The Extinction of the Pantomimic Literary Imagination: Beckett’s Acts without Words

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

Beckett’s Acts without Words

Performers and directors completely defined pantomime culture after World War II, even if literary works sometimes inspired them. Pantomime came from performers and directors who wanted to control the imaginary lives they lived on stage rather than perform the lives assigned to them by the authors of dramatic texts. The literary imagination, which exerted so much influence over pantomime at the beginning of the twentieth century, has been completely absent from pantomime culture since Herzmanowsky-Orlando wrote scenarios in 1941 that he never even published, although by then he realized that theater implacably regarded pantomime as an obsolete genre. Since then, writers have seemed incapable of thinking pantomimically, incapable of imagining theatrical performance without speech, without assuming that spoken language causes and resolves all conflicts. In the early decades of the twentieth century, a sector of the Austro-German literary imagination turned to pantomime as a response to a perceived “crisis” in language. Pantomime allowed them to represent “invisible” zones of reality that eluded the power of language to reveal. Since World War II, however, dramatic writers generally have perceived a different sense of crisis in language: if anything, they have tried to restore credibility to language, which otherwise seemed to lack “authority” unless backed by incredible, unprecedented levels of physical violence. In reality, the dramatic literary imagination was afraid of performing bodies that did not speak, could not imagine life without voices, whereas actors and directors could.

In 1956, an English dancer and actor, Deryk Mendel (1920-2013), performed in a Paris cabaret a clown act based on the character of Frollo in Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris. The management asked him to come up with a new Frollo piece for the next program. Mendel contacted several French absurdist dramatists in Paris, including Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), inviting them to write a piece for him. Beckett agreed, after his companion Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil (1900-1989) reported enthusiastically about Mendel’s performance. He wrote Act without Words, a pantomime for one actor, but the cabaret could not stage it because the text requires the suspension of scenic objects over the stage and the theater had no flyweight system (Knowlson 1996: 377-378). Eventually Mendel staged the piece in April 1957 at the Royal Court Theatre in London, following the premiere performance of Beckett’s drama Endgame. Beckett saw the pantomime as an opportunity to commission his cousin John Stewart Beckett (1927-2007) to write incidental music for it. He claimed to have written the piece out of his affection for comic silent film performers like Buster Keaton (1895-1966), Ben Turpin (1869-1940), and Harry Langdon (1884-1944), but he probably would never have written a pantomime if Mendel had not invited him to and if Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil had not encouraged him to do it as a way of breaking out of a creative “impasse.” Act without Words takes place in the “dazzling light” of a desert. It begins with a man “flung” backwards on to the stage. He responds to the sound of a whistle to the right and to the left, but gets flung back each time. After performing each action, he “reflects,” but all of his actions fail to alleviate his lonely, isolated situation. Objects descend from the sky: a palm tree, a pair of tailor’s scissors, a carafe labeled “water,” a big cube, and then a smaller cube, but he does not notice the objects until the whistle calls his attention to them. He looks at his hands while “reflecting.” He tries to pile the cubes to reach the carafe, but falls instead. The carafe pulls away from his reach. A rope descends; he tries to climb it to reach the carafe, and when this fails, he cuts the rope to make a lasso by which he can capture the carafe, but this strategy also fails, as does his effort to hang himself. Another whistle beckons him from the right wing, but when he tries to exit, he gets flung back. When, however, a whistle sounds from the left wing, he does not move, but merely “reflects” and trims his nails with the scissors. The objects fly upward. When he sits on the big cube, it pulls upwards and dislodges the man. He lies on the ground. The carafe drops down to a few feet from him. The whistle sounds. But the man doesn’t move. The palm tree disappears, the whistle sounds, but the man doesn’t move. “He looks at his hands” (Beckett 1984: 37-40). In Act without Words, Beckett uses pantomime to construct an existential parable of human existence: a human body gets thrown into a deserted, inhospitable place from which no escape is possible. Life in this space offers temptations, rewards, hopes, opportunities, but these are all beyond man’s capacity to realize, they are illusions that leave man in a space he longs to escape. After much “reflection,” he realizes that he must refuse to obey the whistle calls of illusion, that he must find purpose within himself, in his hands, in his powerlessness, his non-response to external distractions. 

Beckett apparently wrote Act without Words II around the same time that he wrote Act without Words, but this second short pantomime did not have its premiere performance until 1960, in London. In this piece, the spectator sees a “neat pile of clothes” beside which, in “frieze effect,” are two sacks, B and A, and each contains a man. A long pole, called a “goad,” enters horizontally from the right. The goad patiently succeeds in prodding the man in sack A to move. “A, wearing shirt, crawls out of sack, halts, broods, prays, broods, gets to his feet, broods, takes a little bottle of pills from his shirt pocket, broods, swallows a pill, puts bottle back, broods, goes to clothes, broods, puts on clothes, broods, takes a large partly eaten carrot from coat pocket, bites off a piece, chews an instant, spits it out with disgust, puts carrot back, broods, picks up two sacks, carries them bowed and staggering half-way to left wing, sets them down, broods, takes off clothes (except shirt), lets them fall in an untidy heap, broods, takes another pill, broods, kneels, prays, crawls into sack and lies still, sack A being now to left of sack B.” The goad enters again, this time on a wheel, and prods B, who crawls out of the sack and performs a variety of different actions, among others: “he consults a large watch, puts watch back, does exercises, consults watch, takes a tooth brush from shirt pocket and brushes teeth vigorously, puts brush back, rubs scalp vigorously, takes a comb from shirt pocket and combs hair, puts comb back, consults watch, goes to clothes, puts them on, consults watch, takes a brush from coat pocket and brushes clothes vigorously, brushes hair vigorously, puts brush back, takes a little mirror from coat pocket and inspects appearance, puts mirror back, takes carrot from coat pocket […].” He takes off his clothes and puts them in a pile and moves the sacks to their original position and crawls into his sack to the left of A. The goad enters again now on two wheels and prods A to repeat the action all over again (Beckett 1984: 41-43). The pantomime dramatizes a mechanistic condition of human existence. “Life” is dormant, “sacked away,” until prodded or goaded awake by an abstract, inhuman mechanical power. Existence consists of performing and repeating a series of mundane actions until a moment of “brooding” or “consulting” compels the performer to return to a state of dormancy after arranging the sacks so that he will not be “goaded” awake too soon. Theaters around the world continue to perform either of the two pantomimes fairly often, both were part of the Beckett on Film (2001) project, a Hollywood animation company made a 1960 cartoon film of Act without Words, and the pieces have inspired some complex scholarly commentary (cf. Lamont 1987; Zilliacus 1993; Zhghenti 2014). But after 1956, Beckett never returned to pantomime. With these two little pieces, he prescribed all the actions a voiceless body could perform to represent his existentialist view of humanity.

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Gendered Perspectives on Modernist Pantomime: Lindsay Kemp

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

Lindsay Kemp (left) performing Flowers in Turin, Italy, 1985. Photo: Danielle Fazio.

Lindsay Kemp

In England, pantomime in the postwar era departed from the imperturbable Christmas pantomime format through the figure of Lindsay Kemp (1938-2018). Though he studied under Marceau, most of his education was in dance, in London, from the Marie Rambert Company and Hilde Holger (1905-2001), a Viennese expatriate and exponent of expressionist dance. He claimed that, from infancy, “I never walked, I always danced. For me dancing is so much more pleasurable than walking” (Lewis 2016). Yet he was never important as a dancer or choreographer. It was his skill in pantomime that enabled him to enjoy a very long career as a performer. After struggling for several years to discover his own unique performance style, he formed a three-person company in 1964, which staged a mime revue in London, Clowns (1966). The show impressed the rock musician David Bowie (1947-2016), who became Kemp’s student at the Covent Garden Dance Centre, and then invited Kemp to collaborate with him on music productions. Through Kemp, Bowie, whose career as a singer kept stalling, learned how to construct a more effective, theatrical performance persona, for Kemp displayed a powerfully liberating fearlessness in cultivating a flamboyantly theatrical personality. Bowie and Kemp produced a pantomime, Pierrot in Turquoise (1967), for which Bowie wrote the songs and played the character Cloud; Kemp played Pierrot, whom Colombine discards in favor of Harlequin; Pierrot kills Harlequin and maybe Colombine as well when she resists his attempt to rape her (Pierrot in Turquoise 2015 [1970]; cf. Waldrep 2015: 25). The show was peculiar for several reasons: Cloud (Bowie), in whiteface and white gown, was a melancholy, singing commentator on the pantomimic action. Harlequin (Jack Birkett [1934-2010]) was a bald, nearly nude, muscular black man who wore large earrings and mascara and knitted. Birkett, who had worked with Kemp since 1956, was also blind. Pierrot wore a sixteenth century tunic while Colombine (Annie Stainer) wore a complementary period dress and extravagant blonde wig, but she bared her breasts for Harlequin. Pierrot inhabited a cluttered room stuffed with Victorian bric-a-brac, and when, after dressing, he looks into a full-length mirror, he sees Colombine. When he steps through the mirror toward her, he enters an abstract space, filled with ladders and manikins, where sexual scenes and the murders take place. Pierrot in Turquoise was not a comic piece, but a bizarre evocation of pathos stimulated less by the conventional tragic love triangle story than by a “fatal” atmosphere of sexual ambiguity. Kemp worked with Bowie on fashioning the singer’s alien, androgynous “Space Oddity/Ziggy Stardust” persona of the early 1970s, and in the late 1970s, he worked with English rock singer Kate Bush (b. 1958) in developing an energetic movement style for her concert performances and music videos: “I had no qualifications in ballet. I had almost given up the idea of using dance as an extension of my music, until I met Lindsay Kemp, and that really did change so many of my ideas. He was the first person to actually give me some lessons in movement […] it’s more like mime” (Bush 1982). In 1973, Kemp produced in London Flowers, a Pantomime for Jean Genet, which became perhaps his most successful production and which Kemp himself regarded as his “most fabulous” achievement. He based the piece on the novel Notre Dame de les Fleurs (1943) by Jean Genet (1910-1986), who wrote the book clandestinely while imprisoned for theft. Initially, Kemp wanted to stage Genet’s one-act play The Maids (1947), with men playing the maids and their female employer in drag, as Genet intended, but another London theater forbade him because it had already scheduled its own production starring Susannah York, Vivien Merchant, and Glenda Jackson. He responded by putting together Flowers in a hastily improvised manner.

Genet’s novel poetically inventories the various sordid, underworld characters who inspire the incarcerated narrator’s masturbatory sexual fantasies. The chief criminal character is the transvestite prostitute Divine, whose death the narrator announces at the beginning of the book, which therefore describes his memories of Divine and her interactions with different criminals, including her masochistic love for the murderous pimp Darling Daintyfoot. In Flowers, Kemp plays Divine in whiteface and whitened body and in several different costumes. As in nearly every one of his subsequent productions, he removes his wig to display his bald head. Much of the action consists of showing Divine’s attraction to men in a gay nightclub setting and the men leaving her for other men to emphasize Genet’s theme of betrayal as the basis for the redemptive “abjection” he regards as proof of love. Divine performs a couple of slow solo dances, makes sweeping and delicate movements with a fan, makes voluptuous movements with a veil, and, powdered entirely in white and wearing only a jockstrap and a veil, metamorphoses into Our Lady of the Flowers, a saintly figure who hovers affectionately over the the nearly nude body of a symbolically crucified criminal. The music accompanying the action consists of recorded excerpts of classical music, religious music, ballet music, and old music hall tunes. Lush and sometimes lurid colored light bathes the stage. While Kemp likes to sprint about when he dances, most of his movements are slow, deliberate, protracted, and the pace of the show (and in all subsequent productions) is leisurely, for, as he explained, “I always take my time, because I love to make the audience wait, and the audience loves that.” The slowness, he believed, contributes to a mood of “intoxication” that is the goal of performance: “I’m terribly into intoxication—that’s the only thing that counts” (Brown 1974). Before Flowers, pantomime had perhaps never represented male homosexuality—and certainly male masturbation—so explicitly. His audience was—and remained—primarily gay, but that audience was large enough to sustain him and his company for decades. The extravagantly theatrical “camp” aesthetic ascribed to him signified an art openly designed for the pleasure of homosexuals without, however, becoming confused with the parodies and comic travesties of nightclub drag acts. Kemp brought a sweet pathos, an “intoxicating” self-indulgence, and a seriousness of purpose to his flamboyant productions that released camp from the need to be laughable. With him, pantomime signified a rapturous freedom of being that entailed a daring, necessary shamelessness. Occasionally he appeared as a bizarre character in films, perhaps most memorably in Sebastiane (1976), directed by Derek Jarman (1942-1994). Here he was an ancient Roman dancer performing for “decadent” aristocrats at a villa party. His dance is lewd: he is nude except for an ornamental codpiece, his entire body is powdered white and his eyes heavily mascared. As he undulates lasciviously, he excites a group of six otherwise nude men who wear giant paper mache penises. These men circle around him with increasing frenzy, prodding him with their penises, until they lift him up, glorify him, lower him to the marble floor, and ejaculate onto him. It is a scene of “intoxicating” excess that tests the film viewer’s capacity for shamelessness. 

