(photo: 1929: Pjerrot Vanvittig with Carl Scheiding)
It wasn’t long before I cornered Henrik Lyding, Tivoli Ballet Theatre’s Dramaturg, into telling me more about the history and direction of Danish pantomime. Since Henrik serves as an outside eye to the theater, his attention to preserving tradition while maintaining relevance and enthusiasm for today’s audience allows him to work alongside the artistic staff to keep Danish pantomime alive. I was curious to learn about the changes and adaptations that have been made to the pantomimes over the years.
What changes have been made to the personalities of the characters?
There are many. First of all, we convinced each actor playing Pierrot to find his individual way, instead of only copying portrayals from the past. One Pierrot was quite tall and lanky. Then another man came in who was short, but for the sake of tradition insisted on playing Pierrot the same way as his predecessor. It took a lot of convincing before he would explore his own way to play the role. But eventually he did, and his portrayal was wonderful.
Columbine also went through big changes over the years. Before, she was always sweet, quiet, and reserved. She embodied whatever history’s idea of a well-behaved woman was. Now, we encourage each Columbine to have her own free will. She loves Harlequin and is willing to fight for him. When her father or Pierrot tells her to do something, she has an opinion about it. And, sometimes she isn’t nice. We do, however try to maintain the aesthetic look of the character. Columbine was traditionally played by women who had a certain hair color. We try to stick to those guidelines when casting dancers to play the different Columbines. But, sometimes we make exceptions.
Not much has changed in the portrayal of Harlequin, although we try to keep his character consistent throughout the story. He is mischievous, but not cruel. Originally in Cassander the Cooper, Harlequin kills a boy. I was really bothered by this. Harlequin isn’t a murderer. So, we removed the scene. The other main requirement for Harlequin is that he should be tall enough. It’s ok if he is the same height as Columbine, but he shouldn’t be shorter.
Cassander’s most drastic change is in his costume. Originally, He was either a wealthy man, portrayed in an elaborate white wig and fine suit, or a peasant with disheveled workers’ clothes. Now, in some of the Pantomimes, such as Harlequin the Cook, Cassander wears a suit in a simple material and has his own hair (or a wig to look like his own hair,) to signify a middle-class family.
Are there any other big changes that you’ve made to the pantomimes?
As times evolve, some things in the pantomimes become inappropriate, or politically incorrect. In the original staging of Fortune Teller, there used to be an African character. When Pjerrot painted black paint on different characters, he arrived at the African man and was amused that the black paint didn’t show up on his skin. It was also such a process to paint a dancer’s face black for every show. In this type of situation, we remove the character completely.
Also in our repertoire, we have the oldest still-existing ballet in history, Amor and The Ballet Master’s Whim, by Vincenzo Galeotti, from 1786. This ballet depicts Amor, a cupid-like girl, and an assortment of characters from around the world who are mismatched with each other to create comical situations. It is a wonderful piece, but we would have to make some adjustments to the characters in order to make it inoffensive for today’s audience.
It must be a huge task to revive a Pantomime. Can you describe the process?
In the case of Pjerrot the Sleepwalker, it was about filling in the gaps. We had an old text from 1920 that vaguely described a short version of the story, and some of the original music. We had to make a lot of executive decisions. First, instead of the whole story taking place in a forest, we created multiple scenes that included a village, and the inside of Cassander’s house. We added two Pig Ladies because we needed to show how Harlequin’s sword, enchanted by a Wizard, hypnotizes people. The bear, who was described as a beast in a cage, was adapted into a sweet and tame character who participates in the story and dances with Pjerrot. To fill the holes in the music, we used a pianist who found excerpts of music from Tivoli’s composer Hans Christian Lumbye and would arrange them to cover a certain number of measures. Through this process, we could create a linear storyline.
What do you see for the future of our theater, and Danish Pantomime?
I think that as long as we can keep the pantomimes alive and vibrant, they can endure time. It is important to always look at them with a critical eye, and have a good answer for people’s questions. I love it when new dancers join the company, because it is important for me to be able to tell them why our work is relevant
Once a week for the past twenty years, I volunteer for an AIDS hotline in Denmark. I received a qualification as a counselor through the health department in order to give people advice. After a while you find yourself answering the same type of questions over and over again. I can’t tell you how many times middle-aged women, after divorcing their husbands and re-entering the dating scene, need to learn how to use condoms. Each time I speak to a person, I need to be able to explain the reason for the advice I am giving, as if it were my first time. This is the same critical honesty that I need to have in order to keep the Pantomimes alive. I need to have updated answers. These stories have been around for centuries because they tackle strong emotions. The four characters can represent the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. They are part of our past, present, and future. And I am proud to be a part of that.
(first posted on 12/4/2014)