Pantomime and Modernism: American Women Exert Influence on Pantomime

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

PDF version of the entire book.

Figure 113: Students performing the “Spring Pantomime” in Greco-Roman costumes in 1915 at the Fairmont State Normal School, Fairmont, West Virginia, USA. Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952). Photo source: West Virginia and Regional History Center.

American Women Exert Influence on Pantomime

An approach to pantomimic art outside of the French-dominated fixation on Pierrot and the commedia tradition did not begin to reassert itself until the twentieth century. Part of this reassertion was due to women developing a path to body consciousness that was independent of the male-dominated literary and theatrical institutions pervasively invested in upholding a male perspective on female performance. Much of the development of this modern female body consciousness occurred outside of France. But in relation to pantomime, an important figure in the development was the French pedagogue Francois Delsarte (1811-1871), whose ideas gained an especially receptive female audience in the United States. Disenchanted with the highly codified aesthetics of acting he learned as a music student at the Paris Conservatoire, Delsarte devised his own “system” for acting that bestowed emotional values on gestures and mystically linked movements, gestures, and facial expressions to spiritual moods. As a musician, however, he placed great emphasis on vocal training, the “harmonic” coordination of physical gesture with vocal dynamics and inflections that revealed the moral, mental, and physical well-being or credibility of the performer; in effect, his system prepared students more for oratory or “eloquence” than for acting. He never published his theories, and it was his students who compiled somewhat misty reminiscences of his lectures (cf. Delsarte 1893). One of his students in Paris was the prodigious American theater visionary Steele MacKaye (1842-1894), who, compelled by the Franco-Prussian War to return to America, promoted Delsarte’s ideas in New York City through a school he established in the 1870s (Ruyter 1979: 18-21). He himself never published any work about Delsarte’s “system,” although he was a successful author of plays and proposals for new theater technologies. His pedagogic style appealed mainly to teachers of oratory and eloquence, not to actors. These teachers attracted many female students, who believed that the study of “correct” vocal delivery, poise, posture, and expressive gesture would improve their social mobility and make them more attractive to a higher social class. Some teachers published idiosyncratic manuals on Delsarte’s theories of oratory and bodily communication, and while these books hardly provided a unified understanding of his “system,” they nevertheless accommodated an expanding vogue for self-improvement linked to a class-conscious self-awareness of the body as a signifier. Such books tended to be at once more rigorous and more philosophical than, for example, Mary Tucker Magill’s little book Pantomimes (1882), in which the author regards pantomime as a branch of “elocution,” a way of showing the body stirred to a distinct, believable movement by the emotions inscribed in a poem, recited by the performer, and apparently accompanied by music. Much of the book consists of illustrations depicting a solitary woman assuming the poses ascribed to particular conditions or emotions: Expectation, The Vow, Affection, Anger, Sorrow, Joy, or Fear [Figure 114]. Magill clearly has in mind an idea of poetic performance in which the performer does not assume a “character,” but brings to physical expression an emotion within her that unites her body to the words of a poem. In a sense, the body illustrates a poem the way the pictures in the book illustrate emotions. While the book is much too simple to be credible, it does reveal a fundamental weakness in Delsartean thinking: the failure to connect movements, gestures, and emotions to each other to produce narratives. Teachers like breaking down large structures into discrete, teachable units, but they tend to lack the capacity to theorize how discrete units may be combined to produce large structures. 

Figure 114: Illustrations from Mary Magill’s “Pantomimes” (1882) showing gestures for signifying Fear, Sorrow, and the Vow. 