After Flowers, he produced numerous pantomimes that toured internationally: Salomé (1975), Mr. Punch’s Pantomime (1975), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1979), Duende (1980), Façade (1982), Nijinsky (1982), The Big Parade (1985), Alice (1988), Onnagata (1990), Cinderella (1993), Variété (1996), Rêves de Lumière (1997), Dreamdances (1998), Elizabeth’s Last Dance (2005) and Kemp Dances (2015), with many of these shows employing music written for them by the Chilean composer Carlos Miranda (b. 1945) (cf. Wilms 1987). But none of these productions achieved nearly the impact of Flowers; while his literary and historical inspirations changed over the years, he relied almost entirely on the pantomimic tropes, devices, movements, and images that he introduced in Flowers. Nevertheless, as Margaret Willis has remarked, “he possesses a magnetic personality onstage that draws the onlooker into his make-believe world. His skin is painted white, his eyes panda-black, and his lips ruby-red; his puckish features are topped by his shiny bald head. And he likes to wear dresses. His drag performances are reminiscent of a beloved granny getting up to do an impromptu party piece with an endearing abandon, beaming with a self-satisfaction that cuts through any embarrassment” (Willis 2002). In 1979, he moved his company to Spain, where his shows were very popular; in 1991, he moved the company to Rome and to a former monastery. But in Britain, despite the proliferation of mime courses and the prestigious annual London International Mime Festival, established in 1977, no one has come close to matching Kemp’s success in pantomime, perhaps because it requires an intimidating level of courage (cf., Senelick 2000, 409-411).

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

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

Other Women from the Stuttgart Performing Arts Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gendered Perspectives on Modernist Pantomime: Ilka Schönbein

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

Ilka Schönbein

Since the 1970s, some members of a younger generation of female pantomimes received their educations outside of the mime culture defined by Decroux and his disciples. As a result, these women have produced a different understanding of the body’s relation to narrative, although they may, as Pinok and Matho contend, represent the postmodern trend toward blurring distinctions between pantomime and other arts. A good example of a female pantomime who evolved from a different heritage is the German performer Ilka Schönbein, born in Darmstadt around 1963 (no one has published her birthdate). She studied eurythmic movement at the Eurythmeum School established in Stuttgart in 1921 by the anthroposophic educator and philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), who advocated a “spiritual” relation of bodily movement to light, color, space, and music according to a mystical system or “language” of gesture affiliated with natural and geometric forms (cf. Veit 1985). Schönbein then studied with the famous Stuttgart marionetteer Albrecht Roser (1922-2011), who was a protégé of the Swabian marionetteer Fritz Herbert Bross (1910-1976), a mechanical engineer descended from a woodcarving family; he developed a successful process for manufacturing string puppets. A major inspiration for both Bross and Roser was the theoretical story-essay “Über das Marionettentheater” (1810), by Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811). In the story, the narrator describes his encounter with a dancer who explains that marionettes achieve a superior level of graceful movement because, without consciousness, their movements always submit to a center of gravity, which is “either no consciousness or consciousness without limit: either the jointed doll or the god,” whereas human dancers, with only limited consciousness (or excessive self-consciousness), struggle constantly to escape gravity and in their struggle they impair their gracefulness (Kleist 2014: 4). Roser achieved immense popularity with his Clown Gustaf marionette, and Schönbein worked with him for several years, touring widely with his marionette production of Don Juan (1988). But in the early 1990s, she broke away from the marionette heritage and perhaps also from the eurythmic concept of bodily movement to form her Theater Meschugge, a word derived from Yiddish, meaning “crazy” or “wild.” She gave her first performances in streets and in market squares, often in France.

In the marionette theater, the marionette dominates perception of the performance, which results from the movements of the “invisible” human body pulling the strings of the figure seen by the spectator. Schönbein wanted a more intimate, physical connection with the puppet, so that the puppet became an extension of her own body. Her first production was Metamorphosen (1994), which she revised several times in the ensuing years. The production consisted of several scenes in which Schönbein incarnated female figures from pre-war Eastern European villages. The scenes were bizarre, eerie, grotesque, expressionistic, and suffused with an intense melancholy. One of the most powerful scenes showed a thin, pallid, pregnant woman wearing a brown slip who suddenly goes into labor, sinking to the floor with her mouth wide open, lifting her legs straight up, and holding the position until the tiny arm of the enfant begins flipping out from between her legs. A haunting Jewish lullaby accompanies the entire scene. Eventually the entire baby crawls out; the woman sits up, her mouth still open, as if she is in shock. The baby twitches beside her, and the baby is really grotesque. But the mother studies it carefully and then gently lifts it toward her, rolling it along her arm, as her open mouth morphs into a smile of awe. She lovingly cradles the twitching baby in her hands, then brings it to her breasts. The music stops, and the spectator hears only the sound of the baby clawing at the mother’s breast. She lowers her slip so that the baby can suck her breast (Lipus 2008). The puppet baby is an amazing creation in that Schönbein is able to manipulate, with one hand, all its legs and arms and to open the mouth of its oversized head to form an image of wailing. The baby seems like a monstrosity, and the mother’s loving gestures are disconcerting, perverse, even demonic, for the piece is not a glorification of a mother’s transcendent love for her baby in spite of its grotesqueness. It is about a mother who loves her baby because it is grotesque, because it is the monster it needs to be to survive in a dark, loveless world without mother. Schönbein’s movements are bold, clear, suffused with tenderness without being exaggerated. She first performed the piece on the street, but in the best video performance of it, the action takes place in some kind of dingy washroom with a suitcase, which amplify the sense that the woman is utterly alone in giving birth. Another scene from Metamorphosen presents a little blonde girl in a yellow dress sitting on the lap of an ominous woman whose face is a silver mask and whose body is enshrouded in a dark wimple-dress. The little girl moves her bare feet, which are the feet of the performer. Music begins: an old Yiddish tune song by a child. The little girl moves her feet to the rhythm of the song, as if dancing on the woman’s lap. When the child becomes too restless, the mother clenches the girl, who turns her head upward, and shakes her head, warning the child not to become so agitated. The child sulks and smolders, then begins to move her feet again. But she resists following her impulse, becomes alert and turns to her mother, who whispers into her ear. The child slumps, the mother stands. The girl straightens her dress and again starts tapping her feet to the song. She swings her entire body energetically, but when the song comes to an end, sinks back into her mother’s lap. Mother and daughter turn and pick up a metal pot and shake it to produce the sound of coins rattling in it. They walk slowly forward and away (Heike 2011). The mask and the puppet possess a gripping vividness without being altogether realistic, just as the movements, again, are bold without being exaggerated—indeed, the piece focuses on the necessity of restraining the body. The theme of the piece may be that the mother must restrain the daughter’s kinetic impulses to preserve a kind of humble, austere dignity that will improve their success at begging. A third scene depicts a young, unmasked woman in a worn, faded bridal veil and dark dress holding a bouquet of roses as she sways to a gentle klezmer waltz. She gazes at herself in a mirror. She lifts from behind the roses the mask of a young man with a black hat and hides her own face behind it. The man’s eyes seem closed, as if he is in a deep trance. He inhales the fragrance of the roses. Then he drops the roses, and he and the woman sway to the music. The woman embraces him with her left hand while he embraces her with his right. They sway as if in a deep rapture. The man pulls from his pocket a ring, slips it onto her left hand, and brings her hand reverently to his cheek. Then he pushes her hand away and sinks his head, revealing hers again, as she cradles him protectively (Heike 2011). The piece seems to be a woman’s fantasy of inspiring the love of a man who does not actually see her, who lives only within her. The video was shot in what looks like a theater dressing room, yet the action evokes a remote time and place—somewhere in a poverty-stricken Eastern Europe before the war—and it is as if these eerie figures from some “other” land haunt, not the stage of the theater, but spaces backstage, the place where actors don their costumes and masks, the institution itself, as well as the body of the performer. 

Metamorphosen opened up opportunities for Schönbein, almost entirely in the form of invitations to perform at various festivals and small theaters. She met the French marionettist and theater director Alexandre Haslé (b. 1965) while working on Metamorphosen, and they collaborated on her next production, Le Roi Grenouille (1998), based on the 1810 Grimm fairy tale of a sad princess, rather grotesque herself, who encounters a frog but treats him with disdain. However, she allows him to sleep on her pillow, where he transforms into a handsome man. Haslé and Schönbein toured with this production for three years; he then departed to form in Paris his own theater company involving puppets and a more comic world-view. Schönbein’s next production was Winterreise (2003), an enactment of the gloomy 1827 poem-cycle of the same name by Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827), set to the songs of the poems composed by Franz Schubert (1797-1828), except that Schönbein used accordion rather than piano accompaniment for the singer, who was a counter tenor rather than tenor. The song cycle describes the bleak, nocturnal winter wandering of a young man who has lost his beloved to another man. Snow, silence, and darkness are everywhere. Death pervades his mind. Lights and radiant memories are mere illusions. He encounters a crow, a snowstorm, a cemetery, and in the end he meets a sinister organ grinder, whom even dogs fear. But Schönbein made the protagonist a pregnant woman and employed many more masks, prostheses, and puppet effects than in Metamorphosen. Despite the extraordinary inventiveness of the production, she could not find a “home” for her art. Germany had no “place” for her, and she lived for the most part out of a camper truck (Tanzfilminstitut 2007). In France, she received support through complicated co-productions involving different theaters and municipal-national grants (Ksamka 2016: 3). In 2006, she produced Chair de ma chair, an adaptation of the autobiographical novel Why Is the Child Cooking in the Polenta? (1999) by the Swiss-Romanian writer Aglaja Veteranyi (1962-2002). The book describes the severely dysfunctional life of an émigré Romanian circus family as seen by an illiterate daughter, Olinka. The production presented nine scenes of sordid family life as circus acts. A “clown angel” (Nathalie Pagnac) sitting at a typewriter spoke words from the book that accompanied Schönbein’s pantomimic embodiment of the thoughts and fears being spoken. These include the alcoholic father’s incestuous violation of Olinka, Olinka’s fear that her mother will have a terrible accident as a trapeze performer, and the mother’s prostitution of her daughter. Schönbein concentrated on the tormented mother-daughter relationship, but she attached to her body a variety of masks and prostheses to create the impression of a body inhabited by multiple demons and monstrosities or, as Marion Girard-Laterre (2011: n.p.) puts it, a “teratogenic process attacks the body.” For this production, Schönbein made masks resembling her own face and prostheses molded from her own very thin body in an effort to dissolve the distinction between her body and the puppets, for as she had already proposed: “Little by little, I cut all the threads of my puppets and allowed them to come closer and closer to me. Since that time, there is no longer any thread or stick between the puppet and me; in their place I always experiment with new handling techniques using my own body, I play with the hands, with the feet, with the head or the buttocks” (Girard-Laterre 2011: n.p). With Chair de ma chair, she used more than one mask at the same time on her body, and she manipulated prosthetic arms and torsos to show how multiple identities feed off of her body or, as Prost (2012) suggests, to show how Schönbein’s body feeds off of the puppets she creates—or rather, her body produces a profusion of “monstrous parasites” (Girard-Laterre 2011: n.p). In some moments, the nudity of her body was difficult to distinguish from that of the puppet. Schönbein herself claims that, “the border between the puppet and my body is occult” (Girard-Laterre 2012: n.p). Indeed, the piece concludes with a grotesque baby puppet devouring the mother figure and the mother devouring the baby. But Schönbein’s obsession with the “demolition” and “reconstruction” of her own body goes beyond her ingenious puppet simulation of her body through masks and prostheses. Chair de ma chair feeds off of Veteranyi’s characters with the same morbid intensity with which Veteranyi fed off of her own deranged family members to write her book and thus creates a frightening exploration of women’s inability to identify the boundaries of their own bodies, of their possession by other bodies [Figure 114] (cf. Burger 2017; Maëlle 2013). 

