The London International Mime Festival opened on Wednesday night with two pieces by Compagnie Non Nova at the Platform Theatre, Central Saint Martins. A veteran attendee of Mime London, Phia Ménard presented both works, in which invisible forces take the lead and shape our perception of identity. The second piece, Vortex, is comical, arresting and visceral in just the right measures for it to be a truly memorable production. Although not beautiful, Vortex is an astounding visual piece that plumbs the depths of identity, leaving surface beauty far behind.

Vortex © Jean-Luc Beaujault
Vortex
© Jean-Luc Beaujault
Catatonic figures inflate with life, stand, and pirouette centre stage. They twirl together, dancing on eddies of air, and rise high above the stage before returning slowly to stage, only to be caught again. The circular stage is surrounded by whirring fans, carefully manipulated by wind designer Pierre Blanchet. The rather fat figure – something of a cross between the Fat Controller from Thomas the Tank Engine and a moustashio’d Blues Brother – flings several more of these little characters high into the air from a pocket. This sequence, using the same premise as plastic-bag ballet L’Apres-Midi D’un Foehn, delighted and amused its first festival audience.

Yet the gentle beginning to the piece foreshadows darker things to come. The initial construction of the first figure involves a sharp pair of scissors and a cold, calculated concentration, rather than the playful nature that these figures inspire in the audience. The following destruction of all these mini plastic-bag dancers, who are spitefully torn asunder and dumped in a big wheelie bin, begins a gritty battle of destructive self-discovery.

This solo delves deeper into the notion of identity as layer after layer of costume is stripped off. A rounded white figure emerges from beneath a heavy black suit, which subsequently fills with air - a huge and overbearing version of the earlier plastic-bag people. Phia Ménard battles with this being or previous self, until it too is discarded in preference of a more visceral image. Ménard begins to tear out her innards through her belly button. Slowly and curiously at first, she soon becomes determined to void herself of the black cloud that seems to have polluted her. A swirling column of darkness fills the space, taking on a life of its own and towering over the exhausted figure in white, a hollow where a large stomach had been. This purging seems like a ritual cleansing, necessary for further self-exploration.

Phia Ménard in Vortex © Jean-Luc Beaujault
Phia Ménard in Vortex
© Jean-Luc Beaujault
This premise is revisited as she empties herself through another orifice. Ménard, who is now almost nude and visibly feminine for the first time, reaches deep between her legs and begins to pull something from between them. Collapsing on the stage and panting on all fours under red light, she pulls a long, translucent strip of polythene from within herself. This is a significantly more gritty, visceral image; there is no beauty in this instance of childbirth.

Her womb emptied, but as yet unsatisfied, she begins to tear at her skin. She bites, claws and rips her final layer to shreds, gradually revealing her face, hair and bare chest with an expression of wide-eyed amazement as the lights fade to impenetrable lingering darkness.

Initially, one can’t help but wonder how the concept was ever arrived at. The visual imagery in Vortex is astounding. But this is a concern for L’Apres-Midi d’un Foehn, and swiftly put aside by the more pressing matter of just how to bear the grit and self-destruction Vortex contains. What will stay with me is the raw energy contained in each moment. Ménard seemed genuinely unfamiliar with the contents of her own body and disgusted to find herself enshrouding in skin. Performances this fresh are rare.

In Vortex we are fully exposed to a character with a fleeting, distracted nature, bent on tearing everything apart until she has nothing left to discover or destruct. In comparison to its light-hearted, playful counterpart, Vortex could possibly be viewed as self-indulgent. Its inward-facing intent mines the universal concept of identity in a way that may be too direct and personal for many audiences. But if you have the stamina for Vortex, see it – there are two more performances this week. It defies almost everything you thought you knew about contemporary performance.

Read our review of Compagnie Non Nova's plastic-bag ballet L’Apres-Midi D’un Foehn.