Category Archives: Ideas

The John Stephen Kassman Memorial Essay Prize in Classical Studies

boy writing on a wax tablet, as shown on a Greek vase

An annual prize is awarded for the best essay in a competition, open to all current Open University undergraduate students. It is likely to be of particular interest to students on A219, A276, A275, A330 and A340. The essay, of not more than 3000 words, should be on any topic related to Greek and Roman Antiquity.

Submission dates for the next prize are as follows:

  • the closing date for notice of intention to enter the competition is 30 June 2018, and
  • the deadline for submission of essays is 30 September 2018.

For further details, rules and regulations for the competition, see below.

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Information and Regulations for Entrants

1. The prize will be an annual award based on the income from a donation given by the late Alec Kassman in memory of his son. Alec was an Arts Faculty Staff Tutor in London Region of the Open University and a contributor to Classical Studies courses. The purpose of the prize, which will be awarded for the best essay in an annual competition, is to develop and foster study of Classical Antiquity in the Open University. The award will take the form of a book-token (or other academic related goods) to the approximate value of £100. 

2. The competition is open to all current OU Undergraduates and Associate students (i.e. current at the date of notice to enter the competition – see below 4) Candidates may compete in more than one year if they wish, but no candidate may submit an essay more than once on the same topic.

3. Details covering presentation of essay:

i) The essay may be on any topic related to Greek and Roman Antiquity; this regulation may be interpreted liberally – including e.g. comparative study, provided that a substantial part of the essay deals with a Greek or Roman aspect of the topic. The right is reserved to refuse proposals deemed unsuitable.

ii) The essay should be an original piece of work, written for the purpose of the competition, and should not replicate material submitted by candidates for previous assessment (TMAs and EMAs) at the OU or elsewhere.

iii) A word-limit of 3000 words, including notes, should be observed (if appropriate to the essay subject, a limited amount of additional illustrated and/or diagrammatic material may be included). A bibliography should be appended, together with a statement that the essay is the candidate’s own unaided work.

iv) Essays may be typed or hand-written, but must be double-spaced and written on only one side of the paper. In order to preserve anonymity for judges, the candidate’s name and address should not be written on the essay itself but enclosed on a separate cover-sheet to be included with the essay.

v) Essays will be returned after the competition provided that an SAE is included with the essay.

4. Notice to enter the competition should be sent, together with the proposed essay title, by 30th June 2018 to the Assistant (Academic Support), Department of Classical Studies, FASS, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA; or via email FASS-ClassicalStudies-Enquiries@open.ac.uk

The deadline for receipt of essays will be 30th September 2018. This timing is intended to give competitors an opportunity to work on their essays after the 2018 academic session. The decision of the judges, which will be final, will be announced to all competitors as soon as possible after the closing date.

5. The administration and adjudication of the competition will be by a Committee appointed by the Department of Classical Studies. The committee reserves the right not to award the prize in any given year if there is no essay of an acceptable standard.

6. Guidelines for competitors. The following criteria will be observed by the judges:

i) Quality of the Essay as a piece of English prose

ii) Appreciation of the issues involved in the selected topic

iii) Quality of thought displayed in setting out and addressing such issues

iv) Sensitivity to the historical ambience of the topic, and its significance within that setting

v) Capacity for independent critical analysis

vi) Imaginative choice of topic.

 

NEO: The Classics Students’ Journal – Call for papers

The Classics students’ journal NEO, founded in 2016, is now calling for papers for its second issue. For further information and guidance on the submission process, click here.

The 2017 issue of the journal (which can be downloaded here) includes a piece by former Open University Classical Studies student Ian Ramskill, whose paper ‘Horace Odes 3.14: a pragmatic and welcome acceptance of the early Pax Augusta’ started life back in 2014 as a prizewinning essay for the John Stephen Kassman Memorial Essay Prize. This is a competition which is open to all OU Classical Studies undergraduates. Look out for more details soon!