Following the horror show of Chair de ma chair, Schönbein turned again to fairy tales with La vieille et la bête (2009), a series of four scenes partially inspired by stories in Grimm and also by the death of her father, which occurred when she started work on the project. She collaborated with the Italian mezzo-soprano and composer Alexandra Lupidi, who wrote the incidental, cabaret music for guitar, double bass, and percussion and spoke the voiceover. The first scene related the story of a queen who prays to give birth. When she does give birth, her child is a donkey. But she transforms her horror into love by teaching the donkey to play the lute, and by playing the lute, the donkey transforms into a human. For this scene, Schönbein devised a donkey head puppet while the rest of the donkey’s body consisted of appropriately costumed parts of her own body. The second scene, “La Ballerine,” resembled the mother-daughter beggars in Metamorphosen: a puppet in a white blouse, pink tutu, and ballet slippers sits on the lap of a stoic woman wearing a crown. The ballet dancer performs ballet movements without rising from the woman’s lap, but the ballerine transforms from imagining herself a “ballet queen” (ballereine) to becoming a “ballet ruin” (balleruine). In the third scene, God invites an old woman to make a wish. She requests that children who climb her apple tree and take apples should remain stuck there. Death then visits her, so she asks him to climb the tree and pick an apple for her. But Death becomes stuck there, hanging in the air. The old woman confesses to Death that she is “almost ready,” but she delays the fatal moment: “it is not me who is old and ugly, it is him, the animal which is called my body!” (Collège au théâtre 2010: n.p.). The final scene showed Schönbein in the Pieta pose of holding an old dying woman in her arms, her mother, who becomes transformed into a child. In this piece, however, Schönbein seemed preoccupied less with revealing the “monstrosity” of her body than with showing how she could embody inhuman identities—an animal, Death—amplified by the emaciated thinness of her body (cf. Impe 2014). 

Her interest in animal puppets had begun with Metamorphosen, which contained a scene wherein a deathlike puppet figure behind her runs its hand (which is her hand) over her body and that hand is a gigantic black spider. In 2006, she directed and designed the puppets for a show by another German puppeteer, Kerstin Wiese (b.1971), Le loup et les sept chevreaux, based on the Grimm tale of the wolf and the seven young goats, and in 2010 she directed and designed puppets for Faim de Loup, an adaptation of the Little Red Riding Hood story, a tale of “a child transformed into an adult,” with Laurie Cannac performing all the roles. The collaboration with Cannac (and Lupidi) continued with Queue de poissonne (2013), an adaptation of “The Little Mermaid” story (1837) by Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875): a creature who is half-woman, half fish discovers through sinister sorcery that becoming wholly human means a life of pain and unfulfilled love. In 2014, Schönbein performed her own incarnation of the wolf and seven goats tale, Sinon, je te mange… with herself dressed in black like a veiled widow from an earlier century as she manipulated the various puppet animal heads. But while she toured with this production, she suffered “a complete physical and psychological crisis.” She delayed work on her next production, which included Eh bien, dansez maintenant, about a grasshopper dancing for an ant in the hope of receiving food. Schönbein would perform this piece, while the other piece in the production, Ricdin-Ricdin, an adaptation of the Rumpelstilskin story, had Stuttgart-based puppeteer Pauline Drünert performing with Schönbein’s puppets, while Lupidi and Suska Kanzler composed the music. The production eventually went on tour in September 2017. However, Schönbein’s productions based on fairy tales and involving animals lack the visceral power and daring emotional intimacy of Metamorphosen, Winterreise, and Chair de ma chair, and it is as if she has had to compromise her aesthetic to accommodate a more childlike audience that is necessary for the Theatre Meschugge to receive the grants by which it survives. As she said of her personal crisis: 

Is there life after puppets? I’ve been searching for it, this life without puppets, and I still search for it – so I can live, survive. Something alive is dearer to me than all the puppets in the world. 

Why do I want to tell this fairy tale? 

Why am I telling you this very personal story? 

The tale talks about art. […] Because every true artist feels like she or he is in the same situation as the miller’s daughter, imprisoned in a room full of straw that absolutely needs to be transformed into gold. […] And nobody will convince the true artist that there is a real life outside her golden cage (Ksamka 2017).

The problem with Schönbein’s aesthetic may be that while her puppets have evolved, as has her relationship to the puppets, her relation to pantomimic action has not evolved so effectively. The positions she assumes in manipulating the puppets, which are so often those of a woman struggling to bestow affection, love on a strange creature or even “monster” she has created, remain stable, so that Schönbein’s body functions like the center of gravity for the marionette figure in Kleist’s story. The puppets change, but the movements animating the puppets remain fairly constant. In a sense, the puppets determine the movements of the performer, who cannot seem to live as an artist without puppets attached to her body. Schönbein’s efforts to build puppets for other performers and direct their productions may be part of a strategy to detach puppets from her own body and affix them to the bodies of others. But this strategy does not seem to include so far an expansive or innovative construction of pantomimic action, which may be fundamental to understanding the “physical and psychological crisis” troubling the artist. At the same time, her later reliance on fairly tales to motivate identities and actions evokes a need to link puppetry and pantomime to a primordial childhood experience of the body’s frailty, its vulnerability to “metamorphosis,” to usurpation by “others,” and this obsession with preserving that childhood experience functions as a grotesquely poetic defense against time, against the aging of the body, against Death (cf. Gérard 2017).

Figure 114: Ilka Schönbein in the birth scene of Metamorphosen (1993) and Le roi grenouille (1998), showing the fusion of human and puppet identities. Photos: Ilka Schönbein, Marinette Delanné (2017).

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Gendered Perspectives on Modernist Pantomime: Women Students of Decroux

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

Women Students of Decroux

The French mime culture that displaced the concept of pantomime in the Cold War era attracted numerous women to study under Decroux, Marceau or Lecoq, but many of the women who subsequently achieved distinction in the performing arts did not work in pantomime, such as stage director Ariane Mnouchkine (b. 1939), movie star Jessica Lange (b. 1949), or German dancer Karin Waehner (1924-1999), who decided that neither Decroux nor Marceau provided the right path for her and decided to return to the expressionist dance aesthetic encouraged by her first teacher, Mary Wigman (Waehner 1997: 313-314). Female alumni from the Parisian schools have achieved distinction primarily as mime educators rather than as pantomime artists, such as Corrine Soum (b. 1956), who, with Steve Wasson (b. 1950), another student of Decroux, established in 1984 the Theatre de la Ange Fou, which moved from Paris to London in 1995 and then in 2010 to Spring Green, Wisconsin, where the company has transformed a 1902 church into a school and theater (The White Church Theatre Project). Soum has reconstructed (1994) several of Decroux’s pieces, and she and Wasson have directed numerous productions with their students, although some of these productions, inspired by fairy tales or European literary works, are not pantomimes, but examples of the exaggerated “physical theater” that has become entangled with the concept of  “postdramatic theater” as Hans-Thiess Lehmann (2006) has defined it, such as A Strange Day for Mr. K (2015), “a playful collision of Franz Kafka and Buster Keaton.” But the Theatre de la Ange Fou and the White Church Theatre Project constitute above all a school whose main business is the provision of workshops and training programs on corporeal mime (White Church Theatre Project 2016). 

Figure 114: Claire Heggen and Yves Marc in Les mutants (1975). Photos: Heggen (1978)

Similarly, Claire Heggen, a student of Decroux, formed with Yves Marc the Théâtre du Mouvement in 1975 based in the Parisian suburb of Montreuil. They proclaim that, “Etienne Decroux’s approach towards a corporeal and dramatic actor occupies the highest place in our affective references. He opened the way for a theatrical genre beyond the verb where poetic formalization has as much if not more importance than narration,” for as Decroux said: “It is not a question of movement conveying poetry, but of movement itself being poetic” (Théâtre du Mouvement 2018). Heggen and Marc constantly give workshops and “conferences” on corporeal mime both in Montreuil and at many academic institutions. But Théâtre du Mouvement is also a production company that attracts artists from a variety of backgrounds (as well as Decroux adepts) to give performances of almost annual regularity of what the company regards as “research projects” to demonstrate some principle of poetic movement. In the 1970s and early 1980s, their productions consisted entirely of solos and duos of an abstract nature; as a duo they wore identical costumes and often performed the same movements in synchrony or created a symmetrical bodily architecture, as in Mutants (1975), in which, wearing body stockings that cover their heads, they perform “a fiction reinventing the creation of man and woman from primordial chaos. Starting from an amorphous ball, they intersect and show through the poetics of the movement different animal, aquatic, aerial and terrestrial body states up to standing human” (Théâtre du Mouvement Archive). The body stocking was a default costume in the early years, but from the beginning Heggen had an attachment to masks and puppets that she never abandoned. She and Marc came up with the idea, in La Récréation (1972), of attaching several masks to the body and then moving the body to convey the impression of several alien characters living off of a dark, ectoplasmic blob that the viewer will, eerily and disconcertingly, perceive is a human body. The body stockings disappeared in favor of a kind of eccentric street-clothes image, but the masks changed from aliens to recognizable animals, perhaps to appeal to the children who were their prime audience in the 1990s. Since 2000, Théâtre du Mouvement productions have emphasized the “evocation” of existential themes that Decroux advocated, with performers interacting with abstract forms, such as balls, cubes, swathes of fabric, or a chair in a space with almost no material context, a kind of dark Everywhere/Nowhere. In Things Being as They Are, Everything Is Right as Can Be (2009), Heggen, interacting with a puppet, embodied an old man “caught between his constant desire to rise up and the promise of an unavoidable decline, he notices the dwindling of his vital space. He puts up with it the best he can, he gets used to restrictions, reductions, the senseless restraints which will eventually bring up his vanishing” (Théâtre du Mouvement Archive). But the corporeal movement in the company’s pieces is “poetic” insofar as it is largely abstract, derived from viewing the body as a form that requires no context other than the studio in which the performer created the movement, as if the studio is the metaphor for the universe. The pieces seem like exercises, things one creates when the studio has become the world or a refuge from the world rather than an engagement with it. Heggen makes this point herself: “Another aphorism that is important for us is ‘Theatre must be played before it is written.’ This means that you don’t start with a story and then look for forms with which to express it. Instead you begin by working with forms, and little by little things appear and you can compose your story from the things that result from this exploration. That is how we always work” (McCaw 2007: 15). Dick McCaw reinforces the point by describing Heggen’s pedagogic techniques without any reference to her mime productions or her artistic achievements: “Heggen demonstrates a physical process whereby ideas or images come through acts of movements. First the actor works at the level of physical sensation, then, hopefully, come the images and ideas by association. […] The training she proposes is a ‘tuning’ by means of which the actor can listen to the emotional and imaginal ‘resonances’ created by movements” (McCaw 2007: 15). This physical process, however, is an entirely pedagogic goal that requires no artistic outcome as proof of its efficacy, and it hardly moves beyond Decroux’s thinking in the 1940s. In France, though, the idea of “educating” the voiceless body seems synonymous with institutionalizing the body within a “poetic” system of signification that comes from teachers, lessons, and plenty of exercises rather than from artists, rather than from the poetry of performance meant for audiences other than actors. Théâtre du Mouvement has for several decades honored the teachings of Etienne Decroux, which has inspired in 2017 an exposition celebrating the company/school and the publication of a monumental book compiling documents of Heggen’s and Marc’s pedagogic philosophy.

