Gendered Perspectives on Modernist Pantomime: Other Women from the Stuttgart Performing Arts Academy

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

Other Women from the Stuttgart Performing Arts Academy

Another German performer who has displayed a fascination with the relation between pantomime and puppetry is Antje Töpfer (b. 1978). Born in Chemnitz, she moved to Stuttgart to study at the Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst but was not sure if she wanted to concentrate on visual arts or puppetry (Figurenspiel). She decided to pursue an interdisciplinary approach to performance. Her first solo performance was in collaboration with Iris Meinhardt (b. 1977), a marioneteer, who directed Töpfer in …des Glückes Unterpfand (2005), although this piece was not a pantomime: Töpfer, with loudspeakers attached to her body, lay and squirmed on the stage as she spoke into a microphone texts written in prison by the German terrorist Ulrike Meinhof (1934-1976). In 2006, she collaborated with marionetteer Florian Feisel (b. 1972), who directed her solo production Pandora Frequenz, which was a postmodern commentary on or “appropriation” of the doll photographs taken by Hans Bellmer (1902-1975) between 1934 and 1937. In Berlin, Bellmer had constructed an eerie, slightly less than life-sized doll of a pubescent girl. He used ball joints to connect the legs and torso to each other. Then he photographed the doll indoors and outdoors in various poses to convey his idea that the girl’s body is an “anagram” of organs: body parts may be reconfigured to reveal the fetishization of a body part that is the basis for sexual attraction to “a girl.” For example, some photographs show four legs sprouting from a torso with no head, while others show a torso with a head and only one thigh (cf. Bellmer 1983). In Pandora Frequenz, Töpfer, barefoot and wearing a sleeveless black dress, manipulates a series of white boxes that she can fit all into one big box. She reconfigures the boxes many times to create platforms, shelves, walls, chairs, niches, and abstract cubical structures. She climbs over the boxes, hides behind them, pushes them around, covers parts of her body with them, and releases from them a large number of black metal balls of varying size; these roll onto the floor until she gathers them up and puts them in a box. She also pulls prosthetic parts from different boxes. These body parts resemble those in Bellmer’s photographs, except that they approximate a woman’s rather than a girl’s body. Töpfer fragments her own body by revealing only parts of it—an arm, a leg, a hand, her head—and concealing the rest of her body behind or within a box. She manipulates the different body parts by wearing them in place of her body parts, by acting as if a body part, such as an arm, belonged to another body and was touching her, by acting as if she had an additional body part (three arms instead of two), and by treating a body part as an “unnatural” extension of herself, such as a leg sprouting from her head. She then retrieves the different body parts from the different boxes and tries to assemble a complete body after selecting the appropriate balls to connect the body parts. After partially assembling the doll, she returns to the boxes and constructs a platform on which she can lounge and balance the doll’s head on her foot and elsewhere. She then dismantles the doll and places different body parts in the different boxes now stacked as a tower. She slips the balls into her dress. After turning the tower of boxes so that the viewer can no longer see the compartments containing the body parts, she walks away, pauses, and then lets all the balls fall from under her dress onto the floor. In 2009, Töpfer and Feisel revised the piece to include a scene in which ropes descend and Töpfer attaches the balls to the ropes. She then attaches the body parts to the balls, with the pendulum movement of the ropes creating a sense of body parts swaying rhythmically without connecting. She places the large torso ball under her dress to convey the impression of being pregnant and then draws together the different ropes to bring the body parts to the torso and connect them through the act of giving birth to the connected body by transferring the torso ball from her body to the torso. The doll body overwhelms or smothers her, and she begins dismantling it, then simply crawls away from the dismemberment. In the revised version, she does not walk away at the end, but faces the audience, performs a little dance that releases the balls from under dress, and then leaps toward the audience (Feisel 2008; Feisel 2010). In the 2006 version, flutist Wiebke Holm (b. 1977) composed the accompaniment, while for the 2009 version Christoph Hamann (b. 1975) provided a more somber electronic soundscape. 

