By Raffaele de Ritis
Although he was mostly known internationally as a theater clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team., Dimitri (1935-2016) had started his clown career in the ring of the legendary Cirque Medrano in Paris, and had been featured three times at Circus Knie in Switzerland and once at the Big Apple Circus in the United States. He had also inspired, and sometimes trained, many clowns who pursued a career in the circus and, therefore, he is indeed an important figure of circus history.
Born Dimitri Jakob Müller on September 18, 1935 in Ascona, on the Lake Maggiore, near Locarno in Switzerland, Dimitri was a clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team., as well as a director, actor, musician, folk singer, and also an artist who expressed himself in pottery, sculpture and painting. The recipient of several international awards and celebrated worldwide as an outstanding performer, he attained a rare international popularity for a clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team., and was considered in Switzerland a cultural ambassador of his country.
With a solid background in post-war Europe's emerging physical theater community, he had a major influence in reshaping the western clown image. Merging traditional circus clown techniques and classic theatrical pantomimeA circus play, not necessarily mute, with a dramatic story-line (a regular feature in 18th and 19th century circus performances)., while escaping the clichés attached to these two specialties, he gave a new legitimacy to the clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team.’s role in the contemporary culture, both on stage and in the ring.
Dimitri’s art was rooted in the ancient and versatile bases of true clown technique: Pantomime, acrobatics, dance, music, and even work with animals. His own research had led to an essential aesthetic of purity, discreetly balancing seemingly separate influences such as western clowning and pantomimeA circus play, not necessarily mute, with a dramatic story-line (a regular feature in 18th and 19th century circus performances)., various ethnic traditions, popular rituals, Japanese theater, Commedia dell’ Arte, folk music, and storytelling. His talents as an artist and craftsman also helped him create a theatrical universe of remarkable fertility, conceiving the clown as a multi-faceted expression of life itself.
The physical-theater school he created in 1975 in the southern Swiss village of Verscio, the Scuola Teatro Dimitri (today the Accademia Teatro Dimitri), which was one of the first such schools in the western world, is considered worldwide as a Mecca in the field of physical theater and is attended by students from all over the world.
Dimitri was the son of a sculptor and architect, Jakob Muller (who named Dimitri after a Greek friend of his), and Maja Tschirren, an artisan weaver. He had a sister, Ninon (b.1937). During his childhood, he was exposed to his parents’ involvement in arts and crafts, and their association with poets, actors, dancers, musicians and artists from all horizons. Dimitri’s father sometimes sculpted heads for a nearby puppet theater, which was to become the place where he created his solo clown act. The Teatro San Materno of the expressionist dancer Charlotte Bara was also in the neighborhood, and she, too, would be an early inspiration. Dimitri’s was schooled in the Steiner educative system of anthroposophy, based on creative flexibility in learning, auto-education, vocational approach, and spiritual relationship with one’s teachers.Andreff. An augusteIn a classic European clown team, the comic, red-nosed character, as opposed to the elegant, whiteface Clown. of great talent, Jean Andreev, alias Andreff (1919-1976), performed at Circus Knie’s during the 1940s, where he teamed up with the augustes Rodolphe Cavallini and Polo Rivel. Andreff caught Dimitri’s attention: He was, unlike many other augustes, minimalist in his actions, the simplicity of his costume and his almost non-existing makeup. After having seen Andreff, Dimitri realized that being a clown could indeed be an occupation.
He attended the Benedictine Collegio Papio of Ascona, where he participated in its many artistic activities (art, theater, music). In 1951, he moved to Bern, and became apprentice to the potter Margrit Linck. At the same time, he trained in dance and acrobatics, and played comic parts with student theater groups. He got acquainted with several personalities of the arts, from whom he got additional inspiration. His friends were mostly multi-talented artists, who used to merge performing arts and crafts, sculpture, and music.
Dimitri kept performing at every possible occasion with an intuitive creativity: He conceived mime pieces without ever having seen a mime, devised clown gags, performed cabaret sketches with his sister Ninon, and eagerly attended as much theater and cabaret performances as he could. Two epiphanies cemented his vocation: A show of the French mime Marcel Marceau and a performance of the celebrated Swiss clown Grock (whose autobiography had impressed him in childhood) during his Swiss farewell tour with his own Circus Grock (in fact, the old Circus Collien, resurrected for the occasion).
