The Shift from Oblivion to Paris: Vienna and Semiramis: Pantomime Turns Serious

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

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Figure 87: A fifteenth century German woodcut depicting Babylonian Queen Semiramis and her son Ninias. Photo: Forum Opera.
Figure 88: Queen Semiramis (1905), painting by Italian artist Cesare Saccaggi (1868-1934). Photo: Public Domain.

Vienna and Semiramis: Pantomime Turns Serious

When Hilverding accepted an invitation to direct ballet activities in St. Petersburg, his assistant, Gasparo Angiolini (1731-1803) succeeded him as ballet director in Vienna. Angiolini pursued an ambitious vision for ballet pantomime. In 1761, he collaborated with the librettist Ranieri de’Calzabigi (1714-1795) and the composer Christoph Willibad Gluck (1714-1787) on the ballet pantomime Don Juan for the Kärntnertortheater. This production, adapted from Moliere’s 1665 play, although it had a few comic moments, attempted a much more “serious” mood than Les Fêtes chinoises or The Loves of Mars and Venus, with the final scene set in a cemetery and Don Juan entering hell accompanied by churning strings and ominous, intoning trombones. Initially about twenty minutes in length and then expanded to about thirty-five minutes, the piece attracted much attention for its seriousness and its innovative determination to subordinate dancing to the demands of dramatic intensity. Angiolini claimed that tragic ballets had preceded him, in Stuttgart, but Don Juan was significant insofar as the piece was clearly built around the characters of the story rather than around the dancers in the imperial company (Angiolini 2015: 34). It also followed Hilverding’s model of taking a speech/voice oriented text and proving that the same story could be told more economically with only instrumental music and “gestures.” Angiolini, Calzabigi, and Gluck “reformed” the ballet by eliminating irrelevant divertissements, reducing the kinetic “embellishment,” and concentrating pantomimic gestures within dance positions or movements, so that the arms and hands communicated ideas or sentiments instead of fluttering, undulating or rising decorously. The trio of collaborators followed up this triumph with the even more successful opera Orfeo e Euridice (1762), which includes the famous “Dance of the Blessed Spirits,” wherein dancing advanced the narrative rather than functioned as a divertissement. Angiolini, Calzabigi, and Gluck became involved in other projects that did not bring them together, but in 1765, they collaborated again on what was their most “serious” production of a ballet pantomime: Semiramis, adapted from the 1748 tragedy of Voltaire, although Gluck had already written an opera about Semiramis, also in 1748, with a libretto by Metastasio. The ballet pantomime could not be more serious: the Babylonian queen Semiramis, having murdered her husband, plots to marry her own son and establish an empire with a new sexual and moral framework, although neither she nor her son are aware that their passion for each other is incestuous; the revelation of incestuous desire motivates the son to kill his mother. The piece was only about a half hour long and Gluck’s music was intensely austere, almost entirely in a minor key, with very short, darkly colored scenes (Gluck 1993: CD 2); such music was “what can only be called the beginnings of a new aesthetic, in which ordinary musical beauty becomes subordinate to a greater purpose: dramatic passion” (Heartz 1995: 215). Angiolini’s pantomimic choreography emphasized the beautiful performance of “simple” physical actions with tragic import rather than the execution of steps or synchronized movements. His approach becomes clearer when looking at the language of his scenario for Semiramis. For example, these words describing a section of the second act when the Queen must declare a new husband: 

Ninias [the son] enters, followed by soldiers. He carries to the feet of Semiramis the trophies of victory and the spoils of his defeated enemies. One sees that the Queen focuses on him. She would even declare him at that instant her inclination; but remorse is felt in her soul. But Semiramis finally chooses him; he bows down to her; she points out, and addresses the high priest and orders him to perform the ceremony. Oroés refuses because he does not believe that this marriage may be acceptable to the gods: after repeated refusals, the Queen issues a sign of contempt that makes heard what will be obeyed by Others. She leads Ninias to the altar; but suddenly the sky darkens, thunder rumbles, the simulacrum of Belus, and the Altar are struck by lightning; terror seizes all minds, and the temple remains empty in a moment (Angiolini 2015: 55).

All of these actions occur within a few minutes; no action motivates the performance of a dance, yet all physical action works on driving the narrative forward, one “simple” action spurs another, with a tremendous compression of emotions into “actions” or “gestures,” as Angiolini describes them; an emotion here does not cause a character to dance, rather, an emotion causes a physical action in one body that causes a responding emotion and physical action in another body, so that actions or gestures by different bodies are in a kind of dialogue with each other or linked to each other, without, however, requiring any embellishment of movement to signify that the narrative exists above all to display such embellishment, to show steps and positions, a dance. 

