The Elegant Tradition of Mime in Ballet

Ballerina Yui Sugawara as "Giselle"
Ballet dancer Yui Sugawara as
“Giselle” by Ivan Cavallari based on Marius Petipa – Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal – Photo: Sasha Onyshchenko | Dancer: Yui Sugawara

In order to grasp the intricacies of the art of ballet, one must truly understand and appreciate the elements that have been incorporated into its delicate folds since its creation nearly 600 years ago. One such element has managed to leave a particularly indelible impression.

The evolution of balletic mime (at least its earliest incarnations) can be traced to the pantomime of commedia dell’arte, a majestic form of masked theater popular during the mid-16th century. During these early stages of the dance, choreographers derived inspiration from masked characters – who, due to their obscured faces, of course, could not speak. As a result, the focus centered on movement and delicately nuanced gestures, which, over time, became much more elaborate and finessed. And, inevitably, when paired with traditional ballet moves, elicited an almost secondary language, one that could be communicated and absorbed without a single word spoken.

Balletic mime was à la mode for years before shifting direction to coincide with the advent of modernism and more contemporary storytelling. In fact, by the beginning of the 20th century, most new ballet productions were virtually free of such traditional movements.

However, despite this, mime is still a vital component of a ballet dancer’s education. Not only is the likelihood high that a new dancer will be asked to perform at least one traditional role in a classical ballet during their career, but learning pantomime is a way of imbuing technique with feeling and soul. This is why many new ballet coaches and teachers are hopeful to see balletic mime make a comeback.

As for now, elements of mime can be seen in countless reproductions of classic stories, namely La Sylphide and Giselle. For those looking to recognize mime gestures used in ballet, some of the more common elements include beauty (tracing a circle around a face with the palm of the hand); crazy (circling a finger around the ear); thinking (touching the forehead with an index finger); and death (crossing the arms in front of the body).