The tone of this huge book, Théâtre du mouvement (2017), is indeed relentlessly pedagogical. The authors pay constant and effusive tribute to their many teachers, including of course Decroux, despite his repudiation of them in 1975 for performing Mutants professionally while they were still his students. For Heggen and Marc, teachers, not performances, are the decisive forces in shaping the identities of mimes. Nearly all the essays in the book feel like notes, reflections, and lesson plans for the organization of studio classroom activities. Yet, as is almost invariably the case with French discourse on the arts, the writing is always and inescapably “philosophical,” pervaded with abstractions, metaphors, and “theoretical” suppositions. The writers imply that the purpose of mime education is the re-education of “the body” to reach a metaphysical core of being that is otherwise hidden from perception by language and a preoccupation with material values. As Ariane Martinez explains, Heggen and Marc seek “to redesign the contours of the body, in phase with the projections and anxieties of their time” (Heggen 2017: 15). But “the body” within this pedagogy is entirely hypothetical. The authors treat “the body” as an entirely abstract phenomenon, not something they have actually observed, either in performance or in life outside of the studio. Occasionally the authors make reference to famous performers like Marilyn Monroe, Marcel Marceau, or Charlie Chaplin, but they evoke these names as if the reader already knows what or how these artists signify, and the book provides no analysis of their distinctive signifying practices or anyone else’s. Within the “theater of movement” pedagogy, “the body” is an entirely theoretical construct, a hypothetical emblem of liberating neutrality that transcends physiognomic, gender, age, or health distinctions between bodies: all bodies are, so to speak, “the same” in relation to the pedagogical mission of “redesigning” the body of the mime. This abstract idea of “the body” is helpful in producing a rhetoric or vocabulary, a “cor-texte” (“body text”), of signifying practices defining mime education (77-80). The book is far more comprehensive in its articulation of mime technique than anything Decroux or anyone else has published. But, as Decroux implied by his absence of publication, mime attracted adherents because of the “silence” of its “secrets,” which could only be learned through direct contact with teachers and not from mediated sources like books or performances. The “cor-texte” refers to the categories of body parts that “move” and form the gestural vocabulary that defines the “research” guiding the mime toward the achievement of a transcendent, neutral body. Much of the book consists of lecture-essays theorizing the movement of individual body parts or combinations of them. However, the operation of these movements remains entirely hypothetical. For example, in discussing the semiotic significance of the eyes, Marc attributes cultural variables to the “axial” movement of the eyes to the left or the right:

 If one asks: “And tomorrow at eleven o’clock, do you have a project?” one may observe that [the eyes] move to the left. 

Thus, the past is to the left and the future to the right.

And here, one sees a cultural dimension: what is it that makes one move [the eyes] left or right? One writes, one reads. The axis of the look between the right and the left is eminently cultural because, for Arabic and Hebrew civilizations, which write right to left, the axis of the look is reversed.

[]And if one asks: “In this place, are your emotions sad or gay?” the eyes move to the left, because that question concerns the past, but they lower a little. It is as if the memory of the [sad] emotion pushes the eyes downward (85).

Marc applies the same generalizing semiotic assumptions to numerous other categories of axial body part movement, such as the eyelids, the lips, jaws, the head, hands, and torso. He inserts little generic photos of these body parts to support his argument, but these merely illustrate his points rather than verify them. Then he and Heggen introduce larger categories of movement, like respiration, walking, musicality, and animality. Discussion of props (mostly “neutral” masks and marionettes [330-351]), scenic architecture, lighting, and costumes is very perfunctory, a mere set of small lists of props they have used in various performances over several decades (328-330). But the discussion remains abstractly theoretical, without reference to the observation of movements in performance or by persons seen in the world outside the studio. The hypothetical organization of movement categories is necessary to standardize the education of the mime; it is the necessary basis for building exercises that all students in a class learn and that establish the “standard” by which a teacher can evaluate a student’s progress in a course. Exercises are essential to teaching, but they are not essential to artistic development. If learning derives from observed rather than hypothetical movement, then you open up a vast domain of subjectivity in the “interpretation” of the “meaning” ascribed to movement that is inimical to the goal of standardization. To standardize movement is to construct a vocabulary or grammar of movement that regulates bodily signification in relation to an institutional and societal ideal of control over the body and its otherwise destabilizing capacity to intensify the “chaos” of subjectivity. Heggen and Marc’s book clarifies that mime education is above all concerned with the preparation of teachers, not artists. This preoccupation with the teacher as the focus of power in the formation of mime identity leads to a pedagogy that emphasizes the student/performer’s process of achieving a transcendently neutral body; it is indeed a kind of therapeutic experience that pays little, if any, attention to what movements “mean” to audiences or to any aspect of the public outside of the sacred, sequestered studio-classroom, because the transcendently neutral body cannot exist anywhere else. It is the creation of exercises assigned by a teacher. 

Nevertheless, since 1975, Heggen and Marc have produced a large repertoire of performances, and they devote the last third of their book to brief descriptions of their performances, although it is not always clear where these performances took place, other than their school or at performing arts schools elsewhere in Europe. Access to the performances is therefore primarily through videos of them, but even these are difficult to see in their entirety. A 1978 video of Les mutants (1975) is perhaps the clearest available documentation of their ambition to embody transcendent neutrality. In this work, Heggen and Marc emerge, almost like huge insects, from a white shroud wearing identical green body suits that mask even their faces. For a little more than half an hour, they perform, together and solo, a series of contortions, gyrations, mirror movements, convulsions, lurches, lunges, crawls, tumbles, sliding nudges, intertwining limbs, and mutual enfoldings, all performed at different speeds and interrupted periodically with moments of stillness. The piece ends when the pair, after stripping off their body suits, wrap themselves in the white shroud from which they emerged. The performance takes place in a completely white space accompanied by the hyper-modernistic music of Didier Lavellet (b. 1944) and Yves Erwan-Chotard. Apparently the object of the piece is to show how, detached from any recognizable context other than the studio, the body “mutates” into alien forms of life: “the body” contains within it “other” life forms than any we can see “in the world.” But the movements constructing these mutations do seem as if they are the product of studio exercises that operate independently of any narrative structure that subordinates movement to a larger concept of action. A movement grammar (“cor-texte”) allows for the recombination and reconfiguration of movements without regard to narrative specificity. Mime, like dance, focuses on movements defined by an autonomous semiotic system; pantomime focuses on actions relative to a performer and relative to a specific narrative involving a specific context. Pantomime works best in relation to a specific set of narrative actions(not movements) that every actor will perform differently, subjectively, and not in a standardized manner: He enters the store to buy a book for scientific research, but when a woman enters the store, he becomes distracted and intensely curious about what sort of book she wants to read. As they each browse through books around each other, they “mutate” into strange, insect-like creatures burrowing into books either to get close to each other or to escape the scope of desire. Every actor who performs this little narrative will perform each action differently, because the action is more than any standardized regulation of movement yet always specific to the performer and the context. The mime studio space does not encourage the concept of action, because action requires linking “the body” to some context external to the studio and to “alien” domains of subjectivity that motivate action “in the world.”

 In more recent video performances, Heggen and Marc appear to have acknowledged some of the limitations of studio sequestration and adopted grand narrative structures. Blancs . . . sous le masque (2005) is a nearly two-hour long “big and little history of mime” involving six actors. The piece is neither mime nor pantomime, but an example of physical theater. The actors use huge chunks of speech in various languages and in nonsense languages to narrate the history of mime from primeval cave performance through Roman and medieval times to the era of the Paris foire theaters, the Pierrot period, the silent film era, Decroux, Marceau, and up to the present, with allusions to Asian theater, German expressionist dance (Mary Wigman), and Jacques Lecoq. The piece is a loud, frenetic, clamorous, and rowdy romp through pantomime history in which pantomime appears as a sequence of clown acts performed by the same set of “recurring archetypal” figures. That is, the show is not so much history as it is a staging of popular myths associated with pantomime and mime at linearly arranged points in time. But a problem with physical theater is its inability to sustain a serious tone toward anything. Advocates of physical theater insist on a comic attitude toward all subjects, and they pervasively embody a comic attitude that relies entirely on a gestural grammar or “physicality” that invariably produces caricatures. This caricaturization of the body becomes aligned with assumed “archetypes” of human identity, although to the caricaturing mind archetypes are synonymous with clowns. In Blancs . . . sous le masque, mime and pantomime caricatures manifest entirely through the commedia and Pierrot archetypes. Brief video clips of Méliès silent films, Marceau’s Bip, and Decroux exercises do not dispel the sense of archetypal reductionism; they merely introduce a glaring tension between history as documented by film and myth as incarnated by “recurring” caricatures of “eternally human” types on the stage (Heggen 2005a). The very short film,  

Le chemin se fait en marchant (2005) offers a much narrower and more distinctive venture into the theatrical performance of history. It is a solo performance, about one and a half hours long, directed by and starring Claire Heggen. The piece chronicles her life story as a “path” followed through a variety of enacted metaphors for “walking.” While the show contains plenty of skillfully performed physical “demonstrations” or “evocations,” as Decroux would call them, Heggen relies heavily on her voice, either in voiceover or in monologue, to tell her story from birth, to childhood play, to ballet studies, to Decroux, to the formation of Théâtre du Mouvement, and to her deepening understanding of mime’s transformation of her identity. It is an extraordinary story of personal evolution that nevertheless seems of limited relevance here other than to indicate that her evolution entails a lack of confidence in voiceless performance to tell her story (or maybe any story or any history) effectively. Yet the piece contains an astonishing scene, a video clip from a film that Heggen and Marc shot in 1990, but the film derived from scenes in an earlier work for the stage, En ce temps-la ils passient (1983) (Heggen 2017: 235). They shot the short (five minutes) film, Tezirzek: Les animaux, in the Tezirzek gorge of the very remote Ténéré desert in Niger. The film shows a tribe or family of five mysterious creatures embodied by humans with torsos wrapped with a kind of reptilian netting and their heads masked to resemble a combination of lizard’s head and hawk’s head. A human hand emerges out of the desert sand, but the body that follows belongs to a primordial species that inhabited the world millions of years ago. The eerie family slithers up and down huge sand dunes like monstrous snakes and salamanders, creeps and crawls across the blazing Sahara like baboons or anteaters, and climbs giant rocks and explores caves like panthers or iguanas. The filmmakers do not identify the source of the accompanying music: dark, haunting electronic or horn tones embellished with gong strokes, whirring hums, a tingling triangle, and deep, murky drones. The film makes effective use of cinematic devices, such as telephoto shots, tracking shots, striking camera angles, dissolves, and wide-angle lens closeups, to capture the pantomimic performance. The human performers impressively “evoke” a pre-human, pre-primate, pre-linguistic evolutionary phase of “walking.” But the goal here seems the reverse of Les mutants. Whereas Les mutants shows how alien forms of life lie hidden within the human body, Tezirzek shows how “families” of various species contain within them an intensely alien form of life: the human. It is a powerful pantomime performance, in part because it communicates an idea that only pantomime can achieve persuasively. But the performance achieves this persuasiveness because it focuses on actionsperformed within a specific, overwhelmingly daunting context, the Sahara desert, and the viewer sees this performance through the advanced, cinematic technology of the “alien” species. The film provides a wonderful glimpse of how the mime philosophy of Decroux, when freed from studio sequestration, placed instead in imaginative contexts, and seen through advanced image technologies, can build a distinctive, mysterious “path” to the pantomime of the future. But the film is only and merely a glimpse, not a promise fulfilled by any of Decroux’s disciples (Heggen 2005b; Heggen 2020).

Figure 115: Tezirzek: Les animaux (1990), directed by Claire Heggen and Yves Marc. Photos: from Heggen 2020.

Yet another interesting French duo that has spent decades nurturing Decroux’s legacy is Pinok and Matho, the professional names of Monique Bertrand and Mathilde Dumont. They met as students at the former L’école normale d’éducation physique in 1959 and then studied together under Étienne and Maximilien Decroux. But they also became “impregnated” with the ideas of Mireille André-Fromantel, a modern dancer unique in France for having worked with German dance leaders such as Mary Wigman, Kurt Jooss, and Rosalia Chladek as well as with the American modern dance pioneers José Limón (1908-1972) and Martha Graham (1894-1991). Pinok and Matho introduced a “different pedagogy” that blurred distinctions between dance, pantomime, gymnastics, and acrobatics and created “an art of movement” or “bodily theater” (théâtre corporel). The purpose of this “decompartmentalization of techniques” was to bring “creativity” to voiceless performance, because “in the 1960s, the notion of creativity had little presence in dance or mime.” In 1962, the duo formed the Théâtre école movement et pensée (TEMP) that sought to educate students of various ages according to an eclectic curriculum built more around games than on exercises (Pinok 2016: 563-566; cf. Robinson 1990: 333-335). But Pinok and Matho pursued an extensive performance career that occurred primarily in nightclubs, cabarets, and small theaters, such as, from 1990, the fifty-seat Le Tremplin Théâtre in Montmartre. Unlike many mime performers, the duo did not involve their students in their productions: they performed always only as a duo. Maximilien Decroux endorsed their performance aesthetic, and the writer of bizarre, dreamlike tales Marcel Béalu (1908-1993) praised them because, “refusing to enclose themselves in a system, refusing the traditional image of the whiteface mime, Pinok et Mathot, with great independence, explore the relations between two persons, relations dynamic and dramatic, exploiting and opposing their differences [… and creating] a distortion of reality, an introduction to a fantastic or surrealistic dimension. […] Their bodies, which an intensive physical education has transformed, muscled, and planed, have become more doe-like, more leopard or cat or panther than bearers of breasts.” Another commentator described the pair as “androgynes dancing before Caesar as dreamed by Fellini,” while yet another observed that they were “androgynous beings who evade the sexes with ferocity and trepidation at the same time” (Pinok 2016: 442-443). 