After obtaining his potter’s diploma, Dimitri moved to Aix-en-Provence, in France, where he kept working as a potter, even developing new techniques. He was soon exhibiting his works in Paris. The French capital was at the time a cradlePiece of apparatus (generally aerial) composed of two horizontal parallel bars in which a catcher locks his legs to be in position of catching a flyer. (Variant: Korean Cradle.) of theatrical innovation, with a strong emphasis on physical theater: Dimitri’s performing destiny was building and his future avocation just around the corner.
Beginning in 1955, he attended mime classes with the legendary Etienne Decroux, who had revived the art of pantomimeA circus play, not necessarily mute, with a dramatic story-line (a regular feature in 18th and 19th century circus performances). and had trained such luminaries as Jean-Louis Barrault and Marcel Marceau; he also improved his acrobatic training at the fabled gymnasium of Théodore Bono, a former circus performer whose establishment, located Rue de Malte just behind the Cirque d’Hiver, was a popular training place for both established circus artists and circus artists in the making. Indefatigable, Dimitri also took classes in flamenco guitar and European folk dance.
In 1958, he finally got to meet his idol, Marcel Marceau, who was introduced to him by fellow potter and sometimes movie actor, Norbert Pierlot. Marceau had just revived the Compagnie de Mime Marcel Marceau (which he had created in 1949) and hired Dimitri as a member of his company. Dimitri performed in two classic pantomimes, Le Matador and Le Petit Cirque, which were presented in Paris at the Théâtre de l’Ambigu in September 1958, alternatively with Marceau’s "Bip" solo show. (Classic pantomimes played by a mime company had always been what Marceau really wanted to do, but each time he revived his troupe, he had to bail it out financially with the proceeds of his one-man-show!) Dimitri and Marceau became lifelong friends.
A Clown DestinyLate in 1958, Marceau had accepted to take part in the prestigious Gala de l’Union des Artistes—the original Cirque d’Hiver by stars of the stage and screen to benefitSpecial performance whose entire profit went to a performer; the number of benefits a performer was offered (usually one, but sometimes more for a star performer during a long engagement) was stipulated in his contract. Benefits disappeared in the early twentieth century. actors in need. Marceau was asked to create a slack wireA Tight Wire, or Low Wire, kept slack, and generally used for juggling or balancing tricks. act, for which he was given a teacher, Goga Rosetti, an old Russian circus artist of Italian descent. Marceau asked Dimitri to come with him and learn the same act so that he could see "how it looks."
After Marceau’s performance, Dimitri continued to work with Rosetti to improve his circus skills. Rosetti then asked Dimitri to create with him a slack-wire duet that he intended to present at the Cirque Medrano, but a few days before opening night the act had to be cancelled on account of Rosetti’s health problems. However, that was not the end of Dimitri’s circus career: The great clown Maïss (Louis Maisse, 1894-1976), a pillar of Medrano who had worked with such celebrated augustes as Béby (Aristodemo Frediani) and Grock, had observed and met Dimitri during his working sessions with Rosetti.
Maïss, who worked then with the augusteIn a classic European clown team, the comic, red-nosed character, as opposed to the elegant, whiteface Clown. Pastis (Fernand Videcoq), was looking for an additional partner to perform a classic entrée(French) Clown piece with a dramatic structure, generally in the form of a short story or scene., the Ballet Dancer Audition, and he offered Dimitri the job. Thus, Dimitri made his debut as a clown in the ring of the Cirque Medrano (which had the reputation of being "The Temple of Clowns") in January 1959. It was to be followed by a tour with a new circus put together by Adrien Sellier-Averino with the Zanfretta family, Europ’ Cirque, but it didn’t last long: the circus went bankrupt before Maïss, Pastis and Dimitri could even see their first paycheck...
Dimitri went to Locarno in the spring, where he performed in a small piece written for him, The Clown Angel. Back in Switzerland, he resumed his activity of potter and sculptor with his father and began at the same time to work on the concept of a clown solo-show. He debuted his one-man show in a village fair, sporting one of his father’s jackets and wearing a simple whiteface makeup.
