Gendered Perspectives on Modernist Pantomime: Ilka Schönbein

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

PDF version of the entire book.

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 in 1958. 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 amplifies 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 181] (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 181: 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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Table of Contents

Gendered Perspectives on Modernist Pantomime: Women Students of Decroux

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

PDF version of the entire book.

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 179: 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 180: 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

PDF version of the entire book.

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 178]. 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 178: Left: Angna Enters as “The Boy Cardinal” (1924). Right: Angna Enters wearing one of her Renaissance costumes in “Heptameran” as photographed by Edward Steichen (1879-1973) 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

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Figure 177: Group Expression of Forces in Nature,” performed by Ruby Ginner and Company (school performance) in the late 1920s. Unidentified photographer. Photo source: Ruby Ginner, “The Revived Greek Dance,” London: Methuen, 1933.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Table of Contents

Pantomime in Cold War Eastern Europe: Latvian and Lithuanian Ventures

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

PDF version of the entire book.

Latvian and Lithuanian Ventures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pantomime in Cold War Eastern Europe: Henryk Tomaszewski

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

PDF version of the entire book.

Henryk Tomaszewski

Unlike in East Germany, which distributed pantomime culture across numerous individuals, none of whom was able to claim “control” of the culture, in Poland, pantomime became identified almost entirely with a single person, Henryk Tomaszewski (1919-2001), whose approach to pantomime, dramatic and grandiose, departed significantly from the French model. Tomaszewski’s work attracted many actors, many admirers, many workshop students, many international invitations, and many who regarded him as a great “influence.” For over forty years, the international pantomime world regarded him as one of the greatest and most imaginative practitioners of the art, even if most of the vast number of people who knew of Marcel Marceau never heard of Tomaszewski. Yet very few, perhaps even none, of his many admirers modeled their own work after his, and he remained utterly unique in the history of Cold War pantomime in his ability to produce large-scale, dramatic pantomimes for so many years. Unlike so many pantomimes in both the East and the West, he enjoyed consistent access to extensive theatrical resources. But he obtained these resources because he persuasively articulated ambitious ideas for pantomime. Perhaps the postwar mime culture in other countries simply lacked persons with ambitions for pantomime as large as Tomaszewski’s, but clearly theater institutions elsewhere did not encourage such ambitions. When supporting speechless performance, they chose instead to support ballet or modern dance, as if it was necessary to choose between dance and pantomime or between pantomime and spoken drama, when in reality, the postwar theater culture simply produced (or closed off) hardly any awareness of the artistic potential for large-scale, dramatic pantomime. In Poland, the national ballet in Warsaw, resurrected in 1950, never attracted, for reasons that are by no means evident, the international attention that the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater provoked during the Cold War nor the international attention inspired by ballet in New York, London, Paris, Copenhagen, The Netherlands, Stockholm, and Russia or by Tanztheater in West Germany, to name the most obvious contrasts in Cold War priorities for speechless performance between Poland and other countries. Yet Poland had its national ballet (as well as ballet companies in Lodz, Wroclaw, Cracow), and it had its Wroclaw Pantomime Theater. 

Tomaszewski was himself, between 1945 and 1947, a student of ballet in Cracow under Feliks Parnell (1898-1980), an adventurous and innovative dancer and choreographer during the interwar years and even during the Nazi occupation. Parnell had danced and choreographed for Warsaw cabarets (1921-1934) and for opera ballets (1927-1930), before forming his own ballet company, Ballet Polonais (1934-1939), which traveled with much acclaim throughout Europe. His aesthetic blurred distinctions between ballet and modern dance, introducing acrobatic, folkloric, and dramatic effects that placed his work “on the border between ballet and circus” (Mościcki 2016: Paragraph 11). During the same years (1945-1947), Tomaszewski also studied acting in Cracow under the strongly modernist director and designer Iwo Gall (1890-1959), who “thought little of the dance and considered Tomaszewski’s attraction to the ballet almost as treason to the theater,” although Gall later agreed to collaborate with Tomaszewski on the formation of a movement theater (Hausbrandt 1975: n.p). Tomaszewski left Parnell’s company in 1949 to accept a position as a dancer in the Wroclaw opera ballet. With other dancers in the ballet company, he began experimenting with dramatic pieces involving pantomime. When in 1955 Warsaw hosted a World Festival of Student and Youth, officials discovered that Poland had no representative for a mime competition. They called on Tomaszewski to represent the country, and he won a medal for a solo piece, The Pianist (Hausbrandt 1975: n.p.). Inspired by the performances at the Youth Festival, he brought together a group of actors, dancers, students, and athletes to form a mime studio the following year. By the end of the year, the Pantomime Studio produced at the Wroclaw Drama Theater a program of four scenes: Sentenced to Live, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Overcoat, and The Tale of the Little Negro and the Golden Princess. Theater critic Andrzej Hausbrandt (1923-2004), author of the first (1974) monograph on Tomaszewski, contended that the larger Polish theater and cultural journalism communities, with their prejudice against ballet, initially displayed a hostile attitude toward Tomaszewski’s project. But Tomaszewski persisted. A second program of pantomimes occurred in December 1957; this contained The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Overcoat plus four new scenes: En PassantNativity Play, Fortune Telling, and Orpheus in Search of Euridice. In 1958, the state and the municipality of Wroclaw established the ensemble as a state-sponsored theater, presumably because Tomaszewski enlisted the support of the numerous actors, scenic artists, and technicians with whom he worked, an amazing accomplishment within such a short time. The Wroclaw Pantomime Theater continued with programs of short pieces, as many as eight, such as: Harlequin’s Masks (1959), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1960), The Cabinet of Curiosities (1961), and The Labyrinth (1963). The second phase of the Pantomime Theater’s evolution, according to Hausbrandt, was the introduction of long programs with fewer scenes: The Minatour (1964), and The Garden of Love (1968). No matter how serious the pieces within a program, the cultural commentators of the time evidently regarded the programs as a form of cabaret, which lacked the level of seriousness expected of mainstream drama. Thus, the third phase in the evolution of Tomaszewski’s aesthetic was the production of evening-length pantomimic dramas, and he (and the Theater) remained dedicated to this concept until the end of his life, although he remained busy as a stage director and choreographer for other theaters, an aspect of his career that still seems obscure (cf. Hera 1983).

Literary works were largely the inspiration for Tomaszewski’s evening-length productions, of which he created many over a period of thirty years, although only Janina Hera has described the narrative content of these works (up to 1978) in any detail, while Andrzej Hausbrandt provides more impressionistic descriptions for some works up to 1974 (cf. Hera 1983: 13-52; cf. Smużniak 1991: 18-80). The Dress (1966) derived from “traditional Japanese legends”; Gilgamesh (1968), from the 1200 BCE Sumerian epic poem; The Departure of Faust (1970), from Goethe; November Night’s Dream (1971), from a 1904 play by Stanislaw Wyspiański (1869-1907); The Menagerie of the Empress Phylissa (1972), from Wedekind’s pantomime, Die Kaiserin von Neufundland (1897); Arriving Tomorrow (1974), from Euripides’ The Bacchae (406 BCE) and the film Teorema (1968) by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975); Fantastic Scenes and Legends of Pan Twardowski (1976), a variation on the Faust tale dating from the sixteenth century about a Cracow sorcerer that numerous Polish poets, novelists, dramatists, composers, and filmmakers have adapted; The Dispute (1978), from a 1744 play by Pierre Marivaux (1688-1763); Hamlet—Irony and Mourning (1979), from Shakespeare; Knights of King Arthur (1981), from the 1485 book by Thomas Malory (1415-1471); The Prodigal Son (1983), from The Bible; A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1986), from Shakespeare; Cardenio and Celina (1990), from a verbose 1649 tragic play by the German author Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664); Caprice (1995), from the 1900 play Schluck und Jau, by Gerhart Hauptmann; Tragic Games (1999), from two plays by Austrian dramatist Ferdinand Bruckner (1891-1958), Te Deum (1919) and Death of a Doll (1956), the latter evidently a rewrite of the former, which has disappeared. Clearly, Tomaszewski drew upon a wide range of literary works, but, except for Pasolini’s Teorema, he avoided texts produced during the time in which he worked. He did not “translate” the texts into a pantomimic vocabulary. Rather, he extracted from literary sources images and narrative tropes that he used to construct a symbolic-allegorical collage of pantomimic actions embodying his attitude toward the characters—a kind of morality pantomime. He was less of a pantomime storyteller than a pantomime architect; his relation to literary texts was similar to that of a stained glass window artist’s or a muralist’s relation to Biblical stories or historical events. The audience’s appreciation of the performance depended on actions that referred to ideas or images outside of the narrative frame; more precisely, the performance narrative or collage referred to a larger “text” or historical situation with which the Pantomime Theater assumed the spectator was already (incompletely) familiar. For example, the published program for Knights of King Arthur (1981) included a two-page synopsis of the scenes in the piece, a brief description of the characters, a philological discussion of Malory’s King Arthur by Polish literary historian Zygmunt Czerny (1888-1975), a commentary on the book by Norwegian novelist Sigrid Undset (1882-1949), an essay from a 1981 book on the The Grail by John Matthews (b. 1948), and another comment on the Grail theme from a 1913 book by the medievalist Jesse Weston (1850-1928) (Rycerze Króla Artura 1982). This sort of intellectual apparatus for the spectator, commonplace for ballet and opera, was new for pantomime and perhaps necessary to establish pantomime as an art as serious as ballet or opera. Tomaszewski wrote out his scenarios in very rough fashion, but the only one ever published, posthumously, was the 2000 screenplay for the stage filming of his last work, Tragiczne gry, the loose adaptation of the two Bruckner plays (1999) (cf. Smużniak 2006). Unlike the Austrian and German pantomime writers earlier in the century, Tomaszewski was not an innovator in using pantomimic action to construct narratives. Even if his pantomimes depended on respectable literary sources, he treated these sources as raw material for a larger project: to show that the stories, the structural relations between actions, were less important than the kinetic, corporeal images they inspired, which is why some critics complained that he was an “illustrator” of literary works. He wanted to show that the story or plot “lives” outside of the text and does not need all the words that compose the text. This approach was somewhat similar to the actor-centered Roman pantomime recycling of mythic material, but for the Romans, the pantomime “story” was not in the mythic material, but in the metamorphosis of the actor from one mythic identity to another—the narrative, the “plot,” was the sequencing of the actor’s metamorphosis. The imperial Romans did not encourage original stories, because they believed originality (or metamorphosis) lay with the actor, not with imaginary characters or dramatic situations. In the modernist era, however, originality of plot became a fundamental sign of modernity, especially if modernity entailed repudiating the ideology of metamorphosis. In this respect, Tomaszewski’s unwillingness to construct original plots through pantomimic action is perhaps the greatest limitation of his aesthetic. 

