Roman Pantomime Aesthetics: The Pyrrhic Movement

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents.

The Pyrrhic Movement

As the body and human action become more visible as space dissolves context, the question naturally arises: did the pantomime observe principles of bodily movement that distinctively established and preserved its imperial and tragic identity? But to answer this question, it is perhaps more useful to ask another question: what movements achieve this objective? Plutarch, Lucian, Atheneus, and Libanius refer to the “pyrrhic” movements made by professional dancers; but the earliest description of this movement appears in the Anabasis (VI, 1) by Xenophon (ca. 430-354 BCE), written about 370 BCE. He describes a banquet in which soldiers performed with arms supposedly to honor the glory of dead warriors or to commemorate the heroic qualities of the warrior ideal: “After they had made libations and sung the paean, two Thracians rose up first and began a dance in full armour to the music of a flute, leaping high and lightly and using their sabres; finally, one struck the other, as everybody thought, and the second man fell, in a rather skilful way. And the Paphlagonians set up a cry. Then the first man despoiled the other of his arms and marched out singing the Sitalcas, while other Thracians carried off the fallen dancer, as though he were dead; in fact, he had not been hurt at all” (Xenophon, Anabasis, VI, 5-6; 1922: 183-185). In Book 7 of his dialogue on Laws (ca. 350 BCE), Plato (ca. 425-ca. 347 BCE) described the pyrrhic dance in somewhat more detail: “The warlike division, being distinct from the pacific, one may rightly term “pyrrhiche”; it represents modes of eluding all kinds of blows and shots by swervings and duckings and side-leaps upward or crouching; and also the opposite kinds of motion, which lead to active postures of offence, when it strives to represent the movements involved in shooting with bows or darts, and blows of every description. In all these cases the action and the tension of the sinews are correct when there is a representation of fair bodies and souls in which most of the limbs of the body are extended straight” (Plato 1967: 815-816). Based on ancient literary descriptions, Poursat (1968) catalogued images of the movement in Greek ceramic art up to the first century BCE. Then Delavaud-Roux attempted an even larger inventory of pyrrhic images in 1993, and she presented evidence to suggest that this style of movement existed in Greece and Asia Minor prior to 700 BC. Soldiers sometimes performed the dance nude, but an even more peculiar feature was movement performed wearing helmets and brandishing shields, spears, or swords. Xenophon mentioned that at the banquet, an Arcadian girl, armed with a shield, “danced the Pyrrhic with grace” (Xenophon 1922: 186). Delavaud-Roux (1993) discerned local variations in the intensity with which different Greek communities absorbed the dance. Like others well before her, such as Phillpotts (1877: 151), she suggested a Cretan origin for the dance, with the Spartans regarding it as a regular element of military education, the Athenians treating it as a luxurious entertainment, and the Macedonians moving toward a blend of military education and entertainment. But Athenaeus, writing (XIV.30) in the early third century CE ascribed a Lacedæmonian origin to the dance, it “being a sort of prelude preparatory to war: and all who are more than five years old in Sparta learn to dance the Pyrrhic dance. But the Pyrrhic dance as it exists in our time, appears to be a sort of Bacchic dance, and a little more pacific than the old one; for the dancers carry thyrsi instead of spears, and they point and dart canes at one another, and carry torches. And they dance in figures having reference to Bacchus, and to the Indians, and to the story of Pentheus: and they require for the Pyrrhic dance the most beautiful airs, and what are called the ‘stirring’ tunes” (Athenaeus 1854: 1007). (However, Irena Lexová, in 1935, presented quite archaic iconographic evidence to suggest that the Egyptians may have developed a style of pyrrhic movement well before it appeared in the Minoan or Greek world.) In the early phase of the dance, only Sparta permitted women to perform it, usually in the nude, but Xenophon acknowledged that in his time men outside of Sparta enjoyed seeing women perform the dance at banquets. But Delavaud-Roux was unable to identify local variations in the movement of the dance itself, other than occasional folk dance appropriations or grotesque parodies of it. Even these seemed to result not from distortions of the movement but from distortions of the body performing it, such as dwarf pantomimes or dancers costumed as satyrs or other beasts [Figure 8]. 