Then he went on to perform regularly in the newly named Teatro Castello, the old puppet theater across the street from his childhood house, where he also gave recitals of folk songs that were not a success: They were cancelled after three performances! He continued to hone his sketches in Innsbruck, Austria—the first time he performed his show abroad—then in Bern, back in Switzerland, where his success kept him on the bill for three months. He eventually presented his now finely tuned one-man show in Zürich, first at the Hechtplatz Theater, and shortly thereafter, at the prestigious Schauspielhaus.
On February 11, 1961, Dimitri married Gunda, his childhood sweetheart and a young actress, with whom he had begun a serious relationship while performing at the Hechtplatz Theater in Zurich. In time, Gunda became his trusted guide and managed his career. Together, they will open the Teatro Scuola Dimitri in Verscio in 1971—and have four children, Ivan (b. 1962), David (b. 1963), Masha (b.1964) and Nina (b.1966). David and Masha embraced a circus career.At the first International Mime Festival held in 1962 at the Academie der Künste (Academy of Arts) in Berlin, Dimitri was the only clown invited: clowns were still perceived only as traditional, almost decadent, circus icons; their theatrical roots and tradition will be explored only a decade later. Dimitri had shaped his material under the title Porteur. In the first part, the contents of a simple trunk led to various sketches; in the second half, his porter cart held a pile of suitcases, each containing a musical instrument—some more unusual than others—which he tried (and eventually succeeded) to play as he ecstatically discovered them.
Porteur would be still performed regularly, unaltered, more than fifty years later: it might be considered one of the world’s most enduring performance pieces! Dimitri was the festival’s revelation and offers ensued—notably a return to Paris in 1964 at the old Théâtre du Vieux Colombier, recently revived by a remarkable discoverer of new talents, Jacques Canetti: Dimitri’s unmitigated success proved that, once more, Canetti had been right. Dimitri’s international career was taking shape.
Dimitri’s success in the 1960s was one of the foundations on which laid the rediscovery of the art of clowning. Meanwhile, his popularity in Switzerland had never been higher, and in 1969, he was approached by Fredy Knie, Sr., director of Circus Knie, the “Swiss National Circus” and one of Switzerland’s most beloved institutions. It was the first time that a non-traditional, theatrical clown was asked to perform in its ring. It was (as it still is) a nine-month big-top tour visiting every corner of the country, with long stands in its major cities. The season, for which Dimitri was hugely advertised, began in March 1970.
Dimitri had a fondness for elephants and their imagery, and Louis Knie helped him create a reprise(French) Short piece performed by clowns between acts during prop changes or equipment rigging. (See also: Carpet Clown) with one of the circus’s pachyderms. The tour was a triumph and gave Dimitri an opportunity to work in front of hitherto untapped large popular audiences. During the season he got acquainted with Charlie Chaplin, a regular visitor to the Circus. The old master was one of many major celebrities of the arts who, over the years, will admire and befriend Dimitri—among whom Eugene Ionesco, Francois Billetdoux, Max Frisch, Günter Grass and many others.
Swiss audiences couldn’t tire of their new comic hero, and Dimitri toured twice more with Circus Knie: In 1973 (during which tour he performed with a cow, a donkey and a pig) and in 1979. He designed posters for his Circus Knie seasons (the Knies were, and still are, very open to modern graphic designers for their advertising), as he did for most of his other shows.
Dimitri pursued a parallel career as a painter, sculptor and book illustrator. He and Gunda created the Teatro Dimitri in 1971 in Verscio, a minuscule village in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, near the Italian border. It soon became a mecca for European physical theater aficionados, and it is still successful today. In 1975 a school was added to the theater: At a time when clown schools didn’t exist yet, it was one the very first places to encourage the aspirations of an entire generation of physical theater artists from all over the world. In 1983, the small Teatro Dimiri was rebuilt and enlarged, with a 200-seat capacity.
