Gendered Perspectives on Modernist Pantomime: Chilean Pantomime

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

Chilean Pantomime

It is tempting, then, to consider a gendered rift in pantomime culture arising at the end of the twentieth century, for the French approach and indeed nearly the whole of pantomime history has been the project of men to free the body from the voice and to free voiceless performance from dance. But a gendered understanding of pantomime history in the late twentieth century inevitably becomes complicated by the shear scale of male investment in pantomime compared to female, and by the diversity of male perspectives on pantomime. The male investment is not as stable as a constant focus on the French model indicates. In Chile, for example, pantomime began as a male enterprise, as one might suppose anyway. A university student, Alejandro Jodorowsky (b. 1929) dropped out (“ I don’t think you need to study art to become an artist”) to become (1947) a clown in a circus (Barton-Fumo 2012). When he saw the film Les enfants du paradis, he decided to form a pantomime troupe in 1948. But the group did not present its first program of scenes until 1951 at the university in Santiago, where Jodorowsky had recruited the members of the five-person ensemble. The program contained five pieces: PierrotLa Bañista (The Bather), El Buey Sobre el Techo (The Ox on the Roof), El Viejo, el Amor y la Muerte (The Old Man, Love, and Death), El Prestidigitator, and El Joven Suicida (The Young Suicide). Jodorowsky promoted the production as “experimental pantomime,” with no music and no scenography: the actors “play the role of houses, windows, clocks, lanterns, benches, doors, beds” to create “pure pantomime” not “mixed with theater or ballet.” His program owed much to the commedia format, but he infused it with a seriousness of tone reminiscent of productions by the Cercle Funambulesque. El Buey Sobre el Techo derived from a 1920 ballet by Jean Cocteau and Darius Milhaud, whose music compiled numerous Brazilian popular songs. A story by Marcel Marceau was the basis for El Joven Suicida, which told “the story of a very miserly father, who jealously watches both his daughter and the valuable art objects he collects at home. A poor young man falls in love with the girl, and is reciprocated. The father surprises this idyll and, confronting the couple, frees his daughter frenetically. In the absence of the girl, the young man and the antiquarian engage in a fight, in which—accidentally—the father dies. The daughter accuses the boy, and he—desperate—from injustice and incomprehension–commits suicide” (Biblioteca Nacional Chilena: NOIFD-0002). Images from the production show a deeply melancholy Pierrot, sailors wearing goggle masks, and a woman wearing fashions from early decades of the twentieth century. An especially striking image from an unidentified piece shows an entirely black Pierrot, including black mask, black hat, and black gloves (Biblioteca Nacional Chilena: FB-0452) [Figure 116]. But despite this promising beginning, Jodorowsky, a perpetually restless man, did not continue with the company, although he announced plans for productions of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale and an adaptation of Gogol’s The Overcoat

Figure 116: Alejandro Jodorowsky in his black Pierrot costume (1951). Photo: Biblioteca Nacional de Chile. 

In 1953, he moved to Paris to study with Decroux for three months. Unfortunately, his time spent with Decroux was profoundly unpleasant, as he explained in his autobiography:

I never imagined that this mythical creator of the modern mime language […] had such cruelty, such bitterness, such envy of another’s success. I knew that that year he had presented himself with his students in London, at the same time as Marceau. The show of Marceau was declared the best of the year, and that of Decroux the worst of the year. What happened was that with a relentless, inhuman technique that demanded incredible efforts to carry out each movement, it bored the spectators. On the other hand Marceau’s finesse, his naivety, his aerial gestures that suggested everything without any effort, delighted the public. Decroux shuffled my photos with ostentatious contempt, asked me to undress and, taking as a witness his son Pepe, proceeded to examine my body, classifying its defects with medical coldness (Jodorowsky 2009195).