One of the most popular Delsarte manuals was Delsarte System of Expression (1887) by Genevieve Stebbins (1857-1934), a student of MacKaye and a lecturer on the Delsarte system at Boston University. The book largely consists of translations of classroom lectures, demonstrations, and exercises given by Delsarte or recollected by his students. Delsarte advises the student to perform the exercises before a mirror so that she will see how others see her perform the movement (Stebbins 1887: 25). Even though the book captures Delsarte’s distinctive voice in the classroom, Stebbins devoted only perfunctory attention to the vocal delivery aspect of Delsarte’s system and concentrated on the theme of “aesthetic gymnastics,” the training of the body to make “fitful” significations or, more abstractly, “the aesthetic within the semeiotic” (57-58). She inventoried a multitude of exercises covering almost every part of the body that could carry expressive value, and the student could perform every exercise alone, before a mirror and without the need for any theatrical devices, such as makeup or fashion accessories. Indeed, a feature of Delsarte’s system is that it does not require the student to study any performance other than her own; he makes no reference to any actual performances by any actors, orators, or dancers, and he never encourages students to study the performances of others, theatrical or otherwise, even though actors invariably learn more by studying other actors than by doing exercises. But the point of the system was to strengthen the confidence of the student to present her “correct” self to an audience, rather than to present her self as a manifestation of multiple or “other” identities. As a compilation of exercises for regulating bodily movement, the system as Stebbins described it encouraged dancelike rather than histrionic impulses. She did, however, include a special section on the “Grammar of Pantomime,” in which she discussed, quite abstractly, the “nine laws that govern the significance of motion in the human body.” She explained each law in aphoristic terms, so that, for example, within “The Law of Motion,” “Excitement or passion tends to expand gesture; Thought or reflection tends to contract gesture; Love or affection tends to moderate gesture.” As for “The Law of Direction,” “Lengths are passional; Heights and depths are intellectual; Breadths are volitional” (167-174). Stebbins then shows the application of the laws by imagining a scene in which the student greets a person she loves only to discover that the person does not love her, thus causing her to use her body to signify a wide range of emotions (177-184). The performance of this scene is technically complicated, requiring much exercise to perform “correctly,” even though the reader perceives the scene as a situation that she may expect to encounter in “real life.” In this context, then, pantomime is about the performance of the body in daily life; it is the “correct” bodily manifestation of a morally and intellectually “fitful” personality or “soul.” But Stebbins developed her own concept of “harmonic gymnastics,” in which she stressed the relation between “dynamic breathing” and the performance of gestures and movements; this relation, though it involved numerous exercises, brought the student into contact with the spiritual or religious dimension of her self, and the exercises bore some similarities to yoga. The exercises called for movements that were beautiful in themselves and had no “semeiotic” significance beyond indicating the performer’s healthful pleasure in performing them (Stebbins 1892: 13-25). Stebbins and her school in New York City, which formed the so-called “New York School of Expression,” exerted considerable influence over prominent leaders in medicine, public education, music, Ivy League universities, and high society (the Vanderbilts, J. P. Morgan), and hundreds of her students spread her teachings throughout America (The Successful American 1902 V: 105-107). Around 1893, she and her students began wearing chitons or tunics in class to allow freer movement of their bodies and to emulate the “Grecian” beauty of classical statuary, which was the inspiration for various poses. Stebbins and her students produced recitals to demonstrate their skills, and these included solo pantomimes, along with solo poetry recitations, dramatic monologues, solo songs, and statue poses (Werner’s Magazine January 1901 XXVI: 456). The nature of the solo pantomimes (e.g., “Amazon Drill,” “The Nymph”) remains unclear. In 1903, she published a small book that included, along with the music score, nine photos of one of her students, Marie MacDonald, performing, “in illustrative poses,” a “pantomime,” “The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam,” with MacDonald wearing what was presumably a Persian costume. The book suggests that Stebbins saw solo pantomime as a movement between one pose and the next, and in this respect her pantomime aesthetic resembled that of the ancient Romans. Yet although she began her career as an actress under MacKaye, she herself seems to have lacked the confidence to make pantomime a central goal of her teachings and aesthetic, perhaps because of the failure of Delsartean pedagogy to address relations between movement tropes or gestural “laws” and their combination into narratives that in some measure must take the performer “outside” of herself.  

