Choreonarratives: Dancing Stories in Greek and Roman Antiquity and Beyond

Laura Gianvittorio-Ungar and Karin Schlapbach, eds., Choreonarratives: Dancing Stories in Greek and Roman Antiquity and Beyond (Leiden: Brill, 2021). 9789004462472; 9789004462632.

Reviewed by Amanda Kubic, University of Michigan- Ann Arbor,

Choreonarratives: Dancing Stories in Greek and Roman Antiquity and Beyond is an ambitious collection of essays with a clear goal: to reconsider ancient dance from a “narrative angle” (p. 3) so as to recognize better how dance itself, in ancient Greece and Rome as well as today, is an expressive, narrative medium. At the very beginning of their “Introduction” to the collection, editors Laura Gianvittorio-Ungar and Karin Schlapbach coin the term “choreonarratives” to encompass different “aspects and manifestations of dance narrativity” (p. 1), including literary and narrative accounts of dance as well as the various ways that dance itself can represent stories, characters, character (inter)actions, moods, atmospheres, and inner and outer states of being. Gianvittorio-Ungar and Schlapbach, following the conventions of dance studies as well as previous studies in Greek and Roman dance, distinguish “choreonarratives” and narrative dance from “dramatic dance,” arguing that drama can be analyzed as a narrative form and that dance, as an artistic medium, “significantly differs from the theater” (p. 12). The volume’s focus on narrative dance, capaciously defined rather than on a specific genre or modality of dance (such as drama, choral dance, or pantomime), serves an additional purpose: to prompt trans-historical and trans-generic inquiry across disciplines. As the editors claim at the end of their “Introduction,” one of the primary goals of Choreonarratives is to use narrative and the mythical storyworlds of Greco-Roman antiquity to foster dialogue between disciplines like Classics and Dance Studies and thus create “intersections between different paths of research” (p. 25) in these fields.

One of the most impressive aspects of Choreonarratives is its commitment to representing a wide range of scholarly voices from an array of humanistic and artistic backgrounds. The volume includes contributions from Postdoctoral Researchers in Classics (Bocksberger, Gianvittorio-Ungar), Comparative Literature (Bührle), and a University Teaching and Learning Center (Fenböck); from an Affiliated Lecturer of German and Dutch (Ruprecht); from Professors of Classics (Olsen, Schlapbach, Zimmerman), Medieval Latin Philology (Shanzer), Dance and Dance Studies (Crawley, Foster, Thurner), and Musicology (Dorf); and from the Artistic Director of the Thiasos theater company and an associate of the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama (Zarifi-Sistovari). This interdisciplinary approach allows for a host of vastly different scholarly, practical, and embodied knowledges to come to the fore. From Zimmerman’s insightful analysis of dance scenes in Aristophanic Old Comedy to Ruprecht’s delightfully unexpected comparative study of Virginia Woolf, Noé Soulier, and Roland Barthes, Shanzer’s astute unpacking of discourses around Herodias’ dancing daughter Salome in late antiquity, or Bührle’s attentive examination of 18th- to 21st-century ballets based on the works of Shakespeare, each chapter captures our attention with a nuanced and specialized approach to a particular aspect of ancient narrative dance and its reception. Of particular note are the exciting contributions of Thurner, Zarifi-Sistovari, and Crawley. Thurner’s chapter on dancing “Auto-Bio-Narrations” or embodied autobiographical narratives, Zarifi-Sistovari’s chapter on the Thiasos theater company’s adaptation of Euripides’ Hippolytos as Indonesian dance drama, and Crawley’s analysis of her own solo dance practice in Likely Terpsichore? (Fragments)—a piece consisting of four danced narrative fragments of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—all go beyond traditional scholarly approaches to ancient dance. These authors ask us to think about the creative processes behind (re)staging and (re)performing such dances as well as the embodied and practical expertise dancers and creative professionals have to contribute to discussions about ancient Greco-Roman dance and its reception, reenactment, and reimagination.