He described Decroux’s exercises as excruciatingly boring, punctuated by cryptic, “paradoxical” aphorisms (“The greatest force is the force that is not used”; “If the mime is not weak, he is not a mime”), cruel criticisms, and gross displays of sexism: “Decroux, with an old man’s lubricity, had the women placed in front of him […] and would display his testicles” (196). Jodorowsky found a place in Marceau’s early ensemble and traveled widely with the group, and he designed Marceau’s sketch, The Cage (1962). In the Louis Mouchet (b. 1957) documentary on Jodorowsky, La constellation Jodorowsky (1994), Marceau described in detail Jodorowsky’s contribution to the making of The Cage, which in pantomime depicted a man struggling to break through a wall only to find himself imprisoned in another cage. Marceau said that the communication between him and Jodorowsky was “like osmosis.” Sandra Rudman, a scholar at the Universität Konstanz who informed me of this relationship, translates Marceau’s words in the documentary as follows: “(a man) walks, finds a cage, and he begins (makes arm movements that suggest probing a wall) – he didn’t even show me (…) that concept, that I created at this very moment… this pressure point within space, and Alexandre felt it, he knew it, we found each other through osmosis, and then, he is prisoned in a square cage that shrinks. He finds to get out of this cage, he sticks a hand outside the cage, he feels, the fluid, the space, the air, freedom. He gets out of the cage, only to enter in a bigger cage, that shrinks again, and this time, he stays within the cage” (Rudman 2019; Mouchet 1994). In 1957, Jodorowsky finished his short color film La Cravate, which he had been working on in his Paris apartment since 1953. It was a surrealistic adaptation of Thomas Mann’s story Transposed Heads (1940): a young man (Jodorowsky) believes he is unattractive to a woman he courts, so he visits a store where men can transpose their heads for new ones on display. The young man keeps transposing heads because the woman he courts still remains cold to him. Different actors play the heads and the revised young man. The shop girl, however, keeps the young man’s original head on her fireplace mantel and falls in love with it. The young man realizes the futility of his quest and goes back to reclaim his original head. When the shopgirl transposes the heads, he realizes he belongs with her rather than with the other women. They embrace. The action, accompanied by the fairground music of Edgar Bischoff (1926-1999), is in the verisimilar mode, so that the acting somewhat resembles that of a silent film from around 1926. La Cravate launched Jodorowsky on an incredibly prodigious career in France and Mexico as a filmmaker, theater director, dramatist, novelist, philosopher, psychoanalytic theorist, “psychomagician,” journalist, television celebrity, comic book author, and visual artist. But he did not return to the Chilean theater company he founded, nor did he return to pantomime. 

