Gendered Perspectives on Modernist Pantomime: Ilka Schönbein

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

Ilka Schönbein

Since the 1970s, some members of a younger generation of female pantomimes received their educations outside of the mime culture defined by Decroux and his disciples. As a result, these women have produced a different understanding of the body’s relation to narrative, although they may, as Pinok and Matho contend, represent the postmodern trend toward blurring distinctions between pantomime and other arts. A good example of a female pantomime who evolved from a different heritage is the German performer Ilka Schönbein, born in Darmstadt around 1963 (no one has published her birthdate). She studied eurythmic movement at the Eurythmeum School established in Stuttgart in 1921 by the anthroposophic educator and philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), who advocated a “spiritual” relation of bodily movement to light, color, space, and music according to a mystical system or “language” of gesture affiliated with natural and geometric forms (cf. Veit 1985). Schönbein then studied with the famous Stuttgart marionetteer Albrecht Roser (1922-2011), who was a protégé of the Swabian marionetteer Fritz Herbert Bross (1910-1976), a mechanical engineer descended from a woodcarving family; he developed a successful process for manufacturing string puppets. A major inspiration for both Bross and Roser was the theoretical story-essay “Über das Marionettentheater” (1810), by Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811). In the story, the narrator describes his encounter with a dancer who explains that marionettes achieve a superior level of graceful movement because, without consciousness, their movements always submit to a center of gravity, which is “either no consciousness or consciousness without limit: either the jointed doll or the god,” whereas human dancers, with only limited consciousness (or excessive self-consciousness), struggle constantly to escape gravity and in their struggle they impair their gracefulness (Kleist 2014: 4). Roser achieved immense popularity with his Clown Gustaf marionette, and Schönbein worked with him for several years, touring widely with his marionette production of Don Juan (1988). But in the early 1990s, she broke away from the marionette heritage and perhaps also from the eurythmic concept of bodily movement to form her Theater Meschugge, a word derived from Yiddish, meaning “crazy” or “wild.” She gave her first performances in streets and in market squares, often in France.

