In traditional productions of The Sleeping Beauty, when the evil Carabosse crashes the party celebrating Princess Aurora’s birth, she does not dance. Yet she manages to “say” something pretty complicated: “Your daughter will grow up to be beautiful, but will then prick her finger on a spindle—and die!”
How does Carabosse say all of that without dancing or speaking? Her curse is communicated through a classical pantomime sequence. First pointing to Aurora, Carabosse then places her hand parallel to the floor—low, then a bit higher, then higher still (“She will grow up”); circles her face with her hand (“She will be beautiful”); throws up her hand, with her palm facing out (“But wait!”); points to Aurora again, takes a spindle and pricks her finger with it (“She will prick her finger on a spindle…”); and finally thrusts her arms in front of her, crossed at the wrists (“…and die!”).
“The heart of the ballet’s entire narrative is Carabosse’s conversation about the curse,” says Christopher Stowell, artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theatre, whose staging of The Sleeping Beauty will premiere in October at OBT. “Tchaikovsky [the ballet’s composer] fleshed out the musical theme and left no doubt about the importance of this scene. It requires mime to fully communicate the story, and the gestures must be clear.” In fact, mime is crucial to most classical story ballets.
But where did all the gestures come from? Balletic mime evolved from the pantomime of commedia dell’arte, a form of masked theater that became popular in the mid-16th century. In the early days of ballet, choreographers adopted the mime of the commedia actors—who, since they wore masks, couldn’t talk—to express the things that the dancers, who were also nonspeaking performers, couldn’t say. Eventually these gestures became more elaborate and tailored to ballet, evolving into the specialized vocabulary that we still see today in story ballets like The Sleeping Beauty, La Sylphide, Coppélia and Giselle.
However, by the beginning of the 20th century, ballet was moving away from mimed storytelling. In 1914, choreographer Mikhail Fokine suggested that “conventional pantomime gestures should be eliminated and replaced by significant movements of the entire body.” Just as the steps for the feet had been allowed to evolve, he argued, so should the pantomime.
And pantomime has evolved. Today, choreographers rarely use traditional gestures in their new works—especially since the meanings of those gestures, once commonly known, have become increasingly obscure. (Does the average 21st-century audience member know that swirling one hand around the face means “beautiful”? Probably not!) Choreographer Val Caniparoli has made modern versions of several classic story ballets, including Cinderella. “It is essential for me to work out ways of streamlining mime to avoid confusing the point or over-elaborating,” he says. Though he occasionally uses traditional mime, “usually elaborate gestures aren’t needed. A glance, a shift of the head or an outstretched arm can speak volumes.”
But though many ballets today are abstract, mime remains an important part of a ballet dancer’s education. Not only is it likely that she’ll perform an old pantomime-driven classic at some point, but learning about mime is also rewarding because it helps dancers create richer characters in everything they dance. In his work with ballet companies around the world, Caniparoli has observed that “dancers today want more than just a steady diet of abstractions and endless feats of athleticism and stamina without any soul. Character study and mime training should be part of a dancer’s education—it makes them better actors, and therefore more well-rounded artists.”
Today, pantomime is usually taught to ballet dancers during the rehearsal process by teachers, coaches or character dance experts like San Francisco Ballet master Anita Paciotti. When Paciotti goes into a studio with young dancers or students, she emphasizes that, as in acting, each mimed gesture must be motivated by feelings. “Mime takes cooperation amongst the players; you have to watch each other and be patient,” she adds. The gestures themselves are simple to learn; what takes time and is “hard to get in the studio” is the stagecraft necessary to convey the mime’s message across the theater’s footlights. The key is finding a balance: the motions should be expansive enough to read in the back row but shouldn’t look too cartoonish closer up.
Another reason to study classical balletic mime? It might be making a comeback. “In this art form, as in most, everything happens in waves and cycles,” Stowell says. “Choreographers have been reducing mime for a while now, so it’s due back. We may see a resurgence of mime as an artistic trend soon.”
Try out these simple pantomime gestures!
Crazy: Circle your finger around your ear.
Marriage: Point to your left ring finger.
Dance: Raise your arms over your head and circle your hands.
Love: Cross your hands over your heart.
Peter Brandenhoff, a former soloist with San Francisco Ballet, teaches and writes in San Francisco.
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
Summer intensive auditions can be nerve-racking. A panel of directors is watching your every move, and you're not even sure if you can be seen among the hundreds of other dancers in the room. We asked five summer intensive directors for their input on how dancers can make a positive impression—and even be remembered next year.
When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.
In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.
The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."
Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.
Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.
She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.
There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.
We always love a good halftime performance. And we LIVE for halftime performances involving talented kids. (Fingers and toes crossed that Justin Timberlake follows Missy Elliott's lead and invites some fabulous littles to share his Super Bowl stage.)
So obviously, our hearts completely melted for 5-year-old Tavaris Jones. Tavaris may have just started kindergarten, but during Monday night's game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, the Detroit native danced with the panache of a veteran pro at halftime.