Video or even written documentation of their performances, however, remains feeble. Pinok and Matho describe their performances in several pages but do not even provide dates for their productions. They identified five categories of duo performance: 1) a conflict or opposition between two persons; 2) two persons who complement or mirror each other; 3) one person succeeds another in performing solo; 4) one person who remains the same while the other incarnates multiple persons; 5) two persons identically clothed and masked give the impression that they are a single person (445). Some of their pieces are comic, a kind of absurdist clownery, such as Les Reines (1968), in which the duo appear as chessboard queens in black and white costumes and attempt to upstage each other entirely through exaggerated formal movements, or Cadeau de Noël (1971), in which a little girl receives a Christmas gift of a doll but casts it aside when a bigger gift appears: when she removes the big box, a human being stands before her, and she proceeds to play with the lifeless human as if it is a doll. But other duos are melancholic, eerie, or austere, such as Toc Toc Toc! (1979), where a woman in a silver mask and a brown medieval dress stitches an imaginary garment in a dark space until a figure in a suit, bow tie, bowler, and white mask knocks; he speaks somber, unintelligible words, then leaves, while she performs a standing dance out of weaving movements to the accompaniment of a ticking sound. Temps distillé (1971) showed two silver-masked women in white medieval robes performing complementary stitching movements, one standing, the other crouching: “our hand gestures suggest the actions of sewing, spinning, threading without really imitating them, gestures close to the artisan’s gestures, precise, meticulous, or close to the movements of certain insects” (Pinok 1976: 9). In Où sont tous mes amants (1974) they appeared in Greek chitons made of the same piece of cloth and adopted different histrionically “emotional” poses while hearing a 1935 tune (“Where are all my lovers?”) by music hall singer Fréhel (Marguerite Boulc’h [1891-1951]). In Totem (1982), they created a living totem pole in which their arms, heads and legs continuously reconfigured the image of a double-bodied idol (Dumont 2016; Pinok 2016: 449-459). One of the duo’s most ambitious works was the program Tango avec la mort ou Hamlet et Hamlet (1976), a five-act “opera-reverie” inspired by Hamlet’s monologue and containing seventeen discrete scenes or pieces, both comic and serious, depicting either moments in the play or physical “meditations” on themes of the play. “The theme of death is recurrent” in their work, they explain, “even in the more comic pieces, not through complacency with a climate of morbidity, but with the intention of tracking down the slightest signs that announce or report violence, destruction, the dangers of totalitarianism and the death of arbitration, the crushing of innocence, and denouncing the will to power” (Pinok 2016: 444). In 1978, the duo began collaborating with the experimental composer Dominique Laurent on the program Les pays de tout en tout and then again with Ténèbres et Azur (1982), eleven sketches built around the duality of light and shadow: “after a nocturnal journey that unmasks the avid impulses of humanity comes the slow path into obscurity, then the supreme quest or spirit triumphs over materiality” (447). Laurent’s music added an alien, haunting, electronic pathos to the duo’s basically existential vision of a desolate, death-saturated world where love is very hard to find and never more than two people struggling to do something together in an otherwise dark, empty space. 

But the duo’s productions seem like supplements to their pedagogic activity, if indeed French mime as envisioned by Decroux is above all an intellectual rather than an artistic project, the enactment of a philosophy or theory. Pinok and Matho published several books in the 1970s: L’expression corporelle à l’école (1973), Écrits sur pantomime, mime, expression corporelle (1975), Expression corporelle: mouvement et pensée (1976), and Le fabuleux voyage aux pays de tout en tout (1979). These books introduced, developed, modified, and reiterated their ideas for implementing a “different pedagogy” to intensify creativity in “bodily expression.” But perhaps the most provocative of their 1970s publications is Dynamique de la creation: le mot et l’expression corporelle (1976), in which they assert that enhanced creativity in bodily expression depends on a “creative pedagogy.” A basic tenet of a creative pedagogy is a devaluing of exercises, for these lead to habitual and routine ways of thinking and performing. Instead, creative pedagogy emphasizes game playing as the foundation of “movement thinking.” Games, however, involve improvisations in which rules of play change to produce a “dynamic” understanding of the body’s capacity to respond to internal and external stimuli (20-24). Most salient in the improvisational process is the idea that words are the “detonators of movement,” for “the isolation of words or their random proximity disconnects us from the coherent sentence or a more literary formulation, and achieves the value of novelty, of strangeness” (32). According to Pinok and Matho, words in isolation trigger unconscious associations, a “reverie” of images that “escape the determinative sentence,” and the body moves in response to these images or “stimuli” that are unique to the performer. “For one person, the word moto [motorcycle] signifies an intolerable noise, for another a muscular sensation, for yet another a homosexual symbol or a beautiful, glittering new object or a feeling of power and freedom” (32). Improvisations arise out of allowing the body to move as an “expression” of the image “detonated” by the word. The authors discuss colors as a fruitful basis for bodily improvisation; particular colors, “for me,” contain particular “reveries” of association:

Violet: shade, Holy Thursday, covered statues, devil…

Black: raven, obscurity, shadows, trout, death…

Green: herbs, oxygen, mountain, non-pollution…

Red: blood, trepidation, excitation, ardor…

White: washing, slowness, immobility, calm, virginity…(43)

The improvised movements that arise in response to each set of associations attached to each color-word are the basis of “thinking in movement,” “a mysterious game of association born of chance.” Like a relational database, different movements from different sets of association may be combined to produce a new kind of corporeal narrative that reveals the “metamorphosis” of the body into an emblem of a hidden self, a manifestation of an otherwise invisible realm of the unconscious (Pinok and Matho quote Baudelaire, Proust, and Symbolist poets). Isolated word associations prepare the student’s body to respond to other stimuli, such as music, noise, light, objects, touches. The authors supplement their text with images of their duo performances. But their theory of pantomime as an image of the unconscious, of a dream world, though seemingly influenced by the French psychoanalytic discourse of the 1970s, is a modernized renovation of the nineteenth century romantic rhetoric about Pierrot as a dream figure: Pinok and Matho have given this rhetoric a pedagogic logic, a basis for treating pantomime, not as an end in itself, but as an instrument for achieving another goal—the liberation of a repressed self, the release of a “creativity” that words in their “determinative” structures have smothered. Here pantomime becomes a supreme sign of subjectivity, a thing evaluated almost entirely by the performer’s experience of performing it. The relation to an audience or to a world external to the performer’s unconscious is almost irrelevant.

            But Pinok and Matho themselves seem to have come to the conclusion that the French pantomime tradition has reached some kind of end. In 2016, they published a huge history of pantomime, Une saga du mime: des origins aux années 1970, a rich, montage compilation of quotations, biographies, images, “reflections,” and epochal summaries. The book provides a brief account of the “origins” of pantomime in ancient Greece and various features of pantomime under the Romans. Another chapter, also comparatively brief, with the title “German Expressionism 1905-1920,” discusses Frank Wedekind, Mary Wigman, Harald Kreutzberg, and Kurt Jooss as important figures who somehow influenced mime, although Wigman, Kreutzberg, and Jooss achieved prominence only after 1920. Otherwise the immense book presents mime and pantomime as entirely French phenomena, without reference to pantomime anywhere else or even reference to important examples of French pantomime outside of the commedia format, such as Angiolini, Noverre, Cuvelier, or Richepin. Pinok and Matho situate themselves within this history as a culminating expression of French pantomime, for they do not refer to anyone after them or contemporary with them. The implication is that pantomime came to an end in the 1970s with the emergence of “corporeal expression” and the blurring of distinctions between dance, mime, and performance art, which is synonymous with a postmodern collapse of faith in the body to construct narratives other than the “mysterious games” of the unconscious. The story of pantomime thus comes to an end when those writing it can no longer find stories to tell in pantomime and must rely on chance relations between the body and word associations to allow the body to “express” something without words. 

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Table of Contents

Gendered Perspectives on Modernist Pantomime: Angna Enters

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

Angna Enters

Another woman, however, American Angna Enters (1897-1989), fashioned a pre-World War II pantomime aesthetic that did survive well into the postwar era. She was born and grew up in Milwaukee and New Berlin, Wisconsin. An only child, she spent much of her time reading history and art books, and she studied design at Milwaukee Teachers College; she designed sets for the Wisconsin Players. In 1919, she moved to New York City to study at the Art Students League, where she was a student of John Sloan (1871-1951), who subsequently did several portraits of her and numerous sketches of her mime characters. An ardent student of art history, she believed that the greatest art was figurative, and she began to study dance because she thought that movement would give greater life to the figures she wished to draw and paint. She briefly (1921-1922) studied and performed with the Japanese dancer Michio Ito (1892-1961), who was friendly with the Irish poet W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), but Ito’s efforts to fuse elements of Japanese Noh drama with dance evocations of Yeats’ symbolic-mystical poetry were remote from her own ambitions, and she realized that Ito was not able to teach her pantomime (Enters 1944: 107-119). For a while she lived in poverty and had to pawn heirlooms to fund her first public performances of pantomime, in 1924, in a Greenwich Village revue including ballet pieces and comic scenes by other performers (158-160). Enters found work as a commercial illustrator, but she quit the job, when in 1926, she produced her own evening program of solo pantomimes. The success of the program led to an invitation to perform in London and then to tour the United States. Until the 1960s, she performed programs entirely of solo pantomimes, touring the United States fourteen times, visiting not only all major American cities, but many small and medium-sized towns, such as Albuquerque, Grand Rapids, and El Centro; colleges, women’s social clubs, and civic community centers invited her to perform. President Roosevelt invited her to perform at the White House in 1940. She performed in Paris in 1929, but although she spent much of the 1930s traveling throughout Europe after receiving Guggenheim grants, she did not perform again in Europe until 1950, when she appeared in London, and 1951, when the State Department sponsored her visits to Paris and West Berlin. She constantly created new scenes inspired by her relentless traveling, and over forty years, she constructed, she claimed, at least 250 pantomime characters. 

But her artistic energies extended well beyond pantomime. Her drawings and paintings also attracted a large audience. She had regular gallery exhibitions in New York, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Los Angeles County Art Museum acquired works by her. But she was herself the subject of many artworks by others, including John Sloan, Walt Kuhn (1877-1949), photographer Francis Bruguière (1879-1945), photographer Doris Ulmann (1882-1934), and sculptor Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941), the designer of the Mount Rushmore monument. Enters was also a prodigious writer: she published (1937, 1944, 1958) three volumes of autobiography drawn from her enormous diary-journal. Her memoir The Silly Girl (1944) was a bestseller, which the MGM movie studio planned to turn into a film, with Enters as one of the screenwriters. The film was never made, but she worked on the screenplays for two other films and supervised the commedia scene in the movie Scaramouche (1952). She published a monumental play, Love Possessed Juana (1939), about political intrigue in the early sixteenth century Royal Court of Spain, for which she wrote the music and designed the projections for its performance, in 1946, at the Houston Little Theater, which then staged her next play, The Unknown Lover (1947) (Enters 1958: 297-300; 321). In 1955, she published a long novel about an artistic girl growing up in a mid-western city, Among the Daughters. In the early days of television, she performed some of her mime pieces, but the single recording of any of her performances is a 1959 half-hour film, Drawn from Life, which presents her in only three humorous scenes and is in any case extremely difficult to access. When she began teaching at various colleges in the 1960s, she published her lectures On Mime (1965), an insightful book that further revealed her gift for pedagogic innovation. In addition to her fame as a stage performer, Enters knew a great many famous artists and people in the entertainment industry, which made her an appealing guest on radio talk shows, and her image appeared in popular magazines like Vogue and Life. Yet she was a solitary person. In her profuse autobiographical writings, she did not disclose any romantic attachments nor even a sense of close, intense friendship with anyone. In 1921, she met the arts journalist Louis Kalonyme (?-1961), but did not begin dating him until 1924. He wrote a favorable review of her first solo performance evening in The Arts magazine (Kalonyme 1926: 278-279), and around 1930 he gave up his own career to become her concert manager and publicist. They apparently married in Spain in 1936, but he did not want it known that they were married to make it easier for them to live largely separate lives (Cocuzza 1980: 94). After Kalonyme’s death, Enters became the live-in companion of the widowed and invalid film director and producer Albert Lewin (1894-1968), a longtime friend, who asked her to marry him, but she refused. After his death, she lived alone in New York City. 

