Pantomime in Cold War Eastern Europe: Estonia

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

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In Estonia, a comparatively modest pantomime culture evolved during the Cold War around the personality of Adolf Traks (b. 1933), an announcer and master of ceremonies for the Estonian National Philharmonic. In the spring of 1963, Traks formed his own Youth Pantomime Studio in conjunction with the Tallinn Culture Palace. An article in the September 1963 issue of Kultuur ja elu (40-43) described the recent visit of the Riga Pantomime Studio to Pärnu, where the group had performed its “Progress” program that included scenes inspired by Naked Life, a 1920s novel by Latvian Communist author Andrejs Upīts (1877-1970), two scenes adapted from turn-of the-century stories by Maxim Gorki (1868-1936), and the ensemble’s popular adaptation of Masereel’s The Idea (1920). The article announced that pantomime is a new form of performance for Estonia that may prove especially appealing to youth clubs. It is not clear, though, if Traks regarded the Riga group as a model for constructing an Estonian pantomime aesthetic. He was aware of August Bachmann’s pantomime experiments with the Tallinn Hommikteater in the 1920s, but he never stated his motive in establishing the Pantomime Studio other than to claim that he loved pantomime because it was disciplined yet “open,” producing a unique kind of “harmony.” He published a call for auditions and worked with an initial group of seventeen students five times a week, but after a while only two students remained. After two years, he finally had ten persons in an ensemble. At first, the Studio functioned to discover physical expressiveness by improvising exercises. Progress was slow but steady. At last, the Pantomime Studio gave its first public performance in the spring of 1965. The ensemble fluctuated in size from six to thirteen members, with six of the original members comprising the group when it disbanded; at most Traks had nine women and four men. In the summer months, the group performed in the Tallinn Cultural Palace and later in the ruins of the Dominican monastery in the Old Town section of Tallinn. The first program, Quiet Hour, consisted of brief ensemble sketches or “miniatures,” including Watch OutHiking PalsAutumn ComesRomanceBeginning and End of the Month. One sketch, called Life, I Love You, showed a woman and man living in the same building separated by an invisible wall; when they step into the street, they encounter a street musician and take action to avoid the commission of a crime, and thus they find each other. Another sketch was Hatching Apparatus of Bureaucracy, “in which the young actors were able to produce a gallery of greatly caricatured types, ranging from a cheeky typist and a hardline career ladder-climber alongside a clown secretary to a steadily rising cadre inspector and dignified director” (Traks Archive 1982: n.p.). Five bureaucrats display their love of official documents, with each document affirming the previous one until eventually the humans disappear behind piles of paper (Traks Archive Vaikne tund 18 March 1966). Another, abstract piece involved performers wearing phosphorescent gloves and collars and black body stockings so that the spectator saw only the movement of these illuminated objects. While the ensemble adopted the Latvian preference for body stocking costumes, it did not use whiteface, because whiteface negated the “individuality” of the performer. The ensemble produced the following year another program of “miniatures,” Miracle without Miracle, comprised of three sections. The first, Arlecchino, was the group’s only venture into commedia dell’arte, with the performers wearing costumes traditional to the genre and impersonating the basic figures: Arlecchino, Pantaloon, Colombine, Pierrot, Brigante. The second section presented scenes from a bizarre circus, including The World’s Strongest WomanRope DancerRedhead, MagicianTwo-Headed CalfSnake and White Clown (Snake Charmer), “and others.” The third section included more serious scenes: Imperialism, EvolutionMan and MachineEvolution depicted the cosmic origin of life, beginning with congealing of dust to the formation of organisms, the appearance of humans, the creation of slavery and civilization, and the revolutionary liberation of humanity. Reviewers of these early productions generally wrote approvingly (Traks devoted most of the space in the printed programs to quoting the praises), and the ensemble produced programs that combined different pieces from previous programs. However, one reviewer (Vello Köllu) felt the commedia piece didn’t work at all and was too big a theme for the group to compress into a miniature and too “eclectic” or uncertain in its performance aesthetic. For example, Colombine washed invisible laundry, but Pierrot presented her with a real flower. Some of the circus scenes displayed “bad taste.” Although the Magician was quite expressive, the Rope Dancer (on an imaginary rope) was weak. The Snake Charmer scene, in which the Snake and the Charmer reverse roles, though effective, was too long. Hatching Apparatus of Bureaucracy suffered from too much bustle without motive, while Evolution was too abstract and vague; one had to consult the program to grasp the concept. But Man and Machine showed true mastery and precision of pantomimic performance (Kultuur ja elu January 1967: 39-41). Consequently, the ensemble dispensed altogether with comic scenes and attempted a more “concrete” pantomime style for its 1967 program, With Time, a Person Changes, which included a revised version of Man and Machine, and new “miniatures”: Seasons, and A Human Time. Another reviewer for Kultuur ja elu (December 1967: 22-25), V. Raun, discussed the pantomime scene in general, with special attention to the Riga Pantomime Studio, which had visited Tallinn earlier in the year. In comparison, the Tallinn Pantomime Studio seemed immature: Man and Time (the new name for Evolution) revealed a “superficial philosophy,” a tedious sloganeering that was “illustrative,” a “skeleton without content,” while Seasons was “clichéd,” the work of “pupils” turning in “school essays.” Imperialism and Man and Machine were much more interesting in their satirical style, but pantomime culture would benefit from the formation of a truly professional pantomime ensemble. However, texts that actually describe the content of these performances are conspicuously difficult to locate, and it may be that periodicals and programs were purposely vague to protect the Studio (or youth clubs in general) from attracting troublesome surveillance by the authorities, although the Studio won third place in the 1967 pantomime festival in Riga. A photograph (EFA.332.0-82325) by Valdur Vahi (1933-1982) in the National Archive (Rahvusarhiiv) photo database shows the curious “Snake Charmer” scene from Miracle without Miracle: a man in a chef’s hat, striped T-shirt, and apron appears to be describing something with his hands to an attentive woman in a body stocking [Figure 175]. Behind them is a a kind of painted proscenium with curtain labeled “Circus” and a poster depicting a rather elegant woman in a nineteenth century dress with a sign labeling her “The World’s Strongest Woman.” The photo reveals a visual-semiotic sophistication not usually associated with student club theatricals . In 1969, the Pantomime Studio began a partnership with the Academic Drama Theater and performed a pantomime scene in the theater’s adaptation, Light My Light, of 1912 poems by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). The same year, the ensemble produced another program of three linked pantomimic scenes, Homo Sapiens, with accompanying music by only two composers, radical modernists, the Estonian Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) and Franco-American Edgard Varèse (1883-1965). The first scene, Yesterday, with Pärt’s music, described a mythical past of primordial innocence. Today, with music by Varèse, showed the corruption of the contemporary world, how greed, hypocrisy, betrayal, pettiness, and careerism have become habits of life. The final scene, Tomorrow, with Pärt’s music, represented “the unbinding of the most complicated knots of life, the persistent fight for the future” (Traks Archive 1985). A conflict then arose between the ensemble or Traks and the management of the Academic Drama Theater that somehow caused the Pantomime Studio to disband (Traks Archive 1982). Traks never published a statement explaining the dissolution, but the use of music by Pärt, whose compositions suffered censure from Soviet authorities, and by Varèse, whose music (though mostly dating from the 1920s and 1930s) otherwise was not welcome in the Soviet Union, to accompany pantomimic action at least indicates considerable boldness of imagination in any cultural context of that time.