In the marionette theater, the marionette dominates perception of the performance, which results from the movements of the “invisible” human body pulling the strings of the figure seen by the spectator. Schönbein wanted a more intimate, physical connection with the puppet, so that the puppet became an extension of her own body. Her first production was Metamorphosen (1994), which she revised several times in the ensuing years. The production consisted of several scenes in which Schönbein incarnated female figures from pre-war Eastern European villages. The scenes were bizarre, eerie, grotesque, expressionistic, and suffused with an intense melancholy. One of the most powerful scenes showed a thin, pallid, pregnant woman wearing a brown slip who suddenly goes into labor, sinking to the floor with her mouth wide open, lifting her legs straight up, and holding the position until the tiny arm of the enfant begins flipping out from between her legs. A haunting Jewish lullaby accompanies the entire scene. Eventually the entire baby crawls out; the woman sits up, her mouth still open, as if she is in shock. The baby twitches beside her, and the baby is really grotesque. But the mother studies it carefully and then gently lifts it toward her, rolling it along her arm, as her open mouth morphs into a smile of awe. She lovingly cradles the twitching baby in her hands, then brings it to her breasts. The music stops, and the spectator hears only the sound of the baby clawing at the mother’s breast. She lowers her slip so that the baby can suck her breast (Lipus 2008). The puppet baby is an amazing creation in that Schönbein is able to manipulate, with one hand, all its legs and arms and to open the mouth of its oversized head to form an image of wailing. The baby seems like a monstrosity, and the mother’s loving gestures are disconcerting, perverse, even demonic, for the piece is not a glorification of a mother’s transcendent love for her baby in spite of its grotesqueness. It is about a mother who loves her baby because it is grotesque, because it is the monster it needs to be to survive in a dark, loveless world without mother. Schönbein’s movements are bold, clear, suffused with tenderness without being exaggerated. She first performed the piece on the street, but in the best video performance of it, the action takes place in some kind of dingy washroom with a suitcase, which amplify the sense that the woman is utterly alone in giving birth. Another scene from Metamorphosen presents a little blonde girl in a yellow dress sitting on the lap of an ominous woman whose face is a silver mask and whose body is enshrouded in a dark wimple-dress. The little girl moves her bare feet, which are the feet of the performer. Music begins: an old Yiddish tune song by a child. The little girl moves her feet to the rhythm of the song, as if dancing on the woman’s lap. When the child becomes too restless, the mother clenches the girl, who turns her head upward, and shakes her head, warning the child not to become so agitated. The child sulks and smolders, then begins to move her feet again. But she resists following her impulse, becomes alert and turns to her mother, who whispers into her ear. The child slumps, the mother stands. The girl straightens her dress and again starts tapping her feet to the song. She swings her entire body energetically, but when the song comes to an end, sinks back into her mother’s lap. Mother and daughter turn and pick up a metal pot and shake it to produce the sound of coins rattling in it. They walk slowly forward and away (Heike 2011). The mask and the puppet possess a gripping vividness without being altogether realistic, just as the movements, again, are bold without being exaggerated—indeed, the piece focuses on the necessity of restraining the body. The theme of the piece may be that the mother must restrain the daughter’s kinetic impulses to preserve a kind of humble, austere dignity that will improve their success at begging. A third scene depicts a young, unmasked woman in a worn, faded bridal veil and dark dress holding a bouquet of roses as she sways to a gentle klezmer waltz. She gazes at herself in a mirror. She lifts from behind the roses the mask of a young man with a black hat and hides her own face behind it. The man’s eyes seem closed, as if he is in a deep trance. He inhales the fragrance of the roses. Then he drops the roses, and he and the woman sway to the music. The woman embraces him with her left hand while he embraces her with his right. They sway as if in a deep rapture. The man pulls from his pocket a ring, slips it onto her left hand, and brings her hand reverently to his cheek. Then he pushes her hand away and sinks his head, revealing hers again, as she cradles him protectively (Heike 2011). The piece seems to be a woman’s fantasy of inspiring the love of a man who does not actually see her, who lives only within her. The video was shot in what looks like a theater dressing room, yet the action evokes a remote time and place—somewhere in a poverty-stricken Eastern Europe before the war—and it is as if these eerie figures from some “other” land haunt, not the stage of the theater, but spaces backstage, the place where actors don their costumes and masks, the institution itself, as well as the body of the performer. 

