Plutarch on dance

Simonides’ dictum “Painting is silent poetry, poetry is speaking painting” is very well known and appears over and over again in modern studies of ancient art and ecphrastic literature; Plutarch himself, who quotes it in The fame of the Athenians 3 (mor. 346F), refers to it elsewhere as “that often repeated saying” (mor. 17F-18A ). By contrast, the variation of this dictum Plutarch puts in the mouth of his teacher Ammonius in the last chapter of the Table Talks (9.15), a discussion of dance and its relationship with poetry, has caught far less attention: “What Simonides said should be transfered from painting to dance: for (dance is) silent (poetry), poetry is speaking dance” (mor. 748A). Nevertheless, the question that is raised here, namely the relationship between poetry and dance, or between language and bodily performance, is of the greatest importance in ancient Graeco-Roman culture. Even if we make allowance for a certain measure of rhetorical exaggeration by Ammonius, who claims further that poetry and painting have nothing to do with each other but “dancing and poetry are fully associated and the one involves the other” (748A), his concise and provocative statement rightly points to the fact that ancient poetry was to a large extent created for oral performance and tied to specific contexts like the symposion, civic festivals, or the theatrical stage. The place of dance within these contexts was firmly established. So rather than just using them as metaphors for each other, Ammonius associates dance and poetry with each other on the grounds of their tight connection in ancient performance culture, whose complex nature is perhaps best described with the adjective derived from the Muses, μουσική.
To be sure, by the time Ammonius makes his point, this connection had undergone manifold changes. The contexts in which literature was produced and consumed were not the same anymore as they were, for instance, for Hesiod or Pindar (who are quoted in the chapter), nor were the types of texts and performances that were most appreciated the same. As will become clear, Ammonius’ argument in Table Talks 9.15 hinges precisely on a comparison between past and present. He problematizes contemporary dance by contrasting it with earlier forms of dance, which in his eyes were in perfect harmony with the best poetry that had ever been created. His discussion therefore makes an important contribution to our understanding not only of the relationship between literature and performance as perceived in Plutarch’s times, but also of how this relationship was thought to have evolved over time.
As even the short quote above makes clear, one of the main topics of the chapter is the relationship between bodily performance and language. In my analysis I am trying to show, though, that the theory of dance set forth in this chapter is not simply derived from the models of grammar or rhetoric, but is instead based on the independent observation of gesture and dance themselves.