Pantomime in Cold War Eastern Europe: Latvian and Lithuanian Ventures

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

PDF version of the entire book.

Latvian and Lithuanian Ventures

However, Tomaszewski was not the only one in the East bloc to establish an enduring pantomime ensemble dedicated to serious manifestations of the art outside of the Pierrot/Marceau/Clown model. In Latvia, Robert Ligers (1931-2013), a 1955 graduate of the Latvian Conservatory Theater Department, began his career as an actor in Riga at the Daile Theater, founded in 1920 by Eduard Smiļģis (1886-1966), an engineer who turned his attention to theater while working (1911-1914) as a technician in a St. Petersburg factory located next to the city’s Latvian theater. Smiļģis was a guiding inspiration for Ligers, for the purpose of the Daile Theater (Art Theater) was to stage monumental, heroic productions of classic European dramas, a task largely beyond the resources and cultural program of the newly independent republic. Smiļģis collaborated with the modernist scene designer Jānis Muncis (1886-1955) and the artist and physical education instructor Felicita Ertnere (1891-1975) on the organization of the theater. Muncis had studied (1917-1919) under Meyerhold in Moscow, and Ertnere, in St. Petersburg (1912-1914), became a disciple of François Delsarte, Emil Jaques-Dalcroze, and the Russian physical educator Peter Lesgaft (1837-1909). On a visit to Moscow, she became “fascinated” with Alexander Tairov’s use of pantomime at the Chamber Theater. Her task at the Daile Theater was to integrate dynamic corporeal movement into Muncis’s scenic modernism (1921-1926) and Smiļģis’s modernist interpretations of European drama during the interwar years (Rodina 2015: 186-189). These ideas somehow survived the Soviet takeover of the theater and contributed heavily to Ligers’s education as an actor. But in addition to Ertnere, he had also studied ballet in Riga under Irena Strode (1921-2013) and Jevģēnija Čangas (1920-1999); other women were also a great influence on him, including the rather autocratic Daile director Vera Baļuna (1904-1978), the theater’s movement instructor Ludmila Ruma, and the actress Erika Ferda (1914-1997) (Majevskis 2022). He felt he had to develop a more physical dimension to his performance because he could not compete against established stars for major roles in the Daile. Initially, however, Ligers did not like pantomime when he first saw it performed by a visiting “French troupe.” Then, in 1957, he saw in Moscow, at the 6th World Youth and Student Festival, a performance of the Joy in Sorrow cabaret show produced by the Polish student group Bim-Bom (1954-1960), based in Gdansk and formed by the charismatic film actor Zbigniew Cybulski (1927-1967), who impressed Ligers with his skill in constructing dramatic scenes without spoken words (cf. Szymula 2015; Majevskis 2022). Ligers resolved to form a pantomime ensemble with students from the Conservatory and a place to rehearse and perform at a Construction Worker’s Club, with the film composer Indulis Kalnins (1918-1986) writing the music performed by the Club orchestra. Initially (1958-1960), the name of the ensemble was Youth Satire and Pantomime Ensemble, then AHA! (1960-1963) and Pantomime (1963-1967), before becoming the Riga Pantomime from 1967 until now. The second production, Serious Jokes (1958), earned Ligers the chance to travel abroad sponsored by the Club. Because he wanted to bring in more experienced actors from the Daile Theater, he started working as an assistant to Smiļģis, who nevertheless told him that the theater had no room for a pantomime ensemble, for Smiļģis was “extremely jealous” of Ligers’s Club productions and assigned Ligers only to non-speaking roles on the Daile stage; when Ligers proceeded with another pantomime production, the “Central Committee” forbade him to produce it.

In 1960, Valentin Skulme (1922-1989), an actor at the Daile and in films, introduced Ligers to the expressionist woocut “novel” The Idea (1920), by the Flemish Marxist artist Frans Masereel (1889-1972), which German composer Berthold Goldschmidt (1903-1996) had turned into a pantomime in 1928. Ligers attempted (1961) to do a staging of the picture book with accompanying spoken text, like a voiceover, consisting of poems by Belgian Symbolist writer Emile Verhaeren (1855-1916). A municipal committee approved the project, but an entirely Russian committee denounced the “bourgeois” production because the text was not Russian or at least Latvian and because “The Idea,” embodied by a woman, was naked. Ligers then scrapped the text altogether, so that the piece was completely a pantomime, and he dressed “The Idea” in a red tunic with red make up. “It turned out that everyone [in the audience] could understand without any talking, so we went to absolute silence,” Ligers explained in an interview, although with this production Imants Kalnins (b. 1941), soon to become famous in the early 1970s as a composer of both rock and symphonic music, began providing the musical accompaniments for the ensemble (Eksta 2018: 1-3). From this production on, Ligers remained committed to completely speechless pantomime performances. 

In a handwritten, unpublished 1981 diary entry that Valdis Majesvskis, one of his students, has translated, Ligers described the origin of “The Idea”: When admission to the Faculty of Theater took place in 1956, there was an insanely large influx. A huge number of people failed the exams. And they got together and wanted to organize a kind of underground studio where they could continue to study along the lines of theater. They found a place – the Builders’ Culture House, the so-called Būvīš, and looked for a director. They had watched Kārlis Pabriks [1898-1977] – a very famous actor, Meritorious, but Pabriks said: “Well, what about you! I am already old, but there is one young person in the theater, Ligers, who is very interested in directing.” The first production for us was “Krauklītis” by [Jānis] Rainis [1865-1929]. Then I got to the youth festival in Moscow. There I saw the Polish student theater “Bim – Bom”, which I liked madly. They said only one word, but everything happened through movement. I came home and told the young people what I had seen, and we started making our own script. Set designer Ludvigs Bērziņš [1929-2021] made a huge heart with eyes and glasses. Young people came to the field from the heart and played small episodes accompanied by an orchestra. It was such a completely new variant, it was written about in the newspapers, the word “pantomime” was mentioned – but we didn’t really know what it meant. In principle, we started to give up the name.. Then big scandals started. Once Valentina Skulme said: “Robi, look! There’s some kind of pantomime inside” – and gave me the book The Idea by Frans Masareel with his engravings. Irma Laiva [1909-2003] brought me Verhaeren’s poetry translated by [Edvarts] Virza [1883-1940]. Verhaeren and Masareel – the two of them go together. Then we made the first performance of The Idea, there were even rehearsals with an orchestra, with choirs, revolutionary songs, we put a red flag on the stage… There was only one performance in the Russian drama – in 1961. Immediately after the premiere, it was taken and banned. They wanted to ban it already at the dress rehearsal, but I had invited [Žanis] Katlaps [1907-1968] and Ertnere and Alfreds Jaunusans [1919-2008], all the aces of the theater of that time, who said: “Yes, there is something new and plastic inside…” But on the day of the premiere, all of them had gathered, there was such a hardliner from the university department of Marxism-Leninism, and he suddenly told me: “This is a bourgeois idea. It’s not going through.” Said to me: “Why use Verhaeren? We have Gorky. We do have… well, at least Rainis.” And that’s what I was guided by. “Ah, maybe Rainis? . . .” Then I took: “…the highest idea, it does not require human pity. He who burns in her fires does not ask whether he will perish.” This is what we recited at the very beginning, and then we did an agit-brigade version of it. We showed it once in Augstceltne [Academy of Sciences building], and then it was put aside again (Majevskis 2022).