Salmacis and Hermaphroditus – Paula James reports

Since retiring from the Open University in 2015, Paula James has been immersed in her ongoing research into classical mythology. Amongst other things, she has been working on an article about the myth of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book 4. We recorded a short audio with Paula about the myth, to share on this blog. You can also access the full text of her article draft by clicking on the link below. The article hasn’t yet found a permanent home in a journal, but Paula told us that she doesn’t want it to sink without a trace like poor Salmacis did!  We’re very pleased to share it on the blog, and invite readers to send on any feedback or ideas to Paula at the address on her Open University webpage.

Audio: Paula James talks about the myth of Salmacis

Article link (PDF): Paula_James_Salmacis_article

screenshot of OU podcast channel - audio about Salmacis

 

 

Ovid’s cure for pimples (and other adventures in ‘Practical Classics’)

Alison Daniels is an OU student working towards the Q85 BA in Classical Studies. This autumn, she was awarded the ‘highly commended’ prize for her submission to the John Stephen Kassman Memorial Essay competition: an essay entitled ‘Practical Classics: Reflections on the attempted recreation of the ancient Roman skincare and cosmetic products described by Ovid in his Medicamina Faciei Femineae’. Alison attempted to recreate some of the lotions and potions that Ovid recommended to his Roman readers. It’s safe to say that this is the first student essay to arrive in the OU Classical Studies mailbox complete with pots of cosmetic samples!

In this blog post, she tells us a bit more about the process of researching and writing the essay, and her plans for future work in the field of Classical Studies.

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Hello Alison, congratulations on your prize! Please could you introduce yourself to our blog readers, and tell us about your OU learning journey so far?

This is my second degree with the OU. The first was an Open Honours degree which ended up as a weird mixture of cognitive psychology and Romans. I just chose what interested me. My love for the Romans was rekindled by the sight of James Purefoy’s backside in HBO’s Rome on TV. It’s not the greatest reason for studying, is it? This time I’m taking another honours degree in Classical Studies. Last year I had to exert some discipline to learn all those Latin endings and declensions for A276. I’m now taking A330 looking at Greek and Roman Myth. I can’t quite get my head round the Greeks, they seem to have quite an alien mind set to me.

I’d love to go on and take a PhD part time by distance learning, but funding it would be an issue. Building on A330, I’m fascinated by how Roman cults functioned as businesses, so that would be my subject.  How cults competed, attracted new members and got the money to operate, how they entered a new market, how you spread the message about your “new” god, why people would join a new cult and what it offered, how they sought out high profile converts, the economics and business aspects of creating and buying votives – that kind of thing.

Other than that, I’ve always had way too much curiosity and a bad habit of going, “What if…”

You chose to write your Kassman essay about Ovid’s Medicamina Faciei Femineae. Can you give us some background to this text? How much of it survives, and what is it about?

What remains of the Medicamina is just a fragment of about 100 lines long. The first half is Ovid’s usual poetics, but the second half changes quite abruptly to a series of five recipes for skincare and cosmetic products. At first sight, it didn’t seem to fit with the bits of Ovid I’d encountered on the module [A276]]. It was as if, say, Hamlet broke off in the middle of “To be or not to be” to give you his recipe for Danish Pastries.

Why you decide to recreate the recipes, rather than just read about them? And what did you expect to find out when you started your research?

When I started my research, I thought I’d find that lots of people had recreated Ovid’s recipes. It seemed such an obvious approach, but although there were lots of references to the recipes, no what seemed to have actually tried them out. Even where people had written books on Roman cosmetics, they didn’t seem to have made them, so I decided I’d give it a go as my topic for the Kassman essay prize.

How many recipes did you recreate? What were the main challenges you encountered? 

I chose to recreate four recipes out of the five. The one I omitted involved nitre, which I thought at the time I’d have to make by following a medieval process. Since it involved digging a metre cubed pit and filling it with alternate layers of lime and chicken poo, I passed on that.

