"Riga Pantomime", 1960s–1970s, Under the Leadership of Director Roberts Ligers (1931–2013)
The “Riga Pantomime” (Rīgas pantomīma) group was an amateur initiative and never officially acknowledged as a professional theatre troupe. However, in its prime, from the late 1960s through to the 1970s, the group held a certain influence over Latvia’s cultural scene.
A number of key cultural figures took part in producing “Riga Pantomime” shows. Thanks to guest performances in the Western world, the group achieved international acclaim for their unique style. Pantomime as an art form allowed to express things that couldn’t be said out loud under Soviet rule. Symbols and body language, music and lights did the talking instead.
In pantomime, actors communicate happenings and events through movements of the body and mimicry. Pantomime is also the name given to such performances. Until the founding of “Riga Pantomime”, there had been no pantomime tradition in Latvia.
Founder and longterm manager of “Riga Pantomime”, the actor and director Roberts Ligers attended Gulbenes Secondary School at the same time as actress Antra Liedskalniņa (1930−2000), herself included in the Cultural Canon. Both were members of the school’s drama club and, in 1951, both were admitted to the Theatre Faculty of the Latvian Conservatoire.
In 1955, Ligers became an actor at the Dailes Theatre (also part of the Cultural Canon), which was run by Eduards Smiļģis at the time. In 1956, Ligers also became the head of the amateur theatre group at the “Oktobris” (October) cultural club for members of the building industry. The group gathered those who hadn’t landed themselves a spot at the conservatoire. Here, they could take part in classes which were similar to those taught at the theatre faculty.
With time, the group changed its focus from drama to the art of movement. In 1967 it became known as “Riga Pantomime” and found a permanent home at the VEF Culture Palace (originally an events venue for staff of the State Electrotechnical Factory) in 1973.
Clarity, passion and simplicity were the basic values on which “Riga Pantomime” developed its artistic style. These had been defined by director and founder of the Dailes Theatre, Eduards Smiļģis. As Ligers explained: “My ideal was the Dailes Theatre with its unconventional lighting, romanticism, expressive movements, dance, orchestra and certain sense of majesty or volumen as Smiļģis called it.”
The group’s first pantomime was “Idea” (Ideja, 1961), which was based on the graphic motifs of Belgian artists Frans Masereel (1889−1972) and accompanied by the music of Latvian composer Imants Kalniņš. From then on, Ligers produced miniatures as well as full length productions with a profound, philosophical and even satirical meaning, and complex characters.
The first full length pantomime ever staged in the Soviet Union was “Road” (Ceļš, 1969), inspired by the poetry of Imants Ziedonis. At its centre was Human (Cilvēks) played by Staņislavs Maļinovskis. The other actors played his internal conflicts and emotional currents.
The philosophically analytical “Histrion’s Mystery” (Histriona mistērija) premiered at the Latvian National Opera and Ballet (then − the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic’s National Opera and Ballet Theatre) in 1971. This was the first time that the “Riga Pantomime” flag with its image of a jester appeared on stage. Over the years, the flag was adorned with commemorative ribbons, which represented premieres and other key events.
At the heart of “Symphony” (Simfonija, 1975) was composer Imants Kalniņš’s “Fourth Symphony” (Ceturtā simfonija), itself a part of the Cultural Canon. Scenographer and costume designer Ilmārs Blumbergs designed all the costumes to be blue, so the play was sometimes referred to as “The Blue Symphony” (Zilā simfonija).
In 1975, “Riga Pantomime” did its first tour of the West and received a gold medal at the International Youth Friendship Festival in Halle, Germany. In later years, the group toured Finland, France, Austria, the Czech Republic, the United States of America and other countries.
With rare exceptions, pantomime is a young people’s thing. The average member of “Riga Pantomime” was 20 years old and member turnover was large as they entered “adult life” − launching professional acting careers, founding their own performing arts groups, being called into the army or simply choosing different professional paths.
Among Ligers’s students are director Alvis Hermanis who runs the New Riga Theatre (also included in the Cultural Canon), artist and poster designer Ilmārs Blumbergs, actress Raimonda Vazdika, photographer Valts Kleins, artist Jānis Anmanis and many others.
Ansis Rūtentāls (1949–2000) is considered Latvia’s greatest mime of all times. In 1978, after being an active member of “Riga Pantomime”, he founded the Ansis Rūtentāls Movement Theatre, which exists to this day.
Artist and movement director Modris Tenisons founded a professional pantomime troupe at the Kaunas National Drama Theatre in Lithuania, which existed from 1966 to 1972. After returning to Latvia, Tenisons worked as a scenographer and movement director for a number of key Latvian theatre productions, including the 1975 version of Henrik Ibsen’s “Brand” (Brands) by director Arnolds Liniņš.
Still today, the members of “Riga Pantomime” continue writing what they call “soul books” or diaries − a unique written account of the history of “Riga Pantomime”. The troupe still gets together at VEF Culture Palace at an amateur level.
Translated by Lelde Beņķe