The Shift from Oblivion to Paris: Pantomime against Ballet

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

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Pantomime against Ballet

The philosophical discourses on ballet, pantomime, and music in the theater introduced by Diderot, Rousseau, and Noverre amplified uncertainty about the relation between ballet and pantomime and about the nature of the thing called “ballet pantomime.” Ballet historians tend to treat the ballet pantomime as a transitional genre that led to the creation of the ballet d’action and the establishment of ballet as an autonomous art, independent of opera and pantomime. However, the ballet pantomime continued long after the ballet d’action had become the defining feature of autonomous ballet. The ballet d’action was the genre by which ballet claimed authority to tell its own stories or construct narratives that were unique to the aesthetic principles that defined ballet as an art. That is, a ballet d’action told some kind of story using the movement vocabulary, the “positions” and steps, that belonged only to ballet. The choreographer, using the movement vocabulary, determined the movements of all bodies in the ballet; whereas in pantomime, movement ostensibly came from the “heart” of the performer, who used a highly personal, distinctive gestural vocabulary that was nevertheless transparent enough to communicate ideas and sentiments to audiences who “read” physical significations in an equally intuitive manner, if not necessarily in the way the performer intended. From the perspective of conventional ballet history, the ballet d’action emerged as a strategy for controlling the term “ballet.” The foire theaters, like Hollywood much later, tended to apply the term “ballet” rather promiscuously, to refer, at first, to parodies of state theater ballets, and then to refer to performances, even “serious” ones, that featured dancing, like the ballet pantomime. The real purpose behind the struggle to establish ballet as an autonomous art was to demonstrate the authority of state institutions (theaters and schools) to regulate and standardize bodily movement in relation to an idealized image of the body that could only be achieved or performed through an elaborate, rigorous education involving a complex infrastructure of personnel, resources, social networks, curricula, and bureaucratic oversight. This goal entailed the use of narratives that supported the system for regulating bodily movement; more precisely, ballet was above all about the beauty of steps and positions, which meant that the narrative served the dance rather than dance served the narrative. As interludes or intermezzi within opera productions throughout Europe, ballets rarely had any connection with the opera narrative (Hansell 2005: 18-19). This situation encouraged the whole ballet mentality to believe that the approved steps and positions, combined with lavish costumes, were interesting in themselves and did not achieve any greater meaning by representing distinctive characters, particular emotions, or anything outside of the stage itself. 

Pantomime and ballet pantomime implied a nebulous resistance to the institutionalized regulation and idealization of bodily movement promoted by ballet culture, with its emphasis on the exclusivity of the academic education needed to succeed in the art or even to appreciate it. Ballet pantomime was appealing precisely because the definition of it was unclear. When in Paris Noverre began in the 1760s to introduce “heroic ballets” that incorporated pantomime as a way to invest movement with emotion, he apparently alternated moments of dancing with moments of pantomimic movement, in which performers walked rather than danced. According to Friedrich Melchior Grimm (1723-1807), a prodigious commentator on theatrical affairs in Paris, “one walks in [Noverre’s ballets] more than one dances. One sees in them much less of steps and symmetrical dances than of gestures and groups. [ . . . ] In the ballets of Noverre dance and measured walking are very distinct; one dances only in the great movements of passion, in decisive moments [ . . . ]. This transition from measured walking to dance and from dance to measured walking is as necessary in this spectacle as the transition from recitative to aria and from aria to recitative is in opera, but dancing for the sake of dancing cannot occur except when the danced drama is over” (Hansell 2005: 27; Grimm 1829 VI: 300). But Grimm was generally sympathetic to Noverre’s efforts to produce “serious” ballet pantomimes, although in discussing a 1779 revival of Noverre’s Médée (1763) he observed that the pantomime scenes unfolded so rapidly that it was sometimes difficult to appreciate their significance without consulting the program. That was “the extreme difficulty and the most beautiful triumph” of pantomime: to compress physical actions into “a grand and magnificent tableau” that nevertheless occurred so quickly. By contrast, dance sections presumably allowed for easier attention to spectacle because of the repetition of steps and movements (Grimm 1880 XII: 368). In pantomime, movement was continuously changing from one idea to the next, one sentiment to the next, and the performer preferred to change a movement or gesture to make a point rather than to repeat it. However, Noverre’s approach to ballet pantomime did not inspire as much enthusiasm in Paris as the Opera expected, and he soon focused, with no greater success, on ideas of heroic ballet that remained within the conventional ballet movement vocabulary, preferring even to forget what was perhaps his most distinctive achievement as a choreographer, Les Fêtes chinoises.

