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What’s a Mummenschanz?

That question has puzzled everyone, even those who might have a clue, for more than four decades.

It has traveled the globe, been witnessed by generations, studied in universities, mimicked by bright, inventive minds. And yet, no one knows what a, or the, or Mr. or Mrs. Mummenschanz is. It is every answer you can come up with, is the answer.

In explicit terms, it is a masked mime company founded and based in Switzerland. Some might attach puppetry, theater or dance descriptors to it, but it defies those limited parameters; even mummery – mime performance – doesn’t quite prepare you.

Mummenschanz faithfully borrows, contorts and subverts all of those, underwriting those artistic expressions with the disciplined rules of athleticism, science and mathematics. It pulls together these incongruous realities, erases all mechanical lines of construction or planning, and just lets the organic magic of it all do its thing

The stage is bare and black, lighting only the smallest space necessary. Performers’ bodies are visible, though only if you look for them. All you can really see are the fabric – and synthetic material-lined body suits into which these mimes are somehow stuffed. They are large, three-dimensional blobs, parallelograms, vague figures and everyday inanimate objects. They are recognizable and familiar as the things you use and own, yet they invent new personalities as they redefine their dimensions.

A bouncing green circle becomes a Pac Man-like hungry mouth. A long, corrugated tube, taller than the tallest man, becomes a sympathetic loner. A body-size sheet of paper becomes a winking face, then a crumpled mess, then a floating leaf.

You won’t really believe the mammoth air-puffed plastic bag people, whose limbs hurl themselves at each other with the grace of slow motion and the strength of such pressure. You won’t handle the large human hands that open the show, giving itself high-fives and giving you a thumbs up.

It’s just all too surreal to be true, but believable enough to accept. And in that is a great abundance of joy.

If it sounds too abstract or simple to be extraordinary, look again; look closer, without prejudice. Look at the possibilities of a circle, the serenity of its fluidity and the objects in our world, mammoth and miniscule, made of that shape. Look at the opportunity in light, how its values entirely refocus our perception.

Mummenschanz – to attempt definition again, foolishly, unavoidably – is explicitly about this brave act of looking.

It implies that all things of the physical world, either organic or synthetic, are cut from the same cloth, and therefore worth adopting.

They, and our lives, are blank canvases for exploration, distortion, expression and composition.

And it’s not all so esoteric. Many performances in this tour, which celebrates the best pieces of the company’s 40-year repertoire, are visible precursors to other similarly abstract motifs. Cirque du Soleil’s bodyless dancing coats, Missy Elliott’s bulbous plastic bag suits, Pixar’s perky desk lamp, every Instagrammed cell phone light painting, and certainly every piece of edible and non-edible wardrobe worn by Lady Gaga – they’ve all borrowed from the basic principles expressed in Mummenschanz’s work.

Wonder what you’re looking at, and inquire of its origins. Examine your components, surfaces and textures, and insist on other angles. Don’t take what you see for granted, and don’t take it for any absolute truth. Trust that even without meaning, something can still be beautiful, and that alone can be its purpose.

Dance Review

“Mummenschanz”

Friday evening in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts Mainstage Theatre on the North Campus, Amherst.