            However, one of Jodorowsky’s recruits to the Santiago ensemble, Enrique Noisvander (1928-1989), assumed leadership of it. The ensemble gathered in rooms at the university until finding a place on Mosqueto Street. It was primarily a meeting place, a club, for bohemians, and Noisvander set up a mime school to help fund the place, which also received support from a member of the prominent Gandarillas family. The ensemble did not start offering public shows until 1957, when it presented Recuerdos de mi niñez, in which Noisvander presented a pantomimic montage of scenes from his childhood. The production attracted much attention from the international diplomatic community, which sponsored tours to Europe (including Moscow) and to several cities in Latin America. But the ensemble remained an amateur enterprise, which led to difficulties. The touring prevented the ensemble from developing new pieces or experimental exploration of performance possibilities. The group disintegrated when it returned to Chile in 1958. Noisvander then encountered Jaime Schneider (1940-2010), who, having attended a performance by Marceau in Chile that year, had resolved to become a mime. For a few years, the Teatro de Mimos consisted only of Noisvander and Schneider, until they added a couple more performers, including the dancer Rocío Rovira and the actor Oscar Figueroa. With Historias de Amor (1961), the ensemble toured Southern Chile for the first time, performing in the remote town of Punta Arenas, where the audience consisted largely of workers and peasants. This experience caused the company to reconsider its ambitions, which subsequently became more socially conscious, as exemplified by Crónicas de una Familia (1964) and Cataplúm, o de cómo aprendí a reírme de la historia y a no tenerle miedo a los bandidos (1966), a big success. The company also became professional in the sense that it toured commercially in Europe and Latin America. In 1968, the ensemble, enlarged to fourteen persons, performed weekly on a television show, while Noisvander managed the pantomime academy and merged it with the formation of an Experimental Theater. In Adiós Papá (1971), the company began to introduce spoken dialogue, which continued with the production of a play, La Kermesse (1974), by the generally somber dramatist José Pineda (b. 1937), and the very popular Educación Seximental (1972). As Noisvander explained: “We realized that we had started to be actors when we premiered Educación Seximental. […] The dialogue proposals were coming out where necessary. But if you measure the dialogues with the length of the work, you realize that the spoken part is about a third of the piece: everything else is action. That is not pure mime, it is not pure pantomime, but a pantomime we could call theatrical” (Piña 2014). But the turn to dialogue was in part a result of the political situation in Chile. In 1973, the ensemble was on tour in Venezuela when rightwing leaders of the Chilean armed forces, backed by the CIA, staged a violent coup against the socialist government of Salvador Allende (1908-1973) and established a military dictatorship under the control of General Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006) that lasted until 1990. The Pinochet regime regarded the Teatro de Mimos as a leftwing organization and had murdered the popular Communist folk singer Victor Jara (1932-1973), who had performed with the company. In Venezuela, some members did not want to return to Chile, and the ensemble broke up. Noisvander returned because he had to make payments on the loan he taken on to secure the company’s theater, Petropol, which was across the street from one of the military offices. The incorporation of speech into performance helped to discourage the perception that the company had not adjusted to political realities and continued to perform the “pure pantomime” formerly associated with a leftwing activism. But by 1978, the company had resumed entirely pantomimic productions with Cinehistorias Caupolicán (1978). However, the company struggled to find an audience within a society whose government was not keen to invest in the arts. Noisvander revived the pantomimes Mimes, mimitos y mimotes and Mimomanías from the 1970 children’s television show, and he produced the musical revue Petropol (1979). But financial difficulties persisted. In 1981, he produced another pantomime “for adults”: Picardías de Fausto y Mefisto (1981) with support from the German Goethe Institute. This production met with much success as far as attracting audiences, but these audiences could not generate enough revenue to prevent the demise of the Teatro de Mimos by 1984. Afflicted with alcoholism, Noisvander suffered further ailments and retreated to a nursing home, where he died in 1989 (Biblioteca Nacional Chilena 2017; Teatro Nescafé de los Artes 2015).  

Yet it is difficult to ascertain the performance attributes of Noisvander’s productions. Press coverage tends to publicize productions rather than to report what happened on stage. Realizing that Chilean pantomime history was in danger of evaporating altogether without scholarly intervention, in 2009, Francisca Infante Mott, a dance professor at the Catholic University in Santiago, collaborated with the Biblioteca Nacional to mount an exhibition on Noisvander and to identify archive materials related to the Teatro de Mimos, which included oral testimonies from surviving alumni of the ensemble. But the available oral histories consist largely of anecdotes that recount personal interactions, work habits, general aspirations, and appreciations. Descriptions of pantomime content remain frustratingly vague. Nevertheless, the digital archives provided by the library allow for some description of Noisvander’s aesthetic. Influenced perhaps by Soviet film theory, Noisvander conceived of a pantomime production as “montage” of discrete scenes related to a governing theme rather than as program of unique, unrelated scenes designed to display the diversity or skill of the performers. Recuerdos de mi niñez, for example, presented various childhood “memories” with the ensemble wearing costumes from the 1930s and adults playing the children; Historias de Amor was a series of different love stories; Crónicas de una Familia depicted several generations of a family in a series of scenes from different decades. One of the most popular pantomimes was Cataplúm o de cómo aprendí a reirme de la historia y a no tener miedo a los bandidos (Catapult or how I learned to laugh at history and not be afraid of bandits): “The pantomime tells how God, when feeling a great uproar on the Earth, sent an angel to investigate what happened [and who became] the victim of the betrayals and traps of man. The angel returns to heaven and tells God of cruelty, lust, excessive ambition, greed, the systematic destruction of nature, pollution, etc. God sends a message of salvation to men, but they misuse the new possibility and destroy themselves; then God decides to make a second creation” (Archivo Fotográfico 2017: AF0012772). The popular musical revue Educación Seximental (1972) inspired by far the most press commentary, for it was revived and toured several times into the early 1980s. The production satirized the concept of sex education by presenting a kind of humorous alternative history of sex education showing the knowledge of sexual life from the time one is a child to subsequent “sexological” episodes at different stages of life, such as playing doctor as a child, the overprotective mother, the evasive but macho father, the first teenage parties, the first birth, the first encounter with a prostitute, marriage “by Law, by the Church, and by force,” and revealing the hypocrisy of parents and elders in controlling knowledge of sexuality in young people. The production featured both male and female nudity (La Estrella Valparaiso 23, V 1973: 19; cf. Piña 1973). Another unusual “montage” project, about which, however, far less is known, was Cinehistorias Caupolicán, apparently a revised “film history” of Chile from the perspective of Caupolicán, the leader of the failed war of the indigenous Mapuche people against the Conquistadores in Southern Chile. Noisvander’s great ambition was to produce a montage pantomime on the history of the world, but this project never happened. Yet the concept of a pantomime production as a series of historical scenes linked to a governing theme was unique to Chilean pantomime, and Noisvander’s ensemble realized this when they toured Europe and saw pantomimes (including Tomaszewski’s) that did not attempt narratives covering broad expanses of time. 

