Pantomime in Cold War Eastern Europe: Pantomime in Soviet Russia

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

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Figure 155: Russian dancer and pantomime Alexander Rumnev around 1924. He experimented with pantomime in a modernist vein in the 1920s and 1930s and eventually established an experimental pantomime studio in Moscow in 1962. He was a great influence on Evgenii Kharitonov. Photo: The Calvert Journal (2022).

Pantomime in Soviet Russia

During the Cold War, mime culture in the West generally distanced itself from the term “pantomime,” which many mime practitioners and schools, including Decroux, regarded as old-fashioned, a word associated with a non-modern form of speechless performance that lacked a sufficiently abstract vision of bodily signification or evoked a reactionary nostalgia for naïve storytelling or failed to reveal actors (rather than characters or scenarios) as the engines of performance. In the East bloc countries, however, the word “pantomime” acquired different connotations and speechless performers self-consciously used the word to describe their work. But pantomime in the East appears to have begun in response to performances of Western mime in Eastern cities, specifically Marcel Marceau’s tour in 1955, although Marceau had already performed in Berlin for a couple of months in 1951. Following “the thaw” in Communist Party control over culture in October 1956, Henryk Tomaszewski established his Pantomime Studio in Wroclaw, Poland and Robert Liger founded the Riga Pantomime Company in Latvia the same year, perhaps the earliest manifestations of pantomime in the Soviet bloc, although Kathleen Cioffi mentions several Polish student groups in Gdansk in the period 1954-1956 that specialized in visual theater without attempting pantomime (2013: 72). Neither Tomaszewski nor Liger regarded Marceau as an aesthetic model, but Marceau’s performances in the East may have signaled that the culture ministers of the Communist Party might allow public performance of pantomime. Previous to 1956, the Party regarded pantomime as an old category of dance put under the exclusive control and regulation of state ballet companies. Further pantomime activities appeared in the German Democratic Republic (1957), Czechoslovakia (1958), Hungary (1958), Estonia (1963), Lithuania (1967), and Bulgaria (1973). Apparently pantomime did not appear in Romania until 1990, after the fall of the Communist regime, when the stage and film actor Mihai Mălaimare (b. 1950), a student of Jacques Lecoq, founded the Masca Theater in Bucharest. Much information about pantomime in the Soviet era remains buried in national and personal archives, awaiting discovery and wider dissemination. Yet the history of pantomime requires acknowledgement, even if merely tentative and suffused with uncertainties, of the unique contributions of the Soviet era to that history. 

