Pantomime in Cold War Eastern Europe: Bulgaria

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

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Figure 159: Dramatic photo by an unidentified photographer of a complex, unidentified performance possibly involving pantomime in the early 1970s. Much of Cold War Bulgarian performance requires excavation from obscurity to assess its achievements, especially during the period 1971-1981, when Lyudmila Zhivkova (1942-1981), daughter of Bulgarian Communist chief Todor Zhivkov (1911-1998), was a dominant influence on the Committee for Art and Culture. Unlike most Communist cultural authorities, Zhivkova, a controversial figure then and now, encouraged innovation, aesthetic diversification, and some Western influences in the arts. Photo source: Zanko Dimitrov and Marin Marinovski, “Bulgaria–Nation of Youth [България – държава на младежта],” Sofia: Sofia Press, no date [1974], “dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the socialist revolution in Bulgaria,” page 163.


The clown paradigm also prevailed in Cold War Bulgarian pantomime, but not nearly to the extent that it did in Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Indeed, pantomime in Bulgaria was largely the work of two men who worked together for a while, Velyo Goranov (b. 1946) and Peter Mim (b. 1952). Goranov was a student of acting at the National Academy of Theater and Film Arts, as was Mim. They formed a Pantomime Studio in Sofia in 1973 with a performance ensemble called MIMANS. Goranov says that he first became interested in pantomime in 1967, but what precipitated his interest and how he manifested it before 1973 remains very obscure, although Marcel Marceau was evidently a great influence. Both Mim and Goranov constructed clown personas modeled after Chaplin’s Tramp and Marceau’s Bip, but neither has published any description of how they differentiated each other in performance. By 1978, Mim was working as an actor in provincial theaters, eventually becoming a director at the theater in Sliven. He attended workshops given by Tomaszewski and Fialka, and eventually he studied under Tadashi Endo (b. 1947), an especially somber proponent of the Japanese Butoh aesthetic based in Göttingen, Germany. Yet Mim remained committed to the clown paradigm. He developed a precise, vivid impersonation of Charlie Chaplin, even enacting scenes from Chaplin movies like The Gold Rush (1925) to make an entire program, but he cultivated another clown persona, somewhat similar to Marceau’s Bip, though perhaps more macabre. He wore either a white shirt and pants or a black shirt and pants, while the mask remained the same: whiteface with heavily mascared eyes, hugely exaggerated black eyebrows, a bright red mouth, and a bald head in conflict with unruly streams of hair flowing from the sides and back of his head. With the “Mim” character, he has built solo sketches mostly out of the movements of his hands and arms, so that humor is incidental to displaying skillful use of the hands to evoke playing a musical instrument, a bird in flight, picking flowers, or moving along a wall. Finding opportunities for pantomime limited in Bulgaria, Mim migrated to Germany in 1991, where Marceau and Jean Soubeyran had stimulated popular enthusiasm for mime, particularly in schools. In Hannover, he became involved with physical training, mime instruction, and non-verbal communication workshops as well as solo performances in a variety of corporate and public venues. With students, he began to produce ensemble pieces, such as Myths, Mysteries (1994), a sequence of “visual poems,” including “Swan of Tuonela,” “Valse Triste,” “Pygmalion,” and “poems” featuring “Mim,” none of which could be called humorous, even if they emphasized a mood of macabre playfulness. In 1999, he formed his own company, Fenix Theater, to present “dreamlike productions” using fantastically ornate costumes and masks with lights embedded in them, so that the “bizarre beings” exude a polychromatic translucence. Since 2005, he has run his own school, Mimart Studio, and most of his life has subsequently focused on organizing and leading a constant program of workshops, courses, and demonstrations. One of his more interesting “Mim” pantomimes shows him actually painting a picture following the outline of a female body in black tights pressed against the back of the canvas and visible to Mim and the audience. The body moves and Mim paints the contours of the body, creating the image of a body either in movement or transformed into a kind of expressionist deformity. Cello music accompanies the act of painting. Mim completes the painting and drops to his knees to make movements with his hands. The model comes from the painting to observe the result. She assumes poses similar to those painted expressionistically. The piece seems preoccupied with the relation between the physical action that creates the expressionistic brushstroke/image and the physical action that creates an expressionistic pantomime. But despite the genuine power of the painting he creates, Mim reveals a deep uncertainty about the relation he dramatizes rather than an insight into it. As a performance the piece is simply not as a strong as what may have inspired it, namely the action painting-performance art of the German expressionist artist Barbara Heinisch (b. 1944), who, since the 1970s, has treated the act of painting as a performance, wherein a nude female body behind the canvas is the model for the figure that Heinisch paints onto the canvas, accompanied by dark, often avant-garde music. When Heinisch decides that the painting is complete, she tears the canvas, and the model steps through the torn section, as if emerging out of a vagina in the image. The painting always has the tear in it, as if to signify a convulsive violence involved in the representation of the body. Although Heinisch has done this performance for decades, it still manages to retain a visceral intensity. Mim does not satirize Heinisch’s performance, nor does he use her performance as a basis for an alternative (or maybe non-feminist) understanding of the painter’s and the model’s contrasting relations to the image. It feels like he wants to imitate Heinisch while omitting the nudity and the “wound” to his own creation. But the resulting performance seems timid, with the painting completely eclipsing the actions that produced it. But this timidity, which perhaps results from a desire to assimilate (imitate) German expressionism instead of emerging out of it, is typical of so much mime culture that, through the harmless, friendly clown figure, strives simply to please audiences rather than move them to a dynamic relationship with representation. 

