Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.05.08 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.05.08

Laura Gianvittorio (ed.), Choreutika: Performing and Theorising Dance in Ancient Greece. Biblioteca di Quaderni urbinati di cultura classica, 13.   Pisa; Roma:  Fabrizio Serra editore, 2017.  Pp. 252.  ISBN 9788862279505.  €78.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Karin Schlapbach, University of Fribourg (

This excellent collection of essays studies both ancient dance as a practice and the theoretical discourse pertaining to it. The first part focuses on choral dance, in line with the nature and time frame of the evidence treated (mostly choral passages and, in the case of Naerebout and Gianvittorio, also images from the archaic and classical periods). The second, theoretical part is less explicit in this regard. Aristotle’s definition of dance at Poet. 1447a, for instance, seems to focus on single dancers (ὀρχησταί) rather than the chorus. But the lexical distinction is not always as clear-cut as one might think (witness, e.g., ἐπιχορεύσας at Xen. Symp. 9.4, of Dionysus dancing towards Ariadne). And given the prevalence of choral dance down to Aristotle’s age, it is fair to assume that the theoretical discourse of the same period also concerns choral dance. But it is also possible that the distinction between choral and other dancing was not always the primary concern of the theoretical discourse.

If this is correct, it would be a reason to pay closer attention to the recent surge in scholarship on pantomime, at least as regards the theoretical discourse (to put my one quibble first). Although pantomime is briefly mentioned in the introduction, the contributions largely ignore it (an exception is Rocconi). While agreeing with Naerebout (44) that it is important to study dance diachronically, i.e., differentiating between different epochs rather than construing an ideal dance culture which corresponds to no historical reality, I also think that, given the nature of the sources, it is virtually impossible to treat dramatic dance, (other) choral dance, and (imperial) pantomime in complete isolation from each other. If, to give an example, Plutarch and Athenaeus characterize dance (even the dance of the past) as mimetic (e.g., 98), this begs the question of whether they are influenced by contemporary practices. That said, I think that Naerebout is equally right in urging us not to talk about dances, whose physical make-up ultimately escapes us, but about dance (60), and that the role of dance in religion cannot be divorced from its nature as an aesthetic phenomenon (54 n. 2; cf. Csapo also in this volume). Just how complex an aesthetic phenomenon dance is can be glimpsed from the present collection of essays.

A foreword by C. Catenacci and an introduction by L. Gianvittorio are followed by eight contributions, all of them of high quality and accompanied by rich and useful bibliographies. The chapters communicate with each other on many levels. The notion of schema, for instance, is discussed by Gianvittorio, Bocksberger, Rocconi, and Peponi; the related question of the supposed predominance of hand gestures is addressed by Naerebout and Rocconi; the issue of metre is raised by Naerebout (59 n. 1) and discussed in detail by Hagel.

F. G. Naerebout, “Moving in Unison. The Greek Chorus in Performance”, delineates what we can know about choral dances in religious contexts, which means in part surveying what we cannot know. His aim is not to reconstruct ancient choreographies; the only positive assertion he accepts in this regard is that choruses moved in unison (47). He omits dramatic choruses from the discussion, even though he considers them an eminently religious phenomenon, because they have been studied extensively. Naerebout emphasizes the variability of the shape of choruses, which in a single performance could arguably be seen in processional, rectangular and circular arrangements (cf. Gianvittorio 110; Csapo). He also stresses the great variety in the composition of choruses, which represented society as a whole. From the composition of a chorus Naerebout allows for inferences regarding the overall performative quality; as for the tricky issue of re-performance, it would have required the presence of the choreographer or an experienced practitioner.

L. Gianvittorio, “Evidence about a Tragic Dance of Mourning”, greatly expands on an observation made in passing by L. Lawler in TAPA 75 (1944) 31, namely that the imperatives of ἐρέσσω in the final kommos of Persians (1046) and the amoibaion of Seven (854–60) indicate a “rowing dance”. Gianvittorio argues that such a dance is parodied in Aristophanes’ Frogs (209–67) and perhaps in Wasps (1516–37), where the intertext appears to be Phrynichus. Gianvittorio therefore considers the possibility that Aeschylus’ rowing dance was influenced by Phrynichus, although this cannot be ascertained (100 n. 1). Further evidence for a rowing dance comes from the Basel Krater (BS 415) from ca. 480 BC, which is usually taken to depict a necromantic ritual. By comparing the forward position of the arms of the chorus members to the gesture of valediction, Gianvittorio is able to show that it should rather be interpreted as a scene of mourning. It could thus be an illustration of the rowing dance performed in the final scenes of Persians and Seven.

P.J. Finglass, “Dancing with Stesichorus” reviews the question of whether Stesichorus is a choral poet or a lyrical poet who used a silent chorus (as the Suda suggests). Wilamowitz, challenging the choral hypothesis, pointed to Demodocus’ second song in Odyssey 8 and the dancing that surrounds and, according to some, accompanies it (266-366). Finglass remains agnostic as to whether the dancing continues throughout Demodocus’ song, although a strong connection between the two is evident in lines 248 and 253 (one might add the repetition of αὐτάρ in 264 and 266, the first one introducing Odysseus’ admiring the dancers and the second one introducing Demodocus’ playing the phorminx; the repetition seems to coordinate the two actions and suggests that both of them take place contemporaneously with the dancing). However, in the absence of a certain archaic parallel for a solo singer delivering mythological songs to the dances of a silent chorus, Finglass favours the choral hypothesis. He concludes by discussing the possible composition of the chorus and the modalities of delivery, acknowledging that definitive answers cannot be found.

