Vahram Zaryan and the Artistry of Contemporary Mime

The Rebirth of the Gesture, Body and Identity of Miming in a contemporary setting

Photo courtesy of Vahram Zaryan

French-Armenian mime artist Vahram Zaryan holds a unique place in today’s performance world.

A graduate of Armenia’s National Conservatory in Yerevan and the École internationale de Mime de Paris, he has performed on world stages throughout the United States, Russia and Europe. He has where he studied with many legends across a range of disciplines. To master the artistry of mime, he learned from the master, Marcel Marceau, a French actor and mime most famous for his stage persona as “Bip the Clown.” For dance, he studied with Yves Casati at the l’Opéra de Paris, and the technique Etienne Decroux, he learned from Ivan Bacciochi.

Zaryan’s experimental nature has led him to invent and champion the concept “No-mime”—an attempt to push the boundaries of mime and make it relevant to the contemporary stage. With his Compagnie Vahram Zaryan, he and a small group of fellow artists continue to conceive of new productions, as well as give workshops and master classes, along with his production company Est Nova. It was my pleasure to sit down with him and to get to know this wonderfully erudite and unique performer better.

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Christopher Atamian: Vahram, you’ve led a rather peripatetic life and resided in several different countries. What did your travels teach you and how did they influence your identity and your art?

Vahram Zaryan: Travel has been an important means of self-discovery. Each trip that I’ve taken has also been a journey in self-knowledge. It has represented exile, as well. Travel and being in contact with different cultures has paradoxically brought me both closer to my own self while distancing me from it, as well. I’ve always felt 100 percent Armenian and 100 percent French simultaneously. Countries were made in order to be explored, after all. You should never stop moving. And I personally feel that I was born not once but several times, each time in a different place. I was born a first time in Armenia in Shirakamut (formerly Nalband) Village. I was born a second time buried under the rubble of an earthquake whose reverberations I still feel down to my very core. And then I was born a third time when I met my mentor and teacher Marcel Marceau. I experienced yet another birth performing on the stage. I am born and I die each time that I perform, with each story that I tell and through each one of the characters that I create. I’ve often discussed this in my work, most notably in “Mater Replik,” which I premiered in New York City at the Richmond Shepard Theater.

C.A.: How did you train in order to develop your particular contemporary version of mime and performance?

V.Z.: My training as a mime is informed by all of the different forms of contemporary art: it is in dialogue with all of the arts. I studied theater arts at the National Conservatory in Yerevan and later with Marcel Marceau. I also studied classical and contemporary dance, as well as music and traditional theater. Mime is an ancient and well-known art form, yet it is rarely performed. Marcel Marceau is an iconic figure, his work is unique.

C.A.: What led you to this particular contemporary performing art form? I ask, because you have great respect for your craft but you also insist on shaking up many of its existing norms.

V.Z.: Today my latest creations such as Oblique Cycle 1 confirm what I have felt intuitively for several years now, that is to say that a process has developed which involves the disappearance of a formatted, purely social body destined to please society’s gaze, in favor of a more organic and free body. This gives the modern mime today access to a primitive, primal body.

C.A.: You are a proponent of “No-mime,” a new and creative vision for gestural theater. Can you explain to us what this involves?

V.Z.: I develop and create work with a team—along with my dramaturg Florent Bracon—that exists at the crossroads of video, music, and poetry. We are involved in rethinking the fundamentals of contemporary mime: Our work is cross-disciplinary. Everything I experience influences my work. I have brought together a group of artists who have purposefully moved away from traditional pantomime. One of “No-mime”’s objectives is to do away once and for all with the clichéd idea that mime is only about imitation. A certain vision of art must be done away with in mime—the way it happened in painting, for example. I am doing away with the superficial body and replacing it with a body that resounds with organic interior beats/pulsations.

My performances, and their dramaturgy, are never illustrative. When I interpret a performance, my body undergoes a change that gives it access to these vital, passionate, violent, torn pulsations, which establish a rhythm to our relationship with the world. That body goes beyond thought: in a way, thought only watches the body from a distance—the interior sense of touch. Seeing always mean seeing from a distance and seeing the distance itself—the interior sense of touch, which replaces vision, puts the body in contact with itself and transcends the distance of thought.

