Perfecting Pantomime

Help students find the right approach to storytelling.

Andrew Murphy performing in Coppélia with Houston Ballet II

Since the 18th century, choreographers have used pantomime to help tell stories. Ballets like Giselle, La Sylphide and The Sleeping Beauty have iconic pantomime scenes, where rather than dancing full-out, characters communicate through a sort of balletic sign language. These gestures are just as integral to the ballet as the variations and pas de deux; the interactions help advance the plot and define characters, adding depth and nuance to the story.

Speaking without words may appear straightforward, but it requires precision and skill. “Charlie Chaplin was absolutely brilliant,” says Adrienne Dellas, artistic director at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC. “It looked spontaneous, but he worked out every little motion until he found exactly the right expression.”

Good pantomime is hard to do well, and a ballet could fall apart if this body language is not clear. Audiences may get distracted or confused if the storytelling is not understandable—and believable. Dancers need patience and a good imagination to work through these scenes. As a teacher, you can help them develop and refine their skills.

There’s No Such Thing as Too Young for Storytelling

You can offer students an early introduction to the basics by helping them work on showing emotion. Andrew Murphy, principal instructor at Houston Ballet Academy, plays music for his youngest students and encourages them to express what they hear through improvisation. “Instead of going into what the pantomime is saying,” he says, “I’ll ask them to show me what it looks like to be sad, or happy, or how they would act tired.”

At the Kirov Academy, students start working on pantomime at age 10, so by the time they learn excerpts from Swan Lake, for example, they already understand the context of the gestures and how they are laced into the fabric of the ballet. Dellas also offers a ballet mime class during the summer course, giving new and prospective students a chance to get caught up. “We have so many children coming in who’ve never had the opportunity to study how the great story ballets are put together, and how pantomime helps explain the stories,” she says.

From Script to Stage

To begin, Murphy finds it helpful to give students a verbal script to say in their minds. “They need to know what they’re trying to say before they try to express it,” he says. Then, once it’s clear to them, the dancers have to translate the feelings into their bodies. He has them experiment with position of their feet and posture to see how they feel most natural while in character. “It’s teaching them to go with their own instinct,” he says. “It comes easier to some people, but everyone can do it.”

Dancers should also consider their character’s intention. Ballet has specific guidelines for some phrases such as “marry,” “swear” and “dance.” The movement is based on classical port de bras, but it leaves room for interpretation. “If someone is strong, then the chin is down and the chest is out,” says Dellas. “When they ask, ‘What are you doing?’ the hand moves away from the body, and the fingers open. A softer role, like Juliet’s mother, might ask the same question, but more gently.”

It might help to practice in front of a mirror to see if what the dancers are feeling lines up with the gestures they are performing. But Dellas suggests teachers guide this practice. “It needs to be directed,” she says, “because sometimes they’ll overexaggerate or think they’re doing something, and they’re not. Pantomime is part of an artform, not just something they can do like karaoke.” For homework, Dellas asks children to think about five different ways a prince might ask a question, or how a peasant girl would hold her arms and head.

Challenges of Learning a New Language

The most common problems dancers face are body placement and timing. Standing too close to another person can make the gestures muddled, and angling the body away from the audience can cause viewers to miss the interaction entirely. And when it comes to timing, waiting until another dancer is done “speaking” before beginning their own movements is essential to the clarity. Murphy emphasizes musicality, as well. “The ballets are choreographed to a specific score, and the music and the mime go hand in hand,” he says. “The timing makes a difference, especially in comedy. If it’s rushed, it’s not as funny as it could be.”

“The root of pantomime is an incredible imagination,” says Dellas. She encourages students to paint, read classic literature and look at photographs and old movies to inspire their creative practices. Dancers can also learn from watching people in everyday life, like parents who shake their fingers at children when they don’t want them to do something. “We use pantomime all the time,” says Dellas. “It is part of the human condition.” DT

Julie Diana retired as principal dancer from the Pennsylvania Ballet in 2014.

Kirov Academy dancers in La Sylphide

Give Voice to Your Movement

Tips for clear and expressive pantomime from Andrew Murphy of Houston Ballet Academy

“Make eye contact.” Looking at the person you are gesturing to helps make the pantomime more of a conversation.

Keep the port de bras simple. Flowery arms and unnecessary movements make the gestures less clear.

“Pantomime should come from within. For dancers to learn the craft, they need to feel it.”

Move with confidence. “Kids might be self-conscious in the beginning, but it’s important to have fun with it and feel free. Give them the guidelines and let them play with it.” —JD

Photo (top) by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy of Houston Ballet; by Paolo Galli, courtesy of Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC

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