E. Csapo, “Imagining the Shape of Choral Dance and Inventing the Cultic in Euripides’ Later Tragedies”, examines a specific aspect of what A. Henrichs termed choral projection, namely choral passages that mention other choruses (as opposed to evoking their own dancing elsewhere or at another time). The twenty-six “embedded” choruses Csapo identifies in Euripides can be grouped into cultic and mythic choruses; the former are mostly maiden choruses, the latter comprise lesser deities (such as satyrs, Nereids, Corybants), as well as stars and dolphins. Expanding on his earlier work on star choruses, dolphins, and Nereids, Csapo discusses cultic connotations of the circular dances of these choruses, which create a “hypercultic frame” (125) by incorporating references to Dionysian cult and the Eleusinian mysteries. Csapo reads these cultic associations both as a stylistic and a religious phenomenon: they resonate with the new dithyramb (or New Music), and they are neither a mere remnant nor a bookish resuscitation but rather “like a religious revival” (149). If it is true that circular dancing was practiced more often on the tragic stage than the traditional idea of the rectangular tragic chorus would allow for (150–1), this is perhaps all the more plausible.

S. M. Bocksberger, “Dance as Silent Poetry, Poetry as Speaking Dance: The Poetics of orchesis”, starts out with extracts from Diderot and Valéry who both liken dance to poetry and emphasise its mimetic character, betraying their familiarity with ancient Greek thought. Bocksberger then proceeds to discuss the ancient evidence for poets being their own choreographers (e.g., Pindar, Aeschylus, and Sophocles), and to examine the role of dance in the ancient conceptualization of poetry and prose. Based on Strabo, she argues that prose, a “walking” logos (πεζόν, 1.2.6), is not only a logos that does not ride on a chariot but also one that does not dance. The absence of metre in prose buttresses this understanding, as does the use of πεζῇ for the absence of music (Aristoph. fr. 962 PCG). The expression is thus reminiscent of the original embeddedness of poetry in physical performance. The same can be said for schema (perhaps “figure” rather than “step”) and tropos, whose uses as rhetorical terms derive from the primary meanings of the words, “(physical) shape” and “turn” respectively. Finally, Bocksberger describes dance as a physical metaphor, because it figured out (pun intended) the poetry it accompanied.

E. Rocconi, “Moving the Soul through the Immovable: Dance and mimesis in Fourth-Century Greece”, asks how ancient Greek dance—not only pantomime but also choral dance—was able to represent fictional characters and stories and identifies schemata as the decisive component for this representational capacity of dance. Rocconi is right to assume a continuity between choral dances and pantomime in this regard (184 n. 2). Based on Aristotle’s expression σχηματιζομένων ῥυθμῶν (Poet. 1447a) and other attestations of schema in connection with dance, Rocconi characterizes schemata as “frozen postures” (183), which expressed “meaningful and visible patterns embodied in a dynamic performance” (188). According to Aristoxenus and Aristides Quintilianus, they are the smallest units of a dance performance, and the primary means of creating them are the hands and the arms. Some of the examples Rocconi adduces actually complicate this characterization: the list of schemata at Aristophanes, Wasps 1474–1515 (interpreted as a dynamic dance by Gianvittorio), contains “kicking” and “turning” (ἐκλακτίζων, 1492; στρέφεται, 1495). The discussion could be complemented with the uses of schema in art historical discourse, where schemata, even though still, are thought to express action and movement. 1

A.-E. Peponi, “Aristotle’s Definition of Dance”, covers some of the same materials with different emphasis. It offers a detailed analysis of Aristotle’s phrase διὰ τῶν σχηματιζομένων ῥυθμῶν (Poet. 1447a), which describes the dancers’ means of portraying character, emotions, and actions. Peponi notes that in extant Greek there is no parallel for this phrase, whereas “inverted” combinations, i.e. of schema and a verb deriving from rhythmos, are attested in the fourth century BC. She argues convincingly that by turning schema into a participle, Aristotle puts the emphasis on the process of rhythms “being turned into visual structures”, and thus on movement (233). I think that in relation to dance, rhythm is not necessarily understood as aural in Aristotle’s passage, but Peponi is right to stress that in practice music and dance went together. In addition, rhythm is also experienced through the sense of touch. The phrase thus emphasises the synaesthetic and kinaesthetic nature of the dance event.

S. Hagel, “Language and Dance: A Non-Platonising View”, focuses on rhythm as a fundamental component of ancient dance and addresses a problem raised by M. L. West’s new account of Aeolic metres in Ancient Greek Music (1992). Following West, Hagel analyses the example of the glyconic into even groups of three times, which would facilitate dancing. This analysis entails an accent on an initial short note in a group of three. Given that this is impossible in a mora-timed language with pitch accent, Hagel argues that this type of metre is based on genuinely musical (and danced) rhythms, rather than “following” the metrical patterns of words. If certain passages in Plato seem to suggest otherwise (e.g., Rep. 398d), Hagel takes them to mean that rhythms must be in accord with the ethos of the lyrics (not with the formal patterns of the words). He concludes that music and dance not only possessed their own independent rhythmical traditions, but that they were also able to imprint them on certain metres which are otherwise hard to explain. While I find this entirely convincing, it should be noted that in European folk dances, uneven rhythms, such as 2+2+3, are very common, and I wonder whether the assumption that dancers favour even patterns is necessary in the first place.


1.   See Koch, N. J., “ΣΧΗΜΑ. Zur Interferenz technischer Begriffe in Rhetorik und Kunstschriftstellerei”, IJCT 6 (2000) 503–15; K. Schlapbach, The Anatomy of Dance Discourse. Literary and Philosophical Approaches to Dance in the Later Graeco-Roman World, Oxford 2018, 112–4.

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