Meanwhile, much of the innovative thinking about ballet pantomime took place outside of France, chiefly through the Italian concept of ballo pantomimo, the term the Italians gave to the thing that Weaver and Riccoboni had introduced (Fabbricatore 2014: 24-25). In Italy, opera houses resembled the English scene in adopting a commercial dimension, with aristocratic sponsors or investors and sideline enterprises, such as gambling, so that an opera house was also sometimes a casino or social club, a phenomenon which probably contributed to some of the French hostility toward Italian opera. As in French opera, Italian opera included ballets that hardly ever had any connection with the opera narrative, but the ballets were often as long as the opera itself (Hansell 2005: 24). French ballet, however, tended to keep dancers’ feet close to the surface of the stage to create a smooth, gliding, often undulant movement, while the Italian ballet favored leaping, sprinting movements (“caprioles”) that produced an “aerial” effect and made much wider use of hands and arms to signify emotions or motivations. The Italians, unlike Noverre, integrated pantomimic movement with dance, especially in the genre known as grotteschi, which by the middle of the eighteenth century was more of a fantastical than comical dance supplemented by spectacular scenic transformations inspired by ancient mythic themes (Hansell 2005: 20-21). Ballet throughout Europe generally adopted the same system of steps and positions, and the Italians used the French terms to identify the different positions, even if they used the system for different choreographic goals (Hammond 2005: 111, 149). But in Italy, as in France, controversy reigned over the use of pantomimic movement to construct “serious” theatrical works. The most famous grotteschi performer and choreographer and the author of an influential 1779 treatise on ballet technique, Genarro Magri (ca. 1735-1785), continually quarreled with ballet practioners and theorists, including Noverre, over how to represent “passions,” identities, and ideas through movement. Magri advocated for versatility of performance skills in dancers and diversification of themes and “passions” that movement could represent; he therefore saw the ballet pantomime as an opportunity to achieve these objectives, and in Vienna, Naples, and elsewhere in Italy, his approach to performer education, which stressed a “violent” tension between “extensions” and “containments” of the body, shaped not only the grotteschi aesthetic but the ballo pantomimo, which offered opportunities for grotteschi dancers that conventional ballet was unwilling to provide (cf. Magri 1779 I: 93; Tomko 2005: 159-160). While Magri favored the development of larger and more complex dance productions, he always saw ballet companies as components of opera houses, even if the ballets had nothing to do with the operas. Economic practicalities probably motivated this viewpoint, but he also saw the “Pantomimo ballato” as having descended from the ancient Roman pantomime, which accompanied action with singing (Magri 1779: 9).

By 1760, it was clear that the future of the ballet pantomime was in the hands of ballet companies attached to opera houses rather than with the foire theater companies that had invented the genre. It was also clear that Italianate sensibilities were guiding the development of the ballet pantomime. The ballet companies warmed to the ballet pantomime possibly because ballet audiences were impatient with the populist conservatism of the foire productions, with their interminable devotion to the commedia format. But ballet audiences were probably also impatient with ballet productions that merely glorified the elegant, acrobatic display of steps and positions. For ballet to achieve higher (autonomous) status as an art, it had to develop a seductive and long form capacity to represent “passions” and “serious” themes, a variety of emotional relations between bodies, and the movement vocabulary of steps and positions had very limited power to do that. Indeed, the books on ballet technique, such as Magri’s, that proliferated in the latter half of the eighteenth century tended to focus obsessively on identifying the correct execution of steps and positions without explaining how to combine movements to construct characters or to represent anything or even how to move in relation to other bodies. Pantomime provided a way to expand the narrative-emotional charm of ballet, at least until ballet was able to build its movement vocabulary to make every representational movement “pure dance.” But ballet companies could not embrace pantomime without transforming it. This meant releasing pantomime from the commedia format, so that audiences could see pantomime as something other and greater than what the foire theaters had made of it. The Italianate perspective, which nevertheless had many partisans in Paris, entailed considerable skepticism toward the French inclination for strict classifications, clear distinctions between pantomime and dance, which were fundamental in preserving the concept of “pure dance” or dance as an end in itself, with no need to represent anything other than the geometrical grandeur of bodies in movement. As Philippe Gumpenhuber (ca. 1706-1770) observed in relation to a performance at the Vienna Kärntnertortheater in 1759, the scene, choreographed by Vincenzo Turchi, presented “pantomimes, which are done while dancing,” as opposed to Noverre’s alternation of pantomime and ballet sequences (Gumpenhuber 2005: 312). The ballet pantomime amplified the scale of pantomimic action. Ballet companies in Italy and at the Kärntnertortheater usually consisted of twelve to fourteen persons, whereas commedia-oriented pantomimes in the foire theaters rarely involved more than three or four persons on stage at the same time and mostly involved only one or two figures at once. The ballet companies had to make use of many more performers to justify their existence and to support a larger field of action than commedia ensembles found profitable. In 1758, Franz Hilverding (1710-1768), a choreographer at the imperial Kärntnertortheater in Vienna, staged the ballet pantomime Le Turc Généreux, which updated a section of Rameau’s ballet héroïque, Les Indus galantes (1735), apparently without any of the singing. The artist Bernardo Belloto (1721-1780) produced a beautiful, widely circulated engraving of a scene from this ballet pantomime [Figure 86]. 