One of Stebbins’ most influential students was Bess Mensendieck (1864-1957), a physician, who around 1896 migrated to Vienna, where she established a physical education school for women. The curriculum integrated the Delsarte/Stebbins pedagogy within a larger field of references to medical science, art history, and German philosophy. Mensendieck departed from Stebbins by moving away from the idea that bodily education was about giving the student confidence to appear alone before audiences. Rather, she saw bodily movement as a kind of pantomime of common or daily actions that one must perform regardless of whether anyone was watching these actions. The focus was on the “correct” performance of simple actions that the student (always female) would perform repeatedly throughout life: bending, sitting, lifting, reaching, walking, stretching, kneeling, squatting, balancing, pivoting, standing up, sitting down, folding, wiping, sweeping, chopping, lying down, rising up, climbing, tossing, or kicking. Over time, the incorrect performance of these actions would cause unnecessary organ stress, spinal and orthopedic injuries, and sometimes nervous disorders. In her book Körperkultur des Weibes (1906), she described numerous exercises, based on the simple actions, that strengthened muscles, prevented stress on organs, kept joints flexible, improved blood circulation, preserved the firmness of the spine, and amplified mental-emotional well being. She further explained how the correct, healthy way of performing the simple actions was also the most beautiful way of performing them and the way that the body carried within it access to a deeper awareness of the metaphysical realm explored by German philosophy. The book was enormously successful, enjoying many editions (under the title Körperkultur der Frau) until 1923, and enabling its author and some of her students to establish a vast network of “Mensendieck schools” in Germany, The Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, where health institutions still operate using Mensendieck’s methods (cf. Halvorsen 2009; Haldorsen 2006). An innovative feature of the book was that it used photography to demonstrate the exercises and the “correct” and “incorrect” performance of selected simple actions. Even more remarkable was the use of a completely nude female model (apparently Mensendieck herself) to perform the actions for the camera. Mensendieck went beyond Delsarte’s insistence that the student practice actions before a mirror. She believed that a woman could not improve her body without seeing it, and a woman could not see her body without gazing at her nakedness. The controlling idea is that you cannot really know yourself without seeing yourself naked. But seeing one’s body in the mirror is not the same as seeing it in a photograph, for the camera and the photographer see more of the body than the subject allows herself to see. Photography was therefore a part of the exercise regime, and students were expected to photograph as well as be photographed, to see as well as be seen, to see their own bodies by seeing other bodies. Mensendieck’s ideas exerted immense influence over thousands of women in the early years of the twentieth century because her work implied that a modern body signified an elevated condition of freedom: the modern body emerged out of a disciplined, self-determined, conjunctive relation of the body to health, science, art, daily life, morality, seeing and being seen, and bold, naked revelation. Her intention was fundamentally hygienic, with no ambition to prepare students for careers as professional performers. Yet a major consequence of her pedagogy was to inspire many women to pursue careers as solo dancers and to become members of a large female audience that wanted to see women moving alone, on their own, in a new way. 

The Delsarte-Stebbins-Mensendieck pedagogy created the educational context that allowed for the formation of modern dance in the early twentieth century. Early modern dance was almost entirely the work of women. The early modern dances were predominantly solo performances, partly because the Delsartean pedagogy focused almost entirely on the development of the individual body, and partly because the “pioneers” of modern dance felt that the desire to perform should not be inhibited by the lack of resources to create on a larger scale. Some famous and certainly inspiring early modern dancers had no connection with the Delsarte-Stebbins-Mensendieck pedagogy: Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Maud Allan, Mata Hari, all of whom received their professional education in the theater or some branch of show business. But the audience for modern female bodily performance was much greater and more diverse than the theater culture or these stars could accommodate. The Delsartean educational lineage was not encumbered with any need to preserve cherished theatrical conventions, and it was free of any desire to uphold the constraining rules and “false” ideals of ballet, which of course considered pantomime a debased or crippling image of itself. Stebbins and Mensendieck introduced larger, more philosophical concepts of pantomime than prevailed in the theater, and these concepts allowed their students to apply, build, or combine movements narratively, into dances that were “modern” because they were “free” (Freietanz) of obedience to nineteenth century assumptions about what movements could be considered dance. In effect, this female-oriented pedagogy led to a freer relation between music and speechless movement. The uncertainty about how to construct movement narratives out of the classroom exercises and “simple actions” of daily life led to narratives—dance concerts—that resembled those of the ancient Roman pantomime, even if most dancers had no knowledge of the Roman pantomime. 