A recurrent theme of his pantomimes was corruption, the limitations of love in thwarting or redeeming corruption and history as the image of human struggle against corruption. He saw corruption as a succumbing to appetites and desires, libidinous or sensuous, that are excessive insofar as a class or society shares this indulgence and fails to see it as a manifestation of delusion, decadence, or oppression. Tomaszewski said that, in the theater, he liked dealing with “extreme situations […] without a distinct end” (Hausbrandt 1975: n.p.). For him, theater functions as a purification of the spectator’s relation to history, and this moral-allegorical aspect of Tomaszewski’s productions cast a somewhat medieval aura. His sensibility was basically tragic or “dark,” if sometimes sardonic and “baroque,” and he developed a distinctive performance style to articulate his sensibility. He set his pantomimes in a distorted historical environment. He avoided complex scenery requiring spectacular effects, detailed décor, or interfaces with visual technologies such as film, video, or photography. Nor did he situate actions in a very specifically imagined milieu. One of his more complex sets, for the 1981 King Arthur production, consisted mostly of a rather crudely constructed wooden fence in the background. Mostly action occurred before a dark cyclorama or background that sometimes changed color, but his productions consistently gave the impression of taking place at night in an eerie, symbolic space where light seems to fall on the actors as if from street lamps. While he kept the scenic environment spare, Tomaszewski delighted in using furniture: tables, chairs, beds, couches, and steps. In King Arthur, the assembling of a giant round table is part of the choreographed action. A long banquet table appears in Kaprys (1995), at which the aristocratic guests watch two homeless men entertain them. In The Menagerie of Empress Philissa (1972), actors occasionally ascend a little stairway to a platform that functions as a bed, a throne, or a stage. In Gilgamesh (1968), priests on decorative stools bathe a young man poised within a shell-like bowl, and in another scene, a chariot, pulled by two men with horse/unicorn heads, carries a driver and an embracing couple. Tragic Games (1999) involves elaborate use of a woman in a wheelchair. Costuming assumed a more audacious role in Tomaszewski’s productions. He constantly worked with large casts; for example, the King Arthur production contained forty-five roles performed by forty actors. Much of the visual effect of his productions thus derived from the complex, dynamic tableaux that he created out of different groupings of bodies and the semiotic relations between movements, bodies, and costumes. Some costumes, flamboyant and luxurious, placed the performers who wore them in a particular historical period. In The Departure of Faust, Mephistopheles wears a late medieval waistcoat with red stockings and a huge red cape; in The Menagerie of Empress Philissa, several characters, male and female, wear costumes of the eighteenth and the late nineteenth century; in Hamlet, performers wear costumes that belong more to seventeenth century Eastern Europe than to the late Scandinavian Middle Ages of Shakespeare’s text; in King Arthur, some characters wear costumes associated with the Dark Ages, but one character (Sir Ither) wears a suit of armor belonging to a much later era, and another character (Mordred) wears a black latex outfit that resembles the fetish couture of a particular strand of twentieth century sadomasochistic sexuality. Even in his last production, Tragic Games, perhaps the most “modern” setting for any of his pantomimes, the costumes all seem to date from the 1930s. In a couple of productions (GilgameshArriving Tomorrow), some robe-like costumes signify “ancientness” without being historically specific, while in November Night’s Dream, the old soldier on nocturnal guard duty wears a military uniform from the early nineteenth century, but in his dream, the revolutionary warriors wear ancient Greek helmets and military caps from the early nineteenth century but not uniforms. Only occasionally did Tomaszewski employ masks, but he did so with impressive dramatic effect, as in the Death masks for Embrasure (1961) and The Departure of Faust, and the horse heads for Gilgamesh and Faust and the shrouded Inquisitional Figure in Philissa

Although he worked with different prominent designers, including Wladislaw Wigura (b. 1940), Kazimierz Wiśniak (b. 1931), and Zofia de Ines-Lewczuk (b. 1948), his productions maintained a remarkable stylistic, visual unity across the decades to produce the distinctive Tomaszewski performance image, regardless of the historical era or literary source. The anachronistic scenic historical details symbolized the embedding of different historical eras in the performance of an action. Tomaszewski did not invent this practice; it had precedent elsewhere in the vibrant, symbolist-oriented postwar Polish theater, perhaps even in the extravagant expressionist dramas of the 1920s by the artist-writer Stanislaw Witkiewicz (1885-1939). He was actually much more innovative in his minimal use of costume—that is, in his display of performer bodies. Characters in body stockings appear regardless of the historical era represented, and these appeared very early, with the abstract-symbolic male duo (dark versus light), The Grain and the Shell (1961). In The Labyrinth (1963), with costumes by Krzysztof Pankiewicz (1933-2001), the entire ensemble wears body stockings covered with vaguely reptilian or protozoac designs as part of an abstract ambition to show how human society, “like the calyx of an opening tulip,” forms a “labyrinth of obstacles, of barriers set up by man against people, by people against man” (Hausbrandt 1975: n.p.). In subsequent productions, bodystockings became simpler; in November Night’s Dream, for example, the Athena/Minerva figure leading the revolutionaries wears a black body stocking and a Greek helmet while wielding a spear and shield. Philissa wears a corset and Helen of Troy appears in a bikini in Faust. More daring was his presentation of male bodies. In nearly all of his pantomimes from 1963 to 1990, men appear bare-chested or entirely nude except for tiny briefs, loincloths, or thongs. These semi-nude men, always handsome, with athletic physiques, are sometimes individuals or protagonists (such as Faust) or they form choral ensembles, like the dream soldiers in November Night’s Dream or the Sumerian worshippers in Gilgamesz. All this baring of male flesh signifies underlying libidinal energies within society, within history, but they also precipitate devouring, destructive appetites, acts of sacrifice. This display of male beauty exudes a homoerotic aura that, except for Kharitonov’s severely marginalized production of The Enchanted Island (1971), seems peculiarly permissive within East bloc theater culture, even if commentary at the time acknowledged it, if at all, as simply a metaphor for the excessive pleasures or voluptuous vulnerabilities that lead a society to decadence or, as in November Night’s Dream, failed revolution—whereas Kharitonov presented male nudity as an entirely positive element of performance, of a new idea of utopia. Yet it is doubtful that Tomaszewski could have built such a large pantomime ensemble with so many men in it without these opportunities for display of glamorously athletic male bodies (rather than glamorously athletic female bodies). In 2007, according to a newspaper article by Wojciech Szymański and Tomasz Wysocki, Polish radio in Wroclaw reported that Sebastian Ligarski (b. 1975), a researcher on the state security apparatus during the Communist era, discovered documents that revealed Tomaszewski had “confidential contact” with state security agents from 1960 until at least 1967: his job was to report on actors in the ensemble and their relations with “foreign contacts” when the company went on any of its many tours to countries in the West bloc. Ligarski contended that “the services knew about the artist’s homosexual inclinations,” and they may have blackmailed him into informing by threatening either to charge him with homosexual behavior or to forbid his company from touring abroad. He appears not to have provided the security services with any useful information (Wyborcza May 9, 2007). It’s not clear if the security services shifted their attention to other members of the company in their effort to establish, through homosexual contacts, counter intelligence operations in foreign countries. The homoerotic aura of male display continued in Tomaszewski’s pantomime productions until the end of the Communist state and disappears in his productions of the 1990s [Figures 163, 164]. 

Figure 163: Top: Scene from Gilgamesz (1968), directed by Henryk Tomaszewski, Wroclaw, Poland. Bottom: Urszula Hasiej in Hamlet ironia i zaloba (1979), directed by Henryk Tomaszewski. Photo: Joanna Drankowska, from 

Figure 164: Scenes from Krol Artur (King Arthur), directed by Henryk Tomaszewski, Wroclaw, Poland, 1981. Photos: Marek Grotowski, from

Tomaszewski also introduced innovative music soundtracks (always recorded) for his pantomimes insofar as he wanted a range of musical styles to accompany the action, even if these styles lacked historical authenticity. For example, King Arthur used music by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837), Gordon Giltrap (b. 1948), and Richard Wagner. The Departure of Faust had music by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) and jazz and pop tunes. On the other hand, The Menagerie of Empress Philissa used only the pop-oriented music of Zbigniew Karnecki (b. 1947), as did Arriving Tomorrow, while only the modernist instrumental music of Juliusz Luciak (b. 1927) accompanied The Dress. Luciak’s music also accompanied November Night’s Dream, as did Frederic Chopin’s. Hamlet had music by Gustav Holst (1874-1934), Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), and Bogdan Dominik, a prolific composer of theater music. But Tragic Games used music by thirteen different artists ranging from Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) to The Alan Parsons Project (1975-1990), Duke Ellington (1899-1974), Jean Francais (1912-1997), and jazz composer Boguslaw Klimsa (1945-2000). Unlike in ballet, music in Tomaszewski’s pantomimes provided a “modern” emotional texture to a scene or moment rather than to suffuse the moment with historical credibility or to shape the movements of the performers. It is soundtrack music that carries with it emotional values that are independent of the action on stage but which cause the historicized action to “intersect” with the presumed greater sonic emotional power achieved by invariably later eras. 

Tomaszewski choreographed the action in his pantomimes, and unlike most pantomime programs elsewhere in the East bloc, he did not function as a facilitator of a “collective” creative process; all production elements were subordinate to his distinctive “vision” for a production. His training in ballet predisposed him to think action in speechless theater achieved value to the extent that someone choreographed it, and printed programs of the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater listed him as “director and choreographer” of the productions. But his pieces were not ballets, because he did not build pieces around movements; he did not apply movements because they were beautiful in themselves; he did not introduce movements to show the skill or virtuosity of his performers; and he avoided acrobatic effects. He choreographed pantomimic action: each action advanced the narrative or revealed something about the character performing it. But the action was not “naturalistic” in the manner of verisimilar silent film pantomime or the naturalism of Hermann Bahr’s pantomimes. His approach to gesture was expressionistic, relying on exaggerated or distorted movements to construct a symbolic value for the gesture. His way of thinking about gestural exaggeration and distortion resembled Decroux’s insofar as he built physical actions around a set of movement concepts, which he called a “spherical theater,” from which he could attach various symbolic values, such as inward and outward “current,” including rotation (usually of the torso), “flexion” or the bending of limbs, “shifts” or “the principle of counterpoint,” wherein one part of the body moves in tension with another part, and “subjectivization,” whereby the actor mobilizes these concepts through physical movements to achieve an “identification,” not with “an object, but with a state, a time, an emotion…” (Hausbrandt 1975: n.p.). Even if movements existed only to advance the narrative, they did not necessarily create narrative clarity, for Tomaszewski acknowledged that spectators appreciated explanations of what actions “meant.” The “spherical theater” idea was simply a way to prepare actors to make decisions about gestures embodying the actions constructing a particular narrative. Different actors might choose different movements or gestures to realize an action, unlike in ballet, where choreography means that a dancer performs the same movement as another dancer, even if the dancers perform these movements differently. In this respect, Tomaszewski’s pantomimes are closer to literary “interpretations” of action than ballet. For example, Hausbrandt describes the “Dionysia” scene in Arriving Tomorrow entirely as a series of intended actions or performance outcomes without describing how the actors performed these actions: 

The Great Dionysia in honour of the Factory. Emblems, tires, models, toasts, drinks, pageants, total stress. And just when everything is in full swing, in top gear—the fun dies down. The revelers grow listless, like pricked balloons, everything comes to a standstill and is covered with a skin of boredom […] Ordinary family dinner at home: Father, Mother, Daughter, Son and Maid. A mawkish, nauseating Come to Sorrento. Everything in perfect trim, fully predictable—no dreams, no hope […] A party—perhaps a continuation of the Grand Entertainment? Ladies, gentleman, His Eminence, hippies, second class “Dolce Vita.” Everybody is cool, indifferent, cynical, bored. And then the Maid ushers in the Guest [Dionysias] (Hausbrandt 1975: n.p.).