Figure 175: Top: Snake charmer scene from Imedeta imed (Miracle without Miracles), Tallinn Pantomime, directed by Adolf Traks, Tallinn, Estonia, 1967. Photo: Valdur Vahi, FOTIS, Rahvusarhiivi. Bottom: Scene from Hingetaud (Soul Sickness), Tallinn Pantomime, directed by Adolf Traks, Tallinn, Estonia, 1985. Photo: FOTIS, Rahvusarhiivi.

Traks returned as an announcer for the Philharmonic from 1970 until 1977, when he formed a new ensemble, Tallinn Pantomime, which brought together students from the Nõmme and Mermaid Culture Houses. He alluded to “rather sad” and exasperating difficulties in forming the ensemble, but he refrained from describing the circumstances of these frustrations. Instead, he suggested: “Perhaps it is better to wonder why Tallinn Pantomime is still the only one [in Estonia]?!” He asserted that pantomime required a versatile actor, who was capable of meeting the audience’s high expectations for the genre. Serious pantomime was rare because it required actors with exceptional confidence and technical skill in making their bodies emotionally expressive. Traks claimed that the ensemble created “psychological pantomime,” which was “a vision of the soul”: “The subject is the mystery of the human self. Man with his contradictions, which includes his ethical decisions and values.” Pantomimic movement is “the breath of the soul” (Traks Archive 1982). As with the Pantomime Studio, the Tallinn Pantomime company apparently devised its own exercises and “creative games” to achieve “psycho-physical” expression; Traks did not identify any models of pantomime development adopted by the group. He encouraged a sharp, angular, propulsive style of pantomimic movement: “all fluid lines and flows were disrupted and broken into bits and pieces” (Einasto 2002: 4). A student in his workshops in 1981, dance scholar Heili Einasto (b. 1965), has described the pedagogic environment, which seems somewhat reminiscent of Decroux’s approach:

The beginners group, from which after two months a performing group was to be chosen, had three 90-minute classes per week. We had movement studies alternating with Traks’s lectures about our (that is, his) aims. He emphasized that, “we are a bit insensitive, a bit slow and we have to develop in ourselves temperament and speed.” “Speed” and “precision” were two key words in our trainings, next to “discipline” and “dedication.” There were the following exercises: “Machine,” the aim of which was to achieve a machine-like precision, no matter what the speed—and for that he used a metronome (at least at the beginner level no music was used—we were not dancers, but actors) that set the tempo. In his words, “Machine” gave us a technique, a basis upon which everything else was built. “Machine” had no emotional side, and I remember ourselves wandering around with jagged, “jointy” movements, as if we had got an electric shock. Another exercise was called “Sculpture”—a well-known acting etude in which one has to stop in a certain pose and keep it. We were reminded that sculptures do not freeze, but that we should “move or melt into sculptures,” and that sculptures are three-dimensional and observable from all sides (Einasto 2002: 4).