For a volume whose central concern is narrative and its relationship to danced movement in Greco-Roman antiquity, it is true that there is little in the way of overarching narrative that binds the various essays in Choreonarratives together. Indeed, as Foster declares in her “Epilogue,” this text “does not offer a narrative but rather a cornucopia of insights and perspectives on the relationship of narrative to dance” (p. 351). This is a great strength of the volume, as it affords the editors the aforementioned broad interdisciplinary perspective, and yet it can also make the rather substantial collection difficult to digest. Indeed, as one reads through the collection, each chapter feels like it could exist separately within its own specialized field of inquiry, and oftentimes the threads between chapters become difficult to locate. Nevertheless, the editors have grouped the essays into three sections based on their most fundamental underlying themes, so that the chapters ultimately seem less like fragments of separate disciplinary conversations and more like distinct but complementary pieces of a larger conversation about the relationship between dance and narrative.

Part 1, “Dance as a Medium of Narration,” consists of four chapters that consider in strikingly different ways how dance, both ancient and modern, is an inherently representative and communicative medium with a set of affordances distinct from spoken or written narrative. Zimmerman’s chapter on “Dance and Narrative in Greek Comedy” closely examines several choral passages of Aristophanes from comedies such as the Acharnians, Birds, Peace, and Thesmophoriazusae to show how dance is an integral part of the comic plot that carries its own meaning but also deepens the meaning of the dramatic text. Bocksberger’s essay on “Narrative Dance: Imitating Ēthos and Pathos through Schēmata” uses texts like Xenophon’s Symposium and Memorabilia to argue for a new understanding of schēma not as a static pose but as an “ensemble of physical features that can be seen in the body of a dancer” (p. 58) and that can indicate someone’s ēthos (character) or pathos (emotion). Schlapbach’s chapter on “Making Sense: Dance in Ancient Greek Mystery Cults and in Acts of John” considers what it means for a dancing body to make sense (or be made sense of). It draws on key terms like empathy, kinaesthesia, and embodied knowledge as well as on physiological scholarship on the relationship between the brain, bodily movement, and perception of others’ movements. Schlapbach uses the ancient mystery cult dances in Apuleius’s Metamorphoses and the dance of Jesus and his disciples in Acts of John (pp. 92–104) as case studies for thinking about how dance enables “a kind of embodied or experiential understanding, in which physical, emotional, and mental dimensions cannot be separated” (p. 94). The final chapter of this section, Ruprecht’s “A Dancer’s Discourse: Noé Soulier Choreographs Virginia Woolf,” is something of an outlier in that its focus is not on dance in Greco-Roman antiquity. The engaging essay instead poses a three-way comparative reading among Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, choreographer Noé Soulier’s 2018 dance piece with the same title, and Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments to problematize traditional boundaries between dance and literature, movement and text, and to think about new forms of dancerly narrative that have emerged in the past century.

Part 2 of the volume, “Dancers as Narrators, Narratives of Dance,” contains four chapters that explore the ability of dancers to act as narrators and interpreters of autobiographical stories, as well as the creative possibilities that arise when dance and dancers are made the subjects of textual narratives. The section begins with Gianvittorio-Ungar’s chapter on “Dancing Io’s Life: Hurt Body, Tragic Suffering,” which carefully combs through the language of Io’s dance in Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound 561–608 to look for indications of the physically and emotionally impaired state of Io’s body and mind. Gianvittorio-Ungar situates Io’s dance in a larger conversation about the portrayal of “mad” characters in Attic tragedy and argues that it is ultimately Io’s “human side” (p. 152) that comes through in her dance, not a wild animalism. Olsen’s chapter “Narrating Neoptolemus: Dance and Death in Euripides’ Andromache” continues with this focus on ancient Attic tragedy, although instead of analyzing Euripides’ text as pointing to a particular kind of movement enacted on stage, Olsen argues that the messenger’s speech about the death of Neoptolemus at 1085–1165 asks the audience to envision a danced animation of the scene in their minds; the audience then becomes affectively engaged in Neoptolemus’s death because of this dancerly narration. Shanzer’s chapter on “Salome’s Dance: Heads and Bodies between Narrative and Intertextuality” moves us away from Greek tragedy and into biblical texts and receptions in late antiquity. Shanzer considers how the unnamed dancing daughter of Mark 6:22 and Matthew 14:16 developed into the deadly dancing Salome of the 19th and 20th centuries, looking especially at patristic authors like Juvencus for early signs of narrative “colourings” and “contaminat[ion]” (p. 209). Last in this section is Thurner’s “Dancing Life Stories: Embodied Auto-bio-narratives,” which, like Ruprecht’s chapter, stands out for turning its attention away from antiquity and for challenging our understanding of traditional modes of narrative. Thurner offers a compelling study of “Auto-Bio-Narrations” in contemporary dance, including Simone Aughterlony’s We need to talk (2011) and Wayne McGregor’s Autobiography (2017), to think about how and why dance narrates and how current embodied autobiographical narratives in dance can challenge and “confront” (p. 229) both creators and spectators.

