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Santino DeAngelo

Resurrecting Roman pantomime

Harpur student works with community to bring
new life to ancient art form

by Leah Ferentinos

In May, Santino DeAngelo ’13 composed and produced “Narcissus” — a retelling of the Greek myth — in the style of ancient Roman pantomime.

A Harpur College student not only helped to bring Binghamton University and the community together in the spring of 2013, but revived a fading art form in the process.

Santino DeAngelo ’13, a Binghamton native and accomplished local performer, gathered students, faculty, alumni and theatre professionals from the region to resurrect ancient Roman pantomime, which has disappeared over time. Participants hailed from a range of disciplines such as music, theatre and classical civilizations, as well as local organizations like the Tri-Cities Opera and Half Light Theatre.

In May, DeAngelo — with the help of a grant from the Binghamton Fund for Harpur College — produced Narcissus, a 35-minute retelling of the classic Greek myth in the style of ancient Roman pantomime. He also composed the musical score.

DeAngelo believes Narcissus to be the genre’s first-ever attempt in the United States.

“As an artist, I just want to change the world in my own little way,” says DeAngelo, who was a double major in classical civilization and mythology and performance, the latter of which he created through the Harpur College Individualized Major Program (IMP). “I thought the concept [of Narcissus] was fascinating academically and creatively. It presents an opportunity to create living, breathing scholarship.”

What is ancient Roman pantomime?

Rooted deeply in ancient Greek theatre, ancient Roman pantomime is a form of musical and visual storytelling that originated in the eastern part of the Mediterranean world. Roman pantomime was popular in antiquity because it crossed over language barriers. There is no spoken dialogue: the large chorus and its soloists provide musical narration while a masked pantomime artist concurrently performs in front of the chorus, silently embodying the story’s characters through interpretive dance.

“Pantomime itself is about finding meaning in gesture,” says Narcissus stage director Austin Tooley, who earned his master’s degree in theatre in 2013.

However, since ancient Roman pantomime was an art that glorified its star performers over writers, only fragments of pantomime texts remain. Its language of movement and gestures within a performance context was lost over time as well, which required Tooley and DeAngelo to generate a unique set of meaning through gestures for the production.

The mythology of Narcissus surrounds a man so enamored with his own reflection that he’s incapable of loving others, and actually dies because of it.

“The ‘Narcissus’ myth was the perfect source material for the kind of show I wanted to create,” DeAngelo says. “It’s very Greek tragedy, thematically.”

DeAngelo, the composer

DeAngelo has years of theatrical and dance training, but he is actually a mostly self-taught pianist and musical composer. He says that music is just in his blood.

“I literally grew up on the stage — it’s the family business,” he says. “When I was a toddler, I remember sitting under my dad’s feet as he played the piano, learning the notes. Music has always been a huge part of my life.”

DeAngelo’s father, Jan DeAngelo ’87, a Binghamton University alumnus with a degree in music, has danced with companies such as the Joffrey Ballet and the School of American Ballet, and is now the musical director at the Cider Mill Playhouse in Endicott. Narcissus collaborators see a similar trajectory for the younger DeAngelo.

“Passion can get you a long way,” says John Starks, DeAngelo’s faculty advisor and Harpur College classics undergraduate director, who helped DeAngelo develop the project conceptually. “If there’s anything Santino’s got in spades besides talent, it’s his passion.”

“There’s a universality to his writing that you don’t often find with young composers,” Narcissus musical director and Binghamton native Matthew Vavalle says.

Narcissus is the third part of a trilogy DeAngelo created that deals with themes of love and transformation. The trilogy also includes his musical score for the Binghamton University Theatre Department’s lyrical ballet, Pygmalion, as well as his composition “Salmacis,” a piano/cello duet presented by faculty members in the Music Department.

An Interdisciplinary education

DeAngelo credits Harpur College’s Classical and Near Eastern Studies Department for giving him the opportunity to take education outside the classroom.

“To me, the Classics Department encapsulates what it means to be a liberal arts major,” DeAngelo says. “It’s a very broad and multidisciplinary field. I’m not just studying Greece and Rome, but bringing the ancient world to life for modern-day audiences.”

This isn’t the first time DeAngelo was able to create such a project. In 2011, he became a Harpur Fellow, an annual Harpur College program that awards grants to students with ideas for special self-directed projects that benefit others. His theatrical production, a literal translation of Fredrico García Lorca’s 1933 Blood Wedding, was art aimed at helping local youth understand and better emotionally handle violence.

“Harpur College understands that education is more than just a blackboard — it’s alive,” DeAngelo says. “That’s why I came to Binghamton.”

DeAngelo is now working with Broadway producers, composing an original musical that combines all 14 of Shakespeare’s comedies into one big “mega-comedy musical farce” called It Happened One Midsummer Night. “It’s because of my time at Binghamton that I’m actually ready for all this,” he says.

“Opportunity will knock, but you have to put yourself in the room with the door.”

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Last Updated: 3/1/17