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  • Writer's pictureSam Baldwin

Dancing Around the Topic (of Theatre)

Something that’s struck me in my research on not just Greek theatre, but also on theatre in general, is how scholars have, in the past, prioritized reading—and only reading—extant texts, especially theatrical texts, rather than thinking of them as performance pieces. I feel like it's vital to examine these pieces as holistically as possible, to take into account all of the different possible forms, and to make claims based on this wider view of the text, rather than just one single aspect. Most of my current research, both here and externally, is focusing heavily on the performative aspects of theatre and play. It’s been really interesting to me. I wonder how readings of these texts are changed when they become viewings instead—when actors/actresses can perform the inherently performative works. In this blog post I’ll be discussing dance and song as they relate to the Greek Tragedies.

When I was tasked with finding out more about dance/music/song in the Greek Classics, I was excited (& I still am, by the way) because it really lined up with some of the other things I’ve been thinking about. I get to deeply consider the embodied aspects of the act of performing theatre.

I knew where I wanted to start. Research regarding the roles of dance and song in Greek theatre is well-established, both historically and contemporarily. First, before I get to newer research, I want to take us back to 1890, with Richard G. Moulton. In the opening pages of one of his books, Moulton speaks of Greek dance as “an art which used bodily motion to convey thought: as in speech the tongue articulated words, so in dancing the body swayed and gesticulated into meaning.” This sentence, written almost 130 years ago, is still accurate today. Moulton also notes that any time the language of words is elevated to that which could be considered “literature” or “art” they—the words, the language, the story—are supported by physical movement in an act called the “ballad-dance.” These ballad dances help inform the audience, the listeners, how they might physically interpret the piece beyond just the abstract concept of words. They help ground the pieces in physical form.

There’s a lot of contemporary research being done on this topic that I’d be remiss to leave out. To find it, I turned to one of my friends who studies dance and theatre. She pointed me towards a lot of great sources and other lines of inquiry, especially towards the concept of physical theatre, which highly emphasizes physical movement and the actual embodiment of the text, right where I wanted to be for my research here.

To briefly summarize a lot of scholarly information: dance, especially in Ancient Greece, was used as an additional direction for interpretation. For example, if an actor was to have been acting in a very tense and physically active scene, they could use their bodily movements to depict this tension by, say, moving quickly and tensely, circling around other actors on stage. Before I throw the elements of musicality into the mix, I want to clarify what I mean when I talk about dance. For the Ancient Greeks, dance wasn’t the same as we view it now—ballet, ballroom, swing, breakdancing. Back then, dancing was defined more generally as highly intentional movement that could be interpreted to mean different things. These movements were an additional way for the audience to understand what was happening in the play, a deeper interpretation beyond just the spoken words.

Now, on to music. Music was also used in a matter similar to dance. It could signify important moments in a play, could be used as a rhythm for dance, and it could be used to underscore a spoken line, phrase, or speech with an emotional piece of sound. Take, for example, a funeral scene. Picture it. A mother, mourning her now-dead child. On its own, it would be pretty emotional, right? Now add in a mourning-sounding song. It’s more impactful, now. You can feel the mother’s grief, can hear the grief deepen with the melody, right? And these songs were culturally specific. Like, to the point where they became almost memetic. Characters could be identified by the songs and dances that were associated with them. It’s similar to how we now associate movie characters with their associated theme songs (I’m primarily thinking of James Bond, Darth Vader, and the like here).

It’s fascinating, I think, that we use song and dance in our physically-oriented media—tv, movies—the same way Greeks did a couple thousand years ago. In my research, I found some connections between the pantomiming aspects of Greek theatrical dancing and the art of the Japanese Kabuki theatre. I plan on pursuing the different types of physical theatre for my future searching. The connections between extremely different theatrical forms from all over the world promise to be a fruitful line of future research. How, for example, have two completely different cultures created art that is so similar? Can the techniques present in one form inform the other? More to come on this soon!

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