Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as scholars have compellingly demonstrated, can be fruitfully read in dialogue with Roman pantomime dance, with points of contact ranging from its mythological subject matter and its focus on bodies and gesture to the way it depicts movement and transformation (e.g. Galinsky 1975: 68-69; Richlin 1992; Garelli 2013; Ingleheart 2008; Lada-Richards 2013, 2016, 2018). The tale of Echo and Narcissus in Book 3 of the Metamorphoses has drawn attention as one of the episodes whose “pantomimic qualities...are striking” (Galinsky 1996: 265; see also Galinsky 1975: 68). Most of this attention, however, has hitherto focused on the figure of Narcissus, whose inaccessible desirability and fixation on a silent, gesturing reflection of himself readily lend themselves to comparisons with the pantomime dancer and his relationship to his audience.
This talk centers instead on the companion figure of Echo, whose vocal mimicry, on the one hand, can itself be seen as a kind of mirrored equivalent to pantomime performance: in contrast with the pantomime, whose suppression of his voice plays a key role in his chameleonic degree of mimetic ability (see e.g. Montiglio 1999), Echo’s final dissolution into a voice without a body seems to permit her a supernaturally multiplicitous power of imitation. On the other hand, Echo’s juxtaposition with Narcissus can be read as a mythologized embodiment of the distinctive relationship between body and voice in pantomime dance. Echo’s desire for Narcissus, I argue, engages with an existing poetic tradition of depicting the relationship between singing voice and dancing body in performance as an erotic one. In lyric works like those of Sappho or Alcman, for instance, the speaker(s) of the poems often either describes in erotic terms, or explicitly expresses desire for, one or more members of the chorus (for discussion of eros in choral lyric, see e.g. Rawles 2011). In such situations, the desire is complicated—or, perhaps, fulfilled—by a performance context in which the performers are both singing and dancing. While the desire the voice expresses may not be requited within the text of the song, the act of performing choral lyric can in a sense provide the union for which the speaker yearns: body and voice come together in the persons of the performers.
The fact that Echo is so markedly and catastrophically denied erotic union with Narcissus, however, indicates a different dynamic that highlights a key feature of pantomime: the separation of dancer from singer (in performances with a vocal accompaniment), the conspicuous silence of the dancer, and the subordination or absence of the voice in performance as the body takes center stage. Narcissus rejects Echo not because of the restrictions on her voice, but because she has a body distinct from his—he flees at the moment when she reveals herself and attempts to embrace him (3.388-390)—and the verbal desire for unity expressed in their call-and-response of coeamus! (3.385-386) never comes to physical fruition. Echo is thus, I finally assert, at once a mirror of the pantomime dancer in herself and a symbol of pantomime’s denial of the union that other types of dance permit: an embodiment of the unbridgeable gulf between the dancing body and the suppressed or marginalized voice.
Moving to the Music: Song and Dance in Antiquity