            Pandora Frequenz lacks the potent erotic aura of Bellmer’s photographs, for Töpfer’s purpose apparently is to demystify the “anagramic” fetishization of female body parts in Bellmer’s project. The piece suggests that a woman cannot find or assemble her identity from a male fantasy of it. She cannot create a female identity or body out of parts stored in separate, malleable compartments of her own mind (cf. Werckmeister 2011). However, in 2007, Töpfer and Feisel did a similar production, Cranko: Reflection, with a male performer (Tomas Danhel) manipulating body parts that descend from above on ropes; instead of boxes, the man deals with a folding screen that rises up from beneath the stage, and he succeeds in building a complete male manikin replica of himself, but when he cannot suspend himself in space like the doll, he dismantles it and attaches the body parts to himself in the “wrong” places to fashion a new body for himself before sinking down the trap door (Feisel 2011). Here the inspiration was not Bellmer, but the ballet piece Reflection (1952) by the Stuttgart-based choreographer John Cranko (1927-1973), who had explored the theme of Narcissus. But in the Töpfer-Feisel piece, the male performer treats the manikin, not as a beautiful reflection of himself, but as a beautiful fantasy of himself that proves to be a deathly illusion, which he transforms into a grotesque debasement of himself. The duo revised Pandora Frequenz to become an installation at the Kunstsammlung Hoffmann in Berlin in 2008 and included an erotic girl-doll on a bed in addition to the woman body parts. The piece toured widely and internationally. Feisel has then gone on to direct experimental “performances with objects” apart from Töpfer, who has continued to explore a postmodern pantomime aesthetic imbued more with an interdisciplinary idea of “performance” than with any rigorous concept of pantomime as a “discipline.” In 2012, she collaborated with the experimental theater director Anna Peschke (b. 1978) and (again) the FITZ! Zentrum für Figurentheater Stuttgart on Titania tanzt für einen Esel, in which two women, Töpfer and Peschke, enacted a transformation of each other. The Princess (Töpfer) is so ashamed of her ugliness and disappointment to her father (an image in the background) that she wraps herself up in layers of furs and rugs. When she unbinds the ropes that seal her within the furs, she appears in a flesh-colored body stocking, but her hair covers her face. She puts over her head a garment that contains multiple layers of veils. She lifts each veil until she reveals her face, which is the black mask of a male face. Silhouetted male cut out heads pop up from the stage, and she tries to press them down, but they keeping popping up. Titania (Peschke) appears in an orange body stocking and flaming wig. Her husband, Oberon (Martin Christensen), is also a menacing presence. She performs aerobics movements until she becomes obsessed with diminishing a little bit of tummy fat. She starts taping down her stomach, and then tapes down her thighs; she makes a corset with the tape. Soon she has taped her entire body, with legs and hands bound together. Yet she keeps on exercising until, exhausted, she falls asleep. The Princess discovers her and with scissors cuts the tape off her. The pair huddles together under the furs. Titania removes the black mask from the Princess and the Princess removes the wig from Titania (Peschke 2013a). The controlling idea is that the more they look at each other, the more they become like each other, and the more they become like each other, the freer they are from the tyranny of how they were supposed to look. Peschke provided a feminist theoretical framework for the piece in an article for the German puppet journal double

Can dolls and doll body fragments provide a different approach to nudity? Is not one more “shamefully undressed” when a doll is a substitute for nakedness? The doll allows a distanced view of one’s own body through the constructed body of the figure. If you look silently and naked in the mirror, feel ribs, folds and fat rolls, the disbelief increases, really fills this picture there in the mirror with soul and flesh. As a puppeteer, however, the question of the “authenticity” of one’s own body, after disbelief, can be turned around and turned into the absurd. Yes, one is this body, which one sees mirrored there, but one is also the sewn, built, deformed, oversized doll body, which one holds in the hand, on which one looks. You can express the varying perceptions of your own body, you can translate the moments where you feel thin-skinned, small, spongy or stiff, in a (figural) body. Through this process of figurative building, an examination of the construction of one’s own femininity can take place (Peschke 2011).