Semiramis was probably the closest thing to ancient Roman pantomime that the eighteenth century produced. It had a tragic theme; scenes were brief, and all performance elements built to an intense dramatic climax. Gluck wrote only enough music to “cover” the execution of the actions; he did not write music that allowed performers to fill time executing steps and movements that did not cause other performers to respond. Physical signification relied heavily on the hands, facial expressions (“mask”), and the upper body. Angiolini treated the corps de ballet like a Greek chorus, divided between the female entourage of the Queen, the soldiers of Ninius, and the priests. Angiolini even used something like supertitles to reinforce or clarify the emotional atmosphere at three moments, for example: “a hand traces before her on the wall of the cabinet this verse: ‘My son, avenge me: tremble, perfidious wife” (Angiolini 2015: 54). This effect was similar to the use of the interpellator in the ancient pantomime. Angiolini was quite familiar with Lucian and other writers on the ancient pantomime and drama, and he explicitly acknowledged his desire to recover the ancient approach to pantomime. He even went so far as to assert that “the dance of our day has degenerated to the point of no longer seeming more than the art of making capers and antics, jumping or running in step, or at most of comporting the body or walking with grace without losing balance, displaying soft arms and quaint, elegant attitudes. Our schools do not teach us anything; and this follows us in what we produce in the theaters, where one shows the vigor of a jiggle for a few minutes with strength, and lightness. These are our Columns of Hercules […] this miserable meandering [baladinage]” (Angiolini 2015: 39-40). Furthermore, Angiolini and his collaborators had demonstrated that pantomime was capable of achieving a somber, monumental grandeur unique to their own time. Semiramis greatly expanded the range and complexity of pantomime to represent emotions and provoke them in the spectator. It depicted lust, violent ambition, remorse, vengeance, and contradictory expressions of love while provoking “horror, pity, terror” in the spectator, while depicting such disturbing “passions” with elegance, majesty, grace, and delicacy (Angiolini 2015: 67-68). As Fabbricatore observes, with Semiramis, Angiolini had moved the ballet pantomime far beyond the balletic inclination to provoke astonishment and admiration for physical virtuosity. In doing so, he also moved the aesthetic appreciation of human movement away from compliance with “universal,” idealizing laws of beauty linked to the regulation of the body through balletic steps and positions and toward a much more subjective and even “revolutionary” idea of kinetic beauty as an “emancipation” of feeling, a “poesie,” that amplifies individual differences and thus undermines the illusion of social unity (Fabbricatore 2012: 13). In this respect, too, Semiramis was close to the ancient Roman pantomime, which so often excited audiences because it exposed “factions” within them. 

However, Semiramis has the reputation of having been a failure (Homans 2010: 88-89; Heartz 1995: 211-213). The piece was supposed to celebrate the wedding of Josef II, Archduke of Austria (1741-1790), to Princess Maria Josepha of Bavaria (1739-1767), toward whom the Archduke felt no affection. The Archduke and his entourage walked out on the performance, and the audience responded with stunned silence. It is difficult to understand how Angiolini, Calzabigi, and Gluck could believe that their piece was an appropriate way to celebrate a wedding. But it is possible that for the three of them the desire and power to experiment was greater than the pleasure of accommodating any social or aesthetic protocol. The trio did not foresee especially bad consequences for their experimental impulse, and none resulted. Angiolini was proud of Semiramis and regarded it as one of his finest productions. To accompany the 1765 performance, he published his Dissertation sur les Ballets Pantomimes des Anciens, pour servir de programme au Ballet Pantomime Tragique de Sémiramis, in which he explained his approach to a new kind of ballet pantomime inspired by the ancient Roman pantomime. The pamphlet probably exerted greater influence over the theater world than the subdued audience response to the performance. In 1773, Angiolini staged another production of Semiramis in Venice. The shadowy adventurer Ange Goudar (1708-1791) wrote about this production in considerable detail as part of his propaganda campaign against the ballet pantomime, which he had launched in 1759, with his Observations Sur Les Trois Derniers Ballets Pantomimes Qui Ont Paru Aux Italiens Aux Francois. He remarked that in Semiramis “the feet do not speak at all,” and then he touched upon the argument he introduced in the Observations, where he claimed that, “it is a malady of our ballet masters that they want to make the legs speak, if one may express it thus, and to articulate attitudes: dance is so little equipt to render ideas methodically, that any progress that one gains in this art will always be very imperfect [ . . . ]” (Goudar 1759: 10). His main complaint was that the pantomimic gestures, though well-performed by Monsieur and Madame Campioni, do not achieve their intended signification if the spectator does not read the program (the Dissertation) that accompanies the performance. Pantomimic gesture in itself does not explain that Semiramis and Ninius do not know that they are mother and son. Angiolini’s occasional use of supertitles, Goudar implies, merely reinforces the point that gesture is helpless at conveying what a handful of words makes clear. To amplify this point, Goudar focuses on the final scene in which the Shadow of Ninus rises from the tomb and leads Semiramis into the earth. He presents a spoken dialogue between the Shadow and Semiramis, which is an adaptation of Voltaire’s original language. In the speech exchanged between Semiramis and her dead husband are manifold thoughts and feelings that pantomimic gesture presumes to represent but cannot or winds up representing something other than intended, with “ridiculous” consequences (Goudar 1777: 88-98). Goudar’s critique represents the conservative ballet perspective: dance is a great art because it has no need to represent anything other than itself, other than an idealized humanity achieved by the geometric regulation of the body through “universal,” idealizing steps and positions, supplemented by glamorous costumes and scenography. Of course, this perspective is blind to the point of pantomime, which is that gesture is indeed enigmatic and even arbitrary; it is relative to the body that performs it, it is relative to the emotion that motivates it, to the scene, to the person who sees it, to the music, to the possibilities of “metamorphosis” within the performer. The use of supertitles or an accompanying program or “interpellation” simply reinforces this point without, however, diminishing Angiolini’s contention that gesture could “say” things that language could not (Angiolini 2015: 49-50). But for many in the ballet culture, this pantomimic way of thinking “seriously” about human movement was now no longer a “low,” marginal aesthetic surfacing from the crude aspirations of the foire theaters and the acrobatic frivolities of the grotteschi—it constituted a major threat to ballet (cf., Fabbricatore 2011).