“The Idea” was unique in constructing a large-scale pantomime with an overtly political theme, and it somewhat reminds one of the pantomime melodramas of Cuvelier in Napoleonic France, with a narrator giving brief voiceover comments like silent film intertitles or the interpellator of ancient Roman pantomime. Including the narrator, the piece involved fifteen persons, almost evenly divided between male and female performers. In the original woodcut novel, Masereel did not include any text at all; the narrative unfolded entirely through images. But Ligers probably felt that without the voiceover comments, the imagery of liberation was subject to interpretations that deviated from Soviet theory of social revolution. Masereel’s work embodied a perspective on revolutionary socialism that preceded Bolshevism and operated outside of the control of the Comintern in Moscow. In the scenario for The Idea, Ligers wrote: “Our performance reflects the struggle of a working man for freedom and happiness, which leads to the victory of the working class” (Majevskis 2022). A prologue announced that the “revolutionary idea” is “a result of class struggle.” A young woman in a red body stocking embodies “the idea,” which is a release from the dark, suffocating, mechanized, “shackled,” and deadening world created by capitalist “oppressors,” represented by male figures wearing top hats. But The Idea first appears as a distraction designed by the oppressors “to fool the working people” into believing their oppressors are their protectors. When this strategy fails, the oppressors “handcuff” The Idea until she is broken. But they cannot break her, because “The Idea lives in the people and the people love it.” The oppressors then try to “silence the longing for a better life by brute force,” which leads to a scene showing imprisoned workers contrasted with a scene depicting a demonstration, followed by a scene representing “the agony of capitalism,” in which the oppressors celebrate their triumph over the revolutionaries, “but their feast resembles an agony.” While the workers in a printing house produce literature and art about The Idea, the oppressors attempt to burn all the revolutionary publications. However, “an idea cannot be burned, shot, locked up in chains! Invitation, and lo, the revolutionary Idea brought the working people to fight!” The piece concludes with the “anthem of the proletariat.” The Riga Elektromechanikas, “the small symphony orchestra of the Culture House,” conducted by August Krisberg, supplied the musical accompaniment, although it is not clear what the musical texture was (Ideja scenario in Majevskis 2022). The scenario may seem excessively schematic, but it nevertheless contains elements the would be controversial in many societies, not just Communist-controlled countries. The piece does not indicate that a Communist cadre or any sort of intelligencia lead the workers to revolution. Nor does the piece equate “a better life” with greater industrial production or veneration for labor itself. A young woman embodies The Idea and stirs “the masses” to revolutionary action, and no one can control her. Release from worker oppression depends above all on the power of bodies and their movements to achieve erotic freedom and fulfillment through a “collective” identity. Both the scenario and Masereel depict this collective identity as a seething, turbulent configuration of bodies that transcends individualizing distinctions imposed by marriage, family, unions, religion, political parties, education, or age. The performers, male and female, play both the oppressors and the oppressed, wearing the same costumes assigned to their sex, with the women wearing skirts and blouses and the men wearing white shirts and dark trousers; only hats distinguish the oppressors from the oppressed, and only The Idea, in her red body stocking, does not wear a kind of uniform. But as the photographs below indicate, Ligers did individualize poses and pantomimic movements for different performers. This erotic concept of the collective identity “awakening” to The Idea as a naked woman, as Masereel portrayed and Ligers perhaps originally intended, is more obvious than when represented by a woman in a red body stocking. But even when The Idea appears a woman in a red body stocking, the pantomime was and remains a radical political drama in almost any society.

Figure 165: The Riga Pantomime performs “The Idea” (1961), directed by Roberts Ligers. Shown here are “the oppressors who live at the expense of working people.” Photo by Jānis Lerhs (1904-1967) photo and caption courtesy of Valdis Majevskis.
Figure 166: Scene from the Riga Pantomime’s production of “The Idea” (1961) showing the conflict between the oppressors and the oppressed: “sentenced to an exile of life,/Where you can’t sleep, you can’t feel the air. Without the sun, tired people melt.” Photo by Jānis Lerhs, photo courtesy of Valdis Majevskis. Text is a translation of a rhymed Latvian text translated from the original rhymed French by Émile Verhaeren (1855-1916).
Figure 167: Scene from the Riga Pantomime production of “The Idea” (1961) showing the handcuffing of The Idea by the capitalists, with Gundeg Garkeviča (b. 1942) as The Idea. Photo by Jānis Lerhs, courtesy of Valdis Majevskis.
Figure 168: Scene from the Riga Pantomime production of “The Idea” (1961): “the oppressors seek to suppress the hopes of the people and silence them yearning for a better life with brute force.” Gundeg Garkeviča, upper right, as The Idea. Photo by Jānis Lerhs, photo and caption courtesy of Valdis Majevskis, who appears as the body upheld by the six men.
Figure 169: The Riga Pantomime production of “The Idea” (1961): “The Idea lives in the people and the people love it.” Photo by Jānis Lerhs, photo courtesy of Valdis Majevskis.
Figure 170: Scene from the Riga Pantomime production of “The Idea” (1961) showing the capitalists celebrating what they believe is the destruction of The Idea, “but their feast resembles an agony.” Photo by Jānis Lerhs, photo courtesy of Valdis Majevskis.
Figure 171: Final scene from the Riga Pantomime production of “The Idea” (1961): “With the anthem of the proletariat, the all-conquering revolutionary Idea of work leads the nation to victory,” although the scenario does not really support this statement. Gundeg Garkeviča, right, as The Idea. Photo by Jānis Lerhs, photo courtesy of Valdis Majevskis.