Enters performed only programs of solo pantomimes that displayed the diversity of her characterizations. For her first set of pantomimes in 1924, she had wanted to collaborate with the black bass singer Paul Robeson (1898-1976), much against the advice of her friends, but Robeson himself bowed out because of throat irritation (Enters 1944: 219-220). Subsequently, she did not interact with anyone else in the performance of her pantomimes. A program usually consisted of eleven to thirteen pantomimes lasting an hour to an hour and a half, with each “episode” lasting four to seven minutes. Even by 1930, she had so many pieces in her repertoire that she could perform different programs in different places or even in the same place without difficulty, and audiences were always aware that she had “characters” that they had not seen. She described many of her “compositions” in some detail in First Person Plural (1937) and An Artist’s Life (1958). Distinctive and often elaborate costumes were essential to her characterizations, and she designed them all herself. Because she could not afford a fulltime “maid,” she hired assistants at each hotel in which she stayed to assist her with the numerous quick costume changes she had to make with each performance. She employed different kinds of props and furniture pieces like small tables, chairs, a couch, or a stepladder, but otherwise the scenic context consisted mostly of a spotlight focused on her. Music was always piano accompaniment, which she modified to accommodate her actions or movements; she did not move to the music, which brought criticism from dancers that she was not a dancer (Enters 1944: 233-234). She used a wide range of music, including popular music, which was very rare in dance concerts of the 1920s and 1930s, and was utterly unique in using in performance by a white woman music by a black composer, Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943). Her piece Dance of Death (1924), however, had no musical accompaniment at all. But while the musical accompaniment was a major component of the performance and required extensive collaboration and rehearsal, Enters avoided discussing her accompanists in any detail. Early in her career, Madeleine Marshall (1900-1993), who started teaching at Juilliard in 1935, was Enters’ accompanist beginning in 1926, but her own ambitions as an accompanist compelled Enters to rely on other accompanists for her prodigious tours, and Marshall’s “loyal association” to Enters “endured to this day rather as a collaboration of friendship than of performers” (Enters 1958: 22). Yet Enters never described this collaboration or friendship beyond these words. All but a few of her characterizations were of women. One of her most popular characters was The Boy Cardinal (1924), a “fantasy,” a “commentary on the politics, casuistries, manners, and oppressions of such a cardinal-premier as Richelieu.” The music was a song from the historical era, “and this was the only time in my theatre career that I worked with a second person on the stage, a singer who stood off toward the wings” (the scene that she wanted Robeson to perform with her). “As the words were sung, the figure of my composition enacted the gruesome story with hands, shoulders, and eyes” (30-31). But in subsequent performances, Enters used a piano arrangement of paso doble [Figure 113]. In Le Petit Berger (1924), with music by Debussy, she played a shepherd boy aroused from drowsing by something speeding by him. “The flow of pose into movement was a ‘natural’ abstraction of expression and gesture into a rhythmic pattern, without dance steps” (24). David Dances before the Ark (1934), a “vision of David in his grave dance of exultation” and a project that “persisted” with her, was difficult to realize because she couldn’t find the right musical accompaniment, a combination of Byzantine and Hebraic chants. In Mr. Mozart Has Breakfast (1938), she impersonated Mozart, in nightgown and nightcap, composing music “between bites of roll and sips of coffee,” accompanied by his own music, but she did not keep the piece in the repertoire because concert houses provided her only with an anachronistic modern grand piano for Mozart to play (183). The Grand Inquisitor (1939) showed her as a sixteenth century Spanish official tormenting a figure bound to a stake, but this piece, too, did not remain long in her repertoire because it required that she hire a union stage worker to assist her (183). She also did a composition called The Effeminate Young Man (1934), depicting a seventeenth century French courtier, “feminine in dress and behavior,” one of “the most dangerous rivals the ladies had for masculine affections.” The costume was elaborate: “gray velvet trimmed with silver and loops of variegated velvet ribbons in rose, mauve, several shades of blue, and green. The full lace-trimmed blouse is white and the sleeves are tied with cerise and golden bows. The white frilled trousers over pink calves—and the slippers almond green” (109). A Modern Totalitarian Hero (1937) “is a gas-masked, strutting and preening figure in a fantastically over-decorated uniform.” She used a “rose as a symbol of the arts and the decencies of human existence. It is against the rose that [the] totalitarian, somehow effeminate, hero wreaks his vengeance, after pricking himself during an oversentimental orgy of appreciation in the best Wagnerian yo-ho-to-ho ecstatics in celebration of the flower’s beauty” (156-157). Otherwise, her vast repertoire of characterizations was female.

Enters created her characters by reading history books and magazine articles, by looking at paintings, by observing people as she saw them on the street, in cafes, or in various abodes, and by fantasizing about herself. Unlike many mimes, she did not depend on literary works, musical compositions, or theatrical performances to feed her imagination. Her pantomime programs combined serious and comic compositions. Many characterizations were imaginary historical figures, not figures who actually lived or whose portraits artists had painted, but she herself as she might have lived in an earlier time. One of her most famous and enduring works in this vein was Moyen Age (1924), with music by Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), in which “the problem I set for myself was to tell of the Crucifixion, Adoration and Annunciation in a stylized union of movement, costume, lighting, and music—an attempt to convey the spirit of the life celebrated by Giotto, Fra Angelico and other primitives […]” (Enters 1958: 24). The costume changed over the years from a stone-chiseled, gray-white look to a more pliant vermillion wool gown with a gilt crown. Enters constructed several other religious characters: Queen of Heaven (1926), depicting “a woman of the time of Thomas Aquinas, in whose worship of Mary would be mirrored the worship of the age.” “She sat—her knees wide apart—as though holding the world in her lap.” The music was a piano arrangement of a song by Gautier de Coincy (1177-1236); Flemish Saint (1931), with hymn music from the fifteenth century, presented the saint as “she passes delicately and almost impersonally on her way to martyrdom.” “Her gown is of Vermeer green and navy blue velvet,” along with a white veil (84); Auto-da-fé (1931), “a composition of the pursuit and persecution until her death at the stake of one whose heresy is that she is Jewish.” Costume: a dark gray gown, with a red circle on her breast, “the symbol of Jewishness.” Music: a Spanish tune with an intensifying drumbeat that ceases when she falls from the stake (84); Flesh-Possessed Saint—Red Malaga (1936), accompanied by the Malaguena tune, depicted a lust-tormented nun at the time of the Spanish Civil War; Ikon Byzantine (1932) with music by Mussorgsky, showed the movement of a female figure in a costume of dark red, fresco blue, and gold, “carefully spaced as though in self-explanatory symbols” (86); Inquisition Virgin (1929), with Mozarabic chant, was “a constant reminder that the Queens of Spain ‘have no legs’.” Her scepter was a symbol of judgment rather than compassion” (64). But many historical scenes were secular: Pavana (1929), a medieval fresco with drumbeat requiring a complex costume—black velvet, gold embroidery, wine-colored shoes with aquamarine jewels, black gloves, jeweled and “studded with nailheads to resemble armor”; Heptameron (1927) depicted a femme galante from the sixteenth century and the “freedom of the women of the court [of Francis I], their participation in dueling, the hunt, and the excessive dances […] deplored by the less worldly” (38); Mme. Pompadour—Solitaire 1900 (1936) was “a kind of reverse strip-tease,” showing a “woman of the gas-lit early 1900s, discovered just after she has stepped from a tub preparatory to a long toilette.” “It is characteristic of the woman of this composition that, at last, ready, but with nothing to do, she should play solitaire—and cheat herself” (142). Some compositions evoked ancient Greece: Sapphic (1926) “revealed a Greek woman occupied in the sunlight with the movement suggested to her by a Sapphic strophe. […] She walked in counterpoint to [the] strophe” (33-34); Cassandra (1935) presented the doomed prophetess; Pagan Greece (1933), an “experimental cycle” of nine scenes, depicted various female figures from Greek mythology, comic and tragic, and culminating with the glorification of Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom (99-101). Some compositions explored exoticism: Ishtar (1936), who, luxuriously dressed, “fans away flies with the horsetail”; Isis-Mary (1936), an “Egypto-Greco-Roman fantasy,” in which “Isis merges into Mary” (130); Odalisque (1926), one of her “most frequently requested compositions,” “disclosed an odalisque […] awakening from sleep with languorous animal stretchings and amorous rehearsals of a few half-awakened moments. She then relaxes into a drowsy state of a hot Oriental afternoon. The general motif was one of remembered pleasure.” Enters performed the entire scene on a bed (Enters 1958: 36; Enters 1965: 76-78). Second Empire. Entr’acte 1860—Rendezvous (1927) was “a dance of the eyes,” showing how a woman greeted different persons on the street and culminating with her “picking her way through the dark side streets of Paris, her face concealed, on the way to an intimate meeting. Her walk epitomized the furtiveness ladies had to show” (Enters 1958: 34). Enters regarded Harlot’s Progress (1943) as one of her best compositions but was unable to perform it more than once because of the high cost of scene changes. The piece, another cycle, dramatized “the evolution of a young ‘Lorette’—or street girl—of the 1830s through successive stages as courtesan to haute monde marriage and social position” (245). 

Figure 113: Left: Angna Enters as The Boy Cardinal (1924). Right: Angna Enters wearing one of her Renaissance costumes as photographed by Edward Steichen in 1927. Photos: Enters (1937).

Enters presented some scenes drawn from contemporary life: Société Anonyme (1932) satirized the intellectual cult that formed around Man Ray, Katherine Dreier, and Marcel Duchamp in New York during the 1920s with their celebration of “the neoclassical fads of the moment in interior decoration, ‘health’ movements, sun worship, and the ‘Pure Dance,’ then still modernistic-machine-abstract,” embodied by a “kind of Artemis clad in white pajamas” riding on a merry-go-round hobby horse. The accompaniment consisted of “movie ‘Indian’ music,” Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231 (1923), and carousel tunes played on a phonograph (85). Hollywood Horror Story (1942) “presented a study of what could happen to a girl, susceptible to glib encouragement [from “I’ll make you a star” scoundrels in the movie industry], in the space of morning, noon, and night” (244). Her liberal, intensely anti-fascist political views, violently stirred by her dismay at the damage done by the Spanish Civil War to a country she obviously loved, led her to infuse some of her 1930s compositions with political attitudes that went beyond the anti-clericalism of her religious pieces. A Modern Totalitarian Hero has already been mentioned, but it was the first of a three-part cycle that included Japan—“Defends”—Itself! (which showed a defenseless Chinese peasant hiding from bombs dropped on a field) and London Bridge Is Falling Down (1937), which showed Britannia, “in peerage robes,” placating “warring factions” that parade before her. In Wiener Blut (1939), accompanied by a Strauss waltz, “a German student, summoned by an ominous knocking at the door, which she knows is the Gestapo come to take her to a Concentration Camp, burns the thesis on which she has been working” (196-197). Crackpot Americana (1940) satirized the “cults of Ku Klux Klan in all forms, [and the] oversentimentalization of ‘back home on the farm,’ Mom, etc.” (197), while Deutschland Ueber Alles (1936) satirized the “ardor with which masses of women regard Der Fuehrer,” which “is in itself an extraordinary display of physical release” (143). 