Traks also instructed the students to “observe only yourself, try to find and understand yourself. Don’t pay any attention to others. On stage you will see your faults in the mirror. Therefore you have to discover your faults and fight against them. You must be in control of yourself, to suppress yourself. The requirement is: be in control.” In her diary entries for 29 and 30 October 1981, Einasto recalled that Traks said: “[The workshop group is] very sluggish. We have to know what we are, to free ourselves from ourselves. […] We have to be restless (but not frantic) and sharp. […] We need speed of fantasy and thought” (Einasto 1981: n.p.). 

The Tallinn Pantomime was a smaller ensemble than the Pantomime Studio. The productions of the group contained three to five named performers, although over its ten-year existence, the ensemble had a total of eleven performers, of whom nine were women. Performances most often took place in the ruins of the Dominican monastery in the Old Town section of Tallinn. The first production, Contrasts, occurred in 1979 and consisted of a series of earlier “miniatures” revived by Traks. Subsequent productions, however, Traks classified as dramas, tragi-comedy, or tragedy and constructed a single narrative. Legend of Love (1980), a drama in three scenes, “begins with a religious ritual, lead by a shaman with a drum, and directing people into the Netherworld. The cult the people perform requires unconditional surrender, affirms loyalty and promises courage—all in order to ensure a successful hunt. A young hunter runs forward and after a while kills a magic deer [elk]—an act that gives freedom to a beautiful young woman who had been trapped in the body of the deer. The hunter and the woman fall in love. But again we hear the drums, referring this time to approaching hunters for whom mercy for the hunted is absolutely unknown. The hunter is caught between his love and his religion. But it is only after the bloody sacrifice of his beloved that he rejects his religion” (Einasto 2002: 2-3). The printed program notes by Traks summarized the theme as “Love hiding within cruelty” (Traks Archive 1982). The accompanying music was by conservative Russian composer Oleg Khromushin (1927-2003). Anti-Human (1981), was a tragi-comedy in three “metaphors,” with five women performing all the roles and “fragments of modern music” accompanying the action. According to the printed program, the first “metaphor” depicted “hypocrisy as lying,” while the second metaphor “spoofed human vanity, greed, grief, envy, and aggression.” The final metaphor presented “indifference as superstition.” The piece exuded an aura of medieval allegory, with bodies or movements representing concepts like Hypocrisy, Greed, or Superstition. The ensemble presented a revised version of Legend of Love in 1982, although it is not clear how the new version differed from the old. Death Bell (1983) was a tragedy in three scenes, with music by the English rock band Pink Floyd. According to Traks’ philosophical rhetoric in the printed program, the three scenes, LongingLust for Life, and Despair, showed how “love protects humanity,” and how the “loss of love is irreparable.” The “most intense happiness produces the greatest sensitivity to pain.” “Life is a bad teacher, without mercy, without compassion.” The piece thus reveals “the tragedy of unborn love” and yet also the inability to “escape love’s grasp.” But how the ensemble transformed these grandiose ideas into physical actions eludes description in the available documentation. A photograph from the production shows five barefoot performers in white, gray, and black body stockings with capes posing dramatically in the monastery ruins, as if all the characters are challenging each other, wary of each other (Traks Archive 1983: ETMM T438). With music by French radical modernist Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), Eksinu (1984), roughly translated as The One Who Is Lost, was a tragedy concerning a Woman whose conscience deserts her at a crucial moment of her life. She commits a crime, evidently the murder of a child, and then “the power of the soul” returns and resolves a fundamental “contradiction” within her. Three other women appeared in the piece representing either aspects of the Woman or the society from which she has become estranged. The tragedy was that, “There is only a too-late wisdom: reality has ruined everything human.” The piece was also unusual in that the Woman wore a medieval costume with a white veil covering her head (Traks Archive 1984: ETMM T438). Soul Sickness (or Cellar Spiders) (1985), a “drama,” featured four women performers and a montage of electronic music arranged by Arno Kivisikk (b. 1953). A newspaper story inspired the piece, which concerned the enticement and assimilation of a new member into a criminal gang that hangs out in a sinister cellar. The theme was the “morals of young people, the evil that gives birth to violence, insolence, a disdainful attitude toward public order, and egocentrism.” The barefoot girl gang wore punk hairstyles, black body suits, and serapes made to look like spider webs (Traks Archive 1985: ETMM T438) [Figure 175]. The ensemble’s last production, Conflictus (1986), another drama, also featured an all-female cast of three with music by minimalist Estonian composer René Eespere (b. 1953). In his typically existential rhetoric, Traks described the piece as “the encounter of the Human Being with the Human Soul. Conflictus is the concept of being in the human world, evolving through patience and love, while animal passions plunge the Human into the chaos of the soul. Full of pain is the path where the Human’s constant companion is Death. […] The Human develops through suffering and love.” He explained that the scenario arose out of improvisations with the actors to get them each to discover a unique pantomimic representation of emotions (Traks Archive 1986). 