In 1978 Gunda and Dimitri created a physical-theater company, for which Dimitri wrote and directed plays, employing former students and other artists who went to regular national and international tours. That same year, still much in demand on the international circuit, Dimitri created a new solo piece, Teatro, about theater life. It included a musical routine performed on the slack wireA Tight Wire, or Low Wire, kept slack, and generally used for juggling or balancing tricks., and a true masterpiece, a hilarious sketch in which he fought with a recalcitrant transatlantic folding chair—a marvel of mechanical comedy.Big Apple Circus in New York (where his son David worked at the time as an acrobat and wire walker) in the winter of 1984. From the 1970s to the 1990s, Dimitri visited Japan seven times, almost all South American countries, and China and Australia. In 1981, the various activities that encompassed Dimitri’s universe were incorporated in a single entity, the Fondazione Dimitri.
Until the end of his life, Dimitri continued to perform regularly. He appeared as a performing guest in special events everywhere, directed theatre, opera, circus and the various projects of his performing children, David and Masha, both accomplished acrobats, mimes and musicians, and Nina, a folk singer. With all of them, and Kai Leclerc, Masha’s husband, Dimitri realized in 2006 an old dream of his: he created a show involving his children. It was called La Famiglia Dimitri and played with great success in New York in 2008, at the New Victory Theatre, on Broadway. (His eldest son, Ivan, didn’t work in show business: He pursued a career with the Red Cross).
In 2013, Dimitri played Frosch in Johann Strauss II’s operetta, Die Fledermaus, at the Grand Théâtre de Genève. The following year, at the SwissAward gala night, Dimitri received a Life Achievement Award. In 2014, he created another show involving his family, DimiTRIgenerations, which he performed in various theaters around Switzerland. He celebrated his eightieth birthday in Verscio with the entire village population, his family and the school’s students.
Dimitri never stopped painting, creating illustrations for books or advertising, and exhibiting his (and Gunda's) works in major art galleries. He was also involved in humanitarian projects: In 1996 he performed in Sarajevo as Ambassador for the UNICEF, and in 2010 he was in Congo for the World Union Against Torture. The theater company he had founded with Gunda is still active, and so is the Teatro Dimitri in Verscio. In 2000 the "Museo Comico" was inaugurated on the theater’s premises with a permanent exhibition of artifacts and memorabilia related to clown cultures around the world. It was set by Harald Szeeman (1933-2005), one of world’s most prestigious art curators.
A nearby old building hosts the ongoing project of "La Casa del Clown," which, in 2009, was integrated in the "Parco del clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team.," a garden with clownGeneric term for all clowns and augustes. '''Specific:''' In Europe, the elegant, whiteface character who plays the role of the straight man to the Auguste in a clown team.-related, giant contemporary sculptures. The Accademia Teatro Dimitri at Verscio stands today as one of the world’s best references for the study of physical theater. In 2004, its three-year bachelor program and eighteen-month series of master classes were officially incorporated in the university system of the Ticino Canton.
- Video: Dimitri, The Porter, at the Kleintheater in Lucerne (1988)
- Dimitri, Clown Dimitri – Ich (Bern, Verlag Benteli, 1970)
- Dimitri, Dimitri Album (Bern, Verlag Benteli, 1973; revised edition in 1979) — ISBN 3-7165-0312-6
- Dimitri, Der Schlaufenclown. 81 Geschichten (Bern, Verlag Benteli, 1980)
- Patrick Ferla (editor), Dimitri – Clown (Zurich, Classen, 1980) — ISBN 3-7172-0295-2
- Dimitri, Dimitri malt (Aarau, Sauerländer, 1990) — ISBN 3-7941-3308-0
- Dimitri, Mein Humofant (Zurich, Pro Juventute, 1994) — ISBN 3-7152-0298-X
- Dimitri, Humor. Gespräche über die Komik, das Lachen und den Narren (Dornach, Verlag am Goetheanum, 1995) — ISBN 3-7235-0900-2
- Hanspeter Gschwend, Dimitri – Der Clown in mir. Autobiographie mit fremder Feder (Bern, Verlag Benteli, 2003) — ISBN 3-7165-1318-0
- Hanspeter Gschwend, Dimitri. Die Welt des Clowns. Ein Gesamtkunstwerk (Bern, Verlag Benteli, 2010) — ISBN 978-3-7165-1641-6