The attitude toward pantomime by Party leaders in Moscow cast a deep shadow across the Eastern bloc. In the Soviet Union itself, even after 1956, pantomime was a suspicious genre of performance, managed by ballet academies or, after 1960, handled as a category of clown performance by the State School of Circus Art. Soviet films often included skillful pantomimic moments in a realistic vein, but such moments had their pedagogic framework in performance labs dedicated to cinematic acting. Russians often use the word “pantomime” to refer, not to voiceless theatrical performances, but to “plastic expression,” to the study of how actors use their bodies for dramatic effect, a meaning similar to the term “movement for the stage” in the West. Alexander Rumnev (1899-1965), who had worked with Tairov at the Moscow Chamber Theater in the 1920s, done choreography for musicals in the 1930s, and acted in films, supervised a pantomime laboratory and course at the State Institute of Cinematography from 1944 to 1965 (cf. Ruggiero 1996; Ruggiero 1999). In 1962, with film actors, he formed an Experimental Theater-Studio of Pantomime, called EXTEMIM, which produced a half dozen works mostly inspired by old literary sources. When the theater began to find audiences in Moscow and elsewhere, the government shut it down, though perhaps not because the group’s pantomime performances violated ideological doctrines. Rumnev also published a couple of books on pantomime in 1962, 1964 and 1966, in which, among many other things, he asserted that pantomime was not a bourgeois art, but an art expressive of working class struggles and aspirations. His focus was largely on cinematic pantomime, but he acknowledged the great influence of Delsarte, Charles Dullin, the Dalcrozian advocate Sergei Volkonsky (1860-1937), and Stanislavsky, who emphasized the importance of the silence between words (Rumnev 1962: 5-7). In pantomime, however, unlike in dance, “the best gesture is that which is perhaps unnoticed” (8). While he devised exercises to help students learn to “to divide energy, weight, speed and range of movements,” it is clear that Rumnev saw pantomimic performance emerging most successfully out of the performer’s relation to accompanying music. He also believed that pantomime was most powerful when it had a literary source: pedestrian and mundane actions must achieve a quality that is both poetic and realistic, as demonstrated in the writings of authors like Pushkin and Gogol (8-13). With the allegorical pantomime Africa, staged by EXTEMIM in 1962, Rumnev intended a socialist example of his art. The piece showed how black people in Africa (performed by white men and women wearing black body stockings and white belts) danced happily until the arrival of the white colonizer (a single male in a white uniform and white pith helmet), whom the blacks greet affably. But the white colonizer soon draws a gun on them and forces them into slavery and exhaustion. The blacks gather in secret, they conspire, they drive away the white colonizer, and they signify their freedom (Rumnev 1964: 234; cf. Kayiatos 2012: 72-74). With complacent disregard for historical reality, Rumnev also claimed that pantomime had its origin “in the people among the crowd on the street” and that “from the people’s theater came the pantomime plays of the Italian comedians” (Rumnev 1964: 13; Kayiatos 2012: 63). Party leaders seemed to believe that pantomime, as a separate performance genre, was an inadequate instrument for transmitting or articulating class-consciousness, Marxist-Leninist ideology, or Party political goals. Yet the idea that pantomime represented a “dissident,” subversive, or resistant cultural activity should not be assumed. Because pantomime producers avoided the censorship imposed on dramatic texts does not mean that they sought to imbue their productions with a dissident attitude or that they, like some dramatic theater productions, sought to encode their performances with an ambiguous signification constituting a veiled critique of the regime that somehow escaped the scrutiny of the regime’s guardians. People who wanted to do pantomime in the East probably had motives for doing it similar to those of pantomime people in the West. But people in the East worked in societies that were pervasively suspicious of any cultural activity that was not explicitly in accord with the Party’s prescriptions for affirming and promoting its political goals. For this reason, people who ventured into pantomime in the East assumed risks that people in the West were much less likely to face. In the Soviet Union itself, pantomime outside of its use in traditional ballet, functioned primarily in clown circus performances featuring sometimes amazing juggling acts, acrobatic stunts, and slapstick gags. However, the Armenian-Russian clown, Leonid Yengibarov (1935-1972), a 1959 graduate of the State School for Circus Art, after much difficulty in relation to initially unreceptive audiences, developed a pantomimic component to his stunt-packed clown act, which involved projecting a kind of Chaplinesque poetic persona. By the mid-1960s, this poetic clown persona had become immensely popular throughout the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc because Yengibarov introduced elements of pathos and resisted the assumption that clowns must always be funny. In his clown costume, which included a striped T-shirt and slim dark trousers but often no whiteface, he explored a sort of expressionist gymnastics wherein he dramatized the melancholy, solitary process of testing his body to achieve unusual balance or pliancy. He became “the clown with autumn in his heart.” In 1971, he left circus performance to form a pantomime theater with his friend and teacher Yuri Belov, whom the government forbade to join any foreign tours. The pantomime theater would present solo autobiographical pantomimes related to the theme “the Quirks of a Clown.” These pantomimes were both “happy and sad,” capable of revealing the pain inflicted on the body and spirit of the clown as a result of endless practicing and an incredible, exhausting touring schedule, which only exacerbated his problems with alcohol. But the Culture Ministry refused to permit Yengibarov to use the term “theater” to describe his “troupe.” Nevertheless, he toured relentlessly while also appearing in films and publishing numerous stories before dying of a heart attack at the age of 37. The pantomime troupe made only one production of solo pantomimes, Starry Rain, and after Yengibarov’s death, pantomime in Russia remained almost implacably embedded in circus clown performance, which, however, cast its influence over the development of pantomime in some satellite countries of the Eastern bloc (Yengibarov Archive; cf. Beumers 2005: 186-192 on Russian circus choreography). Rumnev asserted that the Moscow Youth Festival of 1957 produced the first international pantomime competition, which led to the “renaissance of pantomime as a self-sufficient art” in the Soviet Union; pantomime groups from China and North Korea, he observed, contributed significantly to awareness of pantomime as an art (1964: 13). But he didn’t explain the relation of the “renaissance” to subsequent international pantomime competitions, assuming the existence of a “first” one. Anatasia Kayiatos further proposes that Culture Minister Ekaterina Furtseva (1910-1974) “was so smitten with Marcel Marceau” that she encouraged the development of a Soviet idea of pantomime. Kayiatos provides a “brief” listing of eight “post-Stalin pantomime troupes in Moscow and Leningrad” (2012: 36). But aside from the pantomimes produced by Rumnev’s EKTEMIM studio, the evidence is lacking to show that these groups functioned as anything more than academic studios for the supposedly “scientific” study of bodily expression for actors or worked outside of the clown paradigm of pantomime performance. Cultural policy favored the cultivation of the clown paradigm, the wily, resilient Chaplinesque comic persona, as the symbol of “the people,” as the representative of the “voiceless” genius of determined, industrious, good-humored workers, although this situation was not much different in its effects than in the West, where mime, rather than pantomime, had become almost entirely identified with comic/clown performance by the 1970s, especially in the United States.     