Ligers saw ensemble pantomime production as a way to model “collective identity.” In an interview for the first issue of the magazine Liesma [Flame] (1963), he justified the formation of a pantomime ensemble staffed by “self-active” (volunteer) cultural club members by using a rhetoric that was acceptable to Soviet cultural guardians: “Every year, self-active art collectives of cultural houses and clubs welcome new members. The art of self-activity often becomes a second passion for young people, which broadens their horizons, inculcates and develops emotionality, collectivism and labor discipline. For many young people, it has paved the way to great art. . . [C]omplicated and long is the formation process of the collective and its individual members. The team of the ‘Pantomime’ ensemble was formed over a period of ten years.” He further remarked that, “the work of our ensemble differs from other independent art collectives by one very important factor: we do not have ready-made pantomime playing canons. We create them ourselves according to our true feelings.” And he described the process by which the ensemble created pantomimes: “We devote the first half of each regular rehearsal to the so-called technique lesson. In the second part, we create improvisation etudes. Etudes should be created within 10-15 minutes. Their value is not determined by the technical execution, but by a thought. It often happens that two etudes played separately create one, which, by processing and polishing, creates an etude for the performance. So we work with thought. Pantomimes, which are performed by an ensemble, usually have a written script with the main choreographic pattern, but the movements with which the idea is expressed occur during the rehearsal process. It is a continuous creative work” (Majevskis 2022).

But this rhetoric concealed much of the political struggle Ligers experienced in trying to sustain the ensemble, to which, even in the 1967 interview, he managed to allude: “How often we had to go through bitter moments simply for the reason that we did not have strong enough arguments to justify ourselves,” and cultural bureaucrats “still officially grouped [the ensemble] together with pop groups” (Majevskis 2022). The Riga Pantomime Studio was always an amateur ensemble, functioning at first, as the Art Studio of the Daile Theater, primarily as a training unit for students seeking to enter the Daile Theater; Ligers (in Seja 24 February 2005 online) complained that Smiļģis prevented the company from becoming professional by poaching all of his best actors. The attitude thus persisted that actors could not enjoy a vibrant career unless they played major roles in classic European dramas. When Smiļģis was unmoved by Ligers’ efforts to be build an experimental Art Studio, “I left and swore to myself – there will be no more words in my productions!” although Smiļģis apparently liked the pantomime productions, especially The Idea (Majevskis 2022).  Tomaszewski inspired Ligers with the “horrible, beautiful things” he made out of pantomime and out of his attachment to literary sources. But Ligers felt that Latvian theater had become too deeply dependent on established literary works to allow the body sufficient power of expression. He preferred to compose his own stories. In a 2013 interview with the photographer Viktoria Eksta (b. 1987), Ligers explained that, although he was not a playwright, in the early stages of his ensemble’s development, he had to write scripts if he was to stage any productions. He wrote scripts, “because I was forced to [by the government, which approved productions based on written texts]. I had to write the scripts! I still have them at home with all the stamps on them of what is allowed. Young people tend to play old people, but I didn’t want that. That’s why we started making our performances without the characters of old people. First was ‘Heart for Eyes.’ The decoration was a huge heart, inside which was Lyma’s clock and the whole ensemble came out of that heart. It started with singing and stuff like that” (Eksta [2013] in Majevskis 2022). He also explained the evolution of the ensemble toward “absolute silence”: “We made short stories by Andrejs Upīts [1877-1970], where the narrator read the text on the side. When we had to travel to Panevezys with this show, we abandoned the Latvian text. It turned out that everything can be understood very well without speaking and we switched to absolute silence.” He further stipulated that “We also think of dramaturgy ourselves. For example, I am alone at home and I receive a letter. Is it happy or sad news, maybe a death announcement? And you just have to be able to portray it.” Eventually, however, he “realized that my stage movement exercises were not enough and ballet lessons were needed,” so for five years (1968-1973), he collaborated with the Daile ballet star Alfrēds Spura (1928-2001), and then (1973) with the ballet master Māris Koristins (b. 1949) (Eksta [2013] in Majevskis 2022). But after The Idea, new productions appeared only intermittently: Hiroshima (1966), Smile (1967), The Road (1969), Mysterious History (1971), Kurpe (1974), The Land of My Fathers (1981), Why Not Know Why (1983), Bread (1986). The Riga Pantomime also appeared in a film, Četri balti krekli (Breathe Deeply) (1967), which focused on tensions between collective and individual aspirations, and which remained suppressed until 1987. His most successful or popular production was probably Symphony (1975), which used Imants Kalnins’s Fourth Symphony (1972) as accompaniment, a work that ingeniously combines rock music idioms with a monumental symphonic sound, particularly in the first movement, with its vast, ominous ostinato march-rock beat. The piece focused on a single, solitary man in conflict with different parts of himself represented, allegorically, by other performers. In the early 1970s, Ligers introduced his idea of “philosophical pantomime,” which involved a symbolic use of colors. Symphony, for example, unfolded in various shades of blue. When Marcel Marceau visited the Studio, he recommended that Ligers avoid whiteface, because whiteface was too much of a French tradition and Ligers’s ensemble gained nothing by using it. The idea of staging pantomimes in relation to a dominant color is quite intriguing: white supposedly symbolized integrity and purity, red was the color of love and Latvia, and blue represented fantasy or romantic feeling. However, information about how the “philosophical pantomime” unfolded in particular productions is difficult to locate, as is so often the case with the pantomime history of Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Ligers never published his scenarios, and even the available photo documentation, though alluring, seldom properly identifies images with particular dates and productions. The graphic designer Zenta Dzividzinska (1944-2011) made a series of beautiful dramatic photos of Studio members rehearsing in 1964-1965, but these pictures have only recently emerged from complete obscurity. They show that, in addition to abstract, geometrized scenic contexts and chiaroscuro lighting, Ligers liked having his actors wear body-displaying body stockings, with whiteface used only occasionally [Figures 172, 173]. His pantomime style was serious without being tragic, bizarre or eerie without being clownish or even comic. For example, one of Dzividzinska’s images from 1965 shows four performers in dark body stockings facing the camera in different poses; they wear top hats and a pair of side lamps project double silhouette shadows of the figures onto a white cyclorama—a startling combination of playfulness and sinister game playing (Tifentale 2014). From the 1980s on and after the end of the Communist state, his productions became more nationalistic in their themes, conjuring images uniquely associated with Latvian history and culture. Nevertheless, the Studio received invitations to perform in other European countries and in the United States (1987), apparently because of the ensemble’s skill in exploring themes such as “the responsibility of state leaders” and “the power of money and wealth over the fate of the people” (Rīgas Pantomīma 2013). In more recent years, though, in its somewhat resurrected form, the ensemble has become more aligned with a kind of symbolic movement theater that integrates non-realistic physicality with expressionistic lighting effects, video projections, and eclectic, electronic musical accompaniments, as in the company’s 2022 adaptation of the American Richard Bach’s (b. 1936) enormously popular story Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1972), in which, however, the bodies on stage did not attempt to represent seagulls but transposed (to use Dullin’s term) the emotional journey of the lone seagull to a kinetically abstracted humanness (Majevskis 2022). As an amateur company, the ensemble consisted entirely of young people who soon either moved into professional careers with the Daile theater or drifted away from theater altogether or sometimes formed pantomime ensembles that contested Ligers’ aesthetic: “I had young people, children, boys all the time,” and it was therefore difficult to establish an abiding, “classical” repertoire of pieces. As he remarked somewhat poignantly: “I have to agree with what Jean-Louis Barrault said in his time. In his youth he played with Marcel Marceau, but then left to found the National Theater of France. He wrote that he left because he felt pantomime had no future because it had no drama of its own. It is created by the person who works – in this case it was always me, Liger” (Eksta [2013] in Majevskis 2022). In the 1970s, when Ligers invited ballet dancers to instruct the performers and give them a greater awareness of the body’s expressive potential, the performers were slow to absorb the lessons because, as he explained, when he grew up, dance was a “dark thing” (Eksta 2010: 4; Seja 24 February 2005 online). 