Töpfer and Peschke collaborated on a short video, Eselei (2012), with Peschke directing, in which Töpfer clad in a grey overcoat and wearing the huge donkey skull from Titania tanzt für einen Esel wanders through the corridors and rooms, upstairs and downstairs, of what appears to be an opulent, elegant hunting lodge. At then end, Töpfer lifts the skull to reveal her smiling face (Peschke 2013b). The video is bizarre, grotesque, and charming, conveying the sense of some animal-monster Death poking around the old beautiful building when actually it is a woman masked as Death. Töpfer and Peschke display a gift for constructing pantomime in an unusual space and for seeing video as an advantageous performance medium for pantomime. Yet they did not continue their collaboration. Instead, in 2014, Töpfer collaborated with the Stuttgart performance group O-Team on the “noise theater” production of Lichtung, which took inspiration from cryptic writings on technology by the philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). This was “a music-based performance for two people and one machine: the search for two actors for our existence between nature and technology; the meeting of an actor and a puppeteer with the microphones and sensors of a modular synthesizer; a non-verbal scenic dialogue using musique concrète; an acoustic journey on the winding paths of Heidegger’s thinking and speaking” (Hof 2014). The action takes place in a banal kitchen; Töpfer played the female role and Folkert Dücker (b. 1980) played the male role. Samuel Hof (b. 1980), an experimental director fond of incorporating electronic technologies into productions invading unusual spaces, directed Lichtung. The man and woman extract the wiring infrastructure for the kitchen and its appliances and communicate with each other by transforming the kitchen into a kind of digital laboratory of light and sound effects involving also the use of microphones and synthesizers while supertitles display words written by Heidegger. After touring with this production for nearly two years, Töpfer returned to solo performance in 2016 with 3 Akte—Das stumme Lied vom Eigensinn, directed by Stefanie Oberhoff (b. 1967), an artist who has designed many puppets. In this piece, Töpfer has devised scenes involving the donkey skull and coat, although in this case separately, and a final scene in which she interacts with large masses of paper, including a sort of vast wedding dress made of white paper and an enormous origami accordion. (In 2015, she received a grant to study paper art in Japan, where she performed Pandora Frequenz.) The object of performance here is apparently to dramatize the sensual, even erotic relation between the female body and supposedly “dead” materials and thus to expand the concepts of “puppet” and “body.” Unlike Schönbein, who treats the puppet as an integral part of her body, Töpfer treats materials as if they possessed an alien life that she can awaken through silent, pantomimic interactions with them. She could not build the doll in Pandora Frequenz because a more powerful experience of intimacy arises from interaction with objects, from “bodies” utterly unlike one’s own. 

            Anna Peschke, however, disclosed a different perspective on female intimacy with materials in her dark pantomime Ilsas Garten, which premiered in Mannheim in 2011, with dark electronic music by Christoph Wirth (b. 1985) underlying some old recordings of popular songs by Friedrich Hollaender (1896-1976). In this piece, she first appears wearing a white lab coat and gloves as she plucks with tweezers the soft stuffing from a dilapidated armchair and inserts the specimens in bottles. She strips the chair of its fabrics. The setting is a laboratory for the making of wigs mounted on numerous manikin heads. She gently, lovingly caresses the hair on one of the heads. But she begins removing long braided pieces of hair from a basket and draping them over the chair. When she sits in the chair, listening to an opera aria, she seems in a trance. A subsequent scene shows her performing drill exercises with her arms, which leads to her flipping her right arm upward in the Hitler salute over and over again with increasing speed. She puts on a shiny black fur cloak and sings a German song, wandering in and out of shadows and smiling. She then begins dressing up, quietly, almost ritualistically, putting on a black corset and the uniform, boots, and cap of an SS officer, while an old, melancholy song in English accompanies her. She appears sleek and glamorous in the sinister uniform. From atop a ladder throne, she cracks a whip. When she returns to one of the blonde wigs, she carefully combs it with her black-gloved hand, then begins shredding it. 

Figure 115: Anna Peschke in Ilsas Garten (2011). Photo: Kai Kremser. 