Semiramis inaugurated a European vogue for “serious” pantomime or pantomime héroïque. The trio of collaborators went on to enjoy bountiful careers. Gluck and Angiolini collaborated on a couple of other tragic ballet pantomimes, Ifigenia in Aulide (1765) and Alessandro (1766), about which virtually nothing is known. When Hilverding became embroiled in a scandal in St. Petersburg, Angiolini replaced him, and Hilverding returned to Vienna. Until 1773, Angiolini was busy in St. Petersburg and Moscow staging both tragic and pastoral ballet pantomimes. Then he worked in Venice and Milan before returning to Vienna (1774) to collaborate with Gluck again on the tragic ballet Orphelin de la Chine, another adaptation of Voltaire and another work about which nothing is known. He was in St. Petersburg again from 1776-1778 producing tragic ballet pantomimes, then in Venice, Turin, and Verona, before settling for a while at La Scala in Milan, where he produced yet more tragic and heroic pantomimes, including, among many others, La morte di Cleopatra (1780), Attila (1781), Alzira, ossia gli americani (1782), and Teseo in Creta (1782), about which one must locate extremely rare sources that Stefania Onesti has been able to identify but unable to consult on behalf of her monumental dissertation on Italian ballet pantomime (Onesti 2014 II: 764-765). From 1783-1786, he was again in St. Petersburg, where he mostly taught. By 1789, he was back at La Scala to revive some of his older works and introduce new ballets and ballet pantomimes: Fedra (1789), Sargine (1790), and Amore e Psiche (1789), which was an adaption of the pantomime scene in Apuleius (Tozzi 1972: 158-167). The career of Angiolini thus indicates an expanding international audience for “serious” ballet pantomime, although he was not at all averse to devising comic ballet pantomimes. 

