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‘Peanutcracker’ demonstrates art of mime through ballet

The art of mime, or acting without words, is a very important part of Sierra Nevada Ballet’s production of “Peanutcracker: The Story in a Nutshell,” which will be performed this year in both Carson City and Reno in early December. Ballet is an art form where thoughts and feelings are expressed through the movement of the body. It is always fun for me to hear the gasps from the young audience members as the first large rats bound onto the stage with large mime gestures or when the Rat King and Nutcracker mime a battle or when Clara distracts the Rat King through mime and saves the Nutcracker, turning him into a Prince.

In the original productions of the great 19th century ballets such as Giselle, Coppelia, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty stylized mime gestures were an important part of the choreography. Even though much of the emotion in ballet is often expressed through the actual choreography or dance itself, I believe there remains a place for the traditional mime gesture, especially in the story ballet classics where mime can be shown to have dramatic significance and beauty.

Classical mime is a language much like sign language, and since ballet is based on the French language, classical mime gestures occur in the same order as the words do in French. However, many of the traditional Ballet mime scenes have been preserved in English because the first Russian ballets were staged in England in the 1930s (using the original Stepanov notation) by Nicholas Grigorievich Sergeyev who left Russia after the Communist Revolution.

Haley Davis as Clara and Todd Lani as Fritz in a performanceWhile many current Western productions of the 19th century repertoire marginalize the mime element, most still retain some of the original traditional scenes that have been passed down from generation to generation.

In the book by Beryl Morina, “Mime in Ballet,” former senior teacher for boys at the Royal Ballet School, Richard Glasstone, writes: “A gesture is a movement which conveys meaning and indicates a state of mind, whether, it takes shape of the formal, stylized ‘sign language’ of classical mime or the more naturalistic gestures found in modern ballets. Any such gesture must be performed with great accuracy if it is to register clearly with an audience. It must be precisely focused and strictly confined within a specific, limited area of movement.”

I have always been a fan of the ballet gesture and have had the opportunity to study classical mime from some amazingly gifted teachers, dancers and choreographers; during my 28-year stage career, I was often reviewed as a “dancing actress.”

My love of the art led me to search for more ways to teach mime to a younger generation of dancers. Through over 40 years of teaching ballet, I have developed a mime curriculum and have had the honor of presenting it at two American Ballet Theatre Summer Intensive Workshops in 2010. While there is often not enough time in the weekly ballet schedule to devote a class entirely to mime, SNB Academy frequently includes mime at the end of a ballet class and also offers periodical specialized mime classes and workshops. We find this practice helps young students gain confidence and express themselves better and also helps them improve as stage performers.

While there seems to be an ever-increasing emphasis on the more athletic aspects of ballet technique in today’s ballet world, it is my belief there will always be a need for the expressive, truthful gesture that conveys emotion from one human being to another. I am convinced the art of mime will continue to be passed down from generation to generation as part of the study of ballet.

Sierra Nevada Ballet performs “Peanutcracker: The Story in a Nutshell” in Carson City at the Community Center on Dec. 2 (school shows at 10 a.m. and 12 p.m.) and Dec. 3 (public shows at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.) and in Reno at the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts (school shows at 10 a.m. and 12 p.m.). The production features the company of SNB professional dancers augmented by over 80 young dancers from the Northern Nevada Community. For ticket information call 775-360-8663 or visit the website at www.sierranevadaballet.org.

Rosine Bena is the artistic director of the Sierra Nevada Ballet.

Reno Gazette Journal 1:32 a.m. PST December 1, 2016

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