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Cracking the code: The meaning of mime in ballet

Classic ballets feature plenty of code, but what do these gestures mean, and why do they persist in the 21st century?

By Paul Kilbey (Content Producer (Ballet))

16 December 2016 at 12.14pm | 12 Comments

Narrative ballet seldom has a real ‘narrator’ – a person to tell us the plot out loud – but it has always managed to find ways to tell its stories. Sometimes the story is simply told through the dance, with ensemble numbers or solos propelling the action forwards. And sometimes the dancers behave more like actors: through the careful use of gestures, they communicate the essence of the story without needing to speak. The tradition of mime in ballet stretches back centuries, but it is alive and well in a number of Royal Ballet productions – including The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty.

‘There’s a lot of mime in The Nutcracker’, says Guest Principal Ballet Master Christopher Carr, who stages both ballets for the Company. ‘Especially in the first act’, he adds – perhaps surprisingly, as the best known mime sequence in the ballet is the extract above, which comes from Act II. But the party scene in Act I is filled with subtle gestures that have to be conveyed with just as much finesse as Hans-Peter’s narrative later on. ‘People arriving at the party, people saying goodbye – that they’ve had a good time at the party – and the cake-cutting, Drosselmeyer giving the Nutcracker to Clara…’. Carr reels off examples of mime in the party scene, stressing that all of this has to be understood clearly by the audience. ‘There’s a lot of language in that section, so we try to slow the music down a little bit. It’s hard for an audience – if it’s too quick, they’ll miss it.’

Mime should never be hard to understand, however. ‘Most of it is fairly obvious’, Carr says: ‘“I” is pointing to your chest, “you” is pointing to the other person, “here” is normally just pointing to the floor… It’s good if you have a little knowledge, but you don’t need to have that much.’

In Act II, Hans-Peter – freed from the spell that trapped him in the Nutcracker – explains his and Clara’s story to the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince through an unusually long mime sequence. As the rehearsal extract above shows, Carr takes care to get things right when teaching mime to the dancers. ‘We try to do mime that looks natural – not really staged in any way. And you have to use your face as well, as if it’s a conversation… It can be overdone, but we tend just to keep it natural and normal so the audience can tell what’s going on.’

‘“Death” can be quite difficult to understand if you don’t know, which is two fists being crossed at the wrists’, Carr adds – an example of one particular ballet mime gesture that is useful to know about. The Nutcracker is free from that particular mime, but it does crop up in a number of ballets, including Giselle and also The Sleeping Beauty. In the fairytale classic, the gesture features in the mime sequence delivered by the evil fairy Carabosse as she explains the curse she has cast upon Princess Aurora. Carabosse is a great character role filled with mime, as Monica Mason explains when teaching the role:

There is one final element to mime in ballet, which is out of the dancers’ hands but an integral part of the action: the music. ‘The music and the dance should be totally united, all the time’, Carr says. ‘Music inspires choreography – it inspires stories, it inspires steps, and one tries to keep the dance and the music connected to each other: it’s what classical ballet is.’

The Nutcracker runs until 12 January 2017. Tickets are sold out, but returns may become available.

The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Hans and Julia Rausing, Lady Jarvis, Peter Lloyd and the Friends of Covent Garden.

The Sleeping Beauty runs until 14 March 2017. Tickets are still available.
The performance on 28 February 2017 will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world. Find your nearest cinema.

The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet, Hans and Julia Rausing, Lindsay and Sarah Tomlinson and The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund. The production is sponsored by Van Cleef & Arpels. Original production (2006) made possible by The Linbury Trust, Sir Simon and Lady Robertson and Marina Hobson OBE.

By Paul Kilbey (Content Producer (Ballet))

16 December 2016 at 12.14pm

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged by Marius Petipa, by Peter Wright, Christopher Carr, classical dance, gesture, mime, Production, The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty

This article has 12 comments

  1. Ret Adams responded on 21 December 2016 at 12:45am Reply

    A useful post, thank you. Death = 'two fists being crossed at the wrists’ - I suspect I have a lot to learn! It is amazing what it is possible to convey via ballet - humour, love, heartache etc.

  2. Lesley-Anne responded on 21 December 2016 at 3:33pm Reply

    I knew some of the mimes..... not all.
    Very useful article: perhaps could be incorporated within your programmes?

  3. C. Garofani responded on 21 December 2016 at 11:26pm Reply

    Oh wow. I am going to play Carabosse next August and that video is going to be so useful. Thank you for the generosity!

  4. joe blitz responded on 23 December 2016 at 9:48am Reply

    I enjoyed your explanations. I love the mime in the different ballets.They add so much, especially if you know the meanings.

  5. Melissa Mason responded on 27 December 2016 at 6:24pm Reply

    What a delightful and inspiring bit of insight into the magnificence of the artistry enmeshed within the beauty of ROH Nutcracker. A window peek inside the magic! Thank you ever so very much!

  6. Melissa Mason responded on 27 December 2016 at 7:55pm Reply

    ‪@TheRoyalBallet the delicious elegance of motion, arrogance of insult and delicate poignance of each gesture as taught, intrigues and roils forth from the soul. Fabulous!‬

  7. Dana responded on 29 December 2016 at 9:51am Reply

    I would love it if you could produce a series on ballet mime and the meaning of certain gestures, similar to the ballet glossary on your YouTube page:

    Ideally with video or photos / illustrations, an expansion of "you", "me", "here", and "death".

    For instance, what is all that arm rolling towards the heavens that appears in Gisele, Romeo and Juliet, and a few others?

    • Lucy Hannaford responded on 18 February 2017 at 11:27pm

      Hi Dana,
      I couldn't resist answering your question about the mime in which arms / hands roll upwards, e.g. in Giselle, R&J, Coppelia, Fille and many others - it is the mime for 'dance' and often can be seen when a character invites one or more dancers to perform for the assembled company.
      Hope this helps!

  8. Robin Goddard responded on 18 February 2017 at 9:00pm Reply

    I was fortunate enough to be taught ballet mime by Joy Newton for Carabosse. Never forgotten.

  9. Geoff responded on 26 February 2017 at 12:22pm Reply

    This article is ok but very superficial. Might you add a link to where the interested reader could learn more? For example, in the Sleeping Beauty (which you are paying at the moment) the mime for "purity" is used by more than one character (e.g. a fairy and also Carabosse). Where can we read about these important mime gestures?

  10. Chris responded on 1 March 2017 at 6:35pm Reply

    To Lucy Hannaford: I was amazed when I discovered so much of the arm waving had meaning, though some of it is fairly obvious, but the overhead thing, it was delicious when I knew what that meant.

  11. Dana responded on 5 October 2017 at 10:00am Reply

    Thanks for clearing up the mystery Lucy! Would have never guessed the upward arm rolling meant "let's dance"...

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