 Like so many other commentators on Tomaszewski’s work, he never describes how the actors “interpret” these actions, presumably because such description is a matter of “technique” that is irrelevant to the meaning of the work, even though the “counterpoint” revealed by the actor (rather than the scenario) is the “struggle with the environment” that informs all human action. In his scenarios, however, Tomaszewski may have indicated more precisely the physicality of the actions, judging from his one transcribed (from handwritten) scenario, for the tele-film of Tragic Games, of which an excerpt:

Becoming a human means to Adrianna: subordinating (pushed to the dressing table) – before that she was detached from herself (doll) – suffering – fate – and humiliation – and Fear –

Adrianna – Solo in front of a mirror = lifted from a broken pose – upright and with a compressed body – she smiles no

you can see that inside she is completely broken – she stands and goes to the mirror – she adopts the pose where everyone is jealous of her – she goes – she stops, the face accepts a smile – just like you – you – you – shows finger on her reflection

– and suddenly she falls on her knees – a gesture as if blameworthy – so that this reflection will release her from herself – what stands in the mirror, it is not a human – it’s a Vision – an illusion of an ideal – but it’s not human, she is hitting her head in the mirror – her head is at the mirror, and the human is looking at the mirror, if she is still in the mirror – and there is no human there

– you hear the wedding music – away, (light) how the ghosts appear to the bridesmaid and friends – somewhere they set themselves up –

– Adrianna bends with the mirror – she’s kissing herself in the mirror – now she only has tears – now she polishes the pills – this scene ends, – at the dresser, now the dress-up brings dresses – Kreator is following her – Adrianna dresses behind the screen – when she comes out from behind the screen in a wedding gown – Kreator – takes her by the hand – (he teaches how to proceed during the ceremony with the gown – how to clink – before clapping[…] (Smużniak 2006: 120-121). 

Tomaszewski saw the pantomimic action in fragments, phrases, incomplete sentences, as if each individual action disrupted another—that was how he physicalized a woman’s ambivalent relation to her image, her distrust of the mirror, her obsession with it, and her intense doubt about her ability to see herself in a “good” yet truthful way. The scenario seems even more remarkable when compared with Ferdinand Bruckner’s play, Der Tod einer Puppe (1956), which consists almost entirely of dialogue, in blank verse, with very few stage directions. The plot, which Tomaszewski follows in rudimentary fashion, revolves around an immensely wealthy widow, Adrienne, who is inhumanly beautiful because, as a result of her mother’s protectiveness, she has never endured the slightest suffering, has never once wept, for tears would destroy her beauty; she inspires love without feeling it. When she falls in love with Paul, an unambitious but charming dilettante, she fears her beauty is not enough to keep him, and she finally sheds tears for all the happiness she has lost. These tears bring about her death. The first part of the play (and the pantomime) occurs at a glamorous fashion show, where Paul and Adrienne discuss her inhuman obsession with beauty and clothes while the models (“mannequins”) confide their anxieties about modeling; the second part takes place in Adrienne’s salon with Adrienne interacting with Paul, the models, fashion executives, aristocratic ladies, Paul, and the ghosts of her mother and former husband. Unlike in ballet and indeed most theater, where people in an ensemble who are not the focus of a scene stand or sit still while the foreground action unfolds, here, as elsewhere in Tomaszewski’s work, characters in the background or at the edge of the stage are as busy as characters in the foreground, because in his mind a foreground action does not somehow cause a background action to cease its indifference to the foreground action or cause a background action to become transformed into rapt fixation on the foreground action. Bruckner’s mirror scene is complex insofar as he has Adrienne give a lengthy monologic commentary on what she sees in the mirror (“What is sorrow against the miracle/of a well-trained body?”) and then has the four models appear, striking poses while commenting satirically on their poses (Bruckner 1956: 98-102). But Tomaszewski’s version of the mirror scene is equally complex in that he expects the ideas Bruckner inscribes through speech to achieve equivalence entirely through gesture, with the result, however, of communicating something that is not in the play: that one’s response to one’s mirror image is viscerally fragmented, a kind of disintegration of language, as the language of the scenario suggests (amplified even further by the very messy handwritten autograph copy of the scenario), rather than a poetic distillation of language. It is an excellent, postwar example of pantomimic thinking, of thinking out a sequence of actions that narrate a character’s dynamic relation to an “environment,” not, as in dance, as a sequence of regulating steps and movements to prevent visceral fragmentation, and not, as in so much mime, as a sequence of gestures designed to display the performer’s skill at evoking what is not visible. 

            Henryk Tomaszewski was the most ambitious creator of pantomimes in the Cold War era. He produced pantomimes on a larger scale than any one else, he produced more large-scale pantomimes than anyone else, he produced them over a longer period, thirty years, than anyone else, and, in relation to the content of his pantomimes over the decades, he probably invested pantomime with a greater seriousness than anyone else. He established the Wroclaw Pantomime Theater, possibly the longest living professional pantomime ensemble, which continues to thrive well after his death. The ensemble regularly toured throughout Europe and occasionally in North America, so a considerable international audience witnessed the magnitude and seriousness of his achievement in pantomime (Smużniak 1985: 70-81). His work and teachings provoked intense admiration and inspiration, not only within the international pantomime world, but within the general European theater culture, for many prominent actors and stage directors were his students. Yet his achievement was utterly unique; no other country created such a large professional pantomime company with such a consistently serious agenda. It is true that Tomaszewski had access to theatrical resources that were unimaginable to pantomime artists anywhere else. But the Polish government chose to invest in his pantomime aesthetic as an art that could achieve superior expression in a socialist society, just as the government subsidized the famous “avant-garde” Theater Laboratory, also in Wroclaw, established by Jerzy Grotowski (1933-1999) and the experimental Cricot 2 Theater formed by Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990) in Cracow. Pantomime was a useful instrument in the government’s Cold War cultural program for demonstrating the power of artists under socialism. It was, indeed, a matter of supporting the artist rather than the art. In relation to speechless performance, the rest of the East bloc preferred to invest in ballet and folk dance ensembles, relegating pantomime to the circus. Similarly, in the West, cultural policy almost entirely favored investment in ballet and modern dance, with pantomime relegated to the marginalized, individualistic, therapeutic studios of the mime culture or, as in The Netherlands, transformed into a technocratic “movement theater.” Tomaszewski may have influenced late twentieth century ballet to become less rigid in its use of movement, and he certainly contributed to the greater physicalization of spoken drama performance, especially of “classic” plays, as did Grotowski. But his success was unable to create a strong institutional base for pantomime anywhere else, and it was not the Cold War that prevented pantomime from finding secure “homes” within national cultures. As an art, pantomime was too messy, too “undisciplined,” too unreliable to have a home capable of sustaining at least a mediocre level of entertainment worthy of a complex theater apparatus with an expensive payroll of performers and staff. Public investment in pantomime attached itself to powerful, charismatic “visionaries” like Tomaszewski. But in the Cold War he was alone in possessing a pantomimic imagination strong enough to mobilize a state to encourage and protect his grandiose ambitions.

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Table of Contents

Pantomime in Cold War Eastern Europe: French Pantomime in East Germany

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

PDF version of the entire book.

French Pantomime in East Germany

In East Germany, pantomime entered the cultural scene through contact with the Marxist dramatist and theorist of “epic theater,” Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), who, after many years of exile and after interrogation in 1947 by the United States House Un-American Activities Committees for his affiliations with Communists, had returned to East Berlin in 1949, where he formed the famous Berliner Ensemble dedicated to the principles of epic theater. While residing for a year (1948) in Switzerland, Brecht made the acquaintance of a French pantomime, Jean Soubeyran (1921-2000). Brecht invited Soubeyran to choreograph the carnival scene for a 1956 production of Brecht’s Das Leben des Galilei (1943) by the Berliner Ensemble. Although Soubeyran had already toured East Germany with his West German pantomime ensemble in 1955, the connection with Brecht gave him a privileged status within the Communist regime, and in 1957, he moved to East Berlin, where he, along with his wife Brigitte (1932-2015), introduced pantomime performances that he had developed in West Germany. Soubeyran had studied acting under Charles Dullin in 1944 and corporeal mime under Decroux in 1945 before presenting (1946) a small mimodrama at the Comédie-Française directed by Barrault. He then performed in the ensemble Marcel Marceau had formed, appearing in Marceau’s production of Gogol’s The Overcoat (1951). But after attempting a couple of solo pantomime programs of his own, Soubeyran realized that Paris did not have space for more pantomimes from the Decroux-Barrault pedigree. He put together a small ensemble, including Brigitte, whom he soon married, to perform outside of France, in Switzerland, The Netherlands, and West Germany, where it seemed as if the great pantomime experiments of the 1910s and 1920s had never happened and any idea of pantomime from France enjoyed the advantage of being an exotic import. By 1954, he had established his pantomime troupe first in Dortmund and then in Düsseldorf within the French Occupational Sector. Soubeyran was more of a Harlequin than a Pierrot; though he accented his lips, eyes, and eyebrows, he avoided whiteface. Brigitte was more a Pierrot than a Colombine, wearing whiteface, a black skullcap, and pants and blouse instead of a dress. They wanted to develop a gender-neutral comic aesthetic, a kind of androgymous pantomime slapstick, although this effect was due perhaps more to Brigitte than to Jean [Figure 101]. In addition to touring, Jean found work as an instructor at the Folkwang School in Essen when he received the invitation to work in East Berlin. There, after the Galilei production, opera director Walter Felsenstein (1901-1975), dedicated to making opera singers more physically expressive in their performances, invited Soubeyran to supervise the physical training at the Komische Oper. For the DEFA film studio, Soubeyran starred in the curious pantomime film with musical accompaniment Der junge Engländer (1958), directed by Gottfried Kolditz (1922-1982) and based on the 1825 short story of Wilhelm Hauff (1802-1827) about a mysterious stranger (Soubeyran) in a South German village who persuades the provincial citizens that a chimpanzee he has acquired from a circus is his wealthy nephew, a young Englishman. Soubeyran transmitted the Decroux-Marceau pantomime aesthetic to many East German students. However, when the government embarked on construction of the Berlin Wall, he returned to West Germany and continued his career there. Although born in Cologne, Brigitte ardently believed in the socialist ideals guiding the East German state, and she remained in East Berlin, claiming that theater there was superior to that in the West. She worked as an actress, a teacher of pantomime, and an assistant to directors until, in the early 1970s, she became one of the first women in Germany to direct plays, which she did for many years, including numerous productions at the Volksbühne in Berlin and occasional productions in cities elsewhere in East Germany. Thus, gender-neutral pantomime was a path to a gender-neutral perception of the stage director. 

Nadja Rothenburger and Selina Senti, pantomimes and body movement specialists in Berlin, have identified 25 persons who worked as pantomimes in East Germany, and they have listed the pantomime performances of these persons (Rothenburger 2010: 8-46). Unfortunately, Rothenburger and Senti provide only very minimal details about these performances, although the listings in themselves suggest that East Germany possessed one of the largest and busiest pantomime cultures in Europe. Nearly all the pantomime performances during the Cold War were the work of students, amateur ensembles, or professionals performing in their free time, and nearly all the pantomime performances were of a comic nature, modeled after the clown/Pierrot/commedia format. Rothenberger and Senti include a diagram showing how all the East German pantomimes represent a perpetuation of Decroux’s doctrines, because they either studied under Decroux, Marceau, Barrault, or the Soubeyrans or studied under Germans who had studied under the French masters. While some of the pantomimes interviewed identified other, foreign “influences” on their work, such as Tomaszewski, Fialka, or the Russian clown Slava Polunin (b. 1950), unlike elsewhere in the East bloc, none of the East German pantomimes identified Chaplin or any silent film figures as influences. 

Figure 159: Jean and Brigitte Soubeyran performing Im Zirkus, early 1950s. Photo: Inge Worrigen.

