Pomona corporeal mime class thinks outside the imaginary box

Six students in athletic wear face the front of a room covered in black curtains.
Professor Thomas Leabhart teaches a corporeal mime class at Pomona College that meets every weekday. (Luba Masliy • The Student Life)

When you think “mime,” several things might come to mind: a black-and-white striped shirt, painted faces, accordion music and the streets of Paris. But Pomona College’s corporeal mime class steps outside the box of typical miming — there’s no paint in sight.

Corporeal mime is an abstract movement art closely associated with theater and dance, involving fluid movements and performed with the purpose of achieving bodily awareness in the performer and the viewer.

Thomas Leabhart, semi-retired Pomona theater professor and instructor of the corporeal mime class, defines corporeal miming as a deep understanding of the body and the space in which it occupies.

“[Corporeal mime] is being able to know where you are in space, knowing where the body is in space and understanding it,” Leabhart said. “Not on a word level only, but on the word level and the physical engagement level.”

Leabhart has been at Pomona since 1982, serving as the college’s resident artist and professor of theater. Now, semi-retired, he teaches two corporeal mime courses.

Leabhart was careful to distinguish between pantomime and corporeal mime.

“Corporeal mime is not pantomime, as you think of it,” he said. “It is not illusions with ropes and walks and things like that. There are no characters who are walking their dogs with their white painted faces.”

He first learned about the art of corporeal mime during graduate school, when he was introduced to the work of Étienne Decroux, the creator of corporeal mime, in a theater movement class. Decroux, Leabhart said, changed his life. 

“The French have an expression which translates to ‘struck by lightning,’ and that was me — I was struck by lightning,” Leabhart said. “I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

From then on, Leabhart has been regularly involved in corporeal mime. He founded the Mime Journal and has taught mime workshops in France, Japan, Switzerland, Austria and Uruguay.

This semester, each of his students is working toward completing a research project titled “Still Moving,” in which they create a solo performance piece that breaks down the movements of putting on a jacket, inserting corporeal techniques from the class throughout the motion.

Leabhart hopes the project and, more broadly, the class will allow his students to distance themselves from their potentially hectic social and academic lives.

“I want my students [to] have a sense of ease in their bodies and a sense of ease in the space, and the sense of being able to know where they are in the space and to inhabit that space,” Leabhart said. “It’s all about having an easy presence.”

Leabhart’s students can attest to finding ease and honesty within the class, no matter the expectations they held for the class in the past.

“I had a friend who had taken the class multiple times and had been repeatedly recommending it to me,” Yanai Feldman PO ’19. “Coming into the class, I quickly realized how profound a practice corporeal mime is.” 

Abby Smith PO ’23 also took the class based on a recommendation. 

“My [academic] adviser told me about [the class],” she said. “He had heard great things, and all the students he knew of who had taken it talked about it being a transformative experience, not just in terms of the skills that the class gives you in theater, but also about the awareness of your body and movement you gain.”

Curious about taking one of professor Leabhart’s classes in the future?

“[I would recommend] fully committing to it,” Smith said. “I was nervous on the first day of class, but [corporeal miming] isn’t just about your physical movements. It’s bigger than that.”

Miming has not only taught its students how to use their body on stages, but it has also taught them the importance of the relationship between every part of their body. 

Vera Berger PO ’23 agrees — after all, her miming education has transcended the classroom.

“I’ve started to think about [corporeal mime] all the time,” Berger said. “I can’t stop thinking about how my body is moving when I’m not in class. Sometimes I find myself practicing my ‘Still Moving’ research when I’m in line for lunch.”

The corporeal mime class at Pomona College meets every day from 4:15 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. at Seaver Theatre.

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