There were two main challenges. I soon discovered why no one appeared to have recreated Ovid’s recipes before! The first was the translations themselves, which varied enormously and unexpectedly. Take lines 78-80. Mahoney (Perseus.tufts.edu) renders them as:

“Two ounces next of gum, and thural seed,
That for the gracious gods does incense breed,
And let a double share of honey last succeed”.

This differs significantly from the prose translation offered by May in the Loeb,

“There should also be added two ounces of gum and Tuscan spelt, and nine times as much honey.” (www.sacred-texts.com/cla/ovid/lboo/lboo62.htm).

So I didn’t really know whether to go with nine times as much honey or 4 ounces as the double share. Scale it up to fifty lines and it becomes even less consistent. In the end I opted for the Loeb translation throughout, cross-referencing as needed.

The second challenge was rounding up the materials and trying to identify what species of plant or type of material Ovid actually meant. He was writing before scientific taxonomy and many of the translations seemed give priority to metre over product formulation. In one recipe he specifies windy beans, but even with research into ancient Roman recipes, it wasn’t clear which variety was meant. Add in that commercial plant breeding and agriculture has changed the physical qualities of many species over time and I couldn’t be sure that Ovid’s opium poppy petals bore much resemblance to the ones from my neighbour’s garden, or that the modern ingredients wouldn’t result in a less efficacious product.

I had to make some educated guesses and substitutions, so I used Scottish barley that a local farmer let me have rather than Libyan barley and my iris bulbs came from the garden centre rather than Illyria. Similarly, I used a high powered blender to grind and mix my ingredients since I had no access to strong-armed slaves or a donkey powered mill.

Can you give us a taster of one of the recipes – perhaps your favourite one?

Although Ovid’s fennel seed complexion cream smelt fabulous, I found his spot and pimple cream most interesting. At first, I thought it was maybe a later addition to the poem as the quantity of ingredients seemed pretty industrial, coming in at just over 4Kg.

At Ovid’s stated dose the batch contains six months’ worth of daily treatment. In fact, Ovid’s suggestion of ½ Roman ounce, or 14.35g per treatment, is 29 times higher than a recommended full face dose of a modern acne treatment. At that rate, Ovid’s recipe provides almost six years of twice daily treatments. I thought Ovid was obliquely suggesting that those with spots should cake themselves in a thick layer of disguising cream for several years until the skin problems have passed.

Ingredients for Ovid's pimple cure

Ingredients for Ovid’s spot and pimple cure and the end result

Ovid's cure for pimples

 

When I tested the recipe, I found it resulted in a dark, flecked mixture. It didn’t absorb into the skin, but sits on it until removed. Rubbing resulted in the honey component spreading into the skin, leaving dry farinaceous matter on top. It is exceptionally drying on the skin, but not sticky. If Ovid’s suggested dose of an ounce were applied to the face, it would doubtless slide off. The wearer would not be able to apply this product then appear in public, but would have to stay secluded. Ovid often seemed to use a known allergen in this preparation. Lupin commonly causes skin rashes and breathing difficulties in around 1-2% of the population.

You mention in the essay that some of your neighbours helped with sourcing the ingredients – what did they think when you told them about your project?!

Luckily for me, I live in quite a charmingly eccentric little village, where people are always helping each other out. My job writing for magazines and editing means my neighbours are quite used to me doing strange things, like walking over hot coals or trying twenty ice cream flavours in one afternoon for a food review! They didn’t have a problem with letting me take some lupin seeds or stealing all the petals from their poppies once I had explained.

And finally, what would you count as your most important or surprising discovery?

Even though the project was pretty poor science and not very rigorous as classical research, I think it had value. It gave me an idea of the difficulties of primary research without proper funding, equipment and access to materials and secondary research. It was also fun to do and interesting to explore.