Meanwhile, Goranov, who characterizes himself as “a loner,” toured widely with the Pantomime Studio, but with his deep, resonant voice, he also acted in numerous Bulgarian films and TV shows throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Although he was friends with Marceau and hosted him in Bulgaria, Goranov did not want to emulate Marceau’s mime style. Yet he was unable to develop a pantomimic identity without a Pierrot-type clown persona. However, his clown persona was ironic, almost a tragic mask: a whiteface with black tears smearing his cheeks and a red mouth blotched as if it were bleeding. He performed traditional solo routines with this mask—the wall, the flower picking, the attempt to sit comfortably—which made them seem much less humorous or charming than pathetically poignant. He liked directing as much as acting, so he always wanted to work with an ensemble. Much of the ensemble work consisted of adaptations of well-known stories and literary works (Don Quixote, Don Giovanni), the most successful being, perhaps, his 1985 slapstick, pantomimic version of the long comic Czech novel The Good Soldier Švejk (1921-1923), by Jaroslav Hašek (1883-1923). While touring in Mexico in 1986, members of his ensemble considered remaining in America, and to bring the group back to Bulgaria, the government offered to give Goranov his own theater. The group returned and Goranov got a theater, but that was only the beginning of “all sorts of violent battles to survive.” Members of the company deserted him, and it proved oppressively difficult to find money to keep the theater going. With the collapse of the Communist regime, the situation did not improve much. Goranov borrowed money at extortionate rates to sustain the theater, which, since 1988, operated under the name Movement Theater. The Culture Ministry appointed him the official director of the theater, but he had to raise money for own salary, so for a while he gathered funds by running a junk collection business. He describes the period 1987 to 1997 as like living “in a pirana tank. It was just hell,” according to an interview with him in the Bulgarian language Business Weekly (online June 9, 2001). With the Movement Theater, Goranov tried to synthesize pantomime, dance, acrobatics, and slapstick, and he even produced (1996?) a pantomime depicting the voluptuous extravagances of the Roman Empire (Teatur Dvijenie 2012). He clearly wanted to create a “serious” kind of pantomime, but Bulgarian society remained locked into a mime culture modeled by Marcel Marceau. For years, he acted in and directed plays, and although he finally received official awards for becoming the “greatest Bulgarian pantomime,” he decided to celebrate his seventieth birthday in 2016 by performing with much success one-man dramas: The Grand Inquisitor, from the poem in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880) and Samuel Beckett’s one-act play Krapp’s Last Tape (1958). Bulgarian pantomime remains almost entirely devoted to the Marceau/Pierrot charming clown paradigm, with Alexander Iliev (b. 1956), a student of Barrault and an instructor of mime and physical theater at the National Academy of Theater and Film Arts, perhaps the most prominent representative of the style, which he combines with instruction related to techniques of the commedia dell’arte. He published between 1993 and 1997 an enormous, four-volume treatise, Towards a Theory of Mime, some of which has been translated into English (2014), a very convoluted work, stuffed with the many exercises that are a central obsession of mime culture and suffused with much mystical Asian or New Age philosophy regarding the body’s relation to things like “matter,” “energy,” and “time.” But the book does contain a comprehensive bibliography of Russian language books on pantomime, which could be the basis for a major reappraisal of pantomime within Russia during the Soviet era. Even so, Bulgaria’s attachment to the Marceau/Pierrot pantomime paradigm was not due entirely to Russian or Communist tolerance of the paradigm as a symbol of “the people” or of some kind of harmless, popular image of “humanity.” The paradigm also held because it represented an idea of “the West,” of the solitary, independent performer, who needed no words, no speech, or no one else to construct an identity for him or herself, no matter how generic that identity might be and no matter that the paradigm (as opposed to Marceau himself) was never especially popular as a performing art, even in the West no more than in Bulgaria. The paradigm functioned to signify a Western “way of life,” an accessible, exercise-driven, therapeutic-hygienic “discipline” that enabled the performer to construct an appealing, likeable, yet strangely “human” identity unencumbered by the pressures of a text, a theater, a society, or even a market to become anyone other than this charming clown the performer has made her/himself. The paradigm was an image of freedom.

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