Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents
Figure 119: Scenes from Lähtö (2013), directed by Kalle Nio, performed by him and Vera Selene Tegelman, Helsinki, Finland. Photos: Tom Hakala.
A fine example of postmodern, interdisciplinary mutation of pantomime is the two-character Lähtö (Departure), created by the WHS production company based in Helsinki, Finland. The company refers to itself as a producer of “visual theater” or “new circus” or “avant-garde theater.” Lähtö involved numerous collaborators, with Kalle Nio (b. 1982), one of the founders of WHS, responsible for the direction; he also performed the male character. But his formal education was in the visual arts, which he has supplemented with a life-long, informal study of magic. In addition to producing theater, he has exhibited installations and made experimental videos (Nio 2018). He claims that some inspiration for the piece came from the austere, enigmatic, elegant, existentialist films of Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007), particularly La Notte (1961), and L’Eclisse (1962) (“Magija finske predstave” Odlazak 2014: Paragraph 4). An actor-dancer, Vera Selene Tegelman played the female character and, with Nio, choreographed much of the physical action. The percussionist Samuli Kosminen (b. 1974) composed the soundtrack involving a mix of natural sounds (like rain), electronic sounds, and somber instrumental music. Lähtö had its premiere in Strasbourg in 2013, and since then the one-hour piece has been performed in many European countries as well as in several Central and South American countries. Nio has made some modifications to the piece since its premiere, and the discussion of it here relies on the version presented in Tallinn in autumn 2014.
Lähtö depicts the relationship between a man and a woman who have abandoned speech as a means of communicating with each other. They sit across from each other at a table, separated by a vase with brilliant flowers. The man eats the peas that remain on his plate; the woman, having finished her plate, sips wine. The woman, in a grey dress, studies the man as he eats without looking at her. Impatient, she stands up, pours wine into her glass, taps the glass with her knife, clears her throat, and raises her glass to him, as he gazes at her suspiciously. He reaches in to his pocket and throws some keys on the table. Annoyed, she turns away and moves to the huge, grey curtain behind them. He pours himself a glass of wine, picks up his coat and walks toward her as she opens the curtain to reveal a view of the ocean, with waves crashing before her, as if the couple live near the sea. She stares out at the sea. But as soon as he stands behind her, she moves away and returns to the table, where she sits and lights a cigarette. The man closes the curtain and puts on his coat. When, however, he sees her light the cigarette, he takes off his coat and returns to his seat at the table. The couple performs these same actions the same way two more times. They have nothing to say to each other, yet they still communicate with each other through a speechless, ritual game of repetitive actions that imply a condition of being bound to each other without being able to break free of an impatience, a boredom, a loneliness, and a profound disappointment with each other. The relationship is in an unhappy stasis, a rigid balance of power that reinforces repetitive behavior, a constant loop of signs that merely return the couple to an initial, cold starting point, with nothing worth sharing except a bottle of wine.
After the third performance of these actions, the great curtain descends, and the man and woman enter a nocturnal, blue-hued, phantasmagoric, hallucinatory dimension to their relationship, as if it depends on an imagined, illusory, dreamlike, or supernatural idea of “togetherness.” The pair performs a variety of actions alone and together. The man emerges from behind the folds of the curtain with an ironing board. He tries to iron a shirt, but the shirt keeps moving, as if it is a living thing resisting his efforts to smooth it out. Mila Moisio (b. 1981) and Kaisa Rissanen (b. 1981) designed the costumes to accommodate the magic effects, which also include parts of the woman’s dress moving independently of her or falling off her. When the man puts on a jacket, he seems to sprout other arms that grip him from behind. Alone in a red dress, the woman tries to balance a wine glass on her forehead while smoking a cigarette and dancing before great swirls of the curtain, which also seems alive. The couple treats the curtain as a kind of barrier, a huge, fluid opacity that they must overcome or manage, which involves physical wrestling with it or floundering in it. A storm arises. They try to hoist the curtain by pulling on ropes in a powerful action of physical struggle, as if, as Camillia Burows suggests, the curtain “has finally become a sailing ship that the couple tries to keep afloat” (Burows 2018: Paragraph 2). The scenic elements also involve large, noirish video images of the man and woman looming over the performers, so that their flesh and physical features appear intensely intimate to the spectator. In the rain, they embrace, touch, prod, lift, and move each other, but always ambivalently, not with affection, not playfully, and perhaps not with love. In another scene, with the curtain cleared away, the man and the woman sit at the table as they did at the beginning, except now they appear within a glass cage, surrounded by walls and a ceiling of mirrors that are also transparent windows. They are the same as they were at the beginning, tired of each other. The tablecloth begins to melt, and the vase of flowers slides with the goo to the floor. The pair climbs onto the table to study and touch each other, as if to affirm the reality of the existence, but their clothes, too, begin to melt, and they become entangled in the goo and must peel it away until they are both nearly nude. The couple believes that they must change their environment if they are to change their relationship. The woman moves the table, and the man also moves a table, but her image in the mirror becomes confused with that of her partner. The mirror panels reflect multiple images of the pair, and the woman moves the panels, balances a panel on her hand, in an effort, presumably, to construct a better image of the relationship or a domestic environment less confined by the image. The panels separate and glide away. At the end, the man and woman do not seem to have resolved the conflict between them, but neither have they glided away from each other as the images have. Nor does their dark dream together restore their desire to speak to each other [Figures 119-120].
Lähtö suggests that what holds people together are dreams, illusions, distorted images of the self and others, a fantasy of transforming an environment “together.” But these are not images of mere wish fulfillment; they are images of the mind looking at its owner from outside of the “self,” and so it is not clear who the “author” of the actions is. Physical actions alone determine the “connection” or bonding of one body to another. The connection is only fitfully or inadvertently erotic, and not guided by any pressure for rapture or even happiness. Physical actions happen because the characters no longer believe that language, speech, can move them through the “curtain” separating self and other; indeed, language is like a curtain. Behind this curtain, the mind sees physical action unfiltered by language or speech. The physical actions change relations between bodies, objects, and space only because they occur outside of the curtain separating self and other. The meaning of the physical actions is cryptic, lacking in clear motive, difficult to “understand,” because the actions follow a logic that makes speaking unnecessary; the sound of the rain and the dark music provide a far more satisfying “commentary” by being, like the dream-mind, external to the bodies performing the actions. Speechless actions do not produce a loss of identity or a clarification of it; they produce a sort of mutation of it (a “metamorphosis” of it, as the imperial Romans supposed), the appearance of your body projecting an identity that you did not “know.” Speechless actions make the spectator deeply alone in deciphering their meaning; they intensify subjectivity. But subjectivity is most acute when language, as a society’s chief instrument for clarifying all identities, is not there to “explain” who anyone is, including the spectator. For the spectators as well as for the characters in the performance, an implication of the piece is that togetherness achieves its strongest manifestation when one person and another have moved beyond language, so that only the physical actions they perform are enough to bond them together. Whatever is “beyond” the physical actions they perform will not keep them together. How else can one “know” such things except through pantomimic action? For pantomime is the art that most powerfully reveals what happens to people when they act beyond language. No other art shows so beautifully what people can do when words no longer matter, when there is nothing more to say.
Figure 120: Scenes from Lähtö (2013), directed by Kalle Nio, performed by him and Vera Selene Tegelman, Helsinki, Finland. Photos: Tom Hakala.