In terms of the cosmetic formulae themselves, I came to the conclusion that Ovid gives us a series of cosmetics where each has the opposite effect to that promised. A cheek stain that gives the wearer the appearance of bruises rather than a healthy glow; a spot cream that needs to be layered on so thickly the wearer’s entire visage is obscured and the user must avoid others; a cream that promises radiance but soon leaves the skin dull and grey and a brightening cream which blisters the skin.

While this may have been Ovid’s subtle comment on the futility of artificial beauty products, my own conclusion was that the recipes were, in effect, a series of practical jokes. By simply translating Ovid’s words and failing to fully comprehend the sly implications of his recipes, I felt we may have missed out on a more practical aspect of Ovid’s humour.

 

Classical Day Trips

A couple of years ago, we ran a blog post which shared some of our favourite ‘classical’ holiday destinations; this year, we thought we’d gather a few suggestions from colleagues in Classical Studies for classically-themed ‘days out’ in the UK! The summer holidays are now upon us and, whether or not the weather is kind, there are lots of good ideas for days out at archaeological sites, museums, exhibitions, and more. Here are some of our ideas, but we’d love to hear yours too…

York (as suggested by Emma Bridges)

It’s not difficult to find a reason to visit the beautiful city of York, but for a classicist the city once known as Eboracum is a great place to spot some Roman remains. Try navigating your way around the city with the help of this Roman York walking tour and podcast; be sure to take a look at the city’s best preserved Roman fortifications and Roman coffins in the Museum Gardens as well as Philip Jackson’s 1998 statue of Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor. It’s also well worth dropping in to the Yorkshire Museum (where OU PhD student Adam Parker is Assistant Curator of Archaeology); the museum hosts, among many other treasures, a fine collection of Roman artefacts, including a mosaic floor. And if you visit York’s Art Gallery before October, you’ll find an exhibition of works by Albert Moore, many of which have a distinctly classical theme.

A statue of the Emperor Constantine in York

York’s one of those places where almost every new building development turns up some Roman finds, but even those who don’t know one end of a trowel from another can get a taste of life as an archaeologist by visiting DIG museum, which gives children a chance to become trainee ‘diggers’.

The city famously has 365 pubs, one for every day of the year, but if you’re after some refreshment in a classically-themed location the watering hole for you has to be the Roman Bath pub in St Sampson’s Square; its basement houses York’s Roman Baths Museum.

Hepworth Gallery (as suggested by Jessica Hughes)

My No. 1 summer day-trip recommendation is the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, recent winner of the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2017 Award. The Hepworth Gallery is a really beautiful space, with its big windows looking out onto the canal and busy road beyond. In addition to its temporary exhibitions (currently showing is Howard Hodgkin: Painting India), the gallery also has a unique permanent collection which includes works by Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and other modern British artists whose paintings and sculptures often resonate with classical antiquity in some way. When I visited last month, I particularly enjoyed looking at a display of ancient artefacts (including Cycladic figurines) that Barbara Hepworth owned, and at the new display of books selected from her personal library. These included an annotated dual-language text of Sophocles’ Electra, several other translations of Greek tragedies, and a number of books on Cycladic and Classical art.

The Hepworth Gallery

Wakefield is well-connected by train (approximately 2 hours from London), and you can get a taxi to the Hepworth from the train station. There’s also car parking over the road, and a very nice cafe and bookshop inside. The Hepworth Wakefield is part of the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle, together with Leeds Art Gallery, the Henry Moore Institute, and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The National Coal Mining Museum for England is nearby.

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (as suggested by Jan Haywood)

Medea by Frederick Sandys

One of my favourite places to visit is Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (conveniently located in the centre of the city, in easy walking distance from the railway stations) which houses a world-class collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, a group of works from the later half of the nineteenth century that drove against contemporary artistic trends through their admiration for medieval Italian art. Many of these artworks display clear affinities with the ancient world and/or portray famous classical figures. Indeed, be sure to catch Frederick Sandys’ arresting portrait of the magician and princess Medea (1868), which imagines the enchantress preparing a foul potion of magical ingredients. Amongst the many other highlights is Sir Edward Burne-Jones’ fascinating Troy Triptych (1872-1898), an unfinished work that represents several scenes from the Trojan War story.

