Ovid’s Metamorphoses – an epic poem exploring myths of transformation, love and loss – is the inspiration for a new work created by young Swiss dance company Le Marchepied. Their latest work – forming part of their tour of the UK – is the result of their collaboration with Ancient Dance in Modern Dancers (ADMD).  ADMD is a TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities) funded project that seeks to investigate the Roman dance form tragoedia saltata (Roman pantomime) and to “develop ways of articulating the knowledge derived from kinaesthetic engagement with ancient material.”

The performance itself was preceded by a free workshop in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford.  The workshop was open to anyone who wanted to learn more about the form of trageodia saltata and how it may be used in a contemporary setting to generate movement material or interpret ancient texts.  Helen Slaney (Classics Fellow at St. Hilda’s College) of ADMD kicked off proceedings with an intriguing, informative introduction to the form of Roman pantomime.  Referencing texts by ancient satirist Lucian, Slaney detailed the necessity of narrative precision in the dance form and also stated particular movements – such as freezing, falling or reaching – that would have been used by performers to physically recount the mythological tales.

After obtaining a theoretical overview of Roman pantomime, the participants were keen to physically research the information that had been discussed.  After a warm-up led by Le Marchepied dance company, we began with a Cludo-esque activity – but instead of questioning “was it Professor Plum, in the ballroom with the lead piping?” participants guessed the character, emotion and action their colleagues were embodying in their short solos.  Combinations ranged from crone, grief and squatting to Medusa, horror and wavering. This amusing game – although light-hearted – intuitively demonstrated the necessity for physical clarity in the performance of trageodia saltata, so that your audience may easily interpret the story, emotion or character you are trying to portray.  We had previously been informed that Roman audiences would often get irritated by dancers that would portray myths incorrectly by being ambiguous in their physicality or movements!

This game led into the main body of the workshop which focused on using the skills and information we had acquired to interpret two passages from Ovid’s Metamorphoses – mirroring the process Le Marchepied had been through to create their work.  Each participant was given a couple of lines – from either the story of Thetis or Pentheus – to translate into interpretative movement, whilst simultaneously experimenting with masks reminiscent of those worn by Roman performers.  These segments were later pieced together and performed chronologically, the storytelling responsibility passing across the space from performer to performer.  Our movements were accompanied by atmospheric music and recitals of the original Latin texts, creating rough performance pieces that seemed to evoke a sense of the Ancient World.  Various interesting discussions arose, such as how using masks limits a performer’s use of facial expression, therefore requiring the performer to embody emotions.  Furthermore, many noted how bringing ancient myths to life through artistic interpretations can be a refreshing approach to texts that academics read on a regular basis.

Attendance of the workshop provided an excellent way to later engage with Le Marchepied’s performance at The Old Fire Station.  More of a sharing in an informal environment, the dancers of Le Marchepied presented numerous solos, each displaying different dancers’ individual, physical responses to the myths of Thetis and Pentheus.  Seeing the same story told repeatedly by different dancers was particularly intriguing, as it highlighted how ancient myths may be interpreted in contrasting ways.  This was particularly evident when two solos were performed simultaneously in the space, allowing the audience to compare and contrast the dancers’ movements and artistic choices.  It was also satisfying for those who had attended the workshop to see that the company had applied the technique of passing narrative responsibility from dancer to dancer, a system that had only been devised earlier in the day.  This method was particularly effective, for as the performers froze at the end of their sections, they became statues, creating a narrative sculptural trail and reminding the audience of past events, emotions or characters in the story.

The audience were later given an opportunity to ask questions and discuss their reactions to the work they had just encountered.  Many shared their responses, voicing individual reactions to the emotive solos performed by Le Marchepied.  Who would have thought an ancient dance form interpreting Classical texts could still be so engaging thousands of years later, achieving relevance whilst still maintaining its sense of antiquity?  We can only wait in anticipation to discover the upcoming events and research organised by the ADMD network.

Emily May

24th May 2016