Her comic compositions often satirized the vanity and carelessness of young artistic women. In her “piano music” scenes, she sat at the piano and performed pieces that revealed “all those little human things which illuminate her as imprisoned in her restlessness […] overdramatizing herself into a foreordained climax” (33). In Pursuit of Art (1926) depicted a woman trying to find “self-expression” by playing avant-garde music but ends up sinking into “self-pity” by playing Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata. Tristan (1928) presented a woman, a music student, attending a Wagner opera with a man, another music student. The man is seen entirely through the woman, “her arrival with the music score, her excitement in being with him, and in her doing the wrong things in an effort to please him,” and her realization at the end that “she is not the ideal Isolde” (46). Narcissism (1930) showed a female city worker “returning from her daily work” and playing a phonograph record of “Dream Lover” (1929), sung by Rudy Vallee (1901-1986). “Through his singing she takes on a new beauty in her own eyes, which carries the composition to a macabre end,” for “only by the slight exaggeration of an impulse, human character will swerve from normal to abnormal” (72). Enters disliked modernist abstract painting, and she made fun of it in several compositions, such as Dilly Dally—Ah Sweet Mystery of Life!(1942), in which a painter, dressed in a ballet tutu, paints her canvas as if it were a violin resting on her arm and the brush in her other hand is like a violin bow. The artist, “inspired by her face in the mirror,” paints her own portrait, which, “when unveiled to the audience is that ultimate of abstraction—nothing.” Yet Enters became disconcerted when audience members asked to purchase the paintings she made during the performance. Figures in Moonlight—Danse Macabre No. 2 (1935) displayed Enters’ taste for the grotesque. Harlequin, on top of a stepladder, strums a guitar to his beloved Colombine, represented by a dressmaker’s dummy, who remains utterly indifferent to him. “He stabs her, and from her dress-form heart come ribbons of blood, with which he strangles himself” (130). Darker still, though popular at women’s colleges, was Aphrodisiac—Green Hour (1929), inspired by Enters’ observations of women on the Friedrichstrasse in Berlin, which “dealt with the moments of a prostitute [in black velvet dress and black, ostrich feather hat with “poisonous” green gloves] at a café, during business hours, and was designed to communicate that death which is contrived in life”—thus, “a composition based on the movement, the expressionless expressions, the sentimentality, the dance in the life of […] unsuccessful women” (45-46). 

Enters produced many other compositions as well as humorous dances, but after 1943, she ceased to create any new compositions. Her popular programs from the 1940s to the early 1960s contained mostly pieces she had first performed in the late 1920s and early 1930s. She was the most distinctive pantomimist in the United States until the vogue for French mime culture took hold in the 1970s. She herself believed that the commedia format had stunted the development of French pantomime and created characters that existed only in the theater (53), whereas she created her characters by looking outside the theater, by finding herself in history, by enacting the behavior of people as she witnessed it. Her pedagogy, as inscribed in On Mime, emphasized to students this need to observe and to imagine movements rather than to encode them through relentless exercise. She stressed the importance of narrating through action rather than identifying movements that displayed the student’s control over her body: action was subordinate to characterization, whereas in dance characterization was subordinate to movement, a distinction that caused dancers to regard her as something like a freak, although she herself did not always make a clear distinction between dance and pantomime. She was the modern incarnation of an ancient Roman pantomime, a solo performer metamorphosing into the multitude of historic and contemporary identities inhabiting her body. “Mime is a lonely art,” she wrote, “for the mime works in a solitary world inhabited by phantoms which take only transient physical form through him” (Enters: 1965: 125). The mime “is a lonely figure in whom neither the audience nor the figures of their imagination have any interest. […] To me, the realization of this loneliness is an asset, for it provides a sense of that isolation in which one is free to abandon oneself to the expression of those images with which one is obsessed” (129). But neither her performances nor her itinerant teachings produced any significant efforts to compete with her. She remains alone in the history of American pantomime, because she was not afraid to be alone. In the postwar era, mimes were afraid to be alone. They needed to belong to a community built out of a shared image of pantomime; they needed to belong to a school, to a system, to a shared set of practices and disciplined training, to the mime culture, to the French idea of mime as the discovery within oneself of a fundamental, existential, or “absolute” Pierrot, who is the antithesis of the metamorphosing body. 

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Gendered Perspectives on Modernist Pantomime: Irene Mawer

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

Irene Mawer

Ever since the eighteenth century, women in Western civilization were far less likely than men to pursue artistic ambitions through pantomime, even though the silent film era and the early modern solo dance programs showed all the same that pantomime was no less “female” than it was “male.” Nevertheless, assumptions about fundamental differences between the sexes synonymous with childish superstitions pervaded Western consciousness and encouraged a kind of gendering of the arts whereby, in the realm of voiceless performance, women overwhelmingly preferred to dance while men, if they must be “silent” in performance, perceived that they encountered much less risk of becoming “feminized” if they ventured instead into pantomime. Pierrot and the teachings of Decroux reinforced rather than challenged these peculiar assumptions in the twentieth century. As is evident by now, women rarely controlled the production and content of pantomime, in contrast to the situation in modern dance, where women largely shaped the history of the art. Annette Lust (1924-2013), herself a mime, devoted a chapter to “Women’s Voices [sic!] in Mime” in her book From Greek Mimes to Marcel Marceau and Beyond (2000), but mostly she only identified women she knew who were in the mime business. The chapter gives the impression that women, too, can be clowns in the Pierrot/Marcel Marceau tradition, and Lust does not situate women in any larger context for pantomime than the small scale, usually solo, comic-clown sketches promoted by the postwar mime culture descended from Marceau (Lust 2000: 237-259). However, the history of pantomime includes a few women with ambitions for the art that have gone beyond finding a place within the clown paradigm. 

In 1932, an English poet-actor, Irene Mawer (?-1963) published The Art of Mime, a book written primarily for teachers responsible for high school theatricals. Mawer had performed professionally in vaudeville pantomimes from the early 1910s. She appeared in a commedia pantomime, Et puis bonsoir, written by Ruby Ginner (1886-1978), which had an all-female cast, with Ginner playing Pierrot and Mawer as Harlequin. Ginner’s great passion was reviving what she understood, on the basis of archeological and literary evidence, as ancient Greek dance, and she published a book on this subject in 1933, The Revived Greek Dance, which had the same publisher as Mawer’s book a year earlier. In 1915, the two women formed a school, The Ginner-Mawer School of Drama and Dance, the purpose of which was to affirm “that a system of normal, sanely-balanced movement is necessary, as a counter-influence to the neurotic tendencies of the present age” (Ginner 1933: 14). Ginner and Mawer had studied elocution under the prominent voice specialist Elsie Fogerty (1865-1945) and had appeared in the chorus for Fogerty’s productions of ancient Greek tragedies in 1902 and 1904. Through Fogerty, Ginner and Mawer became (1918) involved in the Stratford Summer Season run by the actor-manager Frank Benson (1858-1939), and, in 1919, Mawer choreographed the chorus for Benson’s production of Euripides The Trojan Women, in which she and Ginner also performed; the production later moved to the West End (Macintosh 2010a: 200-203; Macintosh 2011: 50). Ginner’s pedagogy focused primarily on choral movement in the Greek style. The aim of Greek choric movement was to produce an idealized image of the female body that would protect women, mentally, emotionally, and physically, from the manifold “harms” of twentieth century life, although Ginner’s rhetoric resembled that of the “Grecian dance” advocate Genevieve Stebbins back in the 1890s. But Mawer declared in 1960 that, “I was not then, and never have been, a dancer” (Purkis 2011: 78). Her focus was pantomime; she and Ginner performed the three-act L’Enfant prodigue (1890) repeatedly (1922, 1929, 1934), with Ginner playing Father Pierrot and Mawer constructing a very androgynous-looking Pierrot (Mawer 1932: 152, 162). In 1925, she published a book of poems on ancient Greek themes, The Dance of Words, which also contained numerous photographs of ancient Greco-Roman monuments and artworks and of young women in palli performing movements inspired by the poems or the artworks. The book asserted that the unique “word-rhythms” of the poems, when spoken aloud, would urge the pantomimic performers to move in unique ways, and she provided notes that indicated how specific poems implied particular movements of the body (Mawer 1925: 87-101). But Mawer did not mean that the performer “translated” the words of the poem into an “equivalent” movement; rather, unique word-rhythms awakened in the body movement rhythms that were otherwise inaccessible. The idea was to tap an archaic, buried source of poetic rhythm that informed both the writing of poetry and the movement of the body. As Charlotte Purkis explains: “Combining dance and words seemed to be for her part of that Dionysian state of perpetual becoming which she thought was the essence of an artist. The meaning and purpose of poetry for Mawer was not merely utilitarian. Poetry is not just to be danced to or a reflection of the dance in words. Rather, poetry becomes a form of inscription: writing ‘on’, and ‘as’, dance” (2011: 80). 

Yet in The Art of Mime, Mawer described pantomime largely as a matter of translating words into movements. She devotes the first half of the book mostly to an overview of pantomime history, which she integrates with the histories of various Asian theaters, commedia dell’arte, lithurgical drama, and clowns. In the second half, she discusses various techniques and numerous exercises by which a teacher of pantomime can guide students to achieve expressive control over their bodies. The use of the hands is of primary importance, for the “mime must use […] gesture, not as some strange language, learnt with difficutly and delivered with care, but as if he knew no other way to speak the urgent message of his mind and heart” (Mawer 1932: 132-133). Yet Mawer does treat pantomime as mostly a “language” that one must learn by practicing repeatedly the many exercises that fill the second half of the book. She includes numerous examples of “phrases” that the mime must perfect in developing a gestural vocabularly: “I beseech you”; “I refuse you”; “I love you”; “Will you marry me?”; “You and I”; You go over there”; “You come here” (145). Mawer moves on to discuss the vocabularization of other body parts and the exercises appropriate to achieving mastery in the use of the parts. But she saw pantomime as the performance of actions, not the performance of specific movements. Each student had to develop her own “vocabulary” of gestures, her own way of signifying with her hands, “I beseech you.” Mawer provided sensible exercises for getting the student to think about how to use a part of the body to signify an emotion, an idea, or a character trait. The hands, for example, should reveal the social class, occupation, moral quality, and age of the character. Even so, the exercises served to place pantomimic action within an implicit anti-modernist cultural code that Mawer never questioned and with which she assumed pantomime was complicit. Like most teachers of mime, she avoided theorizing relations between action and narrative: she regarded actions as discrete “phrases” one learned by heart so that they could be inserted into a narrative conceived by someone other than the teacher or student. But her notions about pantomimic vocabulary applied to ideas about pantomimic narrative that she had inherited at the beginning of the twentieth century. Indeed, in 1933, when she published her anthology of Twelve Mime Plays, all of the scenarios dated from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Into the 1930s Ginner and Mawer presented productions of revived Greek dancing and pantomimes in London’s Hyde Park, Regents Park, and Royal Albert Hall (1936) as part of their public campaign to present an ideal of young womanhood that resisted the corrupting influence of modernism. In 1936, Mawer designed costumes for a program of comic pantomimes on mythological themes, performed by an all-female cast, at the Vaudeville Theater, and she wrote one of the four pieces, The Flood, in which she played Noah (Wearing 2014: 536). But these were pantomimes that might have appeared in a Parisian salon of the 1890s. Although Ginner and Mawer were radical feminists at the time of World War I, Fiona Macintosh (2010b: 25) has observed that “Ginner’s idealized, physically perfect dancing Greek, who lived in harmony with nature, was dangerously close to the Aryan ideal of Nazi ideology,” and something similar could be said about Mawer’s claims regarding the racial-ethnic origins of pantomime and pantomime semiotics. Her pantomime aesthetic, old-fashioned long before the 1930s, could not survive in the postwar cultural scene, and in the 1950s she could not find a publisher for her book on the relation between poetry and dance, for her understanding of the poetic never outgrew her youthful infatuation with an art nouveau idealization of the decorative. For her, pantomime was the sign of a reverence for a mythic past, for the ancient world as glamorized by the refined milieu she inhabited as a girl. 