Maiden Castle (as suggested by Jo Paul)

One of my holiday destinations this summer is Dorset; as a child, I spent every summer there, and I’m now looking forward to showing my own children the place that introduced me to ‘the Romans’ before I had any idea who they really were. There may not be very much to see at Maiden Castle, besides the vast ramparts and the minimal remains of structures like a 4th century CE Romano-British temple – but the sheer scale of the place (the largest Iron Age hillfort in Britain) is impressive. Walking across the ramparts and up and down the slopes (manageable by all but the most reluctant children!) affords spectacular views across the Wessex countryside, and it’s not hard to imagine the commanding position once held by this fort. As a child, I was captivated by tales of how Vespasian attacked it during the invasion of 43 CE, and though this version of events is now disputed, Maiden Castle still offers an intriguing and evocative insight into the earliest phases of the Roman conquest.

The ramparts of Maiden Castle

The wild landscape of Maiden Castle can be placed in historical context with a visit to the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester (ancient Durnovaria), which houses many finds from the site, including some famous skeletons bearing the signs of injuries which may or may not have been inflicted by invading Romans. Also in Dorchester, you can visit a fully exposed Roman ‘town house‘.

A celebration of Mair Lloyd’s ‘Living Latin’

Many of you know Mair and the enthusiasm she has for reminding us that Latin was, and can be, a real language, more than grammar grind and reading a bunch of fusty old texts…! I hope you’ll join with me and Mair’s other supervisors – Regine Hampel, Uschi Stickler, Linda Murphy – in congratulating Mair on her amazing achievement of winning the prestigious AOUG Vice-Chancellor Sir John Daniel Award for Education and Language Studies (2016).

AOUGMairMair, with her enthusiasm and dedication, has bridged boundaries and brought a lot of people and ideas together. By sharing supervision between the Classical Studies and Modern Languages departments we have learned much from each other (and the ways we work with language and think about language). By asking pertinent questions in her research, Mair has made Latinists across the country aware of the value of technology for teaching and learning, and by travelling to the US and participating in a Latin immersion course as a student, Mair has herself experienced the power of Living Latin for real communication.

 

The award Mair has received is in the name of Sir John Daniel, an educator who has always encouraged the use of technology, and promoted learning in unconventional ways and places, so it is quite fitting! Mair’s research is about making learning better and more enjoyable. She has discovered that ‘good Latin learners’ read with engagement and with fluency, and has demonstrated that Latin is a language that can be brought to life and can be used.

‘Tweeted’ reactions to her organisation of the ‘Living Latin’ panel at the 2016 Classical Association conference in Edinburgh (for which she secured the attendance of leading exponent of Living Latin, Prof. Tunberg from the University of Kentucky) illustrate this point:

@MairLloyd‘s enthusiasm makes Vygotsky accessible even at 9am in the morning. Great introduction to the theory behind Living Latin #LL#CA16

#CA16@MairLloyd is absolutely brilliant. There are many layers to language learning. Learners can help each other in the process.

This panel on spoken Latin as a learning method (with taster lesson from Terence Tunberg) was absolutely brilliant

The Living Latin panel. It has been mind-blowing. And we all spoke some Latin!

The panel on Living Latin is so mesmerising and inspiring it is difficult to tweet… sorry! Blog to follow. #CA16

Mair’s exploration of learning to read in Latin has highlighted aspects of reading that have not been extensively explored in modern languages either  – i.e. exploring reading with comprehension in the target language without resorting to translation or checking unknown vocabulary, and reading with engagement. She has used an innovative approach to evaluation of this type of reading that includes reading and drawing.