Curiously, Rothenberger and Senti include the Austrian expressionist dancer Hanna Berger (1910-1962) as one of the pantomime figures of the German Democratic Republic. Andrea Amort has published (2010) a detailed monograph about her, the chief source of information about her life and work. Coming from a troubled and humble background, Berger had joined the Communist Party at the age of seventeen. She struggled to learn dance from several teachers, including Vera Skoronel (1906-1932), while working as a masseuse, model, and assistant. In 1935, she studied under Mary Wigman and toured with Wigman’s company and then with the company of Swiss clown dancer Trudi Schoop (1904-1999). In Berlin, Berger gave her first solo dance concert in 1937, which contained her piece Der Krieger, wherein she appeared, with entirely percussive accompaniment, as a soldier marching toward a not glorious doom. She always considered dance as a political activity, although her dances were only occasionally overt in their political messaging. When she published an essay critical of a dance that was too “mystical” (pro-Nazi) in its representation of workers, she came under scrutiny by the Gestapo. She returned to Vienna, but soon left for Italy, where she choreographed theatrical productions while putting together performances of her solo dance programs. She returned to Berlin in 1940 to perform new dances depicting Renaissance women inspired by her time in Italy, and with this new program she toured several German cities while accepting appointment as a dancer and teacher at the theater in Posen. After discovering numerous Marxist publications in her possession, the Gestapo arrested her for “preparing treason” in 1942. Several prominent cultural figures came to her defense, and eventually the Gestapo released her. In Vienna again, she hoped to establish a children’s theater, but the Nazis forbade her to do so. After the war, she received support from the Communist mayor of the city, and for a few years, she was prodigiously active in the Viennese dance performance scene. But the Communists fared very poorly in municipal elections in 1949, and Berger, having lost her subsidy had to close the Vienna Childrens’ Theater in 1950, partly because, to receive generous subsidies from the Marshall Plan, the American occupiers insisted that the city not subsidize any Communist sympathizers. Nor to her disappointment did the Communist Party offer any funding, even though the majority of her students came from the proletariat. Nevertheless, throughout the 1950s, she remained busy with dance concerts, choreography for theatrical and opera productions, teaching invitations, lectures, and dance journalism; she even choreographed dances in an Italian movie, Il sigillo rosso (1950). Her accompanist and musical arranger, Austrian composer Paul Kont (1920-2000), a modernist disciple of dodecaphony, had studied in Paris under Mihaud, Messaien, and Honegger, and the two of them produced a concert of her dances there in 1952, and in 1954, they formed the Wiener Kammertanzgruppe, although this ensemble lasted only about a year as Berger and Font instead became involved in the first televised dances in Austria. Walter Felsenstein invited her to help with his program of physical training and choreography for opera singers at the Komische Oper at the same time (1956) that he brought Soubeyran. Kont had an interest in pantomime as well as connections in Paris, and since 1929, Berger had maintained a close relationship with the Communist sculptor Fritz Cremer (1906-1993), a major representative of official art in the German Democratic Republic who spoke on her behalf without, however, challenging those in the Party who regarded her work as too “formalistic” and excessively “individualistic” to entrust her with an academic position. She took on so many assignments because she lacked the reliable source of income that she had hoped the Wiener Kindertheater would provide. When in 1959 she won culture prize money from the city of Vienna, she went, nearly fifty years old, to Paris to study mime with Marcel Marceau and became the first woman to receive a diploma from him. She believed that mime would open up further teaching opportunities for her and strengthen her efforts to improve the physical expression of actors and singers. In late 1959, she taught pantomime for a couple of weeks at the Hochschule for Musik und Theater in Leipzig, but otherwise she taught pantomime entirely in Vienna, at the Conservatory, for only three months. She worked with the East German DEFA film studio on a couple of dance films and supervised the choreography for a couple of operas (Brussels, Vienna), but she did not produce any pantomimes. But she had not much time left to follow a new path: a brain tumor began to paralyze her in September 1961 and finally killed her in January of 1962. 

Berger was important in the history of East German pantomime because she represented a potential direction for pantomime there that the socialist state failed to encourage. She was a dramatic dancer. While she spent much of her career choreographing theatrical productions and enjoyed producing ensemble pieces with students, she excelled at powerful, expressionistic solo dances, in which she could project different identities: The WarriorThe Rider (male and female horse cavaliers), The Woman in Mourning, Italian Renaissance women (Dogaressa, Primavera, Tyranna, Amica), The FaunThe GirlThe BelovedThe Abandoned MotherThe NymphThe Enslaved,The Girl from Montmartre, all of which she had created before 1945. She loved dancing in different costumes and in relation to a wide range of classical music. After the war, she created ensemble dances with much more overtly political and abstract themes: Song ofSolidarity (1933),Chaos, Sunday Song for Youth, Game in the Sun, Planning (all 1946), with music by Hanns Eisler, although one of her most distinctive political pieces, the solo Battlecry, without music, she premiered in 1944. She was an ardent and highly imaginative practioner of the expressionistic solo dance program, so close to the Roman model of pantomime, that was nearly extinct by the time she gave her first concert in 1937 and which neither the Third Reich nor the Communist Party regarded as a new or even valuable path in dance culture. A good example of her semi-pantomimic dramatic style was her solo L’Inconnue de la Seine (1942), inspired by her first, thrilling visit to Paris in 1934 and begun when she worked in Rome in 1938. The piece, with music by Debussy, depicts a young woman alone, isolated, and abandoned on a bank of the Seine River. Filled with anxiety and despair, her movements encompass yet other emotions, anger, defiance, shame, and above all enormous uncertainty and indecision about what to do with herself in relation to the life and the great city around her. The dark river seems to summon her, yet life, the radiance of the great city, also pulls at her. She then realizes that the radiance of life is only an illusion, at best a memory of what she has lost forever. She decides to face death, the cold water; she plunges into the river, and the piece concludes with her floating in the water, sinking deeper into it, until, at last, she releases a serene smile as her body finally ceases to move. Berger’s costume was a long, dark, violet dress with a green sash all made of silk to amplify the effect of the breeze and then the water rippling through it. Yet to create this drama almost entirely through gesture and movement was a gripping emotional experience for spectators during the war and after it (Amort 2010: 16-21). Berger displayed a rare gift for playing tragic scenes in pantomime, but her Communist idealism prevented her from becoming a predominantly tragic artist. She was just as skillful at playing haughty, aristocratic Renaissance ladies or a mischievious faun or a seductively androgynous cavalier. The main thing was that she brought an aura of seriousness to her enactments. She could bring gaiety, exuberance, even sometimes humour to her pieces, but she was never a clown, her performances did not evolve around a single, “essentially human,” charmingly vulnerable identity like Bip or Pierrot. That was why the East Germans had no space for her despite her eagerness to work there. Even Brecht rejected her proposal in 1953 to collaborate with him on a dance work because he didn’t think “ballet” in East Germany was sufficiently “developed” to claim his attention (111, 154): ballet was not sufficiently developed because it lacked seriousness, but it lacked seriousness because it did not allow a person with Berger’s serious imagination to develop it; maybe, despite her Communist credentials, her status as a foreigner made her proposal untenable. Yet her dramatic approach to pantomimic narrative represented a potentially powerful “development” of bodily performance that East German theater culture failed to encourage as much as the West failed to encourage it. What is peculiar, though, is that the East German theater maintained a reputation for heavy seriousness, encouraged in part by Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble. But it was a seriousness derived from a more intense trust in the authority of words, of the voice to control human action than perhaps prevailed in the West. Pantomime in East Germany, with its unanimous focus on clownery, seems to have represented a relief from this hyper-seriousness that was a byproduct of the self-important ideological Marxist discourse that invariably emanated from those assigned responsibility for controlling media. That pantomime functions as a relief from institutionalized seriousness is, of course, welcome, but that pantomime should function always, only, and exclusively as relief from institutionalized seriousness is in itself a form of oppressive institutionalization, a mode of “consensus” intended to exclude outsiders who are serious about things from which no relief seems compulsory. Amort observes that with the East German “boycott” of Berger’s many proposals and the Austrian anti-communist policy, Berger existed “between” the East and the West (130). It was as if, like the unknown woman on the bank of the Seine, she became fatally split, irreconcilably divided by her artistic individuality and her love for a socialist future, and she could not survive the conflict. 

After the building of the Berlin Wall (1961), pantomime, entirely in the clown paradigm, proliferated in East Germany during the 1960s through the work of amateurs and students. Harald Seime (b. 1936) formed in 1958 the most durable of the East German pantomime ensembles, the Pantomime-Studio an der Friedrich-Schiller-Universität, Jena, which consisted of students at the university, where Seime was himself a student of physical education and music education. Marceau, whom he had seen on television, was his great inspiration, and he met with the Soubeyrans when they toured Leipzig in 1957. The same year, he presented a solo pantomime, Marsch nach Moscou, at a youth festival in Moscow, where he also met with Tomaszewski and Enrique Noisvander, the leader of the Chilean pantomime ensemble El Teatro de Mimos. The Pantomime Studio presented its first public performance in 1960, Die sieben Schwaben, an adaptation of a tiny 1857 Grimm tale made into a slapstick parody of Third Reich mentalities. Subsequent programs in the 1960s consisted of mime sketches developed by the student performers. The ensemble traveled to different festivals in the East bloc, and by 1964 Seime had received a prize from the state for “artistic folk creativity,” although in 1962, the State Secret Service (STASI) urged him, for reasons of his “personal safety,” not to board a ship for Helsinki, where he was the East German delegate to the World Festival in that city, and he did not (Berndt 1964). In 1967, Seime began to combine pantomime performances with jazz music by collaborating with the Jena-based Die Old-Time Memory Jazz Band, formed by university students in 1962 and specializing in Dixieland renditions of 1920s popular tunes. The ensemble continued to attend East bloc festivals in the 1970s, and in 1977, Seime, who by this time knew so many of the East bloc pantomime artists, obtained grants from the university, the education ministry, the city of Jena, and the Gera administrative district to produce the first of the International Pantomime Days festivals in Jena. In the 1980s, the Pantomime Studio began to perform comic pantomime adaptations of literary works, such as, in 1981, Leonce and Lena (1836), by Georg Büchner (1813-1837), in 1983, the Baron Münchhausen stories (1785), by Rudolf Raspe (1736-1794), in 1986, Mario and the Magician (1929), by Thomas Mann (1875-1955), in 1988, a comic play by Moliere, and in 1989, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The ensemble received a gold medal at a 1988 Worker’s Festival for its pantomimic adaptation of a section from the enormous novel The Aesthetics of Resistance (1975-1981), by Peter Weiss (1916-1982). According to Andreas Ittner, who worked on the Weiss adaptation, by 1988, the ensemble had come to the realization that it was no longer doing pantomime, which he defined as solo comic sketches, and had moved into what he called “a new form of theater, movement theater” (Ebert 2007: 1104-1106). But Seime, who had started his own school in 1979, remained dedicated to the clown paradigm, which sustained his popularity in the Thuringia region and, despite the woes that befell Jena’s small theater community in the early 1990s, allowed Jena to retain a reputation as a “city of clowns.” His clown persona, an unusually pale or faded whiteface with red jacket and white pants, survived the turmoil of the reunification process, and for his eightieth birthday in 2016 he gave a performance of his pantomime sketches in the Jena Theaterhaus. 