Moreover, much of Noisvander’s choreographic approach to bodily signification derived from his and his actors’ observations of how people from different sectors of society moved and interacted on streets, in homes, and in various places of work. Some small pieces were abstract in the French style, such as Catedral Gótica (1962), in which two men and a woman in black body stockings construct with their bodies a Gothic cathedral as if seen from different perspectives. Noisvander also inserted occasional dances, although these tended to follow the show dance model of building the special theme of a scene rather than providing an interlude to display skill at dancing. After the first tour of Europe in 1958, Noisvander decided to dispense altogether with constructing a scenic context for the action. He concentrated on costumes, movement, and music to evoke different milieux and historical eras. The whiteface, French Pierrot look was a constant feature of his productions until 1966, with Cataplúm, which contrasted human whiteface characters with angels whose faces appear more “natural”; after this production, whiteface disappeared entirely, although Noisvander had combined whiteface and “natural” faces as early as 1956. He does not seem to have made any use of masks. The black body stocking was for many years the basic costume supplemented with accessories like hats, tunics, robes, skirts, or jackets that evoked a historical period or a profession: this convention allowed for quick costume changes [Figure 117]. Indeed, the most elaborate costumes appeared in his last production, Picardías de Fausto y Mefisto (1981), based on the seventeenth century German puppet play dramatizing Faust’s bargain with Mephistopheles. Here Noisvander not only clad his eight actors (for fourteen characters) in quite detailed and elaborate costumes of the era; four of them wore huge paper mache heads with crowns to caricature the grotesquely distorted “humanness” ascribed to “heads of state.” As for musical accompaniments, he favored recordings of popular songs (including non-Chilean pieces) or pieces evocative of an era, although in Fausto y Mefisto a speaker accompanied the action by reading from the old German text [Figure 117]. 

Figure 117: Top: Scene from Cataplúm (1966), directed by Enrique Noisvander, Santiago Chile. Bottom: Scene from Noisvander’s production of Picardías de Fausto y Mefisto (1981), Santiago, Chile. Photos: Biblioteca Nacional de Chile. 

The Teatro de Mimos drew inspiration and some ideas from the French pantomime tradition without professing a strong allegiance to it. Noisvander allowed his actors to bring their own experiences of Chilean history and culture to the shaping of performances with the aim of creating a distinctly Chilean mode of pantomime. Jodorowsky’s carefree, bohemian spirit found an appropriate heir with Noisvander, for although he directed a pantomime academy, the school emphasized experimentation as the path to performance rather than disciplined mastery of the body. A crudeness or lack of elegance seems therefore to have afflicted his productions and was on occasion a source of conflict within the group, which to survive toured so relentlessly that it lacked enough time to perfect ideas or develop new ones sufficiently. But the political atmosphere of the dictatorship, which had no desire to extend public resources to the group, contributed to the “poverty” of the productions. Pantomime disappeared in Chile when Noisvander dissolved the Teatro de Mimos. 