Her research has been far more extensive than that which is presented in her final thesis, and she will be submitting a range of further papers and conference presentations outlining findings related to learning of Ancient Greek and the development of interaction and collaborative Latin learning through Information and Communication Technology.

Mair’s thesis, Living Latin: Exploring the communicative approach to Latin teaching through a sociocultural perspective on Latin learning, is an investigation of the current approach to the ab initio teaching of Latin in Classics departments in UK universities and how this aligns with the aims and aspirations of students. Drawing on Second Language Acquisition theory and practice in Modern Language teaching she has examined how the implementation of methods and activities based on a communicative approach to Latin teaching can help students to attain their ab initio Latin-learning goals. She then explored the explanatory value of a Vygotskian sociocultural theoretical perspective (as applied to modern language learning) in the analysis of learning events during communicative Latin teaching and interpersonal interaction in Latin. The research forges new links between the Department of Classical Studies and the Department of Languages.

Mair came to the research having noticed her own difficulties as a beginner getting to grips with reading Latin, compared with the faster progress she felt that she had made as a beginner learner of French. She intuitively felt that the more interactive use of French might actually be helping her to read more easily in French, and that Modern Language theory and practice might have some benefits in the teaching of Latin. Like many learners of Latin and their teachers, her aim was to be able to read and enjoy original texts in order to be able to gain insight into and appreciate the life and perspectives of the writer and the ancient world.

Although a number of classicists have previously looked to Modern Language theory and pedagogy to inspire their approach to Latin teaching, Mair has established that little or no attention has been paid to demonstrating the benefits of these approaches for Latin teaching or determining how well their effects are explained by language learning theories. The results of her survey of UK University Classics departments showed no evidence of awareness of curricula underpinned by theoretical positions. Despite having no previous knowledge of language learning theories herself before beginning her research, Mair has analysed current approaches and classified them according to the theoretical and pedagogical concepts drawn from Modern Language research. To achieve this, she has drawn on research conducted by fellow postgraduate students and brought together a range of different perspectives on theory, history of language teaching and methodology, supplemented by her own insights into the field. She has demonstrated that much current Latin teaching practice can be classified as behaviourist and structuralist with a heavy emphasis on cognitive skills, but shows very little evidence of developments in modern language teaching which focus on interaction, context, collaboration and emotional response and have been strongly influenced by a Vygotskian sociocultural theoretical perspective.

Mair therefore sought out examples of Latin teaching and learning that resembled more closely the situation in modern language teaching where interaction through oral communication involving both speaking, listening comprehension and negotiation of meaning in the target language is a regular component. She found them in the form of a week-long ‘immersion’ programme at Lexington in the USA. This ‘Conventiculum’ proclaimed the benefits of learning Latin through interaction in Latin and collaboration with other learners as well as interaction with original texts, though once again this seemed to be based on an intuition of the benefit rather than having a firm theoretical perspective. As a participant observer at this event, Mair was able to gather data on the experience of beginner and more experienced learners, including her own reactions, to their ‘immersion’ in Latin and the types of activity and interaction and they engaged in.

Data collection at the Conventiculum included asking participants to read a short passage in Latin and to make a drawing of what this passage evoked for them. They were asked to do this both before and after the event. They were encouraged to envision the scenes described in the passages without making a translation into English. This represented an innovative way to examine readers’ responses to the passages. It enabled readers to avoid the mediation of another language (as would have been the case if comprehension questions in English were given) or adding complexity by questioning in Latin. It also allowed a more personal response to the text. Readers noted the mood of the scene evoked, for example. This method has not been employed to any extent in modern language learning, where despite attention to so-called ‘intensive’ and ‘extensive’ reading (for specific information or for gist), there has been little attention to reading and understanding entirely within the target language and in understanding what is meant by ‘engagement’ in reading.

In her analysis of the data gathered from the communicative Latin teaching and interpersonal interaction in Latin at the Conventiculum, Mair explored the explanatory value of a Vygotskian sociocultural theoretical perspective (as applied to modern language learning). Her findings indicate that this may be a positive way forward in understanding how reading in Latin and engagement with original texts can be facilitated and become more enjoyable for learners of Latin and other ancient languages.

