Recent scholarship on ancient pantomime has led to an interest in its impact on the development of modern ballet, ballet d’action, in the 18th cent. When the dancing masters and choreographers, John Weaver and Jean-Georges Noverre sought to dignify dance as an art form sui generis (after its generic separation from opera from the end of the 17th cent. onwards), it was to the ancient treatises of Lucian (Salt.) and Libanius that they turned. The ‘first’ modern attempts to revive ancient pantomime were a danced version of Act IV of Corneille’sHorace by Louis XIV’s daughter-in-law, the Duchesse du Maine (nr. Paris, 1714) and John Weaver’s Loves of Venus and Mars (London, 1717). But the most prolific, and notorious, choreographer of ballets d’action was Noverre whose treatise, Lettres sur la danse (1803–1804) was the first serious account of modern dance. Noverre looked to ancient pantomime for its mimetic and expressive power in order to demonstrate that ballet was no mere virtuoso art form, but a potential rival to both painting and opera in its ability to deal with serious subjects and tell a story with gesture and movement alone. Many of Noverre’s ballets d’action draw the source of their inspiration from Greek tragedy, the most famous of which is Medée et Jason (1776). In his collaborations with the composer, C. W. Gluck (notably with Alceste, 1767 and Iphigénie en Aulide, 1777), Noverre could be said to have been the first to bring ancient tragedy’s synthesis of word, music and dance to the modern stage.
The impact of ancient dance on modern dance was evident before the 18th cent., notably in the 15th-cent. mimed or danced interludes known as moresche and in the Stuart masques, where ancient mythological subjects and ancient dance metres afforded new political and aesthetic possibilities. The moral taint associated with the ancient dancer provided much ammunition for those who found dance offensive and/or subversive in the modern world. Prejudices from the Church Fathers are recycled in early modern Europe, especially in the baroque period, and resurface again very acutely in the age of Modernism when there was a counterblast in the Anglo-Saxon world to the cult of the body (Körperkultur) that emanated from the German-speaking world.
Ancient mythology has proved the staple of the modern dance repertoire down to the modern day, but it was during the Modernist period, above all, that the ancient dancer was to prove most alluring. Nietzsche’sThe Birth of Tragedy (1872) privileged the ancient choric dancer and at the end of the century the Cambridge Ritualists put the dancing maenad centre stage, when they designated dance a form of primitive prayer and maintained that Greek tragedy had grown out of the ritual dances in honour of Dionysus. Also very influential was the research of the French musicologist, Maurice Emmanuel, who claimed in the wake of experiments in chronophotography that the dance images on Greek vases could provide a key to the revival of Greek dance. The pioneers of Modern Dance, notably Isadora Duncan, were said to have danced like maenads, straight off a Greek vase.
Even if much dance, from George Balanchine’s mid-20th-century works onwards, has striven to resist the mimetic function of dance that Noverre sought to privilege, the ancients have remained central to the dance repertoire. Developments in modern psychology have very often paralleled those in Modern Dance and Martha Graham’s Greek-tragic ballets not only provided new insights into Greek tragedy at a time when it was rarely performed on stage (e.g., Cave of the Heart ( = E. Med.) 1946, Night Journey ( = S. OT) 1947, Clytemnestra1958, Phaedra1962, Phaedra’s Dream1983), they did so by taking their cues from the psychoanalytical theories of Freud, Jung, Klein and Fromm. Dance theory has often adopted the Nietzschean terminology of the Apollineand the Dionysiac in order to analyse the work of 20th- and 21st-cent. choreography; yet by striving to privilege one element at the expense of the other (in Balanchine’s case, the formal, Apolline; in Graham and other women choreographers, very often the visceral, Dionysiac), the choreographies regularly move beyond the agonistic and mutually interrelated terms set out in The Birth of Tragedy. Recent scholarship on the ancient singing and dancing chorus has been matched by a resurgence of interest in choruses in performance—both in non-western theatrical traditions and within western theatre, where collective movement is often sought as an antidote to the modern, atomized world.
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