Other East German pantomime ensembles did not last nearly so long as the Pantomime Studio. The first professional pantomime company was the Theater ohne Worte, attached to the Volkstheater in Rostock, established in 1969 by Dagmar Dark, Gerd Glanze, Jürgen Just (b. 1941), and Joachim Lemke (b. 1942), but this group lasted only a few years, because the members separated to follow work opportunities, only sometimes related to pantomime, in other cities. In Berlin, Eberhard Kube (b. 1936), along with four others, formed the Pantomime Ensemble vom Prenzlauer Berg in 1961, which eventually included as many as thirty members, and he guided the group until it disbanded in 1987. He began his career as a physical education teacher, until, in 1956, he saw the DEFA film about Marcel Marceau. He received pantomime instruction from Brigitte Soubeyran, and eventually he became friends with Marceau, Jacques Lecoq, and Henryk Tomaszewski. He performed his first solo program in 1962, and continued to perform solo programs in the ensuing decades; he won a state cultural prize in 1987 and toured with his solo programs as far as Pakistan, India, and Nepal (Rothenberg 2010: 33). A chronicler of the “underground” East Berlin cultural scene in the 1980s, Wilfried Bergholz (b. 1953), has described Kube’s charismatic skill in organizing midnight dance parties in nightclubs, where people danced “as never before seen. Pantomimes in ecstasy” (Bergholz 2015: 326). Yet here as elsewhere in the East German pantomime scene, information about Kube’s solos or the Ensemble’s productions remains frustratingly obscure beyond the assertion that they specialized in clown sketches and acrobatic gags. In 1987, the Pantomime Ensemble produced an adaptation of Brecht’s “school play” Die Horatier und Kuriatier (1934), for which Hanns Eisler was supposed to write the music until the collaboration became untenable. Brecht’s text is primarily a dialogue between two choruses, the Horatians and the Curiatians, with individuals occasionally speaking lines. It is not a comic piece, for it dramatizes, without even satiric irony, the battle between the Alban clan (the Curiatians) and the victorious Roman clan (the Horatians). Did the Ensemble adapt this speech-intense one-act as a pantomime, and if so, how did they do it? If not, why did the pantomime ensemble perform it as a drama? Answers to such questions might deepen the history of pantomime in East Germany. In 1974, ten actors formed the Pantomimen Ensemble des Deutschen Theaters in Berlin to produce comic ensemble pieces from scenarios devised by Volkmar Otte (1940-2011) and Burkhart Seidemann (1944-2016). 

Figure 160: Scene from Zwischen Tür und Engel, directed by Volkmar Otte, Pantomime Ensemble of the Deutsches Theater, Berlin, 1975. Photo: Abraham Pisarek, from Deutsche Fotothek.

The Ensemble produced one or two shows a year until 1990, when the company ceased to operate, and many of the shows caricatured well-known figures from literature: Don Quixote, Bluebeard, Turandot, Faust, Little Red Riding Hood, Hanswurst [Figure 160]. Neither Otte nor Seidemann published any pantomime scenarios, although Otte published several plays toward the end of the Communist era. Before joining the Ensemble, Otte had worked with Kurt Eisenblätter (1929-2017), the director of a theater for the deaf in East Berlin. Eisenblätter had become fascinated with deaf theater after seeing a deaf performance in Berlin in the 1930s that featured Pierrot and Falstaff scenes, and he diligently studied the history of German deaf theater since its introduction in 1881. After the war, he found work with the deaf theater in Dortmund from 1950 to 1959, when the theater folded. With the deaf theater in Dortmund, he had performed numerous serious roles in pantomime, including Othello, Hamlet, and Faust, although these performances involved the use of sign language to translate the texts into coded gestures. He returned to East Berlin to live with his parents and accept an offer to direct the Berlin theater for the deaf, which he did until 1973, when Otte assumed the directorship but could not save the theater from extinction when he tried for a more strictly pantomimic approach to reach a larger audience. Eisenblätter then worked with Otte at the newly formed Pantomime Ensemble at the Deutschen Theater (Meyendorf 2008: 1-5). A member of the original Ensemble, Christoph Posselt, explained the obsession with developing clown personas: working without texts freed the performers from the feeling of being observed by “organs of the state.” “We began to test subversive subjects, to ask questions, and to seek answers other than the official ones” (Posselt 2015: 105). He listed fifteen reasons why playing clowns conferred special powers on the performer, including, “[The clown] is an outsider. He is courageous. He needs courage […] He knows that our communication shatters because we pay too little attention to others and take ourselves too seriously […] He shows us our borders […] and knows that creativity exceeds borders […] He battles the world, he battles himself, he loses and yet keeps going […] He knows that whoever does not fight has already lost” (107). Yet another pantomime clown troupe was Salto Vitale, based in Dresden and founded, in 1983, by Rainer König (b. 1953), an electronics worker who had studied pantomime in the Dresden studio of Ralf Herzog (b. 1952), a theater machinery technician who had taken a pantomime course with the Berlin Pantomime Ensemble in 1975. The group contained Kristina Busch (b. 1964), Constance Debus (b. 1960), Alf Mahlo (b. 1960), and Matthias Krahnert; Debus and Busch had studied dance, and Mahlo had studied for a diploma in information technology. The group toured widely in Germany and several East bloc cities until 1990, when the members followed separate paths as actors and cabaret performers but remained devoted apparently entirely to comic performance and occasionally to teaching. Even in the small city of Gera, Gerrit Junghans (b. 1952) established a pantomime studio in 1982 while pursuing a solo career as a clown in the Marceau mold (“Clown Gerrit”), and, after the fall of the Communist regime, continuing to do so with evidently much greater success. Compared with other countries in the East bloc and in Western Europe, the German Democratic Republic nurtured an abundance of clowns largely modeled after Marceau. Moreover, the pantomime ensembles placed a heavy emphasis on the collective creation of programs, which prevented the emergence of a dominant artistic personality that infused any ensemble with a distinctive aesthetic “vision” or style. With the end of the Communist state, the ensembles disappeared, but the clowns continued, becoming integrated either into the international mime culture, with its schools, festivals, and street “circuses,” or into the reorganizing mainstream theater culture, with its musicals, cabarets, corporate entertainments, and televised variety shows. 

But the pantomime situation in West Germany was not much different during the Cold War, at least in its embrace of the French idea of mime. When Jean Soubeyran returned to West Germany in 1961, he became the leading advocate for pantomime in the country. He received invitations to choreograph or direct at theaters in Hannover, Hamburg, Bonn, and Berlin, while supervising his own pantomime troupe based in Essen, where he organized the third International Pantomime Festival (1966). He published his popular, slender mime textbook, Die wortlose Sprache (1963), with schematic illustrations by Angelika Morkel Lülsdorf (1934-2006) that depicted a faceless male figure demonstrating Decroux’s counterweight positions. By 1968, he was the choreographer for the Wuppertal Theaters, a position given in 1973 to Pina Bausch, the greatest creator of German Tanztheater, and by 1972 he was a professor of acting at the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover, where he taught numerous actors and directors in the West German theater scene. Yet the French mime aesthetic did not really gather much momentum in West Germany after the 1960s, nor did clowns seem to have quite as much appeal as they did elsewhere, perhaps because of a deeply ingrained identification of clownery with degradation, as embodied so well in the sordidly masochistic transformation of Professor Unrath into a grotesque, cuckolded, and humiliated nightclub clown in the film Der blaue Engel (1930). In contrast to East Germany, pantomime in West Germany appealed almost entirely to men. Ellen Dorn, Soubeyran’s second wife and translator of his book into German, was possibly (and only briefly) the only female pantomime in the country. The 1970s saw the rise of Tanztheater through the powerful, innovative, and revelatory productions of Pina Bausch (1940-2009), the director from 1973 of the Wuppertal Opera Ballet, which soon after her appointment became the Wuppertal Tanztheater. Bausch developed a monumentally serious performance style by introducing ballet, modern dance, and social dance movement tropes derived from observing underlying social, psychological, and political tensions between men and women, between bodies of both sexes and their social environments, and between performers and audiences. Her Tanztheater became synonymous with an intense, sometimes witty, visually stirring, and often harrowing critique of repressive social structures and patriarchal assumptions about sexual difference. Unlike in most modern dance ensembles, Bausch was able to attract numerous men to perform in her projects, which above all critiqued the institutionalization of dance and dance movements. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Tanztheater completely dominated the West German audience for speechless theater, as Bausch’s success encouraged other important practioners of Tanztheater, such as Susanne Linke (b. 1944), Reinhild Hoffmann (b. 1943), Johann Kresnik (b. 1939), Rosamond Gilmore (b. 1955), Kristina Horvath (b. 1947), and Anna Vita (b. 1964) (cf. Schmidt 1992). But Tanztheater only occasionally introduced pantomimic actions, for the point of Tanztheater was to show in an innovative way how social environments, conventional structures of “beauty,” and emblems of power regulated the movements, the steps, and the positions by which persons of both sexes interacted within and toward a society. Pantomime, still clinging to French ideas from the 1950s, offered nothing nearly as compelling. Soubeyran apparently sensed the need for a more serious mood in pantomime. With his students at Hannover, he staged, in 1982, an adaptation of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, and after he retired (1986), he directed the mysterious pantomime Keltenvisionen, Ein Maskenspiel (1989) for the outdoor Scharniertheater in Hannover, a collaboration with the composer Willi Vogl (b. 1961) and the expressionist graphic artist Hans Ulrich Buchwald (1925-2009), who designed the large, rather menacing “Celtic” masks worn by the performers. Buchwald, who had worked as a theatrical scene designer in the 1950s, had initiated the Scharniertheater performances in 1969: he wanted to design large masks that were expressive on all sides of the head. Keltenvisionen, inspired by the enigmatic imagery on a silver bowl discovered in Denmark in 1892, enacted a primeval ritual invocation of supernatural spirits apparently both in a park space and on the stage of an indoor theater. An inscrutable image from the Danish bowl inspired each of the twelve scenes. Each scene depicted an aspect of the primeval Celtic world rather than built a story around a single protagonist or conflict: 1) Trinity of Gods; 2) Nature; 3) Woman; 4) Male Rivalry; 5) Dream; 6) Unity (of Man and Woman); 7) Anxiety; 8) Druids; 9) Sacrifice; 10) Technology; 11) War and Apocalypse; 12) New Beginning. A narrator, like the interpellator in ancient Roman pantomime, prefaced each scene with a brief description of its significance, for example, “Woman”: “Woman, with her knowledge of the secrets of nature, gathers roots, fruits, and seeds. She builds barns. Feminine patience tames wild animals into pets”; “Sacrifice”: “The people have pushed the gods away. Forces of nature create fears. The priests try to reconcile with the gods through blood sacrifice”; “Technology”: “The wheel is a gift to the intelligent human. The visionary machine era announces itself.” The performers, seven in all, pantomimed these statements wearing extraordinarily imaginative, large masks, some of which represented horses, bulls, fish, or the huge hands of gods, although the performers mostly wore white body stockings underneath the masks. Even the human masks were stunningly expressionistic in their evocation of the “alien” sense of identity with which primeval humans seemed to see each other. The narrator’s brief, intertitle statements contain the action words that motivate the pantomimic action, which adopts a style that appears both somewhat ritualistic and yet utterly alien to “our” world, as if the performance had contradictory purposes: to “explain” the Celtic “vision” carved onto the bowl and why the audience can never really “understand” it. Günther Kappler and Ahmed Ezzat (b. 1964) assisted Soubeyran with the choreography of two scenes, and the small book published about the production mentions many others persons involved in what was evidently an intense community experience, with, however, Soubeyran and Buchwald involved in much conflict over the development of the piece [Figures 161 and 162]. The book presents numerous testimonies from performers, spectators, and critics about the powerful emotional impact of Keltenvisionen, and the numerous photographs of the production convey some of the fascination provoked by this mysterious piece (Buchwald 1992). But Soubeyran worked only on this one production for the theater; Buchwald continued producing fantastic masks for annual summer performances in the park, and the three-person, 30-minute “walking theater” performances have continued since his death, with new, young artists involved in the creation of the huge, grotesque heads, although none of these subsequent productions has apparently approached Keltenvisionen in pantomimic audacity. It was an astonishingly innovative kind of pantomime devised by an artist who was completely outside of the mime culture, and thus Soubeyran concluded his career by working on a pantomime that owed almost nothing to a French idea of it. 

Figure 161: Keltenvisionen, Scharniertheater, Hannover, 1989, directed by Jean Soubeyran.1) “Der Besiegte und Hinde Ailbe” (“The Vanquished and the Dog Ailbe”), with giant god hand as a character, 2) “Das geflügelte Pferd bringt den Unterlegenen ins Totenreich” (“The Flying Horse Brings the Defeated into the Realm of Death”), 3) “Krieg” (“War”). Photos: Buchwald (1992: 20, 21, 45).

