a lithe American dancer who has been described as one of the finest practitioners of mime-dance, has performed with both the Goslar and Duncan troupes. He is an artist who has lent his supple body, in fact, to many styles. Mr. Pedretti sees him today as potentially the most important single bridge between dance and mime. He will also be at the festival.

By far the most elaborate presence at the festival will be the Kalamandalam Kathakali troupe of Kerala, in southern India. Kathakali is one of the most celebrated forms of Asian dance-drama. It literally means ''story-play'' and springs from roots deep in ancient Sanskrit drama. Kathakali retells heroic epic Indian tales and stories with song, dance, drum, and a complex language of hand and body gestures. Together with Japanese Kabuki, it is the most elaborate, brilliantly costumed, garishly painted, and emotional form of mime in the world. Each movement of the precisely tuned bodies of the Kathakali actors has a meaning of its own.Eight members of the Kathakali troupe, which were at the School for Movement Theater for the first time last summer, will be on hand for the festival. Also there, as a conduit to help meld the Eastern offering into the Western style, will be Julie Portman, of Tufts University, the foremost American practitioner and interpreter of Kathakali.

Any gathering of such variety and diversity promises to produce a magical week of grace and laughter. And as Ms. Portman has put it - with a touch of wonder in her voice - ''the fact that it is happening in a small town in the Allegheny Mountains that seems to shine and possess some unusual artistic chemistry not found anywhere else, is magical in itself.''

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