Part 3, “Translations and Reenactments,” contains five chapters that all examine the role of narrative and re-narrativization in modern (primarily 18th to 21st century) receptions and reenactments of ancient Greco-Roman dance. The editors’ choice of the word “reenactment,” rather than revival or reconstruction, is quite intentional here, as Gianvittorio-Ungar and Schlapbach argue early on that reenactments are less concerned with fidelity and historical accuracy and instead “confront the audience with the ways in which evidence of the past has been dealt with,” not necessarily privileging the form and temporality of the “lost originals” over those of later performances (p. 18).

The section begins with Bührle’s chapter on “Generic Transformations: Dancing Shakespeare from the 18th to the 21st Century,” which thinks about the specific choices in choreography and staging that go into “translating” (p. 237) a work of literature like Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet into dance (specifically ballet). Ballet remains the generic focal-point of the following chapter, Fenböck’s “Gesture as a Means for Portraying Characters in Viennese Mid-18th-Century Ballet.” Here, Fenböck analyzes the ballet reforms of Gasparo Angiolini and Jean Georges Noverre in Vienna in the mid-to-late 1700s and argues that these reforms—which prioritized the use of gesture in characterization, much like ancient pantomime—in turn led to better representations of complex plots and character interactions on stage. Dorf, in “The Ballets Russes and the Greek Dance in Paris: Nijinsky’s Faune, Fantasies of the Past, and the Dance of the Future,” likewise considers the relationship between ancient dance and modern ballet, although his essay is more concerned with the legacy of Greek dance and its modernist revivals. Dorf’s analysis of Faune’s choreography and how it brings to life the static images found in ancient Greek vase painting is particularly interesting for thinking about the relationship not just between dance and literature, but dance and painting. The following chapter, Zarifi-Sistovari’s essay on “Cross-Cultural Perspectives: Adapting Euripides’ Hippolytos as Indonesian Dance Drama,” explores the author’s own experiences bringing Hippolytos to life on stage using the dance styles and staging techniques of Jaipongan from West Java. The cross-cultural practitioner’s perspective of Zarifi-Sistovari’s piece offers an exciting new model of dramatic and dancerly adaptation enhanced by colorized photographs of the Thiasos theater company’s productions of the play. The final chapter in this section, and a fitting end to the collection, is Crawley’s “The Fragmentary Monumental: Dancing Female Stories in the Museum of Archaeology.” Here, Crawley considers what happens to the dancing female body when it enters the space of the museum, drawing on her experience performing her solo dance Likely Terpsichore? (Fragments) (particularly the fragment Myrrha) at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in 2018. Crawley situates both the museum and the dancing female body as sites of fragmentation and monumentalization, remembering and forgetting, recollection and recovery, and as living, embodied archives “available for individual and collective memory” (p. 345).

