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

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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