But despite the grand “universality” of his themes, Traks’ productions did not achieve the “visionary” power of works by Tenisons, Tomaszewski, Mackevičius, or even Ligers. He not only lacked access to theatrical resources; he lacked a mystical concept of the body as a symbol beyond the grasp of the state and conventional morality. His productions were like morality plays—that is, he showed how “the Human Being” struggled to accept responsibility or obligation to some larger sense of humanity than corrupt “animal passions.” In this respect, his productions survived because they did not challenge official ideological doctrines of the socialist state. Yet his productions nevertheless depicted “humanity,” encompassing his own communist society, as fallen, corrupt, and redeemed only by an individual sense of conscience and responsibility, by a profound sense of aloneness in the world. Even Imperialism was a critique of a “human” instinct to enslave others that audiences could read in relation to their own society as well as that of the capitalist West. Pantomime, Traks implied, was the path to a new society rooted in an individual morality arising from the recovery of the “soul,” a conscience otherwise buried or stifled by the evil “habits of life” governing his society. The soul was in the “breath” of bodily movement, not in words that obfuscated and veiled apprehension of the body or the soul, as indeed they do in the rhetoric (including his own) published about his productions. Each of Traks’ productions received between 40 and 100 performances, which indicates a strong public appetite for his aesthetic. Yet in 1988, Tallinn Pantomime disbanded, ostensibly because it did not have enough money to continue (Traks Archive 2017), although in conversation with Heili Einasto, a person close to the group said that Traks was “tired” and wanted to pursue a teaching opportunity in Germany (Einasto 2017). 

When Traks formed Tallinn Pantomime in 1977, he gathered about him a group of students for which he had rigorously auditioned, because, he asserted, “amateurs and dilettantes are the death of pantomime!” (Traks Archive 2020). With this group, he hoped to establish a highly competitive ensemble whose performances would bring pantomime from the margins or shadows of Estonian culture to a more commanding position, and he insisted that members of the group devote themselves to practice several hours a day five days a week. Members of the group, however, could not commit to this schedule because of their university studies and other professional and personal obligations. Traks’ first group thus disintegrated after the 1979 performance of Contrasts, and he had to start the audition process all over again. But members of the first group, led primarily by Aavo Rebane (b. 1955), wanted to continue with pantomime. A poet, Rebane, like Traks, became attracted to pantomime through his involvement with a folk dance group. He was friendly with Rein Agur (b. 1935), the director of the Estonian State Puppet Theater (NUKU) located in the Old Town section of Tallinn. Agur allowed Rebane’s group to practice in the evenings in the large foyer of the puppet theater; the group stored its costumes and props at the Nõmme Culture House. Agur wanted to experiment with combining puppets with human pantomime, and the group’s first efforts were on behalf of NUKU productions, which involved speechless humans interacting with talking puppets. Rebane attempted to improve his performance skills by studying (1984-1986) at the Estraadiakadeemia, until academy officials told him he was too old to study there. From 1981, the group, called the Pantomiimi- ja Plastikastuudio, performed fairy tales at many schools, although these productions were not actually pantomimes—the case of a group being asked to perform things other than what it wanted to do. In 1987, the ensemble collaborated with an environmental activist group, Cooperative Recrea, to protest Soviet plans to develop a phosphorite mine in Northern Estonia, and the collaboration entailed a large-scale protest demonstration production involving pantomimic movement accompanied by a large choir. The mine never opened. The pantomime group felt a clearer sense of mission, and in 1988, the Pantomiimi-ja Plastikastuudio became a professional organization insofar as the actors received salaries, although the group never received a license to perform. For a while, the group performed at the Linnahall, a former sports and concert complex located on the waterfront, but the rent soon became too high. Not having a theater of its own, the group performed primarily in schools, and in 1991, the Stuudio established its own school, in which Traks and Maret Kristal taught. The idea was to train actors for an interdisciplinary, “synthetic theater,” because “there was no imaginative acting in the theater of that time.” But the school and the group struggled to survive. With another ensemble member, Peeter Undrits, Rebane set up a furniture company to subsidize the school and ensemble, but the company failed and the Pantomiimi-ja Plastika Stuudio came to an end in 1993 (Rebane 2018). 