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Pantomime in Cold War Eastern Europe: Estonia

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


In Estonia, a comparatively modest pantomime culture evolved during the Cold War around the personality of Adolf Traks (b. 1933), an announcer and master of ceremonies for the Estonian National Philharmonic. In the spring of 1963, Traks formed his own Youth Pantomime Studio in conjunction with the Tallinn Culture Palace. An article in the September 1963 issue of Kultuur ja elu (40-43) described the recent visit of the Riga Pantomime Studio to Pärnu, where the group had performed its “Progress” program that included scenes inspired by Naked Life, a 1920s novel by Latvian Communist author Andrejs Upīts (1877-1970), two scenes adapted from turn-of the-century stories by Maxim Gorki (1868-1936), and the ensemble’s popular adaptation of Masereel’s The Idea (1920). The article announced that pantomime is a new form of performance for Estonia that may prove especially appealing to youth clubs. It is not clear, though, if Traks regarded the Riga group as a model for constructing an Estonian pantomime aesthetic. He was aware of August Bachmann’s pantomime experiments with the Tallinn Hommikteater in the 1920s, but he never stated his motive in establishing the Pantomime Studio other than to claim that he loved pantomime because it was disciplined yet “open,” producing a unique kind of “harmony.” He published a call for auditions and worked with an initial group of seventeen students five times a week, but after a while only two students remained. After two years, he finally had ten persons in an ensemble. At first, the Studio functioned to discover physical expressiveness by improvising exercises. Progress was slow but steady. At last, the Pantomime Studio gave its first public performance in the spring of 1965. The ensemble fluctuated in size from six to thirteen members, with six of the original members comprising the group when it disbanded; at most Traks had nine women and four men. In the summer months, the group performed in the Tallinn Cultural Palace and later in the ruins of the Dominican monastery in the Old Town section of Tallinn. The first program, Quiet Hour, consisted of brief ensemble sketches or “miniatures,” including Watch OutHiking PalsAutumn ComesRomanceBeginning and End of the Month. One sketch, called Life, I Love You, showed a woman and man living in the same building separated by an invisible wall; when they step into the street, they encounter a street musician and take action to avoid the commission of a crime, and thus they find each other. Another sketch was Hatching Apparatus of Bureaucracy, “in which the young actors were able to produce a gallery of greatly caricatured types, ranging from a cheeky typist and a hardline career ladder-climber alongside a clown secretary to a steadily rising cadre inspector and dignified director” (Traks Archive 1982: n.p.). Five bureaucrats display their love of official documents, with each document affirming the previous one until eventually the humans disappear behind piles of paper (Traks Archive Vaikne tund 18 March 1966). Another, abstract piece involved performers wearing phosphorescent gloves and collars and black body stockings so that the spectator saw only the movement of these illuminated objects. While the ensemble adopted the Latvian preference for body stocking costumes, it did not use whiteface, because whiteface negated the “individuality” of the performer. The ensemble produced the following year another program of “miniatures,” Miracle without Miracle, comprised of three sections. The first, Arlecchino, was the group’s only venture into commedia dell’arte, with the performers wearing costumes traditional to the genre and impersonating the basic figures: Arlecchino, Pantaloon, Colombine, Pierrot, Brigante. The second section presented scenes from a bizarre circus, including The World’s Strongest WomanRope DancerRedhead, MagicianTwo-Headed CalfSnake and White Clown (Snake Charmer), “and others.” The third section included more serious scenes: Imperialism, EvolutionMan and MachineEvolution depicted the cosmic origin of life, beginning with congealing of dust to the formation of organisms, the appearance of humans, the creation of slavery and civilization, and the revolutionary liberation of humanity. Reviewers of these early productions generally wrote approvingly (Traks devoted most of the space in the printed programs to quoting the praises), and the ensemble produced programs that combined different pieces from previous programs. However, one reviewer (Vello Köllu) felt the commedia piece didn’t work at all and was too big a theme for the group to compress into a miniature and too “eclectic” or uncertain in its performance aesthetic. For example, Colombine washed invisible laundry, but Pierrot presented her with a real flower. Some of the circus scenes displayed “bad taste.” Although the Magician was quite expressive, the Rope Dancer (on an imaginary rope) was weak. The Snake Charmer scene, in which the Snake and the Charmer reverse roles, though effective, was too long. Hatching Apparatus of Bureaucracy suffered from too much bustle without motive, while Evolution was too abstract and vague; one had to consult the program to grasp the concept. But Man and Machine showed true mastery and precision of pantomimic performance (Kultuur ja elu January 1967: 39-41). Consequently, the ensemble dispensed altogether with comic scenes and attempted a more “concrete” pantomime style for its 1967 program, With Time, a Person Changes, which included a revised version of Man and Machine, and new “miniatures”: Seasons, and A Human Time. Another reviewer for Kultuur ja elu (December 1967: 22-25), V. Raun, discussed the pantomime scene in general, with special attention to the Riga Pantomime Studio, which had visited Tallinn earlier in the year. In comparison, the Tallinn Pantomime Studio seemed immature: Man and Time (the new name for Evolution) revealed a “superficial philosophy,” a tedious sloganeering that was “illustrative,” a “skeleton without content,” while Seasons was “clichéd,” the work of “pupils” turning in “school essays.” Imperialism and Man and Machine were much more interesting in their satirical style, but pantomime culture would benefit from the formation of a truly professional pantomime ensemble. However, texts that actually describe the content of these performances are conspicuously difficult to locate, and it may be that periodicals and programs were purposely vague to protect the Studio (or youth clubs in general) from attracting troublesome surveillance by the authorities, although the Studio won third place in the 1967 pantomime festival in Riga. A photograph (EFA.332.0-82325) by Valdur Vahi (1933-1982) in the National Archive (Rahvusarhiiv) photo database shows the curious “Snake Charmer” scene from Miracle without Miracle: a man in a chef’s hat, striped T-shirt, and apron appears to be describing something with his hands to an attentive woman in a body stocking [Figure 111]. Behind them is a a kind of painted proscenium with curtain labeled “Circus” and a poster depicting a rather elegant woman in a nineteenth century dress with a sign labeling her “The World’s Strongest Woman.” The photo reveals a visual-semiotic sophistication not usually associated with student club theatricals . In 1969, the Pantomime Studio began a partnership with the Academic Drama Theater and performed a pantomime scene in the theater’s adaptation, Light My Light, of 1912 poems by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). The same year, the ensemble produced another program of three linked pantomimic scenes, Homo Sapiens, with accompanying music by only two composers, radical modernists, the Estonian Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) and Franco-American Edgard Varèse (1883-1965). The first scene, Yesterday, with Pärt’s music, described a mythical past of primordial innocence. Today, with music by Varèse, showed the corruption of the contemporary world, how greed, hypocrisy, betrayal, pettiness, and careerism have become habits of life. The final scene, Tomorrow, with Pärt’s music, represented “the unbinding of the most complicated knots of life, the persistent fight for the future” (Traks Archive 1985). A conflict then arose between the ensemble or Traks and the management of the Academic Drama Theater that somehow caused the Pantomime Studio to disband (Traks Archive 1982). Traks never published a statement explaining the dissolution, but the use of music by Pärt, whose compositions suffered censure from Soviet authorities, and by Varèse, whose music (though mostly dating from the 1920s and 1930s) otherwise was not welcome in the Soviet Union, to accompany pantomimic action at least indicates considerable boldness of imagination in any cultural context of that time.

Figure 111: Top: Snake charmer scene from Imedeta imed (Miracle without Miracles), Tallinn Pantomime, directed by Adolf Traks, Tallinn, Estonia, 1967. Photo: Valdur Vahi, FOTIS, Rahvusarhiivi. Bottom: Scene from Hingetaud (Soul Sickness), Tallinn Pantomime, directed by Adolf Traks, Tallinn, Estonia, 1985. Photo: FOTIS, Rahvusarhiivi.

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

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

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

The Tallinn Pantomime was a smaller ensemble than the Pantomime Studio. The productions of the group contained three to five named performers, although over its ten-year existence, the ensemble had a total of eleven performers, of whom nine were women. Performances most often took place in the ruins of the Dominican monastery in the Old Town section of Tallinn. The first production, Contrasts, occurred in 1979 and consisted of a series of earlier “miniatures” revived by Traks. Subsequent productions, however, Traks classified as dramas, tragi-comedy, or tragedy and constructed a single narrative. Legend of Love (1980), a drama in three scenes, “begins with a religious ritual, lead by a shaman with a drum, and directing people into the Netherworld. The cult the people perform requires unconditional surrender, affirms loyalty and promises courage—all in order to ensure a successful hunt. A young hunter runs forward and after a while kills a magic deer [elk]—an act that gives freedom to a beautiful young woman who had been trapped in the body of the deer. The hunter and the woman fall in love. But again we hear the drums, referring this time to approaching hunters for whom mercy for the hunted is absolutely unknown. The hunter is caught between his love and his religion. But it is only after the bloody sacrifice of his beloved that he rejects his religion” (Einasto 2002: 2-3). The printed program notes by Traks summarized the theme as “Love hiding within cruelty” (Traks Archive 1982). The accompanying music was by conservative Russian composer Oleg Khromushin (b. 1927). Anti-Human (1981), was a tragi-comedy in three “metaphors,” with five women performing all the roles and “fragments of modern music” accompanying the action. According to the printed program, the first “metaphor” depicted “hypocrisy as lying,” while the second metaphor “spoofed human vanity, greed, grief, envy, and aggression.” The final metaphor presented “indifference as superstition.” The piece exuded an aura of medieval allegory, with bodies or movements representing concepts like Hypocrisy, Greed, or Superstition. The ensemble presented a revised version of Legend of Love in 1982, although it is not clear how the new version differed from the old. Death Bell (1983) was a tragedy in three scenes, with music by the English rock band Pink Floyd. According to Traks’ philosophical rhetoric in the printed program, the three scenes, LongingLust for Life, and Despair, showed how “love protects humanity,” and how the “loss of love is irreparable.” The “most intense happiness produces the greatest sensitivity to pain.” “Life is a bad teacher, without mercy, without compassion.” The piece thus reveals “the tragedy of unborn love” and yet also the inability to “escape love’s grasp.” But how the ensemble transformed these grandiose ideas into physical actions eludes description in the available documentation. A photograph from the production shows five barefoot performers in white, gray, and black body stockings with capes posing dramatically in the monastery ruins, as if all the characters are challenging each other, wary of each other (Traks Archive 1983: ETMM T438). With music by French radical modernist Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), Eksinu (1984), roughly translated as The One Who Is Lost, was a tragedy concerning a Woman whose conscience deserts her at a crucial moment of her life. She commits a crime, evidently the murder of a child, and then “the power of the soul” returns and resolves a fundamental “contradiction” within her. Three other women appeared in the piece representing either aspects of the Woman or the society from which she has become estranged. The tragedy was that, “There is only a too-late wisdom: reality has ruined everything human.” The piece was also unusual in that the Woman wore a medieval costume with a white veil covering her head (Traks Archive 1984: ETMM T438). Soul Sickness (or Cellar Spiders) (1985), a “drama,” featured four women performers and a montage of electronic music arranged by Arno Kivisikk (b. 1953). A newspaper story inspired the piece, which concerned the enticement and assimilation of a new member into a criminal gang that hangs out in a sinister cellar. The theme was the “morals of young people, the evil that gives birth to violence, insolence, a disdainful attitude toward public order, and egocentrism.” The barefoot girl gang wore punk hairstyles, black body suits, and serapes made to look like spider webs (Traks Archive 1985: ETMM T438) [Figure 111]. The ensemble’s last production, Conflictus (1986), another drama, also featured an all-female cast of three with music by minimalist Estonian composer René Eespere (b. 1953). In his typically existential rhetoric, Traks described the piece as “the encounter of the Human Being with the Human Soul. Conflictus is the concept of being in the human world, evolving through patience and love, while animal passions plunge the Human into the chaos of the soul. Full of pain is the path where the Human’s constant companion is Death. […] The Human develops through suffering and love.” He explained that the scenario arose out of improvisations with the actors to get them each to discover a unique pantomimic representation of emotions (Traks Archive 1986). 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 112: Top: Scene from the “Wreath Ballad” section of Mimeskid (Mimesques), directed by Kalle Kurg, Vanemuine Theater Tartu, Estonia, 1981, with Maret Kristal, Sirre Oengo, Mare Tommingas, Jelena Tšaulina. Photo: FOTIS, Rahvusarhiivi. Bottom: Maret Kristal in Sanctus, performed in the Kiek in de Kök, Tallinn, 1989, left: as pagan woman, right, as Christian woman with wimple. Photos: from “Torninäitus” video directed by Tiina Pork in ERR Arhiiv. 

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

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Pantomime in Cold War Eastern Europe: Latvian and Lithuanian Ventures

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

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). 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 1956, he saw in Riga 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). 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. 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. Then 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, which German composer Berthold Goldschmidt had turned into a pantomime in 1928. Ligers decided (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 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. 

            The Riga Pantomime Studio was always an amateur ensemble, functioning 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. 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. But 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). 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 107, 108]. 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 tops hats and a pair of side lamps projects 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 its final years, though, the ensemble became more like a conventional mime company focused on the performance of studio exercises, with black being the consistently dominant color. In the 1970s, Ligers invited ballet dancers to instruct the performers and give them a greater awareness of the body’s expressive potential, but 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). 

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. Photos: Laikmetīgās mākslas centra arhīvs.

Ligers taught numerous persons who became important in the Latvian theater culture. One of his students was Modris Tenisons (b. 1945), who 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 109: 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 109]. 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 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, TheSound 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, 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, a 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 actually 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 110]. 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 (b. 1933). 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 110: Scenes from video of Overcoming (1975), directed by Giedrius Mackevičius, Moscow, 1975. 

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