Metamorphosen opened up opportunities for Schönbein, almost entirely in the form of invitations to perform at various festivals and small theaters. She met the French marionettist and theater director Alexandre Haslé (b. 1965) while working on Metamorphosen, and they collaborated on her next production, Le Roi Grenouille (1998), based on the 1810 Grimm fairy tale of a sad princess, rather grotesque herself, who encounters a frog but treats him with disdain. However, she allows him to sleep on her pillow, where he transforms into a handsome man. Haslé and Schönbein toured with this production for three years; he then departed to form in Paris his own theater company involving puppets and a more comic world-view. Schönbein’s next production was Winterreise (2003), an enactment of the gloomy 1827 poem-cycle of the same name by Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827), set to the songs of the poems composed by Franz Schubert (1797-1828), except that Schönbein used accordion rather than piano accompaniment for the singer, who was a counter tenor rather than tenor. The song cycle describes the bleak, nocturnal winter wandering of a young man who has lost his beloved to another man. Snow, silence, and darkness are everywhere. Death pervades his mind. Lights and radiant memories are mere illusions. He encounters a crow, a snowstorm, a cemetery, and in the end he meets a sinister organ grinder, whom even dogs fear. But Schönbein made the protagonist a pregnant woman and employed many more masks, prostheses, and puppet effects than in Metamorphosen. Despite the extraordinary inventiveness of the production, she could not find a “home” for her art. Germany had no “place” for her, and she lived for the most part out of a camper truck (Tanzfilminstitut 2007). In France, she received support through complicated co-productions involving different theaters and municipal-national grants (Ksamka 2016: 3). In 2006, she produced Chair de ma chair, an adaptation of the autobiographical novel Why Is the Child Cooking in the Polenta? (1999) by the Swiss-Romanian writer Aglaja Veteranyi (1962-2002). The book describes the severely dysfunctional life of an émigré Romanian circus family as seen by an illiterate daughter, Olinka. The production presented nine scenes of sordid family life as circus acts. A “clown angel” (Nathalie Pagnac) sitting at a typewriter spoke words from the book that accompanied Schönbein’s pantomimic embodiment of the thoughts and fears being spoken. These include the alcoholic father’s incestuous violation of Olinka, Olinka’s fear that her mother will have a terrible accident as a trapeze performer, and the mother’s prostitution of her daughter. Schönbein concentrated on the tormented mother-daughter relationship, but she attached to her body a variety of masks and prostheses to create the impression of a body inhabited by multiple demons and monstrosities or, as Marion Girard-Laterre (2011: n.p.) puts it, a “teratogenic process attacks the body.” For this production, Schönbein made masks resembling her own face and prostheses molded from her own very thin body in an effort to dissolve the distinction between her body and the puppets, for as she had already proposed: “Little by little, I cut all the threads of my puppets and allowed them to come closer and closer to me. Since that time, there is no longer any thread or stick between the puppet and me; in their place I always experiment with new handling techniques using my own body, I play with the hands, with the feet, with the head or the buttocks” (Girard-Laterre 2011: n.p). With Chair de ma chair, she used more than one mask at the same time on her body, and she manipulated prosthetic arms and torsos to show how multiple identities feed off of her body or, as Prost (2012) suggests, to show how Schönbein’s body feeds off of the puppets she creates—or rather, her body produces a profusion of “monstrous parasites” (Girard-Laterre 2011: n.p). In some moments, the nudity of her body was difficult to distinguish from that of the puppet. Schönbein herself claims that, “the border between the puppet and my body is occult” (Girard-Laterre 2012: n.p). Indeed, the piece concludes with a grotesque baby puppet devouring the mother figure and the mother devouring the baby. But Schönbein’s obsession with the “demolition” and “reconstruction” of her own body goes beyond her ingenious puppet simulation of her body through masks and prostheses. Chair de ma chair feeds off of Veteranyi’s characters with the same morbid intensity with which Veteranyi fed off of her own deranged family members to write her book and thus creates a frightening exploration of women’s inability to identify the boundaries of their own bodies, of their possession by other bodies [Figure 114] (cf. Burger 2017; Maëlle 2013). 

Following the horror show of Chair de ma chair, Schönbein turned again to fairy tales with La vieille et la bête (2009), a series of four scenes partially inspired by stories in Grimm and also by the death of her father, which occurred when she started work on the project. She collaborated with the Italian mezzo-soprano and composer Alexandra Lupidi, who wrote the incidental, cabaret music for guitar, double bass, and percussion and spoke the voiceover. The first scene related the story of a queen who prays to give birth. When she does give birth, her child is a donkey. But she transforms her horror into love by teaching the donkey to play the lute, and by playing the lute, the donkey transforms into a human. For this scene, Schönbein devised a donkey head puppet while the rest of the donkey’s body consisted of appropriately costumed parts of her own body. The second scene, “La Ballerine,” resembled the mother-daughter beggars in Metamorphosen: a puppet in a white blouse, pink tutu, and ballet slippers sits on the lap of a stoic woman wearing a crown. The ballet dancer performs ballet movements without rising from the woman’s lap, but the ballerine transforms from imagining herself a “ballet queen” (ballereine) to becoming a “ballet ruin” (balleruine). In the third scene, God invites an old woman to make a wish. She requests that children who climb her apple tree and take apples should remain stuck there. Death then visits her, so she asks him to climb the tree and pick an apple for her. But Death becomes stuck there, hanging in the air. The old woman confesses to Death that she is “almost ready,” but she delays the fatal moment: “it is not me who is old and ugly, it is him, the animal which is called my body!” (Collège au théâtre 2010: n.p.). The final scene showed Schönbein in the Pieta pose of holding an old dying woman in her arms, her mother, who becomes transformed into a child. In this piece, however, Schönbein seemed preoccupied less with revealing the “monstrosity” of her body than with showing how she could embody inhuman identities—an animal, Death—amplified by the emaciated thinness of her body (cf. Impe 2014). 

