Ladislava Petišková: “Pantomime is about thinking and feeling.”

Alexej Byček Autor: Alexej Byček
On the occasion of the life anniversary of Ladislava Petišková, who celebrated her 75th birthday on 3 January 2017, I met this leading theatre theorist and pedagogue to look back at the discipline which is her primary domain. Her long-time interest in pantomime has brought theatre theory reflection into the field, even in times when it did not enjoy the limelight – in the 1990’s and at the turn of the millennium. Now pantomime is gaining back its popularity, mainly thanks to Radim Vizváry’s work, and so it is wonderful this interview has been taken now, in the light of the recent development.  As one of few theatre theorists you stayed “faithful” to pantomime even in times it was generally neglected, and clearly your relationship to this discipline is very strong. But how did you get to pantomime and its reflexion? At the Faculty of Arts, where I came in 1960/1961 to study theatre science, the main subjects were history and theory of drama. Gradually this field began to spread towards music and film, but I think the sphere of dance art is still not actively represented there. And so, I got to pantomime after I joined the Cabinet of Czech Theatre Studies and it was necessary to create my own scientific and research plan. I began to deal with pantomime as well and the Cabinet gave me an opportunity to focus on the research of historical evolution of pantomime. Today, nobody seems to be interested but it represents a very good foundation to build on. When Ladislav Fialka died in 1991 and Ctibor Turba was looking for a theorist to join the newly-established Department of Nonverbal Theatre at HAMU (after Fialka’s death the Department of Pantomime was taken over by Turba and transformed into the above-mentioned department – editor’s note,) he asked me, I think it was in August, to start teaching there from October. In the Cabinet the working hours were flexible, so I spent the two months studying hard and preparing my teaching plan for at least one year. I was terribly afraid of my students (laughter) but finally some of them became my friends, so I think it turned out quite well.    But you experienced the “golden age” of pantomime, the success of Divadlo Na Zábradlí, Boris Hybner and Ctibor Turba… Ladislav Fialka was very skilful and interested in the practical but also historical side of pantomime, he collaborated with theorists, such as Jaroslav Švehla. He formed an ensemble that performed at the Theatre World Season festival in Britain and in 1967 it was recognised as one of the world’s best theatre ensembles. For the Czech audience its productions had emotional and aesthetic values – contrasting with the great all-good heroes of the 1950’s and 60’s, there was an ordinary man on stage, with poetic soul and common problems. Naturally, the mainstream gave rise to its antithesis, a reactionary programme, represented by Turba and Hybner, who also did political theatre – unlike Failka whose theatre was, let’s say, poetic. I must point out that Turba and Hybner’s first performance, Harakiri, took place after the August 1968! It reacted to the mental processes of people traumatised by the situation. In Harakiri, they came up with a black slapstick comedy which seemed like a punch into the picture of Czech theatre.   How do you feel about the situation in the 1990’s when the popularity of pantomime declined? I try to think in terms of historical development. Obviously, the field reached its peek in the early 1990’s and then it was slowly declining – sometimes it got too deep. But as I know historical processes I’ve never stopped believing that the genre would blossom again. There were many people who said pantomime was exhausted and was soon to die. Generally, it was believed that pantomime was not popular and interesting enough. But historians know that artistic stimuli do not simply disappear. People remember them, they are documented, and pictured, the global context enables exchange and mutual enrichment. But to make a genre popular again, you need a strong personality who would step out of the mediocre and surpass the limits of the genre. And I think Radim Vizvázy has achieved that, he and some of his pupils. First, he managed to preserve the original movement stylistics that almost no one cultivated, and he modernized them considerably. On top of that, he tried to bring a modern and fresh way of self-expression. In my opinion, working with Miřenka Čechová helped him a lot, even though Čechová later distanced herself from pantomime. As for mimetic expression, he achieved great results, for instance, in Uter Que, directed by Petr Boháč. However, the expression was more abstract, that’s what distinguishes pantomime from modern mime and dance. Pantomime usually carries a more dramatic storyline in relation to the character and is easier to follow, while modern mime is more abstract in concentrating on particular sensations, but in my opinion, it must still include – unlike dance – at least some features of a role or inner drama. Vizváry was one of few artists who realised the art of pantomime is the fundamental pillar that cannot be forgotten. He is not just as a traditional mime, he performs in operas, does pieces for children, collaborators with dancers, and so he cultivates and broadens his arsenal of expression tools with new themes and influences. But he still holds the flag of traditional pantomime in his solo pieces and suddenly the miracle happens, and people go to see his performances. They like them, accept them, and find in them something that talks to their hearts.   To transform ideas into a piece is just one side of the coin. But how to reflect a piece, how to think and write about it? There are opinions that anyone lacking practical experience should not write about mime theatre. What is your view and how is it possible to “talk about silence”? To talk means to make poetry. Thomas Leadhart (Decroux’s pupil - editor’s note) said that theorists are those who sit, and artists are those who stand. But it is desirable for modern theorists to be able to sit as well as stand – which is true. On the other hand, I must admit that I got to understand movement mainly through my own practice at Duncan Centre Conservatory, where I was invited by Eva Blažíčková to teach history of dance – like with pantomime, I had to go deep into the study of history of dance to be able to teach it. Before I had been interested in dance art but and had never studied it theoretically. And at Duncan Centre, students’ dance etudes and parts of choreographies were presented all the time. And that was the place where a person so “paper-bound” as me learned to understand movement. A common theorist just doesn’t understand if a gesture is executed with tension or in release. I’m convinced that in our field – when I write a review, for instance – I can tell my impressions and as a sensible person put my feelings on paper. On the other hand, the experience in movement-reading must be present. And thirdly – it is necessary to view the piece in some context, and not just within the given field of art. The research in pantomime has been for many years affected by the misconception that it should focus on its own subjects, without considering the genre as a part of something bigger. But that is essential because pantomime is always in between something – between dance and drama, between poetry and clownery, circus etc.    PhDr. Ladislava Petišková (born 3 January 1943) – theatre theorist, editor, pedagogue and critic. She graduated from the Department of Theatre Science of the Faculty of Arts, Charles University (1969) and obtained a certificate from the International School of Theatre Anthropology ISTA Eugenio Barba in Portugal (1998). Until 1999 she was a member of the Cabinet of Czech Theatre Studies of the Theatre Institute, from 2001 to 2006 she was the chair of the Theatre Theory Company. She teaches history and theory of dance/physical theatre at HAMU and at Duncan Centre Conservatory, and works as a publicist and theorist of physical theatre.

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