“It’s not been easy to describe our work to people,” admits Silent Partners founder and Artistic Director Hilarie Burke.
Maybe that’s because “mime” still brings to mind the old-school brand of that art form — the guy in white face trying to escape the invisible box, or maybe Charlie Chaplin tottering across a grainy screen.
“There’s not a lot of mime or movement-theater groups in the U.S.,” explains Burke, who studied at the American Mime Theatre in New York City. “It’s much more common in Europe,” she notes. In fact, she’s reluctant to apply the term to her nontraditional troupe, calling what they do “an intentionally stylized movement form — but that’s also acting.”
Burke headed south in ’84, planning to start her own mime company, and made it happen by the following year. Through its 17 years, Silent Partners has consisted of Burke and one other actor. She’s worked with five women, all professional dancers — plus her daughter, Calliope Porter, a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill’s theater program. (While Silent Partners’ latest production, Haiku Suites, will include excerpts from Burke and Porter’s full-length collaboration, Girls Wear Shirts — about mothers, daughters and sexual awareness — Porter won’t be the next Silent Partner: She’s off to Chicago to pursue an acting career.)
Currently, Silent Partners is Burke and Yoko Myoi. Originally from Hiroshima, Japan, Myoi came to North Carolina to study dance.
Haiku Suites references the production’s short, dense, concise vignettes and the overall use of visual metaphor, much like the project’s poetic namesake. And speaking of names, Silent Partners hardly lives up to its own designation. There’s no traditional dialogue, but sounds — music, chatter and taped vocals — all support the drama.
“We often use audio collage,” Burke explains. Sometimes sound is a central prop, as in “Shoulds,” a piece where a girl is bossed around by a giant pointing index finger while a schizophrenic tape recording tells her what she should do — everything from changing her diet to wearing more colors.
“Any prop,” Burke insists, “has to make the piece more understandable, and has to make sense.” It’s a matter of being succinct — these are haikus. Sometimes the result is minimalist, as in “White Suits,” where gender-obscuring costumes, black light and music by the Kronos Quartet complete the set. The dance, a coupling of clinging and distancing moves, depicts the polar aspects of many relationships.
Other pieces are more elaborate: “Fusion Game” involves two characters moving about the stage in completely separate dances, both wearing costumes covered in geometric shapes. They represent the interactions of different cultures, and, as the performance proceeds, the characters begin to exchange pieces of their costumes, blending their personalities along the way.
Each piece uses humor to push its message across — but the group’s funniest performances are often its most disturbing. “Novelty Sweater,” a deeply witty statement about the advertising and fashion industry, offers a character consumed (literally) by a piece of designer clothing. “Jackie,” the most verbal piece, presents a know-it-all who mistreats her pet while she attempts to care for it.
“I have to find the universality of what I’m trying to say,” says Burke. No piece escapes the realm of social commentary, with works addressing body image, perfectionism and conflict in relationships.
Talking about her work, Burke concedes, “We do depend on other people for input and feedback.” She remains in touch with past partners, often soliciting their help.
“It’s very important to me that we not work in a void.”