The epoch of the solo modern dance was the period 1902-1924. Originally solo dancers performed one or two dances within a vaudeville or variety show. For example, the American Loie Fuller (1862-1928), at the Folies Bergère in Paris (1892-1896), enshrouded herself in a swirling, voluptuous flower-colored, undulating fabrics, and this dance she updated and supplemented with inventive lighting, scenographic, and mirror effects until 1902 (Brandstetter 1989: 17-33; cf. Lista 1994). By contrast, in 1905, the Dutch dancer Mata Hari (1876-1917) created a sensation in Paris with her exotic “Indonesian” dances, in which she wore almost nothing but jewels and a diaphanous skirt; in some salon performances, she wore even less (Waagenaar 1976: 44-47). Exotic dances by white women purporting to embody the luxuriant sensuality of colonized lands appealed to European and American audiences, but Mata Hari brought a somber, erotically charged intensity to her desire to disclose an “other” or “foreign” identity within her solitary self. In partnership with Fuller, Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) in 1902 launched a tour of German cities, where, dressed in a “Grecian” costume, she improvised a series of dances inspired by the music as she heard it. None of these dancers had any connection with pantomime; indeed, Duncan detested pantomime, although Fuller developed an interest in it after starting her Paris school in 1901. But they dramatized the point that to have an audience a solo dancer needed to display a way of moving that was unique to herself and not defined by any standard technical competence. But to do that, the dancer needed to have the whole concert program to herself rather than slots within it. In 1903, the Canadian-American dancer Maud Allan (1873-1956) presented her debut concert in Vienna, a two-hour program of the “orchestric expression in dance of pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann, to the accompaniment partly of orchestra and partly of grand piano” (Allan 1908: 80). In each of the dances, she told a little story, requiring her to change costumes and assume a different “character”: “Spring Song,” “Marche Funebre,” and scenes inspired by ancient Greek or Renaissance art. Allan was aware of ancient Roman pantomime, “which at the dawn of the Augustan age had become the mania, the rage of the Roman populace,” although she preferred to regard it, ambivalently, as both a refined Greek art and a corrupting influence on dance (16, 19). Nevertheless, she incorporated into her own dances the ancient pantomimic idea of movement between “statuesque poses.” In Berlin, where she had studied music under Busoni, she made the acquaintance of the Belgian composer Marcel Remy (?-1907), who had been in Paris a member of the circle around Stéphane Mallarmé. Remy “guided” her in the study of ancient art and “orchestric subjects,” and it “was not a case of rapid achievement,” for “nothing was more difficult than to weave harmonious, musical connection between the different poses so that there should be no break, so that there should be nothing to mar the rhythmic sense of continuous harmonious expression” (76). In 1905, she began work on her most famous piece, “The Vision of Salome,” which had its premiere in Vienna in early 1906. Allan claimed that the Bible story of Salome inspired her, not the 1891 play by Oscar Wilde or the 1904 opera adaptation of the play by Richard Strauss, both of which provoked considerable controversy and public discussion. It was, however, difficult for audiences of the time not to see more than a coincidence in her choice of material, if for no other reason than that Allan applied a consummately theatrical approach to the subject and did not simply construct another “exotic dance” derived from an ancient source. She did not use Strauss’s famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” from the opera as her accompaniment, but instead commissioned Remy to compose music especially for her. Indeed, in Allan’s scenario for the piece, the dance is fairly brief; most of the piece consists of pantomimic actions that occur after the dance takes place. The actions externalize a psychic condition in which Salome experiences turbulent, contradictory emotions and perceptions, as when, for example, she beholds the head of John the Baptist on a platter:

There is a sudden crash. She is horror-stricken! Suddenly a wild desire takes possession of her. Why, ah! why, should her mother have longed for this man’s end ? Salome feels a strange longing, compelling her once more to hold in her hands this awful reward of her obedience, and slowly, very slowly, and with ecstasy mingled with dread, she seems to grasp the vision of her prize and lay it on the floor before her. Every fibre of her youthful body is quivering; a sensation hitherto utterly unknown to her is awakened, and her soul longs for comfort (126).

Salome dances a little bit around the head. But then returns to a pantomimic mode: 

Now, instead of wanting to conquer, she wants to be conquered, craving the spiritual guidance of the man whose wraith is before her; but it remains silent! No word of comfort, not even a sign! Crazed by the rigid stillness. Salome, seeking an understanding, and knowing not how to obtain it, presses her warm, vibrating lips to the cold lifeless ones of the Baptist! […] The Revelation of Something far greater still breaks upon her, and stretching out her trembling arms turns her soul rejoicing towards Salvation. It is gone! Where, oh, where! A sudden wild grief overmasters her, and the fair young Princess, bereft of all her pride, her childish gaiety, and her womanly desire, falls, her hands grasping high above her for her lost redemption, a quivering huddled mass. It is the atonement of her mother’s awful sin! (127).

Salome does not die, as in Wilde and Strauss, and her motive in requesting from Herod the head of John the Baptist has more to do with avenging the forced marriage of Herodias, her mother, to Herod, than with a frustrated erotic attachment to the Baptist, although the scenario makes clear her sexual excitement in perpetrating violence against both her stepfather and the religious fanatic. This complicated psychological drama Allan performed in an ornamental “oriental” costume that was only slightly less scanty than the skimpy, jeweled bikinis worn by Mata Hari. Audiences found this intersection of Judeo-Christian conflict, psychological turmoil, brazen eroticism, and complicated pantomimic action fascinating (cf. Malnig 2012: 132-134). With “The Vision of Salome” as the climax of her dance program, Allan toured throughout Germany, Budapest, and Paris with much success. In 1908, she performed the piece in a London music hall to avoid the censorship of plays on Biblical themes. There the piece attracted enormous audiences, and Allan earned a fortune. Even though most of her Salome piece was a pantomime, with her triumph in London Allan established the image of the “foreign,” Biblical dancer Salome as the catalyst for the female solo modern dance concert.