 

MairUschiVivaSince receiving her award, Mair has passed her viva and can look forward to soon being Dr Lloyd, author of Living Latin: Exploring a Communicative Approach to Latin Teaching through a Sociocultural Perspective on Language Learning. Look out for more from Mair, as she has no intention of stopping here, with publications in the pipeline and Ancient Greek to deal with next…

On behalf of the OU Classical Studies department and CREET, and especially from the four of us who supervised you, congratulations Mair, and bona fortuna! As Uschi put it at the AOUG Award Ceremony, Mair fabulosa est!

ICONS: giving life to the Amazons via the modern female gaze

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We are delighted to invite you to a free public event taking place at The Open University in London (1-11 Hawley Crescent, Camden, London NW1 8NP) at 5.45pm on 7th July 2016.

Laura Martin-Simpson and Rachel Bagshaw of Blazon Theatre will be presenting readings from ICONS, a new play about the Amazons by Paula B. Stanic. All are welcome and attendance is free. To reserve a space please contact Emma Bridges: e.e.bridges@open.ac.uk.

Avid for Ovid: A Q&A with Malcolm Atkins

This week we chatted to Malcolm Atkins, an Open University Associate Lecturer in Music, who also has a degree in Classics. Malcolm is one of the founders of Avid for Ovid, a group of performers who reinterpret ancient myth through dance and music.

Thank you for talking to us, Malcolm. Where did the idea for Avid for Ovid came from?

Malcolm and Ségolène performing ‘Lycaon’ at Modern Art Oxford, September 2014. Photo credit Pier Corona

Malcolm and Ségolène performing ‘Lycaon’ at Modern Art Oxford, September 2014. Photo credit Pier Corona

Avid for Ovid (A4O) was formed by three Oxford-based artists (dancers Susie Crow and Ségolène Tarte, and musician Malcolm Atkins) after an involvement in the Oxford University research project Ancient Dance in Modern Dancers, where we had brought our practical knowledge as performers to explore the long forgotten form of tragoedia saltata, or ancient Roman pantomime, solo storytelling through dance and music. We formed A4O as a group of performing artists to explore from our perspective as artists the potential of using principles and ideas from ancient dance and music in contemporary performance. We later invited Birmingham-­based dancer Marie-­Louise Crawley to join the group. We found the potential of this solo dance form to be enormous – it can really communicate with an audience of any background and can be performed almost anywhere (and in this we seem to be continuing the Roman tradition).

Susie and Malcolm performing 'Tisiphone' at a Classics Colloquium in Oxford in 2013.

Susie and Malcolm performing ‘Tisiphone’ at a Classics Colloquium in Oxford in 2013.

Can you tell us a little more about the performers? Did any of them, other than you, have any prior knowledge of ancient poetry?

Susie Crow is a ballet dancer and choreographer interested in the expressive and narrative potential of ballet, and how skills and approaches from Roman pantomime may have informed its inception; Ségolène Tarte is an academic as well as a ballet dancer and researches as a Digital Humanist in close collaboration with classicists at the University of Oxford; Marie-Louise Crawley is a choreographer and contemporary dance theatre artist who also studied Classics at Oxford.

What might someone who comes to one of your performances expect to see?

We attempt to create narrative through movement and sound. The choice of movement and sound is eclectic and represents the diverse practices and genres we have all worked in. I use a range of instruments (in the spirit of this dance practice which seems to have used all available resources) and create soundscapes as well as direct motivic and thematic interactions, word setting and word painting. The dancers often choreograph a setting of a myth and as with the Roman practice shift from one character to another in unfolding a narrative. They are informed by a range of practices including ballet, mime, kathak [1] and butoh [2] – all of which have a unique relation to narrative. In fact this is also similar to the way musically I use traditions of leitmotif, thematic transformation, rhythmic pattern and power and dissonance as appropriate. Much of this is inevitably informed by our cinematic and visual culture.