Perhaps the most adventurous pantomime performance in the Soviet Union came from the poet, theater director, and teacher of acting and pantomime at the State Film Institute, Evgenii Kharitonov (1941-1981), who was indeed a dissident, especially in his defense of homosexuality. He also worked part time at Moscow State University studying speech defects. He was a student of Rumnev, whose own career faltered due to suspicions of homosexuality after the enactment of the 1933 anti-sodomy law (Misler 1999: 99; Kayiatos 2012: 178, 181-182). Rumnev was a dancer of great elegance and “aristocratic” physiognomy in the 1920s, alluringly photographed, and in those years he glorified nude male dancing. For him, “Pantomime was really about the beauty of the male and not the female body” (Kayiatos 2012: 178; cf., Misler 2017: 197, 201, 214, 221-223). According to Kayiatos, Rumnev introduced “a new conception of plastic beauty with his pantomimic dance, which Kharitonov took up, altered, and expanded in his own right,” for “Kharitonov venerated Rumnev as something of a living relic” from a more “ecstatic” time in Russian history (180-181). In 1972, Kharitonov completed a dissertation for the State Cinematography School On Pantomime in the Instruction of the Film Actor. In this work, he avoided treating pantomime as the cultural-anthropological phenomenon described by other Soviet commentators on the subject, including Rumnev; instead, he adopted a semiotic approach inspired by the scholarship of the famous Estonian-Russian semiotician Yuri Lotman (1922-1993). Kharitonov argued that pantomime follows a principle of “dynamic opposition,” whereby the body achieves expressive power through a “natural” or “non-normative” tension between one body part and another. Pantomime creates signs or bodily tensions that have meaning only in relation to other signs that are unique to the specific context and occasion of performance; each pantomime “composition” creates its own distinct emotional values that produce a distinctive set of corporeal dynamic oppositions. “The ‘canon of dynamic opposition’ introduced by Kharitonov does not have a prescriptive character, but is created by the investigator every time for his own purposes.” Pantomimic action is therefore never normative even in relation to the performance of different pantomimes. Ballet is “unnatural,” because it always results from imposing on the body an external semiotic system, which in effect produces a normative mode of signification, for the norm is the goal of the system. Similarly, the movement of the body in daily life, which cinematic pantomime attempts to simulate, especially under the concept of “socialist realism,” is unnatural yet normative, because it is the result of a social system for controlling and constraining dynamic tensions within the body, so that bodies within an entire society act according to a norm that prevents them from signifying “natural” and potentially “alienating” emotions (Larionov 2017: 187-189; cf., Kayiatos 2012: 142-151). On one level, the dissertation explained the logic by which the Party discouraged any serious idea of pantomime. But then Kharitonov applied the theory in a manner that undermined the goals of the Party in following the logic. 