In 2020, the Riga Pantomime was the subject of an exhibition in Riga that featured or revealed documents which previously had remained dormant in private archives. Guiding the organization of the exhibition was a former member of the ensemble in the 1960s and 70s, Valdis Majevskis (b. 1947), and most likely the documents he has released will lead to a reassessment and more complete appreciation of not only the Riga Pantomime but of the evolution of Latvian pantomime during the Cold War, as indicated by the Latvian National Library’s archive of materials related to the company (Latvian National Library 2022).

Figure 107: Photos by Zenta Dzividzinska from 1964-1965 depicting followers of Roberts Ligers rehearsing in the Riga Pantomime Studio. Photos: Laikmetīgās mākslas centra arhīvs.

Figure 108: Photos by Zenta Dzividzinska from 1964-1965 depicting followers of Roberts Ligers rehearsing in the Riga Pantomime Studio. The bottom photo depicts a 1965 rehearsal for “The Idea”: from left to right Valdis Majevskis, Edgars Sivitkis, Valdis Indrikovs, Valerijs Vorontsovs. Photos: Laikmetīgās mākslas centra arhīvs.

Ligers taught numerous persons who became important in the Latvian theater culture. One of his students was Modris Tenisons (1945-2020), who participated in a later version of The Idea, but left the company in fall 1965 when the Army drafted him. But the Army released him in 1966 due to illness. He then formed a pantomime ensemble in Kaunas, Lithuania, where he had moved in 1967 because his girlfriend lived there. Tenisons possessed a suave, exuberant, daring personality that motivated actors to leap into experimental, “wild” forms of performance. His attitude toward acting was not nearly as severe or controlling as that which pervaded the Smiļģis-dominated Daile Theater. He guided the Kaunas pantomime ensemble for only five years (1967-1972) and directed five productions: Ecce Homo (1967), Dream Dreams (1968), Care for the Butterfly (1969), XX Century Capriccio (1970), and Collage (1971). In 1972, “in protest against the regime,” a passionate fan of the pantomime ensemble, Romas Kalanta (1953-1972), set himself on fire before the theater where the ensemble was scheduled to perform. A riot ensued as a result of a youth demonstration. The authorities shut down the pantomime ensemble and compelled Tenisons to return to Riga. Later, a terrible automobile accident struck his family, killing his wife and injuring him severely (Busygin 2009 online; Tracevskis 2010). In the 1970s, he did movement training for classic drama productions in Riga, Liepāja, and Valmiera, but he never returned to pantomime. Yet in Lithuania, and perhaps in Latvia, too, Tenisons has commanded deeper respect than Ligers has in Latvia. 

            Tenisons infused his pantomime productions with mystical, cosmological symbolism, for “pantomime analyzes the inner world of the human body,” though his XX Century Capriccio depicted “features of the lower middle classes which lead to fascism” (Savukynaitė 2001: 94; Busygin 2009). Viktor Busygin says the ensemble originally consisted of eight men and two women, all young people, but others besides those named by Busygin were part of the ensemble, including Busygin himself, whom Tenisons initially refused to admit, and Elena Savukynaitė (b. 1946), who wrote a short book about the ensemble in 2001. Like Ligers, Tenisons preferred his performers to wear uni-colored body stockings that “equalized” or “universalized” the identities (or bodies) of the characters they represented, and he seems to have borrowed some ideas from Decroux that managed to reach him (Savukynaitė 2001: 44-47). But unlike Ligers, Tenisons saw pantomime as a mode of performance that intersected with other media and invaded spaces outside the theater. He collaborated with filmmakers, such as Vidmantas Bačiulis (b. 1940) and Arkadijus Vinokuras (b. 1952), who was also a member of the ensemble, to document the activities of the company; the great photographer Vitas Luckus (1943-1987) also made the group the subject of several memorable images. Vinokuras’s film clips show a group and then a male-female couple (Tenisons and Asta Urbanavičiūtė) performing movement improvisations in a forest, and these are reminscent of Rudolf Laban’s “choral movement” exercises in meadows of the 1920s (Vinokur 2012). Bačiulis’s 1972 documentary integrates shots of the ensemble wandering in a park, rehearsing in a studio, and performing Tenison’s pantomime Ecce Homo (Tenisons 2010). Both films suggest that pantomime created a kind of “underground” community that gathered in unpopulated or shadowy spaces to perform mysterious, liberating actions, which both filmmakers capture with distinctive, cinematic shots: these give the impression of performance for an audience outside the theater and beyond the time and world of the filming—indeed, pantomime was the path to a new image of communal life. Tenisons described pantomime as the act of “drawing” emotions with the body, and the actors studied drawing, painting, and modeling in addition to music; one project was to describe through movements the colors in paintings by the Lithuanian Symbolist artist Mikalojus Čiurlionis (1875-1911) (Busygin 2009). A unique feature of Tenisons’ pantomimic style was the performance of slow, deliberate, precise, almost languid movements abruptly punctuated by jolting lunges, pivots, swivels, convulsions, lurches, swoops, flips and sweeps of arms, and wilting plunges. He chose modernist, even avant-garde musical accompaniments: jazz, electronic tape, atonal expressionist chamber pieces. But he did not develop a system whereby the “drawing” of a particular movement correlated with the representation of a particular emotion. Rather, he used a philosophical-cosmological rhetoric to get the actors to “draw” the emotions embedded in the language in a way unique to themselves. Savukynaitė provides an example of this rhetoric in relation to a section of the production of Ecce Homo, so that, instead of a narrative scenario of sequential actions, one encounters a semi-poem of sequential emotions “drawn” by the actors: 

Man’s death. His inner world is a white and heavy sheet of paper. There is only a great desire to reduce everything, to know everything and find your place in this complicated world. Then, as in the past, peaceful coexistence spins into a huge conflict. It turns out that this is just an illusion. The first human steps brought the first crashes.

