Last week I posted about Irene Mawer’s poem “Carven as in Marble” and its associated frieze lines which are a formalised type of movement, albeit they can done differently to express different emotions.
This week, I am writing about a very different type of movement – nature rhythms.
From my own training in the Irene Mawer method of mime and movement, I recall that the student of mime could express a nature rhythm in whatever way they thought best.
Fire, or wind, or water, or leaves blowing in the breeze – whatever the subject, the student of mime needs to be able to interpret it and to express from within.
Hands are very important in describing the nature rhythm, but it is unusual for them to be the only part of the body to move. It is more usual to use the whole body and the whole of the stage space to express the nature rhythm.
For example, with fire, I would start curled up on the floor. My fingers would move first, then my hands. My fingers and hands would describe the first flickers of flame. As the fire grew, my arms would come into play – then I would uncurl and gradually bring in my whole body, rising from the floor. Leaping and swirling around the room, to express how the fire grew – then, as the fire gradually died, so my movements would decrease, grow smaller, softer and lower to the ground, gradually sinking into the floor, to nothing.
I can absolutely imagine the nature rhythm ‘fire’ as a group piece. Some people would be fire, some would be smoke. Costumes of yellows, reds, and ambers would be wonderful for the flames and the dying embers. Soft greys and black would represent smoke and charcoal.
I can see in my mind’s eye a whole mental picture of the opening scene: a static set with a multitude of mimes intertwined on different height levels (standing, bending, crouching, lying down) and covered in neutral-coloured cloth.
Small flickering tips of fire slowly peep through the neutral colours, then the cloth could be shed to reveal bright flames which gradually leap and roar, filling the whole stage space.
In among all of this, wisps of smoke rise up from different areas, gradually becoming thick and swirling.
As the fire dies down, the neutral-coloured cloths could be turned over to become black charcoal as the mimes settle back to low positions, with the red embers pulsating with the final remains of the fire.
A neutral static scene, transforming into a blaze of colour and movement, settling down into slow wisps of smoke and the death of the fire, leaving only glowing embers.
All of the above interpretation for fire came from within me, from my training of 40 years ago. This is something I have not thought about in all of those 40 years, but it is instilled so deeply into me that the images are as fresh and as clear as they were all those decades ago.
It was only after writing my above interpretation of the nature rhythm ‘Fire’ that I then read Irene Mawer’s own words on the subject and I was pleased to see a great similarity of interpretation. Miss Mawer describes the piece being for dancers, whereas I interpreted it as being for mimes – but in my opinion, the result is the same. This makes me happy as it means that I was taught correctly, in the way that Miss Mawer intended.
The greatest difference in the way that I was taught and the way I see the method described by Miss Mawer (see Part 2 – in my next blog post), is that my teacher, Mrs Durling, did not mention about either trees or flames as having ‘souls’ or ‘spirits’. Miss Mawer wrote this poem before 1925, whereas I was taught in the 1980s -so whether this was Mrs Durling’s own interpretation of how to teach mime, or whether it was Mrs Durling ‘moving with the times’ is impossible to know.
Here is what Miss Mawer wrote about “Fire” in her book “The Dance of Words” (Published in 1925, p.91). The intention was for the performers to dance to the rhythm of the spoken words. No music would be played.
“FIRE: This, also, is intended for a number of dancers, but is much easier to reproduce than the preceding example “The Storm”. It is intended that the fire shall begin in a group of figures, headless, and without personality, from which there gradually appear the smoke spirits and various coloured flames. The words are descriptive of the movements which are intended to take place, until the flames die down again, leaving a colourless heap.”
This is the poem Irene Mawer was describing:
The fire is a dun, unlighted pyre, whence souls of murdered trees
Shall presently go forth, in the coloured panoply of death.
The stark limbs lie motionless, their glory shorn, and proud spirits
Who felt the rising life of spring, summer’s majesty, and autumn’s glory,
Crowned with winter sleep, through many hundred years,
Are waiting patiently the touch which brings release.