Kharitonov was a director at the Moscow Theater of Mimicry and Gesture, founded in 1962 by the Russian Society of the Deaf, which managed the company. Mostly the company staged classical plays in which deaf actors communicated the texts in a sign language and mouthed the words, as they had learned from lip-reading instruction, while voices off stage spoke the dialogue in the texts, with the result that the performances were not pantomimes but more closely resembled ventriloquist acts or puppet shows. Both deaf and hearing audiences had difficulty understanding the action, and by the early 1970s the company received criticism for the staleness of its productions (Kayiatos 2010: 13-14). The Society decided to experiment with pantomime as a form of performance that might more fully engage audiences and the talents of deaf actors. Kharitonov’s academic background in pantomime and in speech defects made him an appropriate choice to produce a pantomime. With this opportunity, he was able to apply his theory of pantomime to the production of a pantomime, The Enchanted Island, which received 66 performances between 1972 and 1980. The scenario consisted of three acts, “in which a jealous Prosperian sorcerer magically shape-shifts a pair of shipwrecked lovers into all manners of being; all the while the lovers remain resolute in their insatiable search for one another’s touch. Some of the fantastic aspects assumed by the actors include a touching trio of palm trees; an invisible man and a married couple; a military commander, his cross-dressed maid, and a lovelorn cavalryman, a cave-dwelling Cyclops, his companion monkey, and their marooned human captive” (Kayiatos 2012: 105). Kharitonov never published his scenario, so knowledge of the production comes largely from interviews with some of the performers conducted by Anastasia Kayiatos in 2009. The piece was neither tragic nor comic, but instead created an atmosphere of “enchantment,” in which pantomime unfolds in a theatrical environment where human bodies are free to metamorphose, to discover the limits of their abilities to change their identities or assume new identities. “Supernatural beings become human; humans try on contradictory identities, crossing lines of gender, age, social class, and so on. In and out of turn, they morph into inanimate objects, plants, then animals and back again” (113). As Kharitonov explained, the guiding motive was the sorcerer’s “curiosity to see beings created differently than he” (113). Many transformations of identities take place, such as a trio of palm trees turns into human dancers, while a woman desired by an invisible man turns into an airplane and flies off. The invisible man, seeking to escape the blows inflicted on him by a street crowd that does not see him, enters the apartment of a married couple, where he tries to emulate them by looking into a mirror. But he doesn’t see anything until he paints himself, and what he sees fills him with “great happiness” (114). Despite their various transformations, the shipwrecked heterosexual lovers do not end up with each other. Especially interesting was the display of the performer’s bodies. Some performers, male and female, wore netted body stockings that made them seem vaguely reptilian while simultaneously revealing much of their human nakedness. Other male performers were nearly nude, except for very small briefs. In the guest commentary book provided by the theater, some spectators complained about the nudity and others said they did not understand what they had seen. Yet every year for ten years, the company performed the piece several times, and the public apparently regarded the work as representative of an advanced, experimental path of theatrical art. Unfortunately, Kayiatos does not describe well how the principle of dynamic opposition works in the piece. Presumably the principle entailed bodily tensions, for example, in the simultaneous impersonation of a palm tree and a dancer or a human and a flying airplane. But how the body achieved these “oppositions” remains unclear. Kayiatos stresses at length the importance of the production as a dissident example of marginalized queer performance in a highly repressive society (2012: 152-172). But equally important was the idea of the “enchanted island” as a place where non-normative configurations of signs occur, where the signification of a palm tree is relative to the signification of a dancer or airplane or the invisibility of a body that anyone in the audience can see, even if the audience, conditioned to expect normative bodily significations to give “meaning” to performance, does not understand that the body signifies these identities. Kharitonov’s insight was that only non-normative pantomimic configurations of bodily gestures allow the body to signify its metamorphosis from one identity to another. Embedded within this concept of metamorphosis is the implication that sexual identity and sexual orientation are fluid, which is one of the uniquely liberating “enchantments” of pantomime. This linking of non-normative bodily signification to metamorphosis is very close to the ancient Roman imperial idea of pantomime as a sign system unique and relative to the performer’s repertoire of scenes rather than to a semiotic system “shared” by all who claimed the status of pantomime. In imperial Roman society, the government never regarded the representation of metamorphosis through a non-normative set of pantomimic significations as fundamentally dangerous to social order, and indeed, one might even argue, though probably not persuasively, that the imperial government used the non-normative significations of pantomime as a normative mode of theater to suppress normative significations of public speech that would threaten social order. In the totalitarian society of the Soviet Union, the non-normative significations of pantomime as Kharitonov applied them could exist only in relation to the very small, non-normative (“defective”) social sector of deaf people; otherwise, such “dynamic oppositions” fail as an “art of the people,” because their ambiguity threatens the stable, normative categories of identity that define “the people.” Kharitonov contemplated other pantomime productions, but these never materialized, presumably because, like nearly all of his literary writing, they linked pantomime with homosexual or non-normative sexual desires. He became a target of KGB surveillance, harassment, and interrogation, which then filled his life with suffocating terror. He died of a heart attack on the street while carrying some of his manuscripts, which he could not even publish in the underground samizdat press, due to the hostility toward homosexuality (further complicated by Kharitonov’s virulent anti-Semitism) within the dissident subculture. Even after his death, the KGB hunted down as many of his manuscripts as it could locate and confiscated them. The state made clear: Kharitonov exemplified the conditions under which pantomime became a dangerous, self-destructive activity. 

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