The first encounter is the hypocritical exploitation of preaching by human beings. The human being is trying to protest, but this protest has no name, yet is not completely broken. This is more than an intuitive denial of violence. […]

The human world comes to love. The first one. She is easy and uncomfortable: a violet song, a fragrance of life, and an earthquake. But the human is not yet able to understand her great, dark secrets, perceive the essence of a curious life. And he turns himself into an eagle, he is in love with golden remixes of idealization, thus ending the eulogizing of nature, and, at that very moment, he wounds and impoverishes himself. […]

A man is afraid of his feelings, of his own affairs. All of this is dreadful and meaningless, lacking truth. And then comes love. She’s now active, trying to help by any means but she only effects the man’s senses, the physical nature of his life. He loses the inner need to understand himself. The man turns into a sociable marionette (Savukynaitė 2001: 95).

The voice here seems uniquely Eastern European: an allegorical montage of archetypal images depicting humanity (or “Man”) as simultaneously cosmic and pathetic. Yet in film documentation of the piece, the actors perform amazingly precise, lucid actions, movements, and gestures to dramatize Tenisons’ controlling theme—humanity in conflict with itself, the inescapable tension between the individual (“Man”) and an unstable group or society to which he wishes to belong and then does not wish to belong or which turns against him or causes him to turn against himself (Tenisons 2010; Martynov 2010; Martynov 2014). The group does not consistently appear as a unified, choral unit; each member of the group responds differently to Man, and what makes a group is a shared agreement to include or exclude Man as a result of his disclosure of a particular feeling. But because Man is above all “afraid of his feelings,” fear, manifested in different physical gestures, controls the dynamic relation between Man and the group, and the greatest fear is being alone. Love is the emotion that most strongly binds Man to others and creates “peaceful co-existence,” but the emotion always arises in response to an illusion that fear inevitably shatters, for love excludes at the same time that it binds one to others. Tenisons devoted much attention to movements that signified the attraction and aversion of bodies to each other, to dynamic shifts from aversion to attraction (and the reverse), and to the struggle of an averse body with attracted (or controlling) bodies. Unlike Ligers or Tomaszewski, Tenisons, an art student, had no background in dance, which meant that he had little interest in blurring the distinction between dance and pantomime. His kinetic sense was entirely pantomimic: he could create intense drama with bodies that did not move far, if at all, from an initial spot—unlike dancers, the performers did not need to consume a lot of space to evoke an emotion, an attitude, an identity. He delighted in producing manifold expressive effects with fingers, hands, arms, turns of the head, weight shifts, kneelings, undulations, as well as the abrupt shifts in movement rhythms. Yet movements did not coalesce into a system that “translated” various emotions into particular gestures. Rather, he urged actors to find new ways of signifying an emotion as it arose in relation to a particular dramatic situation or attitude toward “another body.” Movement was the basis for “analyzing” emotion—“the inner world of the human body”—instead of emotion being the basis for analyzing movement, which, in dance, often means finding a way to fit an emotion into steps and movements that have a source external to the “inner world” of the performer (cf. Savukynaitė 2001: 36-43). Tenisons emphasized this point by his use of masks in Ecce Homo, which emerged out of an earlier studio piece called Rumor/Gossip. All members of the group wear the same grotesque, rather mournful, primitive mask, while the Man remains unmasked. Like the uni-body stocking, the mask unifies the group, but it does not prevent members of the group from moving differently, although sometimes an emotion does cause the members to produce the same unison movement. The scenic context for stage performance was bare, an empty space lit in a chiaroscuro manner, partly because the ensemble had so little access to theatrical resources, partly because “cosmic” dramas dealing with Man and humanity require only a space for performance, and partly because the ensemble did not make a clear distinction between the space and the world outside the theater.

With XX Century Capriccio (1970), Tenisons shifted to a more overtly political representation of the conflict between the individual and the community with a fable revealing the “barbarism of the bourgeoisie.” The piece took place in a market place bringing together many different persons with a mythical town: “evaluators, intelligent critics, prostitutes, eccentrics, elderly shepherdesses, ancient believers, unbelievers, sadists, nosey meddlers, naïve country folk, suave aesthetes, low officials, all assuming a right to give punishment […]” (Savukynaitė 2001: 149). Some of the large cast came from high schools and from outside of Kaunas, for the ensemble had already a reputation for innovative performance that allowed actors to shape the content of the production. Much of the story came from Tenisons’ expressionist drawings depicting turbulent tensions between individuals and groups, and Savukynaitė says that the Greek junta coup and the Vietnam War inspired the production. But Tenisons and his ensemble created a pantomime that referred more precisely to the political situation in Lithuania. The story concerned a Sculptor whose art has become too strange or enigmatic to suit the tastes of the diverse community gathering in the market place. A lowly member of the community, the Dictator, who “is poor and needs the mass,” inflames community resentment against the Sculptor, for his art exists independently of the “base” consumerism of the market place: “true art is dangerous to the citizen.” The pantomime therefore depicts “the characteristics of a town, of [its notions] of finery, of the events leading to the death [of the town].” The diverse qualities defining individuals within the community, signified through pantomimic gesture, merely mask a conformist mentality, a unified desire to punish the artist for having placed himself “above” the common craving or “instinct” to become like others—to avoid being alone. The ensemble dramatized the idea of the community by extending the performance beyond the stage, so that, as soon as spectators came to pick up or present tickets, actors greeted them as if they were members of the market place community on the stage, and they pretended to gossip about members of the audience as well as about themselves; one actor mimed “the dark eyes of a blind man” (Savukynaitė 2001: 144-149). Ostensibly, Tenisons presented the pantomime as a critique of bourgeois consumerism, which was the “base” origin of the fascist mentality. However, some viewers thought the production showed that fascism had its origin in the resentments, greed, and petty appetites for “punishment” in ordinary citizens, who regard as dangerous art that makes them feel small or crude. The production therefore was not a critique of capitalism that showed how fascism was the invention of an elite class to impose its will on a class-stratified society and thus distract the society from the exploitation of the lesser classes by the hugely profiting elite class. XX Century Capriccio showed that fascism was an inherent, default state of mind within ordinary citizens; only art, the “strange” image of another body, could release people from that state of mind, and such art was the work of an elite element within society. Following this production, Kaunas briefly became a hub for various “underground” or radically experimental activities in theater, the visual arts, and literature, with Giedrius Mackevicius’s 1971 staging of The Siege, by the poet Judita Vaiciunaite (1937-2001) especially causing concern for Soviet authorities, in addition to Tenisons’ pantomime productions (Truskauskaite 2012: 11-14; Konstantinova 2015: 2-4). This flowering of underground culture came to an end with the public disturbances of May 1972 ignited by Kalanta’s self-immolation. 

