Dancing What You Can't See

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Dancing Dancing Dancing What You What What You You Can’t See Can’t Can’t See See by Sarah Handelman

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the courtyard of the Royal Academy of Dance, piano music faintly sings from the windows of a second-story studio. The enigmatic melody lingers, and coaxes curious glances from the cobblestoned walkway towards the frosted glass panes that veil variations of buns and arabesques like streaky, muted lines of blonde watercolors. Upstairs, the studio doors are closed, locked and barricaded by a velvet rope. The dancers must not be disturbed — examinations are in progress. They are performing solos their teachers have taught them, orally and through movements. Their teachers’ teachers used the same methods. For 10 years, I learned ballet this way. I’ve never read a ballet score. I wouldn’t be able to. I have come to the Royal Academy of Dance to look at ballets scored in Benesh Movement Notation, one of the three primary notation systems that record historic and new ballets onto paper. Ballets are not notated using a Latin-based language; they are instead recorded as dance notation: written, semiotic translations of ballet’s dynamic visual, moving language (Hutchinson Guest, 1984: XIV). The concept of writing dance down on paper has been in practice for centuries,1 but systems designed to document classical ballet as a means of preservation, research and restaging have developed only in the

past 65 years. Although Laban Movement Analysis and Eshkol-Wachman Movement Notation are other popular contemporary notation systems, Benesh Movement Notation is based on a five-line stave and looks the most like music notation. Considering my background,2 I determine that it might be the most accessible way into reading dance on paper. Inside the academy’s library, shelves bulge with ballets notated in the 64-year old movement notation system. These are a fraction of the institute’s scores. The rest, I’m told, are inaccessible to the public. I open a scoring of Giselle. It may be publicly available, but I cannot read this dance. Dots, curves, circles and squares scatter pages like haphazard shorthand. The stave and bar lines are the only shared traits between a sheet of music and this ballet score. More piano music hums through the walls. The ballet library is empty, but inside the academy’s full studios the dancers are learning. As I fumble through pages of an alien alphabet, I wonder if the dancers could read their movements as documented in this score. Probably not. What can these hundreds of unreadable scores communicate to the discipline they document? For dancers, how does established ballet notation impact the accurate revival of classics3 like Giselle? Further, how does a supposedly functional notation system represent or hinder the translation of expression in ballet? I look towards Romeo and Juliet to find out.

Dance notation truly blossomed in the 18th Century when it was used by wealthy, educated society, particularly in the Court of King Louis XIV. However, after the French Revolution, dancers existed in the lower rungs of society. “The stigma which the educated classes attached to dance…discouraged the emergence of literately included dancers and hence impeded the development and use of a notation which would function in the same way as music notation” (Hutchinson Guest, 1984: 10).


My knowledge of ballet is three-dimensional — As the dancer, I have performed Fokine’s choreography for Les Sylphides; I have played the music, scored by Chopin, as the cellist; I have watched the ballet as an audience member.


Today, ballets including Giselle but also Les Sylphides and Swan Lake, are identified as classics because of their history, which is rooted in the 19th Century, and their well known narratives. In The Classic Ballet, Lincoln Kirstein writes, “Today, in the developed classic ballet, elements of ritual survive. Dancers are ordained by impulse and physical endowment into a rigorous regimen, finally coming of age as members of a professional tribe upon the great platform of an opera-house, in lay ceremonies whose only surprise is in individual performances on given evenings. All else — plot, music, choreography, decoration — is equally familiar” (Stuart, 1953: 3).


interpreting interpreting source thethe source

4 Because dance notation systems thrive on precision, it is difficult for notators to find the semiotic word to describe certain improvised or ad-libbed action. For Benesh notators, “run and jump” is a difficult action to document. There are countless restrictions that factor into any “run and jump” — from the left or the right? Land where, and on one leg or two? How far? How high? What kind? Despite its simplicity, ‘run and jump’ is nearly impossible to record without including excessive, written directions, which defeats the purpose of the succinct dance notation systems in place today. 5 “A Comparative Study of Video Tape and Labanotation as Learning Tools for Modern Dance,” by C. Brook Andrews.

As my first day at the Royal Academy of Dance nears its end, I examine Prokofiev’s orchestral score, Romeo and Juliet. Evening envelopes a sunny afternoon like stretched tights over pale skin. I imagine the two star-crossed lovers — Montague and Capulet. Without reading a word, I know — and hear — how their story ends. Anyone who can read music can read Prokofiev’s score. High school students learn Shakespeare’s classic work for the stage. The ballet score, however, is readable only by the select few who are trained in the particular dance notation system in which it has been transcribed. I am a member of the public, but I am also a balletomane and former ballet dancer. Still, I am not included within the sphere of notationally literate.

For the most part, dance notation systems are highly functional.4 The symbol-based visual writing of a ballet is precise and exacting for those who can read and translate the parts. But learning a dance notation system can take years, and a ballerina’s professional lifespan is limited. She must rely on a fluent mediator. Or watch the movie. In a moment of weakness, I find the film. The film. In the ballet world the production choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan is just as iconic as the play itself. The dancers — Nureyev and Fonteyn — infuse the balcony scene’s kiss with a brilliant balance of youthful fumbling and immortal love. Though I attempt to follow the ballet score, I cannot see or read how the