Figure 162: Keltenvisionen, Scharniertheater, Hannover, 1989, directed by Jean Soubeyran. 1) “Vereinigung” (“Union”). 2) “Der Weise übergibt dem Suchendem den Torques” (“The Sage Hands the Seeker the Torques”). Photos: Buchwald (1992: 27, 35).  

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Pantomime in Cold War Eastern Europe: Bulgaria

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

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Figure 159: Dramatic photo by an unidentified photographer of a complex, unidentified performance possibly involving pantomime in the early 1970s. Much of Cold War Bulgarian performance requires excavation from obscurity to assess its achievements, especially during the period 1971-1981, when Lyudmila Zhivkova (1942-1981), daughter of Bulgarian Communist chief Todor Zhivkov (1911-1998), was a dominant influence on the Committee for Art and Culture. Unlike most Communist cultural authorities, Zhivkova, a controversial figure then and now, encouraged innovation, aesthetic diversification, and some Western influences in the arts. Photo source: Zanko Dimitrov and Marin Marinovski, “Bulgaria–Nation of Youth [България – държава на младежта],” Sofia: Sofia Press, no date [1974], “dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the socialist revolution in Bulgaria,” page 163.


The clown paradigm also prevailed in Cold War Bulgarian pantomime, but not nearly to the extent that it did in Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Indeed, pantomime in Bulgaria was largely the work of two men who worked together for a while, Velyo Goranov (b. 1946) and Peter Mim (b. 1952). Goranov was a student of acting at the National Academy of Theater and Film Arts, as was Mim. They formed a Pantomime Studio in Sofia in 1973 with a performance ensemble called MIMANS. Goranov says that he first became interested in pantomime in 1967, but what precipitated his interest and how he manifested it before 1973 remains very obscure, although Marcel Marceau was evidently a great influence. Both Mim and Goranov constructed clown personas modeled after Chaplin’s Tramp and Marceau’s Bip, but neither has published any description of how they differentiated each other in performance. By 1978, Mim was working as an actor in provincial theaters, eventually becoming a director at the theater in Sliven. He attended workshops given by Tomaszewski and Fialka, and eventually he studied under Tadashi Endo (b. 1947), an especially somber proponent of the Japanese Butoh aesthetic based in Göttingen, Germany. Yet Mim remained committed to the clown paradigm. He developed a precise, vivid impersonation of Charlie Chaplin, even enacting scenes from Chaplin movies like The Gold Rush (1925) to make an entire program, but he cultivated another clown persona, somewhat similar to Marceau’s Bip, though perhaps more macabre. He wore either a white shirt and pants or a black shirt and pants, while the mask remained the same: whiteface with heavily mascared eyes, hugely exaggerated black eyebrows, a bright red mouth, and a bald head in conflict with unruly streams of hair flowing from the sides and back of his head. With the “Mim” character, he has built solo sketches mostly out of the movements of his hands and arms, so that humor is incidental to displaying skillful use of the hands to evoke playing a musical instrument, a bird in flight, picking flowers, or moving along a wall. Finding opportunities for pantomime limited in Bulgaria, Mim migrated to Germany in 1991, where Marceau and Jean Soubeyran had stimulated popular enthusiasm for mime, particularly in schools. In Hannover, he became involved with physical training, mime instruction, and non-verbal communication workshops as well as solo performances in a variety of corporate and public venues. With students, he began to produce ensemble pieces, such as Myths, Mysteries (1994), a sequence of “visual poems,” including “Swan of Tuonela,” “Valse Triste,” “Pygmalion,” and “poems” featuring “Mim,” none of which could be called humorous, even if they emphasized a mood of macabre playfulness. In 1999, he formed his own company, Fenix Theater, to present “dreamlike productions” using fantastically ornate costumes and masks with lights embedded in them, so that the “bizarre beings” exude a polychromatic translucence. Since 2005, he has run his own school, Mimart Studio, and most of his life has subsequently focused on organizing and leading a constant program of workshops, courses, and demonstrations. One of his more interesting “Mim” pantomimes shows him actually painting a picture following the outline of a female body in black tights pressed against the back of the canvas and visible to Mim and the audience. The body moves and Mim paints the contours of the body, creating the image of a body either in movement or transformed into a kind of expressionist deformity. Cello music accompanies the act of painting. Mim completes the painting and drops to his knees to make movements with his hands. The model comes from the painting to observe the result. She assumes poses similar to those painted expressionistically. The piece seems preoccupied with the relation between the physical action that creates the expressionistic brushstroke/image and the physical action that creates an expressionistic pantomime. But despite the genuine power of the painting he creates, Mim reveals a deep uncertainty about the relation he dramatizes rather than an insight into it. As a performance the piece is simply not as a strong as what may have inspired it, namely the action painting-performance art of the German expressionist artist Barbara Heinisch (b. 1944), who, since the 1970s, has treated the act of painting as a performance, wherein a nude female body behind the canvas is the model for the figure that Heinisch paints onto the canvas, accompanied by dark, often avant-garde music. When Heinisch decides that the painting is complete, she tears the canvas, and the model steps through the torn section, as if emerging out of a vagina in the image. The painting always has the tear in it, as if to signify a convulsive violence involved in the representation of the body. Although Heinisch has done this performance for decades, it still manages to retain a visceral intensity. Mim does not satirize Heinisch’s performance, nor does he use her performance as a basis for an alternative (or maybe non-feminist) understanding of the painter’s and the model’s contrasting relations to the image. It feels like he wants to imitate Heinisch while omitting the nudity and the “wound” to his own creation. But the resulting performance seems timid, with the painting completely eclipsing the actions that produced it. But this timidity, which perhaps results from a desire to assimilate (imitate) German expressionism instead of emerging out of it, is typical of so much mime culture that, through the harmless, friendly clown figure, strives simply to please audiences rather than move them to a dynamic relationship with representation. 

Meanwhile, Goranov, who characterizes himself as “a loner,” toured widely with the Pantomime Studio, but with his deep, resonant voice, he also acted in numerous Bulgarian films and TV shows throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Although he was friends with Marceau and hosted him in Bulgaria, Goranov did not want to emulate Marceau’s mime style. Yet he was unable to develop a pantomimic identity without a Pierrot-type clown persona. However, his clown persona was ironic, almost a tragic mask: a whiteface with black tears smearing his cheeks and a red mouth blotched as if it were bleeding. He performed traditional solo routines with this mask—the wall, the flower picking, the attempt to sit comfortably—which made them seem much less humorous or charming than pathetically poignant. He liked directing as much as acting, so he always wanted to work with an ensemble. Much of the ensemble work consisted of adaptations of well-known stories and literary works (Don Quixote, Don Giovanni), the most successful being, perhaps, his 1985 slapstick, pantomimic version of the long comic Czech novel The Good Soldier Švejk (1921-1923), by Jaroslav Hašek (1883-1923). While touring in Mexico in 1986, members of his ensemble considered remaining in America, and to bring the group back to Bulgaria, the government offered to give Goranov his own theater. The group returned and Goranov got a theater, but that was only the beginning of “all sorts of violent battles to survive.” Members of the company deserted him, and it proved oppressively difficult to find money to keep the theater going. With the collapse of the Communist regime, the situation did not improve much. Goranov borrowed money at extortionate rates to sustain the theater, which, since 1988, operated under the name Movement Theater. The Culture Ministry appointed him the official director of the theater, but he had to raise money for own salary, so for a while he gathered funds by running a junk collection business. He describes the period 1987 to 1997 as like living “in a pirana tank. It was just hell,” according to an interview with him in the Bulgarian language Business Weekly (online June 9, 2001). With the Movement Theater, Goranov tried to synthesize pantomime, dance, acrobatics, and slapstick, and he even produced (1996?) a pantomime depicting the voluptuous extravagances of the Roman Empire (Teatur Dvijenie 2012). He clearly wanted to create a “serious” kind of pantomime, but Bulgarian society remained locked into a mime culture modeled by Marcel Marceau. For years, he acted in and directed plays, and although he finally received official awards for becoming the “greatest Bulgarian pantomime,” he decided to celebrate his seventieth birthday in 2016 by performing with much success one-man dramas: The Grand Inquisitor, from the poem in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880) and Samuel Beckett’s one-act play Krapp’s Last Tape (1958). Bulgarian pantomime remains almost entirely devoted to the Marceau/Pierrot charming clown paradigm, with Alexander Iliev (b. 1956), a student of Barrault and an instructor of mime and physical theater at the National Academy of Theater and Film Arts, perhaps the most prominent representative of the style, which he combines with instruction related to techniques of the commedia dell’arte. He published between 1993 and 1997 an enormous, four-volume treatise, Towards a Theory of Mime, some of which has been translated into English (2014), a very convoluted work, stuffed with the many exercises that are a central obsession of mime culture and suffused with much mystical Asian or New Age philosophy regarding the body’s relation to things like “matter,” “energy,” and “time.” But the book does contain a comprehensive bibliography of Russian language books on pantomime, which could be the basis for a major reappraisal of pantomime within Russia during the Soviet era. Even so, Bulgaria’s attachment to the Marceau/Pierrot pantomime paradigm was not due entirely to Russian or Communist tolerance of the paradigm as a symbol of “the people” or of some kind of harmless, popular image of “humanity.” The paradigm also held because it represented an idea of “the West,” of the solitary, independent performer, who needed no words, no speech, or no one else to construct an identity for him or herself, no matter how generic that identity might be and no matter that the paradigm (as opposed to Marceau himself) was never especially popular as a performing art, even in the West no more than in Bulgaria. The paradigm functioned to signify a Western “way of life,” an accessible, exercise-driven, therapeutic-hygienic “discipline” that enabled the performer to construct an appealing, likeable, yet strangely “human” identity unencumbered by the pressures of a text, a theater, a society, or even a market to become anyone other than this charming clown the performer has made her/himself. The paradigm was an image of freedom.

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Pantomime in Cold War Eastern Europe: Hungary

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

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Figure 157: An intriguing image of a pantomime performance by the Olga Szentpál dance group in Budapest, ca. 1935. However, information about pantomime in Hungary during that time remains very obscure. Photo: Erzsébet Leichtner (1915-2005), from Földvári Books.


Pantomime in Hungary during the Cold War evolved in a different fashion than elsewhere in the East bloc perhaps in large part because of the failed attempt in 1956 to overthrow the Communist regime. Before 1956, the Party forbade any form of pantomimic performance or any effort to recover the exciting modern dance culture that, guided almost entirely by women, thrived in Budapest during the 1920s and 1930s and which included one of the greatest pantomimes of the twentieth century, Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin (1924) (cf. Fuchs 2000: 82-85). During that time, Valéria Dienes (1879-1978), who, in addition to acquiring a doctorate in philosophy, studied dance in Paris with Isadora and Raymond Duncan, developed a mystical-mathematical system and school of bodily movement, Orchestics, which she applied to the production of numerous large-scale religious “movement dramas” in Budapest, including one involving a thousand performers, The Fate of a Child (1935). These productions may have included pantomimic action derived from her “orchestic” and “evological” theory of kinetic communication (Dienes 2001: 5-7). Alice Madzsar [Jászi] (1877-1935), a student of Delsarte and Mensendieck, and Olga Szentpál (1895-1968), a disciple of Dalcroze, established dance schools in Budapest that produced unusual movement pieces that apparently included pantomime (Dienes 2001: 10-18). But with the Communist takeover of Hungary in the 1940s, these ideas about bodily movement and knowledge of them virtually disappeared.           

