Mummenschanz defies the conventional boundaries of dance

December 17, 2010

Mummenschanz at the Annenberg Center

Philadelphia Weekly

Laura Kicey

December 17, 2010

More than 25 years after my initial introduction to them via The Muppet Show and 3-2-1 Contact, I was thrilled to hear that the Swiss performance troupe Mummenschanz was bringing their current show, 3 x 11, to Philadelphia’s Annenberg Center. Admittedly I was terrified of them, and totally intrigued, as a child, but I knew that I could not turn down the chance to experience them as an adult. Their iconic “character” abstractions were revisited in this retrospective show, including the contorting, slinky-like tube; a human mosquito; a tearful duo with toilet paper rolls for facial features; and a feisty twosome shaping masks made of clay. Inhabiting a performance niche all their own, the group crisscrosses through dance, theater, mime, illusion and sculpture in the blink of an eye. As a viewer, you truly never know which end is up, or when what you are watching will starting watching you back.

The first portion of the show, which resonated most with me in its stark simplicity, featured personas that were less physically evolved — some were insect-like, amphibian, or simian, others completely abstract (as fire and paper) — yet still offered glimpses of universal human expression. They flirt, fight, play, and compete, and feel shame, pride and disgust, all in economical, wordless movements. While the bodies of the Mummenschanz dancers disappear entirely into shadows, the elegant puppetry gracefully carries on in slivers of light, defying gravity and the conventional boundaries of dance. With a well-placed pinch, bow and tuck, these alien forms and their stories remind us of the humanity within.

After an intermission, the second half of the performance featured characters becoming ever more recognizably human in shape — hands and feet no longer hidden. More complex attitudes and dialogues form; they are messy, pouty, vain and lustful, trying to fit in, trying to get ahead. Though I thoroughly enjoyed the show in its entirety, I was drawn more to the seemingly impossible contortions of the first act; I found the subtle suggestions to be more powerful than what is shown outright in the second act. Still, it is a truly transcendent show with appeal to every age and cultural background — whether you half-remember seeing them (or were frightened by them) when you were young, or you’re a newcomer who may have confused them with Manischewitz.