Evidently it is hair from concentration camp victims. She balls the hair up, inserts it into a soft blue cloth, and places it on her ladder throne, where she sits tapping her boot to an old German song. Later she discards the uniform so that she wears only a white T-shirt and blue shorts while she braids strands of the blond wig hair into her own dark hair. She looks like an athletic member of the Nazi League of German Girls. She stands in a blue spotlight breathing heavily (Peschke 2012) [Figure 115]. Here a woman’s rapturously sensual interaction with objects, materials, and sounds is the basis for an inhuman will to power. The seductive glamor of the piece is disturbing, but the most impressive feature of the piece is how Peschke turns simple, ordinary, “feminine” actions such as plucking, combing, sitting on a softened surface, brushing a garment, taking a dainty sip of water, or adjusting her cap into emblems of totalitarian mastery of reality. Ilsas Garten traveled widely in Europe and provoked considerable fascination from audiences. But Peschke has not returned to this quite imaginative vein of pantomime. After working with Töpfer, she has turned her attention largely to productions that fuse Western dramatic texts like Woyzeck (2012) and Faust (2013) with the techniques, costumes, and stagecraft of Beijing Opera; later (2014) she became involved in the direction of experimental eco-theater productions in natural surroundings.

            In the postwar era, pantomime descended from the French tradition became preoccupied with the sense that modern dance could eclipse pantomime altogether as a modernist form of bodily performance and make pantomime even more marginal than it was in the 1930s. French-oriented pantomime blurred distinctions between the two modes of performance. Like modern dance, pantomime descended from Decroux stressed the body as an autonomous, abstract form that needed hardly anything more than itself to produce performances or “demonstrations” of artistic value. The body of the pantomime became a sign of an existential crisis resolved, from Decroux’s perspective, by finding a transcendent mode of movement that rendered distinctions between dance and pantomime irrelevant, just as performance itself was irrelevant. But the French tradition contended that the body cannot achieve this abstract, transcendent, existential identity without a systematic education, without a school dedicated to freeing the body from the constraints imposed upon it by social anxiety toward it, without a compelling pedagogic philosophy, without teachers, who to a large extent supplanted the performing artist as the goal of bodily education. One achieved this “modern” pantomime body through the performance of innumerable exercises, a constant state of training, a life devoted to the sacred space of the school studio. French pedagogy created an international community of pantomimes built around a shared existential ethos established to preserve the autonomy and humanist charm of the art. But an insistence that the art exude a hygienic or therapeutic charm, which was never Decroux’s intention, kept French pantomime from pursuing larger ambitions, from becoming “too serious,” from exceeding the dimensions of the sequestered studio-world. Perhaps for this reason Pinok and Matho, in their history of French pantomime, saw the art as exhausted by the 1970s: its survival depended upon an interdisciplinary relation to other arts, but they could not identify what that relation might be, even if many in the “mime culture” had no sense at all of a stagnation within their art, which is, however, a sad feature of artistic practice dependent above all on exercises. 

            Angna Enters and the post-1970s German female pantomimes coming out of Stuttgart represent a strand of pantomime outside of the French tradition. For them, pantomime has less of an interdisciplinary affiliation with dance than with the visual arts. They did not see performance as a way of dramatizing an existential crisis to discover a presumed authentically human identity, for they saw the human body as fragmented into multiple identities and in a constant search for some “other” identity. They became preoccupied with the body’s attachment to other bodies, to objects, to materials, to images, to masks, to costumes, to theater, to life observed outside of the theater, to history. They avoided stylized movements meant to display the self-sufficiency of the body and the “disciplined” virtuosity of the body that performed them. They preferred to perform actions as they had seen others perform them in the world outside of the theater, and they focused on the narrative significance of sequencing otherwise “untrained” physical actions to reveal what was perhaps invisible to the audience outside of the theater, in the society. Their movements may appear more restrained and less exaggerated than in the French model, but they showed much greater inclination to drift into less “charming” aesthetic regions that were grotesque, tragic, bizarre, eerie, morbid, or erotic. Comedy was not taboo, but neither was it compulsory. These women did not build schools or construct pedagogic systems, because they regarded performance as the best way to embed their ideological programs. Nor therefore did these women create an international community of like-minded adepts; rather, they appealed to a diverse, international audience drawn to “the arts,” to experimental aesthetic experiences, to innovative modes of performance. It is a much less stable model of pantomime culture than the French model and entails a much more uncertain process of identifying and developing ideas worth watching in performance. The change expected from one production to the next is much greater. 

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