However, in 1989, one of Noisvander’s actors, Mauricio Celedon (b. 1957) formed the Teatro del Silencio in Valparaiso. After performing street theater in Madrid in the early 1980s, he studied mime under Decroux and then Marceau. He started producing street performances in Toulouse and for a few years he acted in productions directed by Ariane Mnouchkine at the Théâtre du Soleil in Paris. In Paris, he met the daughter of a diplomat, Claire Joinet (b. 1968), who became his wife, his partner in the Teatro del Silencio, and a lead actor in the productions. They wanted a theater “without borders” that combined pantomime, dance, music, and acrobatics. Their productions unfolded in streets and outdoor venues, beginning with Transfusión (1990), the theme of which was the migration of different peoples to the Americas. Subsequent productions included Ocho Horas (1991), which compiled images of labor struggles in Chicago in 1891; Malasangre (1991; revised 2010), “a show inspired by the life of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud [1854-1891]”; Taca Taca, mon amour (1993), which presented major icons and figures responsible for World War II interacting on a soccer field; Nanaqui- Dossier N° 262 602 (1997), in which theatrical spectacle is a metaphor for the madness that afflicted the poet Antonin Artaud during the final years of his hospitalization; Alice Underground (1999), a kind of psychedelic circus inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) wherein several actors played Alice to create a “kaleidoscopic figure [who is] perceived from different angles and speeds”; O Divina la Commedia (2003-2008) depicted all three parts of Dante’s 1320 epic poem; Emma Darwin (2010), an “occult poem” on the life of scientist Charles Darwin (1809-1882), as seen by his wife Emma (1808-1896); Doctor Dapertutto (2014) a street theater spectacle “inspired by the life and works of Russian theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold” and staging various scenes from Soviet history; Oh! Secours et Cap au cimetière (2017), an arena spectacle on the theme of Samuel Beckett’s “nightmarish, comic, absurd, and poetic” relationship to Godot (cf. Teatro del Silencio 2017). The company moved from Valparaiso to Aurillac, France in the mid-1990s and remained there until 2009, when it moved to Paris. 

