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Thursday, June 30,2011

A mime speaks

Samuel Avital celebrates 40 years of practicing his craft in Boulder

By David Accomazzo
photo by Sue France

Samuel Avital speaks many words about the art he has spent his entire life perfecting.

Strange, because Avital’s art is performed wordlessly. He is a mime, practicing, as he once wrote, “the ultimate language of silence.”

The Moroccan-born Lafayette resident is celebrating 40 years as the director of Boulder-based Le Centre du Silence, a mime school he opened in 1971. He is also the founder of the now-defunct Boulder Mime Theatre and host of the International Summer Mime Workshop. He has performed all over the world and studied under the masters of mime: Etienne Decroux, Marcel Marceau and Jean-Louis Barrault. Still spry at 79, he hasn’t performed since 2000, and he focuses his energy on teaching Kabbalah and his craft, which have intertwined into a discipline he teaches called BodySpeak.

“[Avital] has, for me, the most focused and the most inclusive artistic point of view that I’ve encountered,” says Mark Olsen, a close friend and former student who now heads the graduate acting program at Penn State University. “A lot of artists seem to be dogmatic and territorial about their art. It’s as if the boundaries of what they’ve chosen to be their artistic expression is what defines them. Samuel is different. His artistry, his gift, is inspiration, in igniting that fire within.”

Avital was born in Morocco in 1932 and left his family for Israel when he was 14. The transition from a very traditional lifestyle in Morroco to a more modern one at an Israeli kibbutz was very abrupt and difficult for him, and he found solace in theater and other performing arts. It was in Israel that Avital discovered the man whose work would open Avital’s eyes to the possibilities of mime — Charlie Chaplin.

“In the process of performing, speaking-theater was not enough for me. So I looked for an avenue,” Avital says in the documentary The Silent Outcry. “Somehow, the words seemed very inadequate to express myself. I had come with such fantastic luggage [the culture shock] that needed to be expressed. There was one fabulous thing that I saw at that time in the early ’50s, the Charlie Chaplin film Limelight. ... Limelight made me think that there was more to theater and this new medium that I was discovering than just talking, because this man, with silence, could express very deep human emotions.”

Avital’s interest in wordless theater led him to move to France in 1956. He lived the starving-artist life as he dedicated himself to studying mime. In 1964, he came to the United States. He performed off-Broadway in New York and began teaching at Southern Methodist University in Texas in 1969. Two years later, he moved to Boulder.

In 1971, Avital started the Boulder Mime Theatre, and he led his students in flamboyant, silent parades from the Boulder Public Library to the courthouse every week through the mid-’80s, when the city informed him he would have to purchase insurance for his students and permits to perform on the mall.

Avital saw his performances as an artistic service to the community, and he did not take kindly to the sudden-onset bureaucracy.

“Thirteen years, I didn’t have a permit!” Avital exclaims, gesturing strongly and frequently as he talks. “I was bringing tourism here, and now, suddenly, they wanted a permit! You know what, thank you. I know now that is the end of this activity, that the Boulder Mime Theatre is no more.”

What most people think of as mime — the guy in white face paint and black beret stuck in the invisible box — is actually pantomime, Avital says. The difference, he explains, is that though pantomime is performed in silence, it still performs with words.

“In pantomime, you’re still talking,” Avital says. “I’m translating the word that you have in your head through mime.”

He demonstrates what he means. With wide, expressive eyes, he points to his chest, then presses his palms together, brings them up to his shoulder, lays his head on his hands and closes his eyes.

“I. Am going. To sleep,” he explains, adding that it was his former teacher, mime master Etienne Decroux, who told students, “If you want to sleep, sleep! Don’t tell me about it. Sleep! Take the position. Do it! Instead of talking about it with your movements, do it!”

The craft Avital spent his life perfecting and teaching is mime in its purest form, a physical performing art relatively unknown outside the circles of its practitioners. The simplest definition is that mime is storytelling without words. Avital hasn’t performed since 2000, and the few videos of his performances, with sharply defined movements and bluntly conveyed meanings, appear akin to modern dance, albeit modern dance overtly concerned with storytelling.

But mime and dance are not the same.

“I want you to think about heaven and earth, gravity and counter-gravity,” Avital says. “I want you to think that the dancer, mostly, wants to reach the heaven, to escape gravity to express emotion.”

“The mime brings it to here, the clown brings it to here, right here,” Avital says, pointing to his heart.

After disbanding the Boulder Mime Theatre, Avital focused on his teaching. He began teaching Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism, in the ’90s, and he saw parallels between what he was teaching and his art. He intertwined the two and created a discipline he named BodySpeak, which he calls the “summation of my life, spiritual and artistical.”

BodySpeak tries to make artistic expression easier, to clear the mental blocks that can hinder creativity, to erase the gap between thinking and doing.

“This is an artistic principle, the actor, the musician, the painter, this is one of the great challenges of any artist. I have an idea, and I don’t know what to do with it! I have this thing, I paint, and I sculpt, and it’s not the idea I meant it to be. If they adopt [BodySpeak], they will quicken this creativity.”

He encourages his students to embrace what makes their artistic approach unique.

“That’s why it’s both dangerous and fantastic, this approach, because I don’t allow the person to allow me to tell them what to do. I want them to be the authority, to write their own script. But I give them the tools,” Avital says.

Avital himself is uncompromising in his vision, even eschewing nonprofit status for his various endeavors in order to avoid the meddling of a budget-conscious board of directors. He says he has never received grant money from any institution. His approach to art is spiritual, but he refuses to be anybody’s idol, instead insisting they create their own fiercely independent artistic identity.

“By no means is he that weirdly guru kind of cult-like mystic,” Olsen says, recalling the end of the first Avital workshop he attended. “I felt so blessed to be a part of his life and work and all that I had learned from him. … I attempted to kiss his hand, and he gave me a quick slap on the arm. He said, ‘Don’t ever do that. What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ He really stopped me from the kind of guru-worship. He wouldn’t stand for it. He didn’t want that kind of cloudy, moon-faced adoration.”


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