 A governing slogan of the Party proclaimed that, “socialist man speaks openly and does not display.” From the Party’s perspective, pantomimic avoidance of speech disclosed a profound distrust of words, and such distrust in itself undermined confidence in the language used by the state to justify its policies and in the language used by “the people” to build solidarity on behalf of the socialist program of salvation. Yet unlike in other East bloc countries, in Hungary numerous people became involved in efforts to create pantomimic art, with the result that pantomimic activity did not congeal around one or two dominant personalities, but became scattered across a variety of artists who never succeeded in consolidating an array of pantomimic enterprises into a sustained pantomime production platform. Orsolya Huszár Fürjesné wrote a thesis on pantomime in Cold War Hungary for Panonnia University, which the University published (without pagination) on the Internet in 2008. Her thesis remains the most comprehensive source for information about Hungarian pantomime for the period, and most of the facts regarding Hungarian pantomime here come from this work. She contends that the earliest efforts to create pantomime in Hungary took place in 1957, when the actress Itala Békés (b. 1927) and her brother-in-law, the opera director András Békés (1927-2015), invited Marcel Marceau to visit Hungary, and Marceau in turn invited them to Paris. Itala Békés had studied body movement under Olga Szentpál (1895-1968), who in the 1920s and 1930s was the director of a modern dance school that had produced experimental expressionist dance pantomimes [Figure 157]. Itala and András Békés hoped that the connection with Marceau would allow them to develop ambitious plans for a pantomime studio in Budapest, but nothing came of these hopes except invitations for more pantomime artists to visit Hungary. Another actor, Ferencz László (1923-1981), after studying briefly, in 1957, at Jean-Louis Barrault’s school in Paris, set up a pantomime studio in Budapest the following year to produce what he called “mimo-grotesques.” But the studio, which lasted only about a year, was primarily a place where actors could practice bodily expression, and it apparently produced only one “mimo-grotesque,” the twelve-scene Tales of Man, by the choreographer and ethnographer László-Bencsik Sándor Mesék (1925-1999). In 1958, a teacher, István Barlanghy (b. 1926), set up the Hungarian Pantomime Studio, which operated as a training facility in the University of Budapest. This studio lasted until 1965, but Barlanghy, who promoted the idea of pantomime as an independent mode of performance and published several theoretical articles about pantomime, including a small book of mime exercises, was unable to produce a single pantomime. Fialka’s Theater of the Balustrade from Prague visited, as did Tomaszewski’s Wroclaw Pantomime Company and Marcel Marceau (1967-1968), but these did not lead to pantomime production in Hungary, only to visits abroad for Hungarians to attend workshops, classes, and festivals. A dancer, Zoltán Kárpáthy (b. 1939), inspired by Decroux, decided to become a pantomime and studied under Jean Soubeyran and Jacques Lecoq. The government in 1963 granted him the first license to operate a pantomime theater (rather than studio), the Debiru Pantomim, which seated only twenty-four spectators but lasted from 1967-1973, although it remains unclear what the theater actually produced. Fürjesné explains how different theater journals and newspapers published essays on theoretical issues of pantomime, on whether audiences required education on pantomime before performing it, on whether pantomimes can be performed without performers educated in the art, on whether pantomime was a “people’s art,” on foreign pantomime performances and artists, on forums about pantomime, and on the popularity of pantomime studios. One newspaper reported that in 1973, 100 people in Hungary classified themselves as pantomime artists. In 1977, the government set up a pantomime commission at the request of the National Institute of Nursing, which believed that pantomime might provide therapeutic benefits. But apparently nothing came out of the commission, nor much out of all the media discourse on pantomime. The government would grant licenses to perform pantomime, but refused to provide any funding or any space for it. When the media reported on the “popularity” of pantomime, it referred to the proliferation of studios in which young people people performed exercises and experiments in pantomimic signification but not much in the way of pantomimes for public consumption. Fürjesné contends that the published discourse on pantomime in the 1960s was on a higher level than in subsequent decades, but the result was the formation of studios filled with students learning to be teachers of pantomime who would have their own studios in which students learned to be teachers of pantomime. The discourse failed to build an audience for pantomime.

It was evident, though, that pantomime performances were necessary to establish pantomime as an art rather than as a pedagogical activity. In 1967, Miklos Köllő (b. 1946), a biochemistry student, founded in Budapest the Domino Pantomime Studio after seeing a performance by Marcel Marceau, although he had no desire to emulate Marceau’s style of pantomime, and he studied briefly at Ladislav Fialka’s International School of Choreography in Prague. The Domino Studio operated out of the basement of his house, which meant that from the government’s perspective, the Studio was never eligible for support from public funds. Köllő’s productions involved students registered for his courses in pantomime, and by 1980 the Studio had nearly a hundred students enrolled in pantomime courses. He wanted to develop a dramatic style of pantomime through what he called a “dramaturgy of dreams.” In an article for the theater journal Színház (IV, 12, December 1971, 43-48), he explained that while people currently think of pantomime as clowns in whiteface, among ancient people, including the Romans, pantomime had two functions: 1) as a trance-like, shamanistic religious ritual, and 2) as a profane, erotic embodiment of an exclusive “symbolic sign system” that made the body move abstractly. The distinction between the two functions was not always clear, nor did the ancient cultures make a clear distinction between dance and miming. In addition to the Romans, Köllő referred to the dance pantomimes of African and East Asian cultures as examples of these neglected functions of pantomime, but he also discussed Decroux in relation to a “geometry of the body” that he considered unique to pantomime, “a new kind of motion rhythm,” the “condensed drama” of “dynamic immobility.” He apparently meant that pantomime created a compressed drama through abstract or symbolic tensions between parts of the body, which music intensified without determining. He asserted that pantomimic action had an “internal, psychic” origin derived from the performer’s unique relation to the person represented, unlike dance, which relied on “prefabricated forms” to design bodily movements. Köllő’s pantomime productions nevertheless used a good deal of abstract movement, geometrical, gymnastic contortions of the body, which sometimes resembled modern dance, but was closer to dynamic sculpture, because he had little interest in showing how the body consumes space. He suffused his productions with theatrical effects: masks, strange costumes, curtains, footlights. Literary works inspired many of his productions: Victor Hugo, Notre Dame Paris (1969), Albert Camus, The Artist’s Life (1969), Jean Genet, The Blacks (1970), Gyula Juhász, The Boy Changed into a Rabbit (1973), Thomas Mann, Transposed Heads (1974), Béla Balázs, Garments of Dreams (1974), Gogol Panoptic (1977), Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1978), Miguel Asturias, “Oh … the Half-Breed Woman” (1980), Michel de Ghelderode, Night of Fools (1982), Edgar Allan Poe’s Supper (1983), Salome (1983). Köllő’s productions sometimes brought him trouble from the government, which banned some of his productions, even though he often did not advertise them. Undercover agents of the secret police infiltrated his audiences (Köllő 2016: 93-94). His audience was never large, but it was large enough to sustain the productions, filled as it was with well-educated people looking for adventurous artistic experiences, including foreign visitors and spectators employed by foreign embassies. These foreign spectators facilitated opportunities for him in other countries. His production of Notre Dame Paris at the International Theater Festival in Amsterdam launched his international reputation and gained him invitations to show his productions at other festivals over the years. He taught pantomime at the International Theatre Institute in London between 1976 and 1979, and from 1986 to 1988 he directed the International Theater Center in Athens. The Hungarian government suspected him of being a foreign agent while the Hungarian mainstream cultural media regarded him as estranged from any genuinely Hungarian artistic identity. Yet in 1983, he was able to set up a larger venue for his productions at the Centi Stage, and in 1984, he assumed the directorship of the Budavari Labyrinth, a vast underground network of caverns in the Buda Castle, previously long dormant, which enabled “panopticum” exhibits to incorporate unusual visual and acoustic effects. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he continually found work choreographing films, television shows, and theatrical productions. Yet he never found the Hungarian cultural environment congenial to his artistic ambitions—that is, he always looked beyond the borders of Hungary for the development and expansion of his artistic identity. The Domino Pantomime Theater staged its last performance in 1989, with Köllő’s production of Macbeth of East Central Europe, after which he resigned all his theater positions. He claimed that, even before the collapse of the Communist regime in 1990, commercial ambitions had corrupted the theater culture and municipal government. Soon, however, he formed a new production company, the Central European Dance Theater, which indicated his move away from pantomime and toward the German concept of “Tanztheater.” His productions subsequently derived more from history and biography than from literature: an adapatation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Satan’s Ball (1994), The Joyful Blessing of Franz Liszt (1995), Viper’s Nest (1995), inspired by the life of the Italian gay, Marxist film director Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975), Peasant Decameron (1996), Rasputin is Satan (1998). After 1996, the Central European Dance Theater, as a formal organization, ceased to exist, because Köllő could no longer afford the rent for the theater, which rose in part, he says, because officials of the National Theater believed that a “national theater” should not be hosting a company dedicated to sponsoring “central European” projects (Köllő 2016: 101-102). In 2003, he formed yet another company, Tarka Színpad, comprised of amateur performers, chiefly senior citizens and designed for senior audiences. The productions of the Tarka Stage (2003-2012) were mostly musical comedies built around old comic tales (Hans Sachs) or contemporary fables, although its last production (2012) was of the lesbian drama The Maids (1947), by Jean Genet (1910-1986). Köllő seems like an extraordinary figure in the East bloc theatrical scene, but a stronger evaluation of his significance in pantomime history depends on access to documentation of his productions rather than on further anecdotes about the peculiar circumstances under which he managed to produce so many ambitious dramatic pantomimes. 

