Staged as part of the London International Mime Festival, Fragments de Vie is a delicate performance piece that recalls a world forgotten by time, where natural elements – wood, fire, clay, earth – bring the protagonists – creatures constructed out of scraps of metal – to life. This is a folkloric world of labour, a Lilliputian world, more atmospheric than narrative-driven; it is a cabinet of curiosities that opens bit by bit, revealing the intricate mechanics of a beautifully constructed, if somewhat elusive, culture.
The piece is the result of a collaboration between three puppeteers, each with an expertise in a different area of work, be it dance or fine art, and this manifests itself in the performance which not only provides a powerful sensory experience through its smells, textures and aesthetic, but also in the way it makes interesting use of ritual. This is perhaps the most striking element of Fragments de Vie: the environment and language of the show are constructed through a series of rituals: be it the waiting in the anti-chamber to gaze at the puppets themselves, receiving a coin which then triggers the performance or the animation of each of the different moments of the show. There’s a curious focus on the rituals of labour in the piece: grain is being distributed, produced and transported, clothes are washed by the river, terrain is harvested; these are narratives stemming from the stories of the tools themselves, but given a new and intriguing life. The language of the show is constructed with a lot of attention for detail, and we’re engaged with this from the beginning. It’s as if our gaze participates in this process of animation, meeting every scene half-way.
The name of the company stands, in direct translation, for head of a pickaxe; indeed the characters in this cabinet all emerge out of old agricultural tools which puppeteer St Andre collected over the years. Considering their original function is respected in the design, and the making process is organic, not involving any welding or adhesive, these creatures hold their character in the delicate white clay face that St Andre has created. This means every protagonist has a strong sense of identity in its aesthetic and movement, thus able to convey not only age and gender, but also personality.
If, at times, the language of the show is too reliant on functionality of the objects, seldom making the internal logic of this world slightly flawed, this is certainly the danger of working with such specific objects within the constraints of their own world. The performance is, at times, too internalized, focused on the delicacy of its miniatures whilst forgetting the theatricality of its set-up. The puppeteers, dressed in full white like surgeons attempting to revive lost histories, are also our hosts, which mean we engage with their animation in different ways throughout the show. They dictate the spaces which we inhabit as audiences with surgical precision, but sometimes their involvement in this world remains unclear, particularly when they intervene directly in the workings of this cabinet of curiosities.
The piece is underpinned by a movement between the specific and the atmospheric, recalling, as specified by St Andre herself, with the work of Polish artist Tadeusz Kantor. A theatre director and fine artist, Kantor was interested in conceptions of life onstage, often featuring actors and mannequins together, investigating the moment of death and its relationship to liveness. At times dark and indefinite, Fragments de Vie recalls the same interest in memory and plays with boundaries of liveness; after all, these objects are rescued from history in an attempt to bring them to life that can only be temporary. They are functional and human, dead and alive at the same time.
Fragments de Vie is a poetic and playful excursion into a folkloric world, recalling times past but also exploring our relationship to the natural, the essential and the memory of history itself. It is a magical world, if at times too internalized to communicate clearly, underpinned by a care for detail in both content and form, juggling the functionality with the delicacy of the objects and making the most of their relationship to the natural and the historical.