The Teatro del Silencio has not constructed a distinctly Chilean world-view or performance aesthetic. Productions take their themes from European literature and history, and Celedon has worked steadfastly to integrate the company into the French cultural apparatus, beginning in 1993, with Taca Taca, mon amour, which received funding from the French Foreign Ministry as well as from the Chilean Ministry of Education, although members of the company remained largely Chilean until Alice Underground in 1999; Jodorowsky’s son Cristobal (b. 1965) performed with the group for several years in the 1990s. But after 1997, support has come overwhelmingly from various French cultural agencies. As a result, the company has obtained resources that were unimaginable to Noisvander or perhaps to anyone working in pantomime since him. But Celedon’s connection to pantomime is tenuous. Teatro del Silencio has more closely resembled the “new circus” model pioneered by the Canadian Cirque du Soleil, now an enormous corporate entertainment conglomerate that also began as street theater. However, Celedon began his company at about the same time that Cirque du Soleil achieved its first big success in North America and was yet to recover from its considerable financial difficulties. Early on, Celedon saw the possibilities of a circus that appealed to a well-educated audience familiar with allusions, images, and emblems attached to literary works and historical events, whereas Cirque du Soleil built its productions around myths and fantasies supposedly shared by a global audience that did not have to “read into” the performance narrative anything more than wonderment at the mysterious, amazing nimbleness of human beings in completing seemingly dangerous but beautiful feats of bodily and mental agility. Teatro del Silencio bestowed a cultural “seriousness” on circus performance, which entailed a diminishment of pantomime in the construction of the performance, further intensified by the company’s appropriation of elements from German Tanztheater and maybe even from Butoh. Pantomime functions primarily to transition from one dance or acrobatic act to another, while the dances and acrobatic acts embody the “ideas” advanced by a production. For example, in Taca, Taca, mon amour, a performer dressed up as Hitler in a military uniform struts up and down a soccer field while a team of synchronized dancers responds to his commands and manipulates poles that impale naked dummies. Since Nanaqui, the company has featured rope climbers and trapeze artists to create the impression of a major character, in this case Antonin Artaud, dangling perilously in a nightmarish mental landscape. A reviewer for La Montagne (August 19, 1999) described Alice Underground as Celedon’s effort to “go to the other side of the mirror to meet Alice’s nightmares. Her white silhouette runs along a pit from which the symbolic characters of Carroll will rise up against those of our ‘History.’ Alice’s visions, as we know, distort reality, but how can we not recognize under their grotesque appearance the stars of the great tyrants of this century? [The figures of Karl Marx, Lenin, Che Guevera, and Salvador Allende appear in the piece.] Very physical, the play of the actors skillfully expresses all the suffering, the pain, of an amputated people, and some day, of their freedom. Beautiful aerial scenes alternate with the ‘underground,’ provoking with the same force and each time a multitude of emotions. At the heart of this choreography of a world in agony, the smell of the earth is tenacious” (Teatro del Silencio 2017). Casts are fairly large and the costumes elaborate, perhaps most successfully in Malasangre, which contains a spectacular ethnographic imagining of Rimbaud’s encounter with a luxuriously garbed Arab entourage, but with O Divina la Commedia, Celedon began including copious amounts of nudity in his productions (while including the presence of Nazis and concentration camp inmates in Purgatory, among other anachronisms in the style of director-driven opera productions). Technological effects became more complex: in Emma Darwin, simultaneous actions (dances, acrobatics) occur on two stages, with one stage elevated above the main stage, while behind both stages six large video screens continuously project imagery. Unusual stunts abound, such as, in Emma Darwin, a woman in white singing while standing on top of a rolling grand piano pushed by the man playing it; men push a woman in a rolling cage that also contains actual birds; “colonialists” drag boxes containing the bodies of naked “indigenous” people. In Oh! Secours, a woman in a hospital gown sings while writhing in a hospital bed pushed by an attendant. In Cap au cimetière, a seemingly pregnant woman in a pale body stocking opens her belly and black coal dust pours out. Many scenes in the company’s productions contain mass movement and processional tropes inspired apparently by agit-prop theater techniques from the 1920s. The title of the company appears ironic, for its productions are generally quite loud and full of dissonant or hectoring, haranguing sounds, music, or shouted speeches. The original music by numerous composers is always aggressively contemporary; for example, Rimbaud and his Parisian pals in evening clothes perform a sitting dance to the accompaniment of an industrial rock beat (Teatro del Silencio Archive). 

Yet as political theater, the Teatro del Silencio has not been particularly adventurous, oriented as it is toward a bourgeois, state-institutionalized, slightly left of center political and historical consciousness honoring the weight of the past rather than envisioning the future. As Claire Joinet remarked in relation to Alice Underground, memory is what drives the company’s work (El Mercurio de Valparaíso 21 January 2001). The company’s shows strive to reach large audiences in public squares and arenas with the aim of presenting a shared, tragic historical heritage that is the presumed basis for social unity against tyrannical emblems or assertions of power. Yet Celedon’s concept of an interdisciplinary “theater without borders” subordinates pantomime to acrobatics and elaborate techno-stunts because the concept also subordinates the body to the principle of political “memory” as the rationale for performance: bodies within this philosophy are perpetually “victims” of history, of the crushing power of memory and dominating images of the past, and, unlike the mythic, aspirational fantasy message of Cirque du Soleil, no amount of suave pantomime, indeed, no awesome frenzied dancing, militant mass movement, contortionism, gymnastics, acrobatics, or stunning balancing acts allows the body to escape its “tragic” subordination to a communal idea of the public gathered in the streets. Here interdisciplinarity signifies democratic inclusiveness. Pantomime perhaps signifies too much of an “imperial” perception of the body to fit into the “serious” circus mode of interdisciplinary theater. Noisvander saw pantomime as a way to represent history as a montage of “silent” images guiding the body, whereas Celedon sees large-scale, interdisciplinary street theater as a way to represent history as a kind of great force that dissolves borders between the arts but at the same time somehow makes the body seem smaller, less triumphant, less in control of reality than basic pantomimic action. 

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