Bird’s Eye View; Interview with Henrik Lyding, Part 1

I have just finished applying false eyelashes, and am completing the final touch of lipstick. I have removed the pincurls that I rolled about a half-hour earlier, and in a few minutes I will put on my white chiffon dress with gold and pearl accents. Most girls only experience this day once in their lives, but this is not my wedding day. I am a white fairy, and my job is to appear on a pedestal at the end of a classical Danish Pantomime in order to give Harlequin and Columbine my blessing.

Cassander, Columbine’s father, and Pjerrot, the clumsy clown, have finally agreed that Harlequin and Columbine can be married. In the thirteen or so pantomimes that are performed as part of the repertoire of the Tivoli Ballet Theater, this basic love-in-the-face-of-adversity storyline is always the same.

Even though the fairy is not one of the four major roles in the traditional pantomime structure, her presence does date back 2000 years. The female dancers, who all share a dressing room in this storybook theater, have probably joked for decades about why exactly the fairy or wizard appears in the forest to make Harlequin’s sword have magical powers. Henrik Lyding, Tivoli Ballet Theater’s Dramaturg, sets the record straight for me. As he crosses his arms and leans back in his chair, he maintains a straight face. “Actually,” he says, “the fairy appears in ancient Greek theater to enhance Harlequin’s ‘bull phalice’ that he wears outside of his clothes. He should wave this enlarged phalice so that all eligible women come running.”

Henrik has been the Dramaturg at Tivoli Ballet Theater, formerly Tivoli Pantomime Theater, since 2001. After studying Danish Literature at the University of Copenhagen, he worked as a classical actor. He performed in works by Shakespeare and Molière in the theater group Vaganterne, which presented shows throughout Denmark. He then spent fifteen years directing classical comedy productions. Since then, he has worked as a theater critic for twenty years. He sees more than 200 theater productions a year, and writes for Jyllands Posten.

I sat down with Henrik to learn more about his personal relationship with Tivoli, the Pantomime tradition, and the history of our unique Peacock stage.

What was your first experience with Tivoli?
I grew up just outside of Copenhagen. My birthday is in the beginning of May, which always coincided with the opening week of Tivoli. I would receive a bus pass and a season pass to the park as a present. As a 9 or 10 year old boy, Tivoli was where I spent all of my free time. But, I had to be home by 9. So, I watched the first show at 7 PM, which was always a Pantomime. Over the years I saw all of the pantomimes many times. I loved the stories, but I was very frustrated when things weren’t logical.

How did you become involved with this theater?
Around the same time that I was spending my summers in Tivoli, there was another young man named Jan Hertz who was very active the small city where we both lived. He was 6 or 7 years older than I was, and at the time he would direct a theater production every year that I was involved in. Years later, Jan Hertz became the director of Tivoli. He called me because he had seen a pantomime, and hated it. He wanted to know if I had any ideas that could make the pantomimes better.

What didn’t you like about the pantomimes you saw at Tivoli?
If something wasn’t logical, it really bothered me. For example, in Harlequin Skeleton, Cassander signals to Pierrot to light a candle. But the lighting for the scene was a warm yellow daylight setting. It made no sense to me why Cassander would need a candle in the daytime. So, we changed the scene to have cool blue nighttime lighting. Little details like this make all the difference. When things are logical, we can accept that the characters are not expressing themselves with words. We can trust their actions, and enjoy the story.
Can you give some background to the history of Pantomime?
The concept of stories with the four characters Harlequin, Columbine, Cassander, and Pjerrot, can be found as far back as 2000 years in Greek theater. These characters were portrayed wearing masks, and recited text.

Around 1650, the Italian Comedia del Arte introduced pantomime to Europe. Their stories were produced without words so that the performers could tour throughout Europe for audiences that spoke any language. Two touring families, from Italy and England, are responsible for introducing pantomime to Denmark. Our danish pantomime tradition began around 1795.
What about our unique Peacock stage?
Originally, Tivoli was built in an area on the outskirts of Copenhagen. The king believed that if another war came to Copenhagen, this area would be destroyed. So a very modest and expendable theater was constructed in 1843, in a Turkish style. Later, when it was decided that Tivoli was worth investing in, the architect Vilhelm Dahlerop was commissioned to build a permanent theater. He was also working on another project, a new Royal Theater at the same time. This theater has been called Gamle Scene, or “Old Stage” since 1930, when another Royal Theater was built. Our Peacock Theater was finished in May, and The Royal Theater’s Gamle Scene was completed in October, of 1874.

The only significant similarity in the two theaters are the quotes that sit on top of the stages. Ours, written in Chinese characters, reads: “Joy together with other people.” The words above Gamle Scene, written in Danish, read: “Not just for fun.”

Our theater was built in the old tradition, which is remarkable because it was a time when the theater tradition was changing. Suddenly, it was important for things to appear real, in the spirit of a living-room drama. Luckily, the old style and mechanics of our theater are perfect for presenting our Pantomimes. And today, our theater provides a unique platform to present theater and dance to the Copenhagen audience.


It is incredible how much Henrik knows about how our unique Danish theater fits into the greater performance world. Speaking with him helps me appreciate that I belong to a part of something that reflects the thriving Danish culture. Danish pantomime manages to remain steeped in tradition while moving briskly forward. I have a million more questions. Henrik promises to tell me another time about how he has helped to keep the pantomimes alive through the years. Then, he shuffles on to the next project as I say “thank you,” and close the door behind me.

(first posted on 7/27/2014)

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