            However, the problem with Salome as an “other” identity within the performer was that she completely eclipsed all other identities the performer sought to reveal in the program. Allan herself recognized this problem and tried to correct it in her autobiography by contrasting three photo images of her Salome with nine of her in other scenes and settings, yet she was never able to produce another dance-pantomime or program with nearly as much power as her Salome solo. Earlier, in 1905, the mysterious and remarkably innovative dancer Adorée Villany had experimented with a Salome performance in which she combined speech from Wilde’s play with dance, nudity, and pantomimic movement. But by 1908, she had abandoned Salome and constructed dance programs in Germany and occasionally elsewhere in Europe that featured her solo nudity in the performance of dances from different cultures and historical eras: The Assyrian Dance, The Dance of Esther, Dance of the Roman Woman, The Old Egyptian Dance, The Old Hebrew Dance, The Old Persian Dance, The Dance of Phryne, The Babylonian Dance, The Pre-Raphaelite Woman,and Death and the Maiden. Because of the nudity, she performed her programs only for private audiences, which did not prevent her from running into legal difficulties in Munich and Paris. She was imaginative about using photography to document her performances, which, along with extensive commentary, she compiled into a huge, opulent, and immensely enjoyable book in 1912. The photography suggests that, despite her claim of being a dancer, her performances were more pantomime than dance and included much posing by which she could display her nudity. She continually revised her programs, so that she replaced or supplemented the mythical-historical scenes with dances of a more abstract character (Dance of Anger, Dance of the Blind, The Seduction) or inspired by contemporary paintings by Stuck or Böcklin [Figure 115]. Yet in spite of her dynamic thinking about solo performance, her influence was limited, largely because her performances were private, for elite, invited audiences: she consistently and ambitiously used her nudity to evaluate her relation to historical, mythical, and abstract forms of “otherness” within her body, which meant that public awareness of her achievements remained confined largely to press reports of her entertaining performances in the courtrooms prosecuting her for doing nude dance programs even “secretly.” The image of Salome/Oriental femme fatale therefore continued to dominate the concept of solo female dance/pantomime. In November 1907, about six months after Allan’s Paris performance of “The Vision of Salome,” Loie Fuller staged in Paris, at the Théâtre des Arts, La Tragédie de Salomé a one-act “mimodrame,” with a libretto by Robert d’Humières(1868-1915) and music by Florent Schmitt (1870-1958). 

Figure 115: Adorée Villany, ca. 1910, “Dance of the Bees,” from Villany (1912). 

This was a grandiose production entailing opulent stage décor, manifold spectacular lighting effects, and a sumptuous orchestral score. Although d’Humières’ scenario unfolded as a sequence of distinct dances–the dance of pearls, the dance of the peacock, the dance of serpents, the dance of steel, the dance of silver, and the dance of fear—Fuller was the only body in movement; Herod, Herodias, and the Baptist were simply bystanders of the Princess’ performance. Supposedly the show dramatized the huge upheaval of nature caused by Salome’s dancing: the act begins with a lurid, “russet-hued” sunset on the terrace of Herod’s palace and concludes with a violent, orgiastic, apocalyptic storm, with the sea turning blood-red; then tempestuous, “sulphurous” clouds poison the sky, lightning shatters the stone pillars, with Salome “swept about by an infernal frenzy” (Hale 1913: 8-10). The production, however, was a fiasco. Fuller, who was forty-five at the time, apparently used the same sort of voluptuous, swirling movements with which she had created the voluptuous, swirling undulations of fabric in her abstract “flower” dances of the 1890s. “Salome was an overly voluptuous temptress who entwined herself in strings of pearls, performed a writhing dance with a six-foot-long artificial snake covered in glittering green scales, and even allowed a brief glimpse of herself naked silhouetted behind a screen.” Much of the audience regarded the production as kitsch, and as a result, “it was the last time [Fuller] allowed her body to appear onstage” (Garelick 2007: 93). The character of Salome (and Schmitt’s monumental music) completely overwhelmed her. Though she advised Allan on preparing for the London performance of “The Vision of Salome,” Fuller failed to understand what Allan already grasped: Salome was more than a dancer; she was in the grip of powerful psycho-emotional states that achieved far more effective physicality through pantomimic rather than danced movement. The mistake was in assuming that Salome was Dance, and that dance defined her, when actually Salome saw dance as subordinate or even incidental to her larger erotic, political, and religious assertions of power. 

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