            Tenisons’ expulsion from Lithuania apparently entailed a warning that he should refrain from producing any more pantomimes. He devoted himself to art and to providing movement training to actors in Latvian theaters. But even after the fall of the Communist state, Tenisons did not return to pantomime. He became involved in developing and promoting his “zime” project whereby the abstract designs stitched into the unity belt of traditional Latvian costume could encode secret messages, and computer programs could embed the messages into the unique designs of individual belts. Finally, in 2013, he set about producing a pantomime on the theme of Mindaugas (ca. 1203-1263), the first and only King of Lithuania. He made a glamorous trailer for the production showing a large cast in historical costumes performing a montage of actions related to Mindaugas’s life, his quest for power, his ambitious wife Morta, and his vacillating relations to Christianity and paganism (Rhyzhykov 2013). But it is unclear how much of this monumental project actually achieved performance beyond the staging of highlight moments for the video trailer and photography. It may be, however, that due to the political circumstances, the inclination toward pantomime shifted to explorations of performance art or staged imagery. One of Tenisons’ actors, Kęstutis Adomaitis (1948-1996), formed his own pantomime theater in Kaunas in 1968 but apparently could not sustain it. In 1982, he managed at last to establish the Kaunas Pantomime Theater as a professional unit receiving subsidies attached to the Drama Theater and then, in 1988, as an independent organization. His productions, such as Faceless (1984) and Scream, Scream (1988), resembled Tomaszewski’s in their use of expressionistically exaggerated movement and the presentation of historic memories in which characters appear nude, in body stockings, and in period costumes against a dark, placeless background. In 1994, he staged a pantomimic adaptation of Eugène Ionescu’s absurdist drama Rhinoceros (1959) in which those who had turned into rhinoceri wore flesh-colored body stockings and rhinoceros heads (Egrynas 2014).

Figure 174: Scene from Jēzus Kristus kāzas (The Wedding of Jesus Christ), staged by Andris Grīnbergs, Latvia, 1972. Photo: Māra Brašmane, Laikmetīgās mākslas centra arhīvs.

But while the Kaunas Pantomime Theater still revives Adomaitis’s productions from the 1980s and 1990s, much of the aftermath of the Cold War Latvian pantomime spirit drifted toward non-institutionalized forms of “non-verbal theater,” to use the phrase designated by Sanita Duka, a student of Tenison’s movement training workshops in 2006 (Duka 2015). In 1972, a designer of countercultural fashion, Andris Grīnbergs (b. 1946), staged a two-day performance in the countryside, The Wedding of Jesus Christ, in which he married Inta Jaunzeme (b. 1955) in a series of actions beautifully documented in photographs by Mara Brasmane (b. 1944). The piece contained much pantomimic action of a symbolic-ritualistic nature, nudity, bisexual gestures, and hippie-style costumes [Figure 174]. The audience consisted of only about twenty persons specifically invited by Grīnbergs and Jaunzeme, but Brasmane’s documentation circulated widely, if rather clandestinely, initiating a vogue in Latvia for private performances of an interdisciplinary construction whereby the documentation of the performance was integral to it and reached a much larger audience than the physical circumstances of the enactment allowed (Kristberga 2016: 139-140; Bryzgel 2017: 47). The fascination with performance art soon completely obscured the appeal of pantomime, even after independence from the Soviet Union (cf. Matule 2009; Lettische Avantgarde 1988). An especially interesting example of this interdisciplinary shift in thinking is the photographer/performance artist Viktorija Eksta (b. 1987). She was a student of Roberts Ligers in the Pantomime Studio, and in 2010 she published an interview with him about the Studio. Between 2013 and 2016, she worked on her photo performance project God Nature Work, in which she staged photographs of herself enacting the solitary life of a woman who had once lived in an abandoned farmhouse; she wore clothes and performed actions (tasks) belonging to the time of the artist’s grandmother; she kept a journal chronicling the disturbing emotional consequences of this pantomimic enactment of another life, with the journal becoming a silent (written) part of the project imagery, its exhibition, and publication (Eksta 2016). Another student (1965-1972) of Ligers, Ansis Rūtentāls (1949-2000), formed his own studio, ARKT, in Riga in 1978 with the goal of creating a “movement theater,” by which he meant a postmodern aesthetic of freeing movement of the need to represent anything other than the performer’s capacity to transform the body into a form containing and releasing abstract kinetic impulses. The idea was to find movements that in themselves described the condition of contemporary life rather than to find stories, characters, dramatic scenes that represented the conditions of contemporary life and then to designate movements that appropriately brought the stories to life. It was largely a studio-centered aesthetic; Rūtentāls followed Ligers in favoring body stockings for costumes. But in the 1980s, he experimented with performances that took place outdoors, in fields and woodlands. At first, he used music by modernist composers like Stravinsky and Bartok, but in the mid-1980s, his accompaniments became more eclectic with music entirely by living composers, mostly Latvian. His productions had abstract titles and themes, similar to postmodern dance works: For Voice without Accompaniment (1979), Epiphany (1980), Colors, Journey (1982), Reflections (1984), Circle (1987), Whispers in Grey (1989), Tabula Rasa (1991), Two (1994), Labyrinth (1999), Emotions in Seconds (2000) (Rūtentāls 2008). But because the postmodern aesthetic is so “accessible” to so many performers, ARKT has experienced, since Rūtentāls death, difficulty in sustaining a distinctive presence in the Latvian cultural scene. Ligers himself believed that Rūtentāls approach was doomed (Eksta 2010), but then, in 2013, his own Pantomime Studio vanished with his death. On the other hand, Alvis Hermanis (b. 1965), who studied under Ligers as a teenager, moved in a direction almost opposite of Rūtentāls: he has become one of the most acclaimed directors of spoken drama and opera in Europe, with spectacular productions of famous European classics in Salzburg, Vienna, Milan, Brussels, Zürich, and several German cities, as well as at the New Riga Theater, where he has been artistic director since 1997. His productions, for which he often designs the scenery in addition to directing, combine intensely rich visual details with flamboyantly imaginative bodily movement, making him a prominent exponent of the postmodern, director-driven theater aesthetic. In 2007, however, he produced a pantomime, The Sound of Silence, which achieved enormous success and toured thirty countries. Hermanis has an affectionate attitude toward the 1960s. At the New Theater in Riga, he gave the actors copies of the famous pop music album, Sounds of Silence (1965), by Paul Simon (b. 1941) and Art Garfunkle (b. 1941), released the same year in which Hermanis was born. He asked the actors to choose a track on the album and come up with a little story that the song inspired. The actors then collaborated with Hermanis to research the 1960s and fit the different stories together into a unified scenario. The piece takes place in an apartment designed in great detail to look like an apartment in Riga in the 1960s; the actors wore costumes from the 1960s, they used props, devices, appliances from the 1960s, and they incorporated movements, gestures, and poses drawn from iconography of the 1960s. The music of Simon and Garfunkle accompanies the action, which largely consists of inventively playful encounters between inhabitants of the apartment building and their friends—Hermanis avoids examining the darker aspects to the 1960s. In a discussion with a Romanian audience, he claimed that the 1960s was “the last time that Europe believed in utopia,” believed that the world was getting better, and he contended that since then Europe has no longer believed in its greatness, although in neither the piece nor in his Romanian discussion did he clarify why the utopianism of the 1960s did not guide subsequent decades other than to suggest that the social, sexual, and artistic experiments of the decade threatened entrenched institutions and the political system that protected them (Bersin 2013; Barau 2010). But while the pantomiming of gestural tropes from a particular segment of the twentieth century was a remarkable, vivid feat, Hermanis has not produced any more pantomimes, perhaps because he associates pantomimic action with the signification of a utopian feeling that he no longer believes in, that he regards as “lost.” Perhaps that is also the reason for the fading of pantomime in Latvia. 