The pantomimes of Mackevičius had deeply impressed Rebane when he had seen them in Moscow. He and the ensemble wanted to develop pantomimes similar in seriousness and inventiveness as Mackevičius’, but although Mackevičius could attract highly talented performers with ballet training, Soviet authorities refused to allow him or any of his group to travel either to Latvia or Estonia; as a result, understanding of Mackevičius’ techniques for organizing pantomimes was fragmentary, inspirational rather than methodical. The Stuudio developed pantomime productions out of improvisational exercises. The ensemble varied in size from ten to fifteen persons, including technical support; Rebane directed all of the productions. The group remained aligned with Traks’ body stocking aesthetic but departed from him in the approach to bodily movement, favoring instead a less angular, more fluid, more lyrical style. The Stuudio’s first production, Searches (1982), consisted of Marceau-type solo “miniatures” in the first half and ensemble miniatures in the second half. One ensemble piece, Slave Stone, depicted a group enslaved to mechanized life in a factory. One of the workers attempts to bring a liberating spirit to the environment by planting a tree. But the workers trample down the tree. The worker tries again, but the group again tramples it down and turns against him. This theme of the individual struggling against conformity and group unity continued in subsequent productions. A second program of miniatures appeared in 1983, and a third program, Scrawls, in 1985, in which the group still divided the program between solo and group miniatures, accompanied by the recorded music of Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, The Alan Parsons Project, and the Estonian Sven Grünberg. Typically Marceau-type solo miniatures included: The Conductor, The Train Passenger, Ladder, The Wall, Exhibition, Pardon Me, Surgeon. The second half brought a revival of Slave Stone and another dark piece about oppressive collective behavior, The Bird, in which a boy meets a bird in a meadow. The boy imitates the bird and becomes friendly with it. But a group of people enters the meadow and stones the bird to death. The unhappy boy tries to resurrect the bird by performing the bird’s movements. But he succeeds only in bringing back the group, which starts to stone him. The bird then comes back to life, and her movements summon a powerful storm that annihilates the group. The bird, however, dies, and the piece ends with the boy alone as an old man. Each year brought a new program: Fairy Tales (1986), Satires (1987). A second program in 1987, Crisis, presented for the first time a single scenario, with a highly abstract theme and music by the Greek composer of ambient, electro-fusion soundtracks Vangelis (1943-2022). The action represented the birth of Fire (male) and Ice (female) and the ensuing conflict between them. The perfection of each and the reconciliation between them encounter persistent interruption and mutation from a trio of shadows or colors. The piece made frequent use of a swinging movement to signify a shared quality of Fire, Ice, and Shadow. Passage (1988) was another single scenario production, with music by easy rock composer Avo Ulvik (b. 1957). Here a religious theme prevailed, with allegorical figures: the Passerby, the Nameless One, the Blind Man, the Preying One, the Shadows. The Blind Man needs the help of others, needs a coat, and needs food. When he receives these things, he begins to feel he has power over others, and eventually he orders people to bring him rope, with which he orders the hanging of people. The Passerby appears, responding to a “calling” to become a savior. The Nameless One rings a bell, while the Blind Man attempts to stop the Passerby. When the Passerby seems to pass through a wall, the Blind Man slashes and blinds him. But the Blind Man dies, while the Passerby hangs like Christ on the Cross. The Shadows rapturously treat him as the new leader, replacing the Blind Man, but he simply falls down from the cross. Productions continued: 22.07 (1990), Nightmare (1991), with music by the experimental Estonian rock group Tunnetusüksus, a work of psychological symbolism involving a young man seeking a spell from a witch that will release him from demonic, nightmarish thoughts, a female fiend, and a wish to possess the soul of a girl he desires. Various demons assail the man: “a figure in white, a double-headed hawk, a grey old man with a black hat, a rabbit, an enormous fly, a naked man, an egg, a needle. The young man fears candlelight and fire.” He cannot overcome his demons. For this production, Rebane divided the stage into sectors inhabited by various characters who never left their designated space, while the young man moved from one sector to the next, as if visiting a different zone of his psyche. Three (1990) featured three pieces including one in which a woman appears bound to a tree by the sea, with a soundtrack of crashing wave sounds mixed with “birth screams.” People pass by the woman, a beggar, a tourist taking pictures, an effeminate man. An executioner arrives, offers her a cigarette, but she refuses. He unties her. But she laughs at him, because she has no interest in being free. The Stuudio’s last production was Chaos (1991), a series of improvisations inspired by erotic poems and performed behind a chessboard. The group had further productions planned: a pantomimic adaptation of the tragic poem The Demon (1841) by Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841), a program of pantomimic adaptations of stories by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), and an adaptation of the long poem The Comedy of Poverty (1935) by Estonian poet Betti Alver (1906-1989). But the funding to support these ambitious, innovative projects failed to materialize, and by 1993, the Pantomiim- ja Plastikastuudio had vanished (Rebane 2018). The cultural press never reviewed any of the Stuudio’s productions; people in the Estonian theater world refused to see any of the performances, because the ensemble lacked any official status. Rebane admitted that he and his colleagues were rather “shy” and not very efficient at promoting their productions. Yet the ensemble displayed a boldness of imagination in using pantomime to represent dark, psychological, sadomasochistic structures of power that Estonian society seriously underestimated. 