The Domino Pantomime Company’s success in foreign countries motivated the government to encourage the development of an authentically “Hungarian” type of pantomime. The state had already approved the establishment of an experimental theater at the Budapest University of Technology, believing that the University was more likely to emphasize appropriate socialist messaging in the theater’s performances than in the private productions of Domino. In 1974, the government allowed the formation of a pantomime theater company within the University Stage and the University named Pál Regős (1926-2009) as the artistic director. Regős began his career as an ice dancer and had performed for several years (1948-1957) with the Hungarian ice dance company, Jégrevü, which traveled throughout the East bloc. As a child, he had seen circus clowns, and since then he had always wanted to become a clown, although it was “impossible to learn” how. But in 1957, he created a Charlie Chaplin figure for an ice dance show. From then on, his attention focused on acting and pantomime. The same year he saw at the Radnóti Theater several prominent actors perform “ancient pantomimes,” which created “a most impressive ethereal show” hosted by István Barlanghy. Regős became friends with Ferencz László, and then with Henryk Tomaszewski in Wroclaw, where he also met Marcel Marceau. Yet he was largely self-taught in pantomime, guided intensely by Jean Soubeyran’s 1963 textbook on pantomime performance, Die wortlose Sprache. He formed in 1962 his own pantomime company, Commedia XX, which rehearsed for free in the exercise room of the Ice Theater. But he never became a clown. His first pantomime production took place in 1964 and emulated the type of pantomime performance created by Tomaszewski, although Regős included musical interludes because the actors had to change the scenery for each scene. The primary scenario featured a “sleek” Black Pierrot in a black body suit with “huge white buttons.” Pierrot pursued a girl dressed entirely in white, but could not win her “because he was black.” A secondary scenario, “The Great Book,” inspired by a poem of Dezső Kosztolányi(1885-1936), was more abstract-allegorical and featured a conflict between the Heart, in a red body suit, and the Brain, in a blue body suit. Subsequent productions, entirely amateur, were sporadic and took place in “various cultural houses,” chiefly workers’ or community clubs. Regős worked as a window washer to pay for costumes, props, and space rentals. Then the Budapest University of Technology invited him to manage a pantomime unit of the University Stage, which compelled him “to think differently within the genre. The traditional language of pantomime no longer worked.” His first production for the University Stage was a 1975 pantomimic adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist, apocalyptic drama Endgame (1957), which, amazingly, Beckett authorized. But the most successful productions, from 1976, were of Bartok’s ballet The Wooden Prince (1917) and pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin (1924), which, however, Regős set in an Asian milieu rather than the European city Bartok originally imagined. Although the University Stage workshops were popular and enrolled numerous students, the pantomime productions of the Stage were on a small scale, involving only a handful of performers, because Regős had to cover much of the touring cost with his own money, whereas Köllő sometimes had as many as thirty students performing in his shows, which he only produced once a year. After traveling to various European cities with the Bartok program, Regős moved in what he regarded as a new direction with his 1982 production of a three-person pantomime based on the story The Metamorphosis (1915), by the German-Jewish writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924), which depicts the life of a man transformed into an enormous insect. Regős himself played the role of Gregor Samsa, but the piece failed to attract an audience, and though he was not sure why, Regős felt he could not let go of Kafka as a source for pantomime. He was born Jewish, but grew up Calvinist, because his parents had converted. The government nevertheless considered him Jewish. Kafka, he said, led him to a more “personal” way of moving the body. Meanwhile, he accepted an offer to teach “movement design” in Vienna, and there he remained until 1988. Pantomime almost completely disappeared from the University Stage, as it became a studio for the study of “motion theater” or Creative Motion Design. Regős returned to Kafka in 1985, with a solo piece, Requiem for Josef K, inspired by attending a performance in Vienna of the Requiem (1982) by German composer Aribert Reimann (b. 1936). But he was not happy with this performance, either, and later acknowledged that, “I wanted to show Kafka’s world too much. I was playing very cramped, and that’s not good.” That is, he was too diligent in translating the claustrophobic world of Kafka’s into highly constrained bodily movements. A new path opened up in 1990 when in Vienna he met the Japanese modern dancer Emi Hatano (b. 1939), and they transformed the Kafka piece into an abstract, expansive duo, perhaps closer to the Heart-Brain duo of his first production than to the human-insect duality of Kafka. Then (1994) he collaborated with Gabriella Salz (b. 1971), a German literature student and movement therapist, on another “movement duo,” inspired by the German book I Don’t Want to be Inside Me Anymore (1993) by Birger Sellin (b. 1973), purportedly the first book authored by a functionally non-verbal autistic person, although the Sellin text had resulted from the completely discredited method of “facilitated communication.” Regős developed another duo project, Heartwitch (1998), with the modern dancer Rita Bata (b. 1973), whose dance aesthetic strongly incorporated Asian influences, especially the expressionistic solemnities of Japanese Butoh. He kept revising and reviving (2001, 2004) his Kafka piece. While all these projects seem fascinating and strange, especially the duos involving the elderly Regős and a young woman, information about the productions remains largely inaccessible, and what is known mostly serves to support Regős’s assertion that, “You should never stop developing, you should not always do the same thing. The latter work must in some respects exceed the previous one” (Rókás 2009). With his female collaborators, it appears that he moved away from pantomime toward something that was neither mime nor dance but what he called “motion theater” or “motion design,” which apparently had some affinity with movement therapy and thus was not preoccupied with audiences. Regős exemplifies how pantomime awakens and accelerates a hunger for change, both personal and social. For Regős, pantomime in the 1960s represented a new path to a new sense of identity arising from the body rather than from words or prescribed ways of moving in a world in which, as Köllő observed, one could “no longer trust words,” because “words had lost their true content” (Köllő 2016: 91). Pantomime meant moving the body outside of one’s self, into another identity, another story. But Regős always had difficulty finding a story that moved the body in a new way. Unlike Köllő, he did not trust literary sources any more than he trusted the words of the government or the language of communal discourse. Not even Kafka could provide the “metamorphosis” he expected of pantomime. By the end of the 1980s, he realized his body had to move in a more “personal” way, outside of history, away from stories told by others, away from an identity inscribed and prescribed by history or approved by audiences. He thus turned to “movement theater” or “motion design,” a kind of therapeutic activity perhaps, but a logical result of perceiving that you cannot move in a new way if your body and identity have been lost in a history that has already made you someone other than you might have made yourself. 

Fürjesné seems to regard János Karsai (b. 1945) as the most popular of the Hungarian Cold War pantomime figures; nearly half of her thesis describes his career. He began as an actor with the alternative performance studio of the Pince Theater in Budapest, but turned his attention to pantomime in 1968, when he became a student at Zoltán Kárpáthy’s school, where the curriculum derived from the Germany-based Jean Soubeyran, a student of Decroux and Barrault. But because he was unable to see nearly any pantomime performances in the theaters, Karsai’s greatest inspiration came from silent films, particularly the comic styles of Buster Keaton (1895-1966) and Stan Laurel (1890-1965). Kárpáthy included Karsai’s sketch in an hour long pantomime show for factory workers, which inspired Karsai to develop his own, hour-long, solo pantomime performance, Confession in White (1970), which enabled him to receive a license to perform pantomime. For a while he worked with the Thalia Theater, training actors in physical expression and performing Bartok’s The Wooden Prince and The Miraculous Mandarin. Fürjesné notes that he spent much time discussing, promoting, and explaining pantomime in an effort to stimulate interest in the phenomenon in different audiences. He formed his own pantomime company, Mimickry Mim, in 1974, which included his wife Gizella (b. 1955), Vladimir Laczkó, a circus acrobat, and Pál Ferenc, apparently a clown who has otherwise remained completely obscure. The company gave its first performance at the University of Debrecen Medical School in 1975, a pantomime representing the cycle of life. But Karsai spent much of his time as a member of cultural delegations within the East bloc and attending workshops. In 1978, Mimicky Mim became the Karsai Pantomime Company, with many shows occurring in nightclubs. The following year, he started a small TV series of pantomime sketches, and throughout the 1980s he created more TV pantomimes, produced children’s shows, performed at construction camps, community centers, senior care facilities, the Planetarium in Budapest. Karsai was a tireless popularizer of pantomime, and he aggressively opposed the “aristocratic,” avant-garde pantomime developed, for example, by the Domino Pantomime Company or Tomaszewski in Poland. He regarded Charlie Chaplin as the summit of pantomimic art, which, for Karsai, meant that pantomimic gestures and actions should always be understandable to any audience, they should not drift into choreographed abstraction and metaphysical symbolism, and they should represent “everyday people dealing with everyday problems.” But this inclination to “cleanse” and simplify bodily signification led to an entirely comic performance aesthetic in which all action issued from or around a clownlike, Chaplinesque persona. His largely solo program, Life Is Complicated?! (1973), was an enormous success, yet it remains difficult to ascertain the nature of the performance, other than that he enacted the commonplace misadventures of his Everyman clown persona in ways that allowed him to perform on stages everywhere without much scenery, lighting effects, complex musical accompaniment or more than two or three supporting characters. Fürjesné lists the pieces in the program without any description of how Karsai performed them: “Opening Song; Pantomime; Street; Humanism; Lifetime Achievement; Trial; Marijuana; History; Ballade; They Are Two; How are you doing?; Door; Love Story; Hyenas; Wild West Pub; The Last Minute. In the second half there were nine songs, the first performed by Gizella Karsai, followed by the pantomime: Mr. Primitive’s Adventures; Education; Diploma; Advertising for Marriage; Bullfighter; Love; Rake; Problems.” His shows were not without occasional controversy. While touring in Dresden in 1981, government officials warned him not to show a scene in which his character breaks through a wall, but he performed the scene anyway, with the audience responding in amazed silence. In another show, he presented his character on a street urinating under a picture of Lenin. By the late 1980s, though, he concentrated on pantomime and pantomime instruction for television. In 1988, he appeared in six episodes of animated film writer Ágnes Bálint’s (1922-2008) TV series Szimat Szörény, a kind of puppet show in which human actors wearing animal masks performed in pantomime while the dialogue and songs were done in voiceover and told how the dog police inspector, Szimat Szörény, solved crimes in a ridiculously modern world of animal-humans (cf., Filmek Kedvenc 2015). After the collapse of the regime, however, Karsai devoted himself almost entirely to teaching. 

Karsai is probably more important as an educator and promoter of pantomime than as a performer. Fürjesné calls him the “shaman of pantomime.” He made pantomime seem like an accessible, happy way to make one’s body say things that people from different backgrounds would find enjoyable or amusing. The body becomes “understandable,” he contended, only though rigourous self-discipline, both ethical and physical. He taught hundreds of students, from children to university students to quite mature adults, for, like many mime instructors in the West, he regarded pantomime as a way of living more than a profession on the stage. As director of the Pantheon Studio of the KISZ Central Artists Ensemble (1978-1988), he was able to organize numerous international pantomime conferences and foreign visits, and he was prominent in the formation (1982) of a pantomime section in the Hungarian Academy of Theater Arts. When in 1977 the Hungarian Institute for Folk Education established a committee to supervise amateur organizations, he (along with Miklós Köllő, Zoltán Kárpáthy, and István Barlanghy) determined the conditions under which performers or ensembles could be licensed as pantomimes. Through his skill at publicity, he assured that Hungarian pantomime culture received enthusiastic appreciation from foreign countries and invitations to perform abroad. The end of the Communist regime diminished his influence, although his wife Gizella achieved a growing popularity as a singer of folk-rock tunes while continuing to teach pantomime, primarily to children. Two of the Karsais’ children, Veronika (b. 1975) and András (b. 1986), have become major figures in the pantomime culture of contemporary Hungary; the brother and sister formed their own company, New Generation Pantomime, in 2000, and then in 2009 a sibling company, Mimage Pantomime Theater. Because of András’s busy schedule performing as a dancer and actor in musicals and operettas, Veronika assumes much of the creative responsibility for work produced by the pantomime companies. However, while Veronika retains aspects of János’s principle that pantomimic gestures should be “understandable” to any audience, she has also explored an increasingly abstract, choreographed idea of speechless performance, which she describes as either pantomime or “movement theater.” But with this shift toward abstraction, she showed an inclination, not strongly developed in her father, toward dramatic rather than comic effects. She has tried to combine comic “understandability” with dramatic abstraction in such works as richard2nixon (2009) and her remarkably inventive 2012 pantomimic adaptation of the early absurdist play The Bald Soprano (1950) by Eugène Ionescu (1909-1994), which used a variety of imaginative musical accompaniments to the choreographed action. Perhaps her most effective synthesis of “understandable” pantomimic gesture and movement theater is her solo piece It Is Also Dance (2008), done in conjunction with an exhibition of ancient Hungarian artifacts in Cyprus. In this piece, she mimes a series of “women figures in heaven and earth” while wearing a black body stocking before nothing more than a green curtain. Karsai uses no props or mask while performing a woman cradling a baby, washing dishes, ironing and folding laundry, staring at herself in a mirror and applying makeup [Figure 158]. The piece, entirely dramatic, becomes more abstract as she embodies mythic women—Eos, creator of winds and stars, a woman in a mask, Daphne, who turned into a laurel tree rather than submit to Apollo, an angel playing a lyre. Her beautiful, though not always “understandable,” movements in constructing the different “earthly” and mythic female figures here achieves a Roman idea of pantomimic metamorphosis that was practically unthinkable during the Cold War in either the East or the West (Karsai 2009-2017). It is astonishing how vibrant the Roman idea, as she incarnates it, remains across so many centuries, and yet she has achieved it through the otherwise unlikely synthesis of her father’s aesthetic of “understandable” gesture and the “aristocratic” aesthetic of bodily abstraction. 

Figure 158: Veronika Karsai performing her pantomime Tanc az is (It Is Also Dance) (2008). Photos: from video excerpts of the performance on the Karsai Veronika YouTube channel.

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