            Meanwhile, Giedrius Mackevičius (1945-2008), a Lithuanian associate of Tenisons at the Kaunas Pantomime Theater, realized after the disturbances in the town in 1972 that he could not pursue a career in pantomime as long as he remained in Lithuania. He moved to Moscow to study stage direction at the Russian Academy of Theater Arts, where he also studied acting under the Stanislavsky disciple Maria Knebel (1898-1985). Students in the acting class invited him to form a pantomime studio in 1973; the following year the studio bore the name Plastic Drama Studio of Moscow, although it never had a permanent performance space and always remained a largely student organization attached to the Kurachatov House of Culture. Originally a biochemistry student at Vilnius University, he brought a scientific, intellectual approach to pantomime: “The spiritual basis of Mackevičius’ theatrical thinking is the transformation of physical being into a mysterious action in which the performer expresses archetypal, unconscious forms of behavior.” He cultivated a theory of “figurative psychogenesis” wherein pantomime became the “organic embodiment of the deepest, most inaccessible zones of the psyche” and assumed the task of “creating a theatrical art that, through its emotional-sensory impact on the consciousness of the actor and spectator, could be comparable to the impact of ancient sacred ritual” (Yachmeneva 2012). Like Tenisons, Mackevičius saw pantomime as a fusion of bodily movement with art, music, and metaphysics. But his scientific studies and his studies with Knebel urged him to combine an elaborate psychophysical theoretical apparatus with devotion to the power of literary texts. He absorbed a great deal of psychoanalytical and analytical psychology scholarship, especially the works of Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) and Erich Fromm (1900-1980), in addition to scholarship in art history, mythology, and philosophy. One of his students wrote that Mackevičius required the actors to read particular scholarly texts before beginning work on a production. He staged twenty-five pantomimes in almost as many years, beginning (1974) with an adaptation of the Symbolist Pierrot grotesque farce The Puppet Show (1906) by Alexander Blok (1880-1921) and including, among others, The Star and Death of Joaquin Murietta (1976), from a play by Pablo Neruda (1904-1973); Henry IV (1976), from the 1922 play by Pirandello; Blizzard (1977), from Blok’s violent poem The Twelve (1918); The Shine of the Golden Fleece (1977), from Greek mythology; A Day Lasts More Than a Century (1984), from a 1980 novel by Chinghiz Aitmatov (1928-2008); The Betrothal (1984), from the 1918 play by Maeterlinck; Emigrants (1991) from the 1975 play by Slawomir Mrozek (1930-2013); Song of Songs (1993), from The Bible; Island Lilith (1998) from the 1993 surrealist play by poet-musician Liia Liberova (1948-2010); and Poem of the End (2002), from poems by Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941). A couple of Mackevičius’s productions (1981, 1991) were cabaret-circus programs. In 1984, he began collaborating with the Russian avant-garde composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998): The Yellow Sound (1984), Labyrinths (1988). The Red Horse (1981) brought to pantomimic life “the world” embedded within the famous painting “Bathing the Red Horse” (1912) by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878-1939). In this production, the action unfolded in four separate performance spaces, “symbolically signifying the concept of conditional reality”: the space of fate, the space of community, the space of the artist, and the space of dreams and visions. The boy-hero riding the bathing horse (nude in the painting) moved within all four spaces, after his “expulsion” from the picture frame. Pantomime released from their painting frames Petrov-Vodkin images of other persons in the hero’s life, “plastically implementing the picturesque rhythms of the paintings,” with female images “floating in a kind of centrifugal movement” while male images moved with an “aggressive,” competitive linearity, so that “rhythmic lines collided.” The climax of the “plastic drama” was the “reincarnation of the [hero] into his dream, the red horse, which involved a herd of horses bursting out of the picture frames” and “creating a sense of limitless openness, ultimate spatial and perspectival freedom.” It is a drama of “inner rebirth: pain and suffering transformed into perfect forms of beauty” achieved through “scenic multidimensionality” and the “symphonic character” of bodily movement through different spatial dimensions (Yachmeneva 2012). This is indeed a complex aesthetic involving metaphysical concepts and their corporeal-scenic manifestations that are not readily accessible in terms of conventional narrative progression of action, for the central conflict of Mackevičius’s plastic dramas was the conflict between different internal aspects of the protagonist—that is, they were dramatizations of the creative process from a quasi-Jungian perspective, as the conflict between various “archetypes” to achieve the “rebirth” of the Artist through art. “Mackevičius released the multiple ‘I’ of [his] protagonists in metaphorical images” (Yachmeneva 2012). The “I,” as a result, is a microcosm of society while the stage is the macrocosm of the universe. Anna Konstantinova contends that Tenisons’ production of XX Century Capriccio was a powerful influence on Mackevičius: “If society rejects the Artist within itself, it is deprived of any potential similarity to God, of any artistic or even human image. The world becomes unaware, plunges into chaos” (Konstantinova 2015: 232).