Her interest in animal puppets had begun with Metamorphosen, which contained a scene wherein a deathlike puppet figure behind her runs its hand (which is her hand) over her body and that hand is a gigantic black spider. In 2006, she directed and designed the puppets for a show by another German puppeteer, Kerstin Wiese (b.1971), Le loup et les sept chevreaux, based on the Grimm tale of the wolf and the seven young goats, and in 2010 she directed and designed puppets for Faim de Loup, an adaptation of the Little Red Riding Hood story, a tale of “a child transformed into an adult,” with Laurie Cannac performing all the roles. The collaboration with Cannac (and Lupidi) continued with Queue de poissonne (2013), an adaptation of “The Little Mermaid” story (1837) by Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875): a creature who is half-woman, half fish discovers through sinister sorcery that becoming wholly human means a life of pain and unfulfilled love. In 2014, Schönbein performed her own incarnation of the wolf and seven goats tale, Sinon, je te mange… with herself dressed in black like a veiled widow from an earlier century as she manipulated the various puppet animal heads. But while she toured with this production, she suffered “a complete physical and psychological crisis.” She delayed work on her next production, which included Eh bien, dansez maintenant, about a grasshopper dancing for an ant in the hope of receiving food. Schönbein would perform this piece, while the other piece in the production, Ricdin-Ricdin, an adaptation of the Rumpelstilskin story, had Stuttgart-based puppeteer Pauline Drünert performing with Schönbein’s puppets, while Lupidi and Suska Kanzler composed the music. The production eventually went on tour in September 2017. However, Schönbein’s productions based on fairy tales and involving animals lack the visceral power and daring emotional intimacy of Metamorphosen, Winterreise, and Chair de ma chair, and it is as if she has had to compromise her aesthetic to accommodate a more childlike audience that is necessary for the Theatre Meschugge to receive the grants by which it survives. As she said of her personal crisis: 

Is there life after puppets? I’ve been searching for it, this life without puppets, and I still search for it – so I can live, survive. Something alive is dearer to me than all the puppets in the world. 

Why do I want to tell this fairy tale? 

Why am I telling you this very personal story? 

The tale talks about art. […] Because every true artist feels like she or he is in the same situation as the miller’s daughter, imprisoned in a room full of straw that absolutely needs to be transformed into gold. […] And nobody will convince the true artist that there is a real life outside her golden cage (Ksamka 2017).

The problem with Schönbein’s aesthetic may be that while her puppets have evolved, as has her relationship to the puppets, her relation to pantomimic action has not evolved so effectively. The positions she assumes in manipulating the puppets, which are so often those of a woman struggling to bestow affection, love on a strange creature or even “monster” she has created, remain stable, so that Schönbein’s body functions like the center of gravity for the marionette figure in Kleist’s story. The puppets change, but the movements animating the puppets remain fairly constant. In a sense, the puppets determine the movements of the performer, who cannot seem to live as an artist without puppets attached to her body. Schönbein’s efforts to build puppets for other performers and direct their productions may be part of a strategy to detach puppets from her own body and affix them to the bodies of others. But this strategy does not seem to include so far an expansive or innovative construction of pantomimic action, which may be fundamental to understanding the “physical and psychological crisis” troubling the artist. At the same time, her later reliance on fairly tales to motivate identities and actions evokes a need to link puppetry and pantomime to a primordial childhood experience of the body’s frailty, its vulnerability to “metamorphosis,” to usurpation by “others,” and this obsession with preserving that childhood experience functions as a grotesquely poetic defense against time, against the aging of the body, against Death (cf. Gérard 2017).

Figure 114: Ilka Schönbein in the birth scene of Metamorphosen (1993) and Le roi grenouille (1998), showing the fusion of human and puppet identities. Photos: Ilka Schönbein, Marinette Delanné (2017).

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