Gianvittorio-Ungar and Schlapbach rightly position Choreonarratives as filling a critical gap at the intersection of Classical Studies and Dance Studies. The volume will appeal to scholars of Classics, Comparative Literature, Dance Studies, Performance Studies, Rhetoric, and related humanistic disciplines, as well as to artists and creative professionals engaged in the reception and reenactment of ancient Greco-Roman dance. While other scholars like Macintosh (2010),[1] Preston (2011),[2] and Dorf (2018)[3] have published volumes on ancient dance and its reception across various genres and post-classical periods, Choreonarratives is unique in its emphasis on embodied narratives—on myths, stories, characters, and nebulous nuances of mood and feeling constructed in and communicated through the dancing body. To that end, one particularly exciting aspect of the collection is how its various essays take the time to question conventional notions of narrative, disrupting and destabilizing our common understanding of what stories are and how they are told.

Choreonarratives is also distinct from many previous treatments of ancient dance within the field of Classics in so far as it admirably and successfully avoids historically positivist attempts to reconstruct what ancient dances “actually” looked like. As the editors claim, “it is more promising to ask how they [ancient dances] worked and what functions they were likely to fulfill, on their own and in combination with words and music” (8). Gianvittorio-Ungar and Schlapbach take all of the absences in the archival record of ancient dance—all that we don’t know and that did not survive in the way of music, motion, and meaning—and instead of trying to accurately reconstruct a picture of the past, they open up opportunities for scholarly and artistic play, for imaginative encounters, for surprising comparisons and connections, and for a new take on ancient dance that puts reception and embodied knowledge front and center.

Table of Contents

Contents (vii–viii)
Figures (ix–x)
Notes on Contributors (xi–xii)
1. Introduction: Narratives in Motion / Laura Gianvittorio-Ungar and Karin Schlapbach (1–36)

Part 1. Dance as a Medium of Narration (37)

2. Dance and Narrative in Greek Comedy / Bernhard Zimmermann (39–56)
3. Narrative Dance: Imitating Ēthos and Pathos through Schēmata / Sophie M. Bocksberger (57–81)
4. Making Sense: Dance in Ancient Greek Mystery Cults and in Acts of John / Karin Schlapbach (82-107)
5. A Dancer’s Discourse: Noé Soulier Choreographs Virginia Woolf / Lucia Ruprecht (108–25)

Part 2. Dancers as Narrators, Narratives of Dance (127)

6. Dancing Io’s Life: Hurt Body, Tragic Suffering (Prometheus Bound 561–608) / Laura Gianvittorio-Ungar (129-55)
7. Narrating Neoptolemus: Dance and Death in Euripides’ Andromache / Sarah Olsen (156–79)
8. Salome’s Dance: Heads and Bodies between Narrative and Intertextuality / Danuta Shanzer (180–213)
9. Dancing Life Stories: Embodied Auto-bio-narratives (214–33)

Part 3. Translations and Reenactments (235)

10. Generic Transformations: Dancing Shakespeare from the 18th to the 21st Century / Iris Julia Bührle (237–56)
11. Gesture as a Means for Portraying Characters in Viennese Mid-18th-century Ballet / Karin Fenböck (257–83)
12. The Ballets Russes and the Greek Dance in Paris: Nijinsky’s Faune, Fantasies of the Past, and the Dance of the Future / Samuel N. Dorf (284–99)
13. Cross-Cultural Perspectives: Adapting Euripides’ Hippolytos as Indonesian Dance Drama / Yana Zarifi-Sistovari (300–30)
14. The Fragmentary Monumental: Dancing Female Stories in the Museum of Archaeology / Marie-Louise Crawley (331–50)
15. Epilogue / Susan Leigh Foster (351–56)
Index of Passages Discussed (357–63)
Subject Index (364–69)


[1] Fiona Macintosh, The Ancient Dancer in the Modern World: Responses to Greek and Roman Dance(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[2] Carrie Preston, Modernism’s Mythic Pose: Gender, Genre, and Solo Performance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[3] Samuel N. Dorf, Performing Antiquity: Ancient Greek Music and Dance from Paris to Delphi, 1890-1930 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

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