Figure 86: Painting by Bernardo Belloto (Canaletto) of a scene from the ballet pantomime Le Turc Généreux (1758), directed by Franz Hilverding in Vienna. Photo: British Museum. 

The picture shows sixteen performers on the stage, at least twenty-three musicians in the orchestra pit, and a scenic environment of great opulence. The engraving, which is the most detailed evidence available for this production, may be questionable in its accuracy, but it is nevertheless clear that ballet pantomime had become a large-scale venture and that the artist chose to represent pantomimic rather than balletic movements. Each of the sixteen figures on the stage adopts an individual gesture, including the five European women on the left, the seven Turkish men on the right, and the four figures, two men and two women in the center of the stage, which includes the Turk raising his dagger, a woman trying to restrain him, another woman on her knees imploring him and at the same time extending a protective arm to the man on his knees to her right, who is the target of the Turk’s dagger. It is a delightfully complex scene, because it presents a divided community on stage, yet all the members of the community individuate themselves through their gestures and movements. Pantomime could show a group or social world as a convergence of teeming, vibrant individuals, whereas ballet consistently saw group identity, whether energetic or subdued, as best represented through uniformity of movement, all members in step and synchronous with musical cues. The ballet director does not choreograph pantomimic movement like this but elicits it through various verbal and visual appeals to the performers’ sense of what gestures are appropriate responses to a particular dramatic moment. The performers are expected to find their own unique emotional connection to the moment and thus their own unique gestures. But a skillful, exciting group pantomime is probably more difficult to achieve than getting a group of performers to follow the same steps and move in synchrony to musical cues. 

Gumpenhuber’s synopses of brief but sometimes spectacular ballet pantomimes produced by Italian choreographers in the Vienna Kärntnertortheater in 1759 suggest that much of the pantomiming involved groups enacting scenes of village or country life, such as a wigmaking workshop, a fish market, a fruit harvest, a fair, a harbor promenade, or a cabaret. A couple of ballet pantomimes depict exotic scenes involving pirates or Turks. These are cheerful or “jolly” pieces, as Gumpenhuber calls them, but it is clear that the “pantomimes, which are done while dancing,” function to provide opportunities for dances, including solos, pas de deux, and the group dances that invariably begin and conclude the pieces (Gumpenhuber 2005: 312-319). Pantomime here created an atmosphere of diffuse communal energy that dance then harnessed into a unified, disciplined sentiment. Such grotteschi demonstrated that pantomimic dancing could provide “jolly,” convivial entertainments that referred to the actual world outside the theater and had no need to rely on the buffoonish, self-contained antics of the commedia format. But Le Turc Généreux attempted a much more “serious” or complex use of pantomime to construct group actions and to narrate relations between figures on the stage. Hilverding revealed the potential of the ballet pantomime to operate on an even more “serious” level than what Weaver, Riccoboni, or Noverre had achieved insofar as he worked with a large staff of Italians who showed enthusiasm for the genre. 

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