Ancient Dance in Modern Dancers

Once again classicists at Oxford University have shown a lively interest in dance, with an imaginative research project investigating the forgotten art of Roman pantomime.  This form of storytelling of Greek and Roman myths by a solo dancer became very popular in Imperial Rome, with pantomimes commanding a huge public following.  The form seems subsequently to have disappeared, and little evidence apparently remains beyond a few images and references in contemporary writings.  Under the auspices of The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) researchers are exploring ways to imaginatively recreate or evoke it, by teaming dancers with classicists to collaborate on mining the texts for clues, and compose short dance studies inspired by their findings.  In addition to insights gained as to the nature of this very particular type of dance, the research team, which includes a social anthropologist, is particularly interested in the type of knowledge that can be generated through the engagement of practitioners in the research process.

Over the summer term several sessions were held at the Jacqueline Du Pré Music Centre with different pairings of dancers and classicists given a few hours to respond creatively to a text from Ovid’s Metamorphoses set to music by Oxford composer Malcolm Atkins, with the option to use a neutral mask and shawl.  Their working process and resulting sketches were documented on video, and discussed.  Much potentially revealing and interesting data has been generated, and a colloquium at the University’s Ioannou Centre on St. Giles on Tuesday 1st October provided a perfect opportunity to publicise the project, draw in guest speakers from both classical and dance scholarship to flesh out the historical context and what is currently known, as well as for the team to present some preliminary findings from the research activities.  It included brief work in progress performances from some of the artists involved; Marie-Louise Crawley showed a further stage of development of her original striking study, and Malcolm Atkins and I showed some improvisation studies exploring in more detail fragments of the text.  Along with dancer and Oxford academic Ségolène Tarte we are planning to take artistic exploration and response to this research further, in parallel and in collaboration with the ongoing research of the classicists.  So watch this space for further news!

You can find out more about the colloquium here:

and the research project here:

And see below for some photos of the original workshop in which I collaborated with classicist Rhiannon Easterbrook, taken from video footage from the research documentation by Sophie Bocksberger, to give a flavour of the process…



 AD in MD Susie Tisiphone and snake crop13-70 2 copy





 AD in MD Susie + Rhiannon moving 8-2881 copyAD in MD Susie masked crop 11 copy

  1. Thanks for the post Susie. Sounds like a fascinating project and team of researchers. The notion of an archeological dig into ephemeral structures from the past through embodiment is also a way of researching the ballets from the C19 that we think we know well. For the practitioner’s … re-inhabiting the postures, and reflecting on that embodied experience, brings a new perspective – another layer (of thought and intention) to performance that audience can engage with. I am really interested in what academic knowledge or insight emerges – and how this might inform how we record, document the knowledge.

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