In 1975, a theater student, Merle Karusoo (b. 1944) directed at Tartu University a “silent play,” Popi ja Huhuu, an adaptation of a 1914 short story of the same name by Friedebert Tuglas (1886-1971). The story contains no dialogue or voices and adopts the dachshund Popi’s perspective on the actions that unfold. Popi lives happily with his Master in an old house filled with relics from a long past. A monkey, Huhuu, lives in a cage. One day, however, the Master fails to come home and never returns. Huhuu escapes from his cage and begins transforming the house into a great, chaotic junkyard. He wears the human clothes from the wardrobe in an eccentric fashion and turns all the relics into toys that he casually discards or destroys. He torments Popi, but he also performs kind, generous actions toward the dog, who fears leaving the house because of the vicious dogs who attack him on the street. Eventually Popi considers Huhuu as his master, and Huhuu regards Popi as his obedient friend. Huhuu starts drinking the alcoholic beverages he finds and soon becomes a drunkard. Popi also becomes an alcoholic and the pair spends their days in an alcoholic stupor until Huhuu, fiddling around with a box, accidentally blows up the house (Tuglas 1982: 28-50). As seen in film documents of it, Karusoo’s adaptation of the story entailed an absurdist performance style, with the actors Urmas Kibuspuu (1953-1985) and Lembit Peterson (b. 1953) moving about in an exaggerated, acrobatic style in an abstract set consisting mostly of boxes and platforms (Popi ja Huhuu Archive). In 2003, Estonian National Television broadcast a production of Popi ja Huhuu directed by Gerda Kordemets (b. 1960). Here the set was much more elaborate and realistic; the actors attempted stylized simulations of traits associated with dogs or monkeys in contrast to the 1975 production, when Kibuspuu and Peterson performed more like wild, drug-addled humans. In the television production, the actors emit growls, barks, cries, although these are absent from Tuglas’s story. Also missing from the television production was the sense of an immense transformation of the old, museum-like house into a crumbling junkyard. The story seems to require a larger pantomimic sense of the sadomasochistic relation between Popi and Huhuu rather than the more precise sense of their animal characteristics seen in the television production. In 2016, the Theatrumi Company staged a pantomimic adaptation of the story using puppets to represent the characters (Popi ja Huhuu Archive). The story makes an excellent subject for pantomimic performance, regardless of the political era in which it appears: A comfortable life, free from the viciousness of the world “outside,” depends on a silent, animal-like, sadomasochistic relationship between a master and a submissive companion. Popi remains comfortable within the violent transformation of the house into a junk heap. But Popi and Huhuu can only sustain their sadomasochistic relationship through their (alcoholic) addiction to dreams, memories of a past they have destroyed. Huhuu’s “freedom” leads to a momentous change in the environment without changing the fundamental, sadomasochistic condition in which a “comfortable” life is possible. Even if Estonian pantomimic adaptations of the story seem to fall short of the story’s fascinating, disturbing insight, they nevertheless lead to a kind of allegorical awareness of relations between a “comfortable life,” freedom, social transformation, and power dynamics that one does not find elsewhere.

Yet another Estonian ventured into pantomime. For a brief period, 1980-1982, Maret Kristal (b. 1943) presented a single program of pantomimes with considerable success. In 1967, she graduated from the Moscow State Circus School, where pantomime was strictly a minor adjunct to clown performance. In Estonia, she worked as an “Estrade” (concert stage) performer with the Estonian Philharmonic from 1969 to 1972. She then returned to Moscow to study directing for the concert stage and mass spectacles at the State Institute for Theater Arts. Back in Estonia, however, her life became unsteady as she frequently changed jobs and seemed unable to develop the career for which she had studied. In 1976, she entered into a relationship with the writer and editor Kalle Kurg (b. 1942), and they occasionally shared an apartment in Tallinn that had two rooms entirely devoted to her costumes and rehearsal space, because she was unable to obtain space for them at a theater. Kurg had been married (1964-1967) to a ballet dancer, Elve Uustalu (b. 1942), and he had already read all the books he could obtain on the subject of pantomime. Nevertheless, by 1978 Kristal suffered an emotional crisis, believing that no one wanted her as a performing artist. In 1971, in the tower of the Kiek in de Kök in Tallinn, she produced her first evening-length solo performance, a Dance of Death inspired by the famous 1483 painting by Bernt Notke (1440-1509), but according to Kurg, the piece was not a pantomime, but a “movement production” containing pantomimic elements. Kristal wanted to perform pantomime, but was unsure how to construct ideas through physical action. Kurg, who was editor-in-chief of the prestigious literary journal Looming, knew many people in Estonian arts circles, and his manifold literary, journalistic, and graphic talents found application in various media, including television; he helped arrange for Kristal to receive a contract from the Vanemuine Theater in Tartu to produce a pantomime. She was, however, still uncertain how to proceed. Wanting to escape the stress that had befallen him as a result of his editorial duties, Kurg took a leave of absence and went to Tartu to help Kristal. In conversation with Heili Einasto, he explained that he devised three scenarios for Kristal, took on the responsibility of directing the performances, and designed the stage setting. Though he wrote theater criticism, Kurg had no extensive performance experience of pantomime, and he had not pursued any ideas about pantomime with Traks or anyone else in the Estonian theater world. From his perspective, pantomime was a problem for the Soviet authorities, who felt ballet had long ago superseded pantomime and who also believed that pantomime was a “Jewish” phenomenon, an art imported from abroad that was alien to Soviet ideology: “a libel was created that the Jews of the USSR are dealing with pantomime, and do not know what it is, while the right people still deal with the classical ballet in the spirit of the Russian ballet” (Kurg 2017). But the stage director Kaarel Ird (1909-1986), the Artistic Director of the Vanemuine Theater was, according to Kurg, ready “to flirt with this,” because, although he maintained close, compliant relations with Soviet cultural authorities to preserve funding for the Vanemuine, he also wanted the theater to develop a reputation for experimentation and innovation (Kurg 2017; Kurg 2020). Collaboration with Traks was apparently not an option for Kristal, who reportedly explained: “I cannot work with people who have studied under Traks. He breaks them. They are like machines and impossible to train” (Einasto 2002: 7). Kurg saw that Kristal possessed charisma on the stage; she could engage audience attention, yet she had difficulty establishing a strong motive for being on stage. Kurg also believed that Kristal did not know how to respond effectively to music: she couldn’t count, she couldn’t read music, and she didn’t allow music to lead her to imaginative forms of movement. She only knew a handful of movements, and it was difficult for her to move beyond this repertoire, so Kurg largely supervised the performance. The Vanemuine ballet dancers did not like working with her, because of their prejudices against pantomime and against improvisation—or more precisely, their prejudices against a person who had no ballet training and who wished to produce in their theater a form of performance that Soviet authorities regarded as detrimental to the cultural well being of the society. This seems like a case of pantomime nevertheless proceeding with almost no encouraging gestures, no sense of mastery of the medium, no powerful sense of purpose other than to move performance in a new (perhaps distinctly Estonian, un-Soviet) direction, and no feeling of confidence in constructing an entertainment for the public. Kurg, who had his own problems with the authorities over the editing of Looming, fashioned for her a program of three pieces, Mimeskid, or Mimesques, which premiered at the Vanemuine Theater in Tartu in November 1981, with music written especially for the program by Lepo Sumera (1950-2000) and Sven Grünberg (b. 1956). 