Figure 8: Roman wall painting from Pompeii depicting dwarves performing the Judgment of Solomon. Photo: Museo Nazionale, Naples.

The pyrrhic style therefore migrated easily throughout the fractured Greek world and, unlike other dance forms, offered an image of solemn, heroic, tragic deportment that survived everywhere efforts to parody it or transform the image (rather than the body of the performer) into an object of ridicule. The movement allowing the body to achieve and sustain a heroic, tragic aura follows a rather simple device that appears fairly abundantly in the visual evidence of several centuries. Pyrrhic movement involves placing one foot directly in front of the other, or one foot “challenging” the other, as Anthon (1848: 381) puts it, while the body as a whole maintains an erect, perpendicular axis in relation to the dancing surface. The movement projects a march-like quality, a sense of momentum that embodies stealth, steadfast determination, and commanding elegance. But while the device itself is simple, its execution is not and its expressive potential encourages a heightened competitive spirit that eventually made the style appealing to persons seeking professional careers as performers. It is not a natural way of moving. Yet it is movement that allows the performer to construct a wide repertoire of expressive dynamics.  

            One can move with the soles of the feet flat on the ground to create a mood of stable, assured control over space; or one can move on tip-toes to create a mood of poised, alert, heightened precarious anticipation [Figure 9]. The movement can accommodate a wide range of speeds, tempos, and metrical orders without undermining the martial elegance of the body. The basic step movement also permits the body to accent or amplify rhythms within itself, such as dips, pauses, or curvatures in the vertical axis. The movement is impressive when advancing toward the spectator, when in profile, and even when in reverse (backpedaling). But more significant yet is the power of the movement to develop the expressivity of the upper body. In relation to the vertical axis, the turning or tilting of the head produces a strikingly dramatic tension between the plane of movement and the plane of the performer’s gaze. Such tension further arises with a twisting of the torso at each step or a slinking motion that vaguely contradicts the martial uprightness of the basic position, as in the famous statue of the faun at the House of the Faun in Pompeii [Figure 10]. The pyrrhic step allowed for remarkable flexibility of arm and hand movements, either synchronized with the step or in tension with the rhythm of the step, or with one hand held high and the other held low, and arm and hand movements could shift from exquisite delicacy to startling violence. Another curious feature of the step is its capacity not only to accommodate but to encourage a kind of lilting effect associated with the expression of femininity [Figure 11]. Yet it is a mode of femininity that never seems to prevent the pyrrhic step from maintaining an effect of poised military composure and command over space. It is therefore not altogether bizarre that the pantomimes relied heavily on the pyrrhic step at the same time as they impersonated numerous tragic, mythic women–and the overwhelming majority of star pantomimes were male. Finally, the pyrrhic movement permitted dramatic pivots, smooth transitions to spectacular poses, and an elegant structure for initiating and concluding acrobatic stunts. Indeed, during the Empire, rope dancers fell under the control of the pantomime companies. The rope dance is itself an exaggerated expression of the pyrrhic step, which became thrilling when performed in the circus stadiums, as an interlude between chariot races, without the security of a net. Moreover, the performer danced along a rope that inclined upward from the island in the arena to a higher point in the audience. Item 112, “De funambulo,” in the Anthologia Latina, compiled in Africa around 533 CEdescribes this stunt; and anyone who wants to discover how unnatural the pyrrhic step feels to the balance of the body should try walking uphill, one foot in directly in front of the other.

Figure 9: Frieze depicting the pyrrhic movement: marble relief in the Vatican dating from first century CE. Photo: Weege (1926). 
Figure 10: Bronze statue of Faun performing pyrrhic step, from the House of the Faun, Pompeii, first century CE. Photo: Karl Toepfer.

All these qualities of the pyrrhic step, when used in combination, bestowed upon the body an image of intense dramatic complexity and urged the body toward characterization, toward the disclosure of concealed or conflicting identities within the body. It was a mode of movement that co-existed seductively with the display of masks and gorgeous costumes. In fact, the pantomime was not really about the mythic world; it was always about the multiple, theatrical nature of human identity in an imperial political domain. Audiences wanted to see the pantomimes put on and take off the masks, the lavish costumes, all displayed within the performance space. The pantomimes never performed entire stories; they performed only momentous scenes from stories, in succession, montage fashion, because the point of the performance was to reveal the performer’s virtuosity in moving from character to character, from male to female, from mood to mood, from one fate to another.     