I have great respect for Marcel Marceau, but I constantly push myself to go beyond his work. To me that is the greatest way to pay homage to him. He opened the way and popularized the art of mime, and he did it poetically. But art has changed, and poetry has as well, and in order to be relevant to the world today and to dialogue with it, the art of mime must also reinvent itself.

 

C.A.: What is your next important performance and what will be its major themes?

V.Z.:I presented “Mater Replik” in New York, which deals with exile and the inner echoes/trauma that it produces, followed by “With One’s Head Down,” based on a novel by Noelle Châtelet, which deals a man who is born a hermaphrodite, another sort of violent shock. My talented collaborator on both these projects was Karen Hakobian, who created their musical compositions. I was thrilled that he also sang in “With One’s Head Down” on our Eastern European and New York tours.  And I was thrilled that he also sang in “With One’s Head Down” on our Eastern European and New York tours.And last year in collaboration with the contemporary composer Vincent Trollet and Ensemble Regards I created “Oblique,” the first part in a triptych. Oblique Cycle 1, subtitled “Strange Attractor” is currently on tour, and my company is going to perform soon in Spain and throughout Europe and Russia. I also created Oblique Cycle 2 which will be presented in 2019. This piece will mix contemporary mime, music, video and poetry, all world premiere/new works. Its major themes revolve around identity and the body’s ambivalence: on stage forces seem to dictate to the performer how to walk and move. These forces include morality, propriety, aesthetics, the family, etc. But interestingly enough the road that our movements take is never the one we expected. Even under constraint the body always deviates from its assigned trajectory. I would say that compared to morality and aesthetics for example–which are external demands, “it never works”, “it’s never perfect.” Well I think it’s because the body screams through these minute deviations that I make visible throughout the performance. The body cries out that it wants to be free, it never corresponds to an ideal.

Vahram Zaryan performance, “La Tete en Bas” (Photo by Pavol Stanik)

 

C.A.: What would you like the reader to know about you, your art, or your performances?

V.Z.: I want to make readers and audiences alike understand that mime is a necessary art in a noisy and talkative world. The mime’s silence doesn’t say “nothing”: it is instead a contrast with the endless noise in a world that doesn’t know what to say. It’s the mime’s silence that makes speech important again.

 

C.A.: Finally, is there an Armenian context for your art?

V.Z.: My entire story tells the story of my country, my land is always a part of me. the more lands one has, the more food one has which feeds one’s development. And one learns what it means to go away, to leave, and to return. It’s a passionate love story: by that I mean “corporeal, without thought, real and immediate.” “Mater Replik” tells this story in fact, that your homeland follows you wherever you go and how it can give you strong roots, or on the other hand weight you down. At the same time the traditional arts. which are closer to my origins, paradoxically bring me closer to my contemporary creations. There is something organic in them. Also in my works, the contemporary is always accompanied by references to tradition as well. These roots are like the roots of a tree that are deeply ingrained, except they point towards the sky…

Photo courtesy of Vahram Zaryan
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Christopher Atamian

Christopher Atamian is a noted writer and creative producer of Italian–Armenian background and the grandson of Armenian Genocide survivors. He is an alumnus of Harvard University, Columbia Business School and USC FIlm School, a former Fulbright Scholar. Apart from creative endeavors and professional activities as a senior executive in leading media companies and consultancies (ABC, Ogilvy & Mather, J.P. Morgan), Atamian has concentrated on community activism. He is the former President and a current board member of AGLA New York and in 2004 founded Nor Alik, a non-profit cultural organization responsible for producing the First Armenian International Film Festival. Atamian also co-produced the OBIE Award-winning play Trouble in Paradise in 2006, directed by Elyse Singer, as well as several music videos and short films. Atamian was selected for the 2009 Venice Biennale on the basis of his video Sarafian’s Desire and received a 2015 Ellis Island Medal of Honor. He continues to contribute critical pieces to leading publications such as The New York Times Book Review and The Huffington Post, Scenes Media and The Weekly Standard, while working on other creative endeavors in film and theater.

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