The first piece, Light (music: Grünberg), depicted a woman leading a blind man from darkness into light. She seeks to restore his trust in his “inner light,” which will allow him to overcome his fear of becoming lost in darkness, though he also fears finding the light, for light destroys as much as it gives. They become separated and try to find each other in the darkness. But he is able to approach “absolute light,” which enables him to restore trust between himself and darkness. The pair are able to go forward. The piece incorporated interesting lighting effects. When the woman was apart from the blind man, a soft light fell on her, but when they were together a hard spotlight shone on them. In the second piece, Wreath Ballad (music: Sumera), a girl, in a costume made to look like moss, weaves a wreath. Three sisters approach her and invite her to play with them. But the game soon turns violent and becomes a struggle for power with the goal of “dancing somebody to death.” “Heaven crashes and swallows everything.” The lyrical movements of the moss girl contrasted with the rigid, mechanical movements of the deadly sisters (Kristal Archive 1981, 2017). A photo in the Rahvusarhiiv (EFA 414 0-116554) of the piece shows the three sisters wearing chiton-like dresses in different colors and contemporary feminine footwear, although the moss chiton worn by the wreath girl, who here appears blindfolded, looks distinctly poorer than the sisters’ dresses. Mari Kurismaa (b. 1956) designed the costumes. But it is evident that Kristal and Kurg wished to depart from the barefoot and body stocking aesthetic that prevailed with Traks, Ligers, and Tenisons. The final piece, generally regarded as the strongest, was The Flight of a Migrating Bird (music: Grünberg), which showed the hatching of a bird from out of nothingness, out of an invisible egg. The bird discovers a “frightening but inviting world.” The hatchling grows into a bird and struggles to raise herself into the air. A storm or “unspeakable invasion” approaches, which compels the bird to surge upward until finally she succeeds in flying into a great black emptiness. Blackness attaches to her body, but she pushes forward, pushes away the darkness until she reaches the a clear, white sky. It is an existential drama revealing the symbiotic relation between freedom and inevitability (Kristal Archive 1981), although Kurg had originally planned a darker ending, which, however, he felt might exacerbate his difficulties with Party cultural officials. A lighting technician told Kurg that it was possible to project onto the dark background a patch of blue light, which would then present on the stage the blue, black, and white colors of the Estonian flag. Though this effect had nothing to do with the scenario, it did bestow a coded political significance on the story of moving from darkness to a liberating radiance. With the help of an architect (Harri Lindemann) and a technical director (Rein Randväli [1951-1985]),Kurg designed rotating disks or “islands of light” for each piece, and each disk contained a light and could move across the stage and above it; for The Flight of a Migrating Bird, the disk contained a light within it and rotated to simulate flight when the performer lay upon it, as if moving in the air. Kurg described Mimesques as a kinetic visual experience, and he regarded the disks as “somewhat like ‘characters’” in the performance (Kurg 2020). The program attracted large and enthusiastic audiences, and played for two seasons at the Vanemuine Theater, before touring in Kaunas, Lithuania and Leningrad (1982), Belgium and Finland (1989). The program won first prize at the Moscow International Pantomime Festival in 1985. A graduate student, Anne Dieme, made (1985) a film of Mimesques, which appeared in theaters and then on Estonian television.