Yet the controlling principle of the pyrrhic step imbued all the spectacle and fantastic sensationalism with an elegance and martial command over body and space. This aura of elegance gave the pantomime a much higher cultural, economic, and political status than that bestowed upon the conventional street performance of farces by mimes, of gladiatorial contests and wild beast extravaganzas, and even of the chariot races and factions for which, eventually, the pantomime functioned primarily as a cheerleading intermezzo entertainment. The pyrrhic orientation of tragic movement was an effort to expand the signification of ecstatic bodily movement beyond the conventional Dionysian association with intoxicated maenadic wildness and “feminine” loss of control over body and space. It was, indeed, an art that could stir audiences to excesses, as indicated by the occasional, stunning outbreaks of rioting and social disturbance (from 15 CE until well into the sixth century) in different parts of the Empire, provoked, according to the state, by the public’s adulation of pantomimes. But this “masculine” form of ecstatic dancing, as Delavaud-Roux called it, invested the body with a greater sense of freedom and power than the maenadic “feminine” forms of ecstatic dance much more closely linked to the Dionysian cult. As Lawler (1927) observed many decades ago, the maenadic dances, which organized movement according to a circular, looping principle of repetition, produced dances that had no beginning, middle, or end, and therefore confined the pleasure value of the spectacle to the performer. The maenadic dances showed bodies possessed rather than in possession; they showed the body consumed and controlled by a force external to it, by a context, by a god. Maenads danced in groups without a driving competitive objective (dancing for the invisible god, not the critical spectator), and so the repetitiveness of their movements did very little to differentiate individual bodies. The body always remained immersed within the circular (rather than advancing) movement of a group, of a peculiar, localized, cultic social context. The competitive impulse defining the pyrrhic organization of movement worked to differentiate bodies and intensify dramatic interest in movement as spectacle for people who watch instead of perform; it emphasized power emanating from the body rather than consuming it. The pyrrhic orientation moved dance toward idealization of the body and professionalization of performance. In the imperial centuries following the Macedonian invasion, the pyrrhic construction of ecstatic movement dominated the theatrical tastes of audiences within the Greek and Roman Empires because it revealed the controlling, transformative power, not of gods, but of the human body.  

However, the major question remains: what was the relation between movement and narrative in the pantomime? The narrative organization of pantomimes differed radically from that of dramatic performances in other cultures almost everywhere else in history, because, in the ancient Roman world, storytelling in itself possessed a value inferior to that of persuasive argumentation or revelation by example. Roman culture did not encourage the telling of original stories, so the idea of stories and imaginative experiences somehow shared by audiences for theatrical performances depended on the assumption that spectators in any part of Roman civilization already knew all the stories that anyone needed to know to “understand” motives for action within a space designated for the impersonation of imaginary identities. These stories derived overwhelming from ancient Greek mythology and sometimes from ancient Roman religion and mythology. Wüst (1949: 847-849) catalogued the titles of about 180 tragic works that could be associated with the pantomime. All the titles bear the names of characters from ancient Greek mythology, such as Ajax or Agammenon. However, it is not always clear from the ancient sources whether the titles refer to literary dramas or to performances in which a dancer impersonated a character. Indeed, in the ancient world, performers “owned” mythic characters to a greater degree than texts or authors. Ancient audiences in the first century BCE or in the fourth century CE did not evaluate a pantomime performance of Oedipus in relation to the character described by Sophocles’ play nor that by any other author concerned with this character; they compared the pantomime’s Oedipus with impersonations of the character by other pantomimes. Performance had nothing to do with affirming the authority of texts nor even of the myths themselves. Performance affirmed the authority of the myth—or more precisely, the ideology—of metamorphosis, the belief that all living things changed their forms as a result of divine energies stored within them. 

Figure 11: Movements and poses with the pyrrhic step from frontal perspective using different masks, gestures, and props. Photos: Karl Toepfer.

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