Mackevičius’s most transparent and well-known dramatization of this theme was Overcoming (1975), a 90-minute pantomimic excursion through the psyche of a “Renaissance Titan,” the sculptor Michelangelo (1475-1564). The piece depicts the phases of Michelangelo’s life from boyhood and apprenticeship to maturity as a great sculptor, Dionysian creator, disillusioned penitent, and ultimately Christlike figure. Different actors play different phases of the artist’s life, but the psyche of the artist is greater than his life and includes archetypal dimensions embodied by other actors: the Trickster or Jester, the Feminine-Dance muse, a Feminine-Mother figure, a Feminine Erotic figure, male religious figures (Savanorola-type monk, Bishop). All of these figures seek to guide, dominate, encourage, suppress, or possess the artist. They fight each other, they collaborate with each other, or Michelangelo must fight them or intervene between them or submit to them. The artist must also contend with figures from the “fresco” of his imagination—people who inhabited the world he lived in and became figures in the images he has painted, people who alternately condemn his art and respond to it (and him) with orgasmic rapture. The esoteric symbolism sometimes makes it difficult to discern the borders between self, archetype, and “otherness.” But that is the point: the artistic self does not exist or evolve “outside” of society—rather, society embeds itself within the artistic self, so that struggles within the self are inseparable from a struggle with society. Overcoming is a montage of scenes showing the artist’s struggle to overcome the human obstacles to creating a godlike human image—the statue of David. But then the artist transforms David into a pieta sculpture with himself as the Madonna figure holding Christ in his arms. The godlike man is dead, and the artist’s efforts to revive him are in vain while a female black angel of death writhes ecstatically in one of the four arched doorways that constitute the set. The artist covers the body with a cloth, the angel slumps dead in her doorway, and the artist pushes open the doors toward the audience, as if engulfing it with a cosmic darkness that either cannot be overcome or is in reality the most acute state of overcoming (video at Vasilev 2012). The pantomimic action is exceptionally complex and full of rapid changes in rhythm. Like Tomaszewski, Mackevičius has simultaneous actions occurring in different parts of the stage, dividing the spectator’s focus, but here separate actions always connect, integrate to form new actions elsewhere on the stage, for the body of the artist links all struggles to him. For example, the struggle between the Jester and the Feminine Dance muse invariably leads back to the artist, who must fight them both or prefer one over the other while other figures of obstruction appear in the doorways. Indeed, as others have observed, it is quite difficult to describe concisely the astonishing variety and power of dramatic physical action in this piece. But this complexity is the result of following Tenisons’ aesthetic (and perhaps also of Knebel’s Stanislavskian teaching) of allowing the actors to develop physical movements based on their own emotional relation to the particular actions required by the scene. Although a couple of Renaissance style dances appear, these only last about twenty seconds, to signify “Renaissance court culture.” Otherwise pantomimic action unfolds with a mysterious, cinematic urgency, and it is as if one is watching strange incarnations of humans engaged in a violent, enigmatic struggle from a cosmic point in time. The Feminine-Dance muse does not dance; she pantomimes an abstract idea of Dance that is more alluring than any “material” idea of dance, which would be a dance. The artist builds monumental sculptures with only his hands and arms to suggest his relation to the stone he wishes to bring to life. Mackevičius places this abundant physical action within a simple but monumental scenic context. The background is always black, with heavily chiaroscuro lighting on the action. Four arched, metallic doorways function to “frame” characters that invade them, and the actors move them into different positions to achieve vividly painterly images of figures and to dramatize the perception that no aspect of the self or society can overcome its placement within an image, a frame. A black platform with steps blends in with the black background and enables characters who ascend it to appear as if floating or hovering above the stage floor. The costumes contribute significantly to the powerful stage “fresco.” While some characters wear Renaissance style costumes, Mackevičius partially retains Tenisons’ body stocking aesthetic [Figure 175]. The Feminine-Dance muse wears a green body stocking with a little green cape, while the Feminine-Erotic muse wears a white body stocking that simultaneously suggests her purity and her nudity. David appears in a flesh-colored body stocking, so that he also seems naked. The Jester wears a kind of harness over tights, while the Saint-Mother figure is captivating in a flowing purple gown and a white cowl. Michelangelo, as embodied by different actors, wears a range of costumes, including a Russian tunic, a flesh-colored (nude) body stocking, and (at the end) a black undershirt and tights. Yet the piece achieves a stunning visual unity, revealing, not “Michelangelo’s world,” but “another world” altogether as seen by the modernist artist Mackevičius. For music, the director used numerous modernist symphonic pieces, including excerpts from works by Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) and Kyrztof Penderecki (1933-2020). But some sections of the work have no musical accompaniment. In other words, the music does not guide the action; following a soundtrack function, the music follows the action and of course supplements it with an emotional intensity that is subordinate to a larger design than the composers intended. Overcoming is a monumental work of pantomime achieved with relatively modest theatrical resources and with superb, exciting performances by actors, many of them students, who volunteered to perform it because of their profound devotion to Mackevičius’s mystical vision and genial method of interacting with them. 

            The many other pantomimes in Mackevičius’s portfolio are not nearly as well known as Overcoming and The Red Horse. Video glimpses of these works are certainly intriguing (e.g., TheDedochek 2011; ADGO 2015). During his lifetime, his works attracted full audiences and many persons wanting to work with him. But the cultural press largely ignored him and was not eager to deviate from the official position that pantomime should follow the circus/clown paradigm, even after the collapse of the Soviet regime. It is therefore still difficult to determine how his approach to pantomime evolved or to reach anything approaching an adequate assessment of his contribution to pantomime history. So much of his work remains to be discovered. In 2010, Overcoming, a monumental compilation of his theoretical writings, notes, and lectures appeared in Russian, but even this book is difficult to access. In 2012, Mariana Yachmeneva, a student of his, completed a dissertation on him; in 2015, Anna Konstantinova, Director of the Russian Drama Theater in Vilnius, published a long essay on him in both Russian and Lithuanian, after completing her own dissertation on him in 2013, and in 2017, the Lithuanian Theater, Music, and Cinema Museum in Vilnius and then the Drama Theater of Klaipeda hosted exhibitions and international symposia on Mackevičius. His personality was in a sense too powerful, for the Plastic Drama Theater could not survive his death, and as a result he has become memorialized rather than emulated. Tenisons himself perhaps believed he could not expand upon what Mackevičius had achieved. Where could pantomime go without the unique, elaborate cosmological philosophy that Mackevičius brought to it? For years, Tenisons has collaborated with his life partner, Simona Orinska (b. 1978), on performances and installations she has staged (and documented with numerous videos). These incorporate her passionate attachment to Japanese Butoh aesthetics and present bodies moving slowly, as if in a trance, in mysterious shimmers, pools, undulations, and slivers of colored light (cf. Orinska 2015). In a 2008 video for Latvian National Television, she and Tenisons described connections between Butoh and a Latvian hunger for an “eastern” spirituality (Orinska 2011). In her more recent performances, she projects onto the bodies of sometimes nude performers streaming video scrolls of zime unity belt designs, for “in the collective archetypes, both the cosmic code of the Baltic sign and the ‘archaeology’ of the human body of Butoh have the same beginning” (Orinska 2015; cf. Orinska 2014). At the same time, she has devoted much and perhaps most of her life to dance and movement therapy. Such have been the manifold consequences of the Latvian pantomime impulse initiated by Roberts Ligers in 1956. Ligers, Tenisons, and Mackevičius created an utterly distinct, fascinating, intensely dramatic pantomime culture that subsequent generations felt the need to “overcome” through new forms of performance rather than to extend or expand.

Figure 175: Scenes from video of Overcoming (1975), directed by Giedrius Mackevičius, Moscow, 1975. 

Previous Section

Next Section


Table of Contents


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s