While working at the Regio Ducal Theater in Milan in 1773, Angiolini shared choreographic duties with Noverre, whose approach to ballet pantomime struck him as damaging to the genre. He therefore published his Lettere di Gasparo Angiolini a Monsieur Noverre sopra Ballo Pantomimi (1773), in which he asserted that Noverre had initiated a conflict in ballet pantomime between French and Italian factions, so to speak. He accused Noverre of arrogance in devaluing the pioneering contributions to the ballet pantomime by Hilverding and the Viennese court culture, which had saved pantomime from the “barbarism and indecency” of the commedia aesthetic, and in underestimating the power of Italians to create greatness in the arts (Angiolini 1773: 10-40; 110-111). Angiolini argued that the ballet pantomime is a form of poetry rather than drama, and Noverre failed to grasp this distinction by constructing excessively convoluted, protracted narratives that failed to achieve the elegant “simplicity” of movement necessary to produce seriousness in pantomime. Curiously, echoing Goudar, he complained that Noverre relied too much on accompanying programs to bestow coherence on his pantomime ballets, although Angiolini himself continuously relied on programs (Angiolini 1773: 25-39; Tozzi 1972: 166-168). He contended that Noverre lacked sufficient musical skill to construct ballet pantomimes, for the choreographer should also be a composer, as was Angiolini himself (Angiolini 1773: 47-51; 91-93). Even though Angiolini’s fame derived from his development of the serious ballet pantomime, he complained that Noverre treated the genre as superior to all other forms of ballet, whereas both choreographers and dancers should move with equal ease and mastery from one genre to another (Angiolini 1773: 101-102). Noverre responded by publishing his own pamphlet in which he described Angiolini as a resentful, malignant figure, whose critique was worthy only of a condescending sneer, although he did insist that the movement “language” of pantomime could not expand or grow more complex without written progams accompanying the performance. In any case, he appealed to audiences to decide whose approach to ballet pantomime was best (Noverre 1774: 11-13, 18-19). A pamphlet war between Noverre and Angiolini supporters then ensued, and Kathleen Hansell has given an excellent account of it (Hansell 2002: 229-235; cf. Carones 1987: 42-54). She suggests that ultimately Noverre lost the contest, because he, unlike Angiolini, was unable to integrate dance (steps), ballet (geometric configuration), and pantomime (gesture). He became deeply disillusioned by pantomime, because he assumed that “pantomime unaided is so obscure, it needs something akin to [a presumed] declamatory text of ancient Roman spectacles: the explicative scenario [ . . . ] Noverre and his followers had not recognized the creative prospects of Italian mime in dance” (Hansell 2002: 240). But the pamphlet war also revealed that the struggle for control over the identity and aesthetics of the serious ballet pantomime had become a basis for intensifying cultural differences over the expressive power of the body. 

Noverre, however, remains a cherished figure in ballet histories. Even if his ballet pantomimes were tediously long, incoherent, and ruinously expensive, they eventually succeeded in detaching the Paris Opera ballet company from the Opera and establishing the autonomy of ballet through the ballet d’action. Moreover, Noverre repudiated his enthusiasm for pantomime and ended up embracing the enduring conservative philosophy that ballet was above all about the beauty of the steps and positions. Angiolini, on the other hand, never advocated for ballet companies to operate independently of operas. He cultivated an interdisciplinary aesthetic. He wanted the ballet pantomime to achieve its own intense, compressed moment of seriousness in relation to other theatrical experiences brought together on the same program, and in this respect, too, his thinking was similar to the ancient Roman pantomimes. Angiolini’s influence in his own time was greater than might be supposed from the ballet and theater histories of the last century. Part of the problem is that, aside from Don Juan and Semiramis, documentation relating to his many other ballet pantomime productions is lacking. But, as Hansell has observed, another part of the problem is that for many of his productions Angiolini himself composed the music, and his music, relentlessly mechanical and uninspired in itself, was far more conservative than his choreographic imagination: his “rudimentary musical language […] consigned the majority of his works to oblivion” (2002: 231). Music in pantomime accompanies the gesture, like soundtrack music; it does not motivate movement or provide a reason for gesture or dance, as in ballet. Pantomime music should be aligned with a particular emotion rather than with the movement, even if the movement signifies a different emotion. But Angiolini was not able to convey nearly as strong an emotional response to life through music as he was able to do through movement. An implication of this situation, then, is that ballet pantomime thrives in a vibrant atmosphere of collaboration between highly talented artists rather than in relation to a single, unifying artistic intelligence like a choreographer, director, composer, or librettist. Gluck’s dark music for Don Juan and Semiramis bestowed a unique beauty on Angiolini’s pantomimic organization of movement that allowed those pieces to resonate powerfully across Europe. But Calzabigi’s taut, tense scenarios also inspired dramatic clarity of gesture, as he himself implied when he complained that Gluck should not get all the credit for the success of his reformist operas (Prod’homme 1917: 265-266). Yet each member in the trio of collaborators was individually so successful that he was able to pursue numerous opportunities that did not include both of the others. While Angiolini went to St. Petersburg, Gluck went to Paris, where he triumphed, especially with libretti by Calzabigi, who was prodigiously busy in Italy and Vienna in addition to his projects with Gluck. In Paris, Gluck’s efforts to integrate ballets into his operas met with resistance from the Opera ballet corps, and he sometimes had to add dance scenes to accommodate the dancers and their claques, who certainly caused problems for Noverre as well. The ballet pantomime achieved power and appeal as a sign of “reform,” innovation; the genre seemed important insofar as it created an aura of instability in the theater culture, as opposed to ballet, which treasured the absolute stability of its aristocratically conceived “universal” rules of movement. The message of reform and innovation never seemed stronger than when the trio of collaborators produced Semiramis for a completely inappropriate occasion—they made the point that together they could do whatever they wanted, and they wanted to “reform” the conditions under which their artistic talents could operate at their most serious level. The collaborations of this trio of artists made the ballet pantomime seem an opportunity for daring aesthetic adventure, and this nimbus of daring sustained hope and enthusiasm for the genre long after the trio had run out of occasions to collaborate. 