But neither Kristal nor Kurg moved their pantomime aesthetic beyond this initial success. They split in 1986. For Kristal, the success of Mimesques did not lead to any significant opportunities to work with any theatrical institutions or groups, perhaps because of her reputation for being “difficult” in collaboration. In 1988, she produced her own solo program, Hingemaa, which might be strictly translated as Breath of the Land or more loosely or idiomatically translated as Soul Land, a program of three pieces, Unbreakable, Credo, and Debt, with recorded music by Maurice Jarre (1924-2009), Alo Mattiisen (1961-1996), Arvo Pärt, and Jaan Rääts (b. 1932). The program was serious in tone, dealing with patriotic themes, with the reclaiming, through bodily performance, of a “sacred” ancestral ethnic heritage. As she explained to a reporter in Rakvere, these sacred “attitudes and feelings […] cannot be abandoned: for their timeliness or awakening lullaby have wanted to take us. They are [the basis of] human dignity and a sense of solidarity. They are communication between people and a sacred feeling that embraces the concepts of mother and fatherland” (Maaleht No. 42, 20 October 1988). Her costume was a diaphanous white gown or dalmatica, but for some parts she was barefoot. Breath of the Land, however, was a venture into modern dance, not pantomime. She performed the piece at an Estrade concert with the Philharmonic, at a church in Tartu, and at a theater and church in Rakvere. But the piece inspired hardly any commentary in the press. She next collaborated, in 1989, with the tapestry artist Pilvi Blankin-Salmin (b. 1955) in another nocturnal tower performance, Sanctus, in the Kiek in de Kök in Tallinn. The musical accompaniment was a combination of avant-garde soundscape and New Age synthesizer melodies by Jüri Vood (b. 1947). In this piece, Kristal, barefoot, wore a crude burlap top, skirt, and headband to incarnate an archaic, pagan Estonian woman. The action is pantomimic. In the video made of the piece, the woman nervously, cautiously enters an iron cage draped with ropes and covered with a large cross made of tree branches. She raises the cross and lifts herself out of the cage. But when she stands the cross up, she becomes frightened and releases the cross, as if experiencing a seizure. She moves convulsively through various corners of the medieval tower walls, where hang Blankin-Salmin’s tapestry images of ancient times. She touches the images and even enters one image, as if passing through a curtain. Eventually, though, she returns to the cross, lifts it, cradles it, lays it down, then mimes scooping water, drinking it, and pouring it on herself. She gazes up at the night sky with an expression of anticipation and anxiety. She reaches for a large white cloth lying on a table and fashions a long, flowing wimple to cover her head. Her movements become voluptuous. She takes a black cloth and another white cloth from the table and lays them like an X over the cross, which she then lifts, cradles, dances with, and brings to one of the tapestry images. But the piece ends with her holding her arms upward on the branches of the cross, with an imploring gaze into the night sky. She appears disappointed, however. Her arms drop, her body slumps, and her gaze droops downward sadly to the earth (Torninäitus 1989). In Sanctus, the female body functions as a repository of archaic, ancestral history. But the piece also presents an intensely lonely image of Woman. She enters as if fleeing some horror; she enters the cage as if seeking protection; she tries to find comfort with the cross, with the images; and she seeks some encouraging sign from the sky. But in the end, both paganism and Christianity have left her completely alone, utterly abandoned. It is quite a tragic scene, and Kristal’s charismatic aura is strongly evident. Yet she was unable to build upon even this mysterious production. She did some freelance work in cabarets for a while, then visited Canada and Finland in search of opportunities. In 1996, in Estonia again, she formed an amateur dance group, Crystal, with nine high school students. The purpose of the group was to recover ancient Estonian incantations and combine them with modern dance. Estonians, she explained, carry a “stone of hope,” which creates “the heavy walk of the people of this land.” She claimed that pop rhythms are incompatible with Estonian identity. But after two years, Crystal ceased to exist, and Kristal ceased to create any more performances (Kristal Archive 1988). 

Figure 176: Top: Scene from the “Wreath Ballad” section of Mimeskid (Mimesques), directed by Kalle Kurg, Vanemuine Theater Tartu, Estonia, 1981, with Maret Kristal, Sirre Oengo, Mare Tommingas, Jelena Tšaulina. Photo: FOTIS, Rahvusarhiivi. Bottom: Maret Kristal in Sanctus, performed in the Kiek in de Kök, Tallinn, 1989, left: as pagan woman, right, as Christian woman with wimple. Photos: from “Torninäitus” video directed by Tiina Pork in ERR Arhiiv. 

 Meanwhile, after the Tartu performance of Mimesques, Kurg returned to his busy literary life. In addition to his increasing responsibilities at Looming, he published numerous poems, poetry anthologies, stories, and essays related to literature, media, and ecology. In the early 1990s, he assumed administrative duties for Estonian Television, launched a cultural journal, and then became the editorial chief for a couple of publishing houses until in 2000 he decided to become a freelance writer. In 1986, he wrote a children’s play, A Sailboat in a Bottle, performed before the Tallinn City Hall; it contained some pantomime scenes performed by Kristal. Otherwise, Kurg never returned to pantomime, although he remained open to further ventures if potential collaborators had appeared. In the early 1990s, he became involved with Estonian National Radio’s program of broadcasting the reading of literary works on the ERR’s Midnight Program. Mimesques was not a project that Kurg wanted to do; he did it as a favor to Kristal, and he would not have done anything in pantomime if not for her. Together they created an exciting program of pantomimes. But they also showed that one could create serious, compelling pantomime without the rigorous training associated with Decroux and his disciples. Their approach to pantomime differed radically from Traks, who insisted on prolonged exercise to prepare actors for performance. But in one respect, the relation between Kurg and Kristal was similar to the relation between Traks and his overwhelmingly female ensembles. Women performers drove Estonian pantomime insofar as they were searching for new ways to make their bodies expressive. But they depended on men to construct the narratives that released and justified this new expressiveness. Female desire required a place in a male story. When Kristal tried to frame her desire within her own stories in Hingemaa and Sanctus, she could not strengthen or even find her place within Estonian culture. Sanctus revealed how terribly alone “Estonian Woman” is when telling her own story in pantomime. Yet Traks had no story to tell without the women, and Kurg, though he possessed a pantomimic imagination, much preferred to tell stories that did not depend on the reality of the female body in performance. Pantomime disappeared from Estonia when the country became independent in 1991, perhaps because independence meant that both men and women were free from the need to tell such “silent,” tragic stories that culminated in Sanctus.

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