A Meeting of like Minds: Marcel Marceau and Bill Irwin Bring the Grace of Dancers to the World of Mime

By Sims, Caitlin | Dance Magazine, March 1998 | Go to article overview

A Meeting of like Minds: Marcel Marceau and Bill Irwin Bring the Grace of Dancers to the World of Mime


Sims, Caitlin, Dance Magazine


One recent wintry day in downtown Manhattan, the high-ceilinged studio of photographer Tom Caravaglia was the site of the meeting of two renowned mimes, Marcel Marceau

Bill Irwin. Despite their having successful careers in a relatively small field, the two artists had never met. Sensing some awkwardness in the occasion, Caravaglia put them directly to work. "It is, for me, a little intimidating" murmured Irwin to a spotlight.

Despite their differences in style and age, these great mimes clearly think alike. Immediately after the first flash went off, they instantly clowned being killed. Marceau then began suggesting some photo subjects: "I'll do pride, arrogance, vanity, courage, fear, and melancholy," he said, getting into position for pride. In order to see Marceau from the camera's angle-and to avoid leaving footprints on the swatch of oversized paper that had been unrolled as a backdrop -- Irwin responded with a flying leap out of camera range and made a deadpan request to watch.

Marceau quickly adopted the role of teacher, explaining to Irwin the importance of a solid supporting leg in a photo, as opposed to the rubbery legs of a clown. "He's a great talent, we know that," says Marceau of Irwin. "But he hasn't learned the mime of Marceau."

"It was entirely appropriate," Irwin says later about Marceau's instant assumption of the role of teacher. "We had to do something quickly in front of the lens, and I must say I learned a lot. I suppose there wafted through my mind a sort of a feeling like, `Well, excuse me, but I ...' Then I thought, `Oh, what did he say?' Because I wanted to know what he'd say. He breathes a certain way, and hits certain masks with his face. I can do a lot of things with my face but I can't do that exact thing, and I want to know about that. Some of it I fell into kind of naturally, but a lot of it I didn't."

The two ran through the different emotions one by one, and each time Irwin closely studied Marceau. Though the two mimed basically the same thing, they didn't look at all the same. Marceau's mime is sweeter and sillier. Irwin has more of an edge; when he does anger, he looks somewhat deranged. After several attempts, Irwin paused once more to regard Marceau's lionlike rage and laughed. "We'll never be the same, Tom," he said to Caravaglia.

With this cheerful admission, Irwin relaxed and the photo shoot took off. "I'll fait comme il sent," noted Marceau approvingly. "It is much better, because it has to be you." He turned to the camera. "He does it his way, and I do it my way." The two clowned around A deux. "You play piano, I'll play violin," said Marceau, and they started to play their imaginary instruments. "You draw the saber and I'm receiving the saber," suggested Irwin.

After fifty years in the business, Marceau's talent is still undeniable, and he lit up the room as brightly as the flash. "I'd love to get the feeling that I'm marveling," said Irwin, positioning himself behind Marceau.

The camera brought out both the similarities and differences between the two artists. Marceau's name, a household word ever since he introduced pantomime to the United States and the world with tours of his one-man show in the 1950s and 1960s, is more synonymous with the art of mime. …

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