A small, urgent messenger of light rouses the thin forms,
Who subtly wreathe their sinuous shapes close to the earth.
An emaciated arm creeps up, and seems to seek, and seek, and seek,
For things intangible.
A single fiery sword, tossed up defiantly, shudders back
Among the huddled, smoky shapes, who, one by stealthy one,
Steal up avaricious fingers and suffocating arms, stifling
The striving flames. Their undulating forms sway, and their Medusa heads
Rear above their toneless draperies, that ripple and fold and fly,
And flutter into nothingness.
But now, the glowing throng of winged and armoured souls stirs,
And seems to open molten doors, from whence leap out forked swords,
Warring with those first smoky hosts,
Until the triumphant flames rise, Flickering at first, and tentative,
But suddenly, brandishing their burning javelins with sharp sounds,
Then come, leaping, the blue, the red, the amber flames, shouting aloud,
And, like a storm-driven army of the air, the spirits of the flames,
Rise, tall, at last, exultant in a frenzied dance of death.
They leap, gaunt as a flash of sapphire lightning,
Tossed, crimson, as streaming ribbons from a maenad’s hair,
Or white , as moonlight on dark waters.
Panting, thirsting for the unattainable,
Grotesque, flamboyant, unsubstantial,
Writhing in an elemental anguish,
That in the hour of triumph tastes defeat,
Perishing and quenchable.
For the fervour of the flames grows old, suddenly –
And their bright lances fall, broken, in the gaudy embers.
The last thin trails of smoke slip silently to sleep.
The sibilant cinders crumble into ash, papery and soft,
Floating away upon the wind like ghosts of fallen leaves.
Only a charred and dusky heap is left, to mark
The place where valiant tree-folk died, and dying, danced,
To show their ancient souls went out courageously.
Careful scrutiny of the attached photograph shows pencilled notes on the printed text. The photo is taken from an original 1925 edition of Miss Mawer’s book “The Dance of Words” which belonged first to Mrs Katharine Cornford, and then to her daughter Ann Cornford and has now been passed to me.
Mrs Katharine Cornford was a friend of Miss Mawer and Miss Ginner and secretary to Miss Ginner at one point, while her daughter Ann was associated with the school throughout all of her childhood and youth, completing the full-time course at the Ginner-Mawer School when it was in Boscastle, Cornwall.
It is likely that the pencilled notation shows when various members of the cast would begin their roles as flames or smoke, giving an idea as to how Miss Mawer wished the piece to be interpreted. Pencilled notation begins a quarter of the way through the poem, which I imagine would mean that the first quarter of the poem would be either still or gently swaying figures – representing the ‘unlighted pyre’ with limbs of trees which ‘lie motionless’ ‘waiting patiently (for) the touch which brings release’.
At the words “A small, urgent messenger of light” we can see the first of the pencilled initials (S.C.) indicating the beginning of physical movement; a dancer portraying the initial tiny flame which is to set the whole pyre alight.
As the sentence continues “rouses the thin forms” two more performers join in (N.G. and S.L.) and we can imagine three dancers who “subtly wreathe their sinuous shapes close to the earth”.
One further lone figure (I.P.) illustrates that “An emaciated arm creeps up, and seems to seek, and seek, and seek, for things intangible”.
After this section, the rest of the cast join in and we can see the pencilled direction ‘Everyone else’ written in the margin.
The initials “A.C.” appear on page 17 next to the line “Writhing in an elemental anguish” and presumably stand for “Ann Cornford”.
No known film recordings exist of this mime or dance but if anyone decides to interpret it, or indeed has already interpreted it, I would love to see the video please.
I know that Classical Greek Dance is alive and well, so perhaps a video exists of modern dancers interpreting the natural element of ‘Fire’.
Or if any mimes out there have performed, or will perform this, please let me know.
Please follow, like, share, comment, etc as this raises the profile of Miss Mawer in the search engine algorithms. Thank you.