Angiolini’s ballet pantomimes showed at least that some large audiences wanted something more or other than ballet to reveal the “serious” or “heroic” expressive power of human movement. Yet ballet companies were expected to accommodate this emerging audience appetite, and it was as if ballet pantomime was unable to establish its own institutional identity without ballet having a controlling partnership in it. Ballet needed the ballet pantomime to develop the ballet d’action and emancipation from opera. Ballet pantomime needed the ballet to pursue the experiment in large-scale pantomimic action, which was necessary in expanding the appreciation and transformation of social identities. But as long as ballet companies were responsible for producing ballet pantomimes, they were inclined to make the genre conform to ballet’s aesthetic system. Performances of ballet pantomimes lack good documentation, particularly in relation to movement. However, August Ferrere, a choreographer who apparently never worked as such in Paris, compiled in Valenciennes a workbook of four short ballet pantomimes he produced probably for a company touring in northeastern France and Belgium. He dated the manuscript 1782, so presumably the pieces were contemporary with that time. These are “light-hearted” pieces that depict village scenes, except for Le Peintre amoureux de son modèle, which has a vaguely urban setting and is a very loose, very abreviated adaption of a 1757 comic opera of the same name by Egidio Duni. Ferrere inscribed many details for each of the ballet pantomimes: musical notations, tempi, keys, instrumentation, and durations; number of performers; and descriptions of actions to be performed within each section of the piece. For the movements of the performers, Ferrere provided Feuillet notations of dance steps, floor patterns for group movements, and sometimes little sketches of figures and their gestures. The manuscript is the most detailed description of any dance or pantomimic works in the eighteenth century. Carol G. Marsh and Rebecca Harris-Warrick have published a lengthy analysis of the manuscript. They point out that the pantomimic sections of the pieces are not consistently distinct from the dance sections. Sometimes pantomime occurs within a dance or while dancing, sometimes a performer pantomimes while another dances, and sometimes a section of a scene contains only pantomime, creating a “fluidity of movements,” although the manuscript refers generally to pantomimic action without describing gestures (Marsh 2005: 263). A video reconstruction by the Divertimenty Company of scenes from Le Peintre amoureux de son modèle demonstrates the effectiveness of the manuscript in prescribing this oscillation between pantomimic and dance movement (Divertimenty 2014). While the manuscript gives a vivid idea of how these small, cheerful ballet pantomimes worked in performance, the extent to which Ferrere’s approach to the genre was typical or conventional remains unclear without corroborating evidence. Even so, the manuscript indicates that Ferrere displayed a fairly conventional choreographic imagination. Marsh and Harris-Warrick fixate on identifying all the steps for the dances, they identify the types of dances, and they describe the relation of the dances to the action of the scenario. They also analyze the geometric floor plans for the group dances and the relation of the music to the movement (2005: 243-275; cf., Jablonka 2012). Indeed, the obsession with dance steps and configurations makes it difficult to grasp the narrative action, let alone the “meaning” of it all. But that is perhaps the point. What the analysis of the manuscript makes clear is that Ferrere tries to turn as much of the action into dance as possible. He resolves all conflicts with dance; he ends all scenes with dance; if he begins a scene with a pantomime, he soon begins a dance; otherwise, he begins his scenes with dances; every scene contains more than one dance, and occasionally dances seem irrelevant to the ostensible narrative. The music (by an unknown and unremarkable composer, possibly Ferrere himself) structures all the action in the pieces, and Ferrere even describes the relations between steps and notes. One gains a strong impression of dance and music circumscribing pantomimic action, as if pantomime interrupts an insistently “harmonizing” desire or perhaps imperative to dance. The manuscript creates an aesthetic framework in which it is very difficult for the expressive power of pantomime to expand. From a ballet perspective, it is no doubt not surprising that a ballet company would construct this relation between dance and pantomimic action. What is peculiar is the motive within European culture to encourage a “serious” appreciation of pantomimic art and at the same time to situate pantomime within an institutional apparatus that does not allow pantomime to increase its power to control perception or understanding of the body’s expressivity, in spite of the era’s obvious preoccupation with how the body “says” things that cut through or across the different languages which breed conflict within the culture and define the “foreignness” of it.

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