Let's hear it for the bearded lady, French conortionist Jeanne Mordoj
At the London Mime Festival the French contortionist Jeanne Mordoj will don a beard to explore some hairy feminine issues
It's deeply disappointing to note, when we meet on a sparkling winter's morning in Zagreb, that the extraordinary French contortionist Jeanne Mordoj hasn't a shadow of a moustache, or even a single, errant whisker to call her own. The last time I saw her she was fully, madly hirsute, performing her solo show Éloge du Poil , “in praise of hairiness”, which arrives at the Barbican next week as part of the 31st London International Mime Festival.
Her nightie was also covered in broken egg and mud, and with her toes she was flicking snail shells into a wash basin on her head, while philosophising with the audience on the radical sexiness of facial hair (body language still communicates most modern mime, but actual language can, and increasingly does, make an appearance). “Women,” she says in (and it had to be) French, “how do you live without beards? Are they on the inside? Don't they itch?”
In the cold and clearly hairless light of a Croatian day, Mordoj, 39, admits that she was inspired to don the false beard because of her own furry ambivalence. “Always I am interested in what it means to be a woman,” she says. “With this show I was thinking especially about my monsters. All the things you don't want people to see. I wanted to really explore this, to bring it to the front.”
On the trail of a woman with a bona fide tuggable beard, Mordoj travelled for three months around Eastern Europe. “But I didn't find one. Everywhere I went, they would say: ‘Yes, I know one. She is in the next town along.' Always the woman with the beard is in the next place.”
But Mordoj was undeterred. “Everybody had a story to tell. Her own or her neighbour's. I couldn't imagine it would touch so many things in so many people.”
One night she ventured into a Parisian bar sporting her oddly fetching jaw-tracing beard. The women, she reports, wouldn't look at her. The men were every gradation of curious. Many were overtly sexual. “They'd say: ‘Can I see what else you've got?' ” One sat down next to her and asked: “If this is on your chin, what's under your arms? A forest? Have a child, then you'll shave.”
The result of these intrepid investigations, devised with the director Pierre Meunier, has now been performed more than 130 times. This year it travels to Quebec, Bogotá and the Netherlands. Everywhere she goes, Mordoj finds a wild array of reactions. “Until I speak, some audiences are sure I'm a man.” Though she's perfectly feminine in every other respect. “Some women say: ‘For me it's too revolting, it chokes me.' But others say: ‘It's beautiful.' Is it possible a woman with a beard is beautiful?”
The beard, then, was donned for the intensity of reactions it elicits. But everything else in Mordoj's show is filched from life. An unforgettable sequence with egg yolks began with her making cakes in her Parisian apartment. She separated the egg in her hand, flipped the yolk over on to her fingers and experimented with how far it would travel around her body before breaking. A chorus of singing sheep skulls she lifted from her parents' house: her brother collected them as a child. The pile of snail shells she picked up in the forest near her creative hideaway in the country. And the whole show plays with the rustiest conventions of circus because, in Mordoj's words, “circus is my world”.
In the early 1970s her sculptor parents moved from Paris to the forest to make goat's cheese and raise their three children in isolation. It worked a little too well:
“My friends were trees,” Mordoj says. In a belated attempt to socialise their “savage” daughter, they dragged her to circus school when she was 13. She was instantly hooked, practising contortionism solidly until, at 17, she won a place at the National Circus School in Châlons-en-Champagne.
“It was horrible,” Mordoj says, “a military environment. I couldn't handle it.” At 18 she ran away with the real deal, a troupe of 12 artists, with horses hitched to rackety caravans, who toured Italy. Mordoj went on to earn her living as a professional contortionist around the globe, slipping into shows wherever the sliver of an opening appeared.
But if it's steeped in antique circus symbolism, Poil is still a departure for Mordoj, borrowing more from physical theatre than classical circus. It's emblematic of a shift in circus performance everywhere, as a cursory glance at the London festival's line-up confirms. “The difficulty of circus is that you have to be so completely in your technique, it's very difficult to do anything else. I wanted to stop always hiding behind my technique, but it was so hard to break,” Mordoj says.
In the end it was her knee that broke. “So I had to stop,” she says. “I began exploring, using more theatre, dance, and new circus techniques.” Poil is her third solo show, and while her contortionism skills are still very much in evidence in it, Mordoj seems above all to be a queasily disconcerting tightrope walker today, navigating her way between genres and genders, and between the alluring and the repulsive. “I'm always looking for that, something that can be fascinating and attractive and disgusting and horrible at the same time. It's the same with everything in the show, eggs, skulls, even with death perhaps.”
However, Poil has finally resolved one niggling ambiguity for Mordoj. “Now,” she says, “when I put on my beard, I feel my femininity so strongly, maybe even more than without it. I'll miss it.”
Éloge du Poil is at the Barbican, London EC2 (0845 1207591), Jan 27-30. The London International Mime Festival (www.mimefest.co.uk) is at various venues from tonight to Jan 31