What you will see is something exciting and engaging in a way that is far more accessible than much contemporary dance because the focus on narrative allows communication with all – just as the Roman practice did.

What is it about Ovid’s poetry in particular which lends itself to this kind of performative storytelling?

Within the Metamorphoses there is an incredible range of narrative and characterisation and perhaps this is why this was such a favourite of Shakespeare. We have the opportunity to select from so many different styles of story and presentation of character through the music and dance we create. The poetry as a compendium of myths also seems to have an incredibly challenging and subversive meta-narrative. Unlike the overt challenge of the radical exploration of myth in Euripides, Ovid is far more subtle in the way he relentlessly punctures male patriarchal pomposity although more often through flawed divinities than mortals.  This ambivalence towards authority and emphasis on its malign side lends to the possibilities of exploration in dance and musical interpretation as does the breezy tone of Ovid as he skips from one scene of abject and unjustified misery to another often juxtaposing farce and tragedy.

Do you personally have any favourite episodes from Ovid? Could you tell us why you are drawn to certain parts of his poetry over others?

One of those awkward lycanthrope moments. Ségolène  performing ‘Lycaon’ at Modern Art Oxford, September 2014. Photo credit Pier Corona

One of those awkward lycanthrope moments. Ségolène performing ‘Lycaon’ at Modern Art Oxford, September 2014. Photo credit Pier Corona

I have become particularly attached to passages that we have performed because my engagement with the text has deepened (often as I recite or sing it in Latin). The visceral power of the description of Lycaon’s transformation to a wolf was captured through a recording suggested by Ségolène where the text was recited like ‘maggots in the brain’. When Ségolène performed her interpretation a child had to be led out crying from a performance that had no graphic violence. The pathos of Aurora’s grief at the death of her son – particularly relevant in a time of so much desolation that we see daily on the news – was so well expressed by Susie’s exploration of archetypes of grieving. Marie-Louise’s exploration of Myrrha and the desperation that leads to her transformation to a tree (and the very powerful subtext of the girl as a victim of patriarchal desire that resonates with our time) was particularly unsettling (as was the subject) and to me lent to an expressionist theme and the solipsistic musical misery of fin de siècle Vienna. On top of this the subversive story of Arachne who studiously reports the misdemeanours of our betters against the strident defence of Athene was brought home to me by Ségolène’s inspired interpretation. Ovid’s lack of a decisive judgement is all the more powerful in highlighting the abuse of power – something else that strikes a chord with contemporary politics and conflicting media narratives sponsored by corporate power.

Marie-Louise performing ‘Myrrha’ at the MAC Birmingham, October 2015. Photo credit Christian Hunt

Marie-Louise performing ‘Myrrha’ at the MAC Birmingham, October 2015. Photo credit Christian Hunt

For readers of our blog who are interested in seeing Avid for Ovid perform, could you tell us when and where your next performance is taking place?

We are next performing at the opening of a recreation of Ovid’s Garden in Winterbourne Gardens at the University of Birmingham (58 Edgbaston Park Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham) on the 18th June at 3pm. This is a free performance to celebrate the opening of the garden. More details are available here.

Where can our readers find out more about the project?

They can visit our blog and Facebook page, find us on Twitter (@Avid4Ovid) or contact me via email: Malcolm.Atkins1@ntlworld.com.

 

[1] Butoh is an expressive dance theatre form which arose in Japan in the late 1950s; often incorporating playful and grotesque imagery, extreme or absurd situations and slowly evolving movement, performed in white body make-up.

[2] Kathak is one of eight Indian classical dance forms; originating in North India, it combines the telling of stories through codified gestural movement with a more formal vocabulary incorporating virtuosic and percussive footwork, rhythmic complexity and spins. (With thanks to Susie Crow for providing definitions.)