Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics Amy Koenig recently discussed “Pantomime Performance and Sexual Violence in Ovid’s Metamorphoses” at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Classical Association of the Atlantic States in Silver Spring, Md.
Koenig explored the possibility that the Roman poet Ovid’s work was influenced by pantomime dance, a ballet-like art form popularized during the Roman Empire in which a solo dancer, using silent gestures, played multiple roles in succession in a mythological story.
Using a number of stories from the epic poem Metamorphoses, Koenig argued that Ovid’s poetry demonstrates “pantomimic” sensibilities, and that this connection is profoundly relevant to one of the thorniest issues surrounding his work: its many disturbing depictions of sexual assault.
Understanding Ovid as a “pantomimic” author, Koenig said, changes our reading of sexual violence in Metamorphoses in multiple ways.
First, it encourages the reader to look more carefully at body language, rather than speech, as a source of communicative power for characters in the narrative: actions often speak louder than words. Second, it helps to make sense of one of the most difficult features of rape narratives in Metamorphoses: the switching of perspectives between complicity with the assailant and sympathy with the victim.
Koenig concluded that imagining these stories told in pantomime performance, with a single performer embodying the roles of rapist and victim in turn, gives us a way to process the challenging nature of Ovid’s text without needing to reduce it either to a condemnation or to a celebration of rape.
Fundamentally, Koenig said, it is both at once: the shift between voyeurism and empathy first seduces the reader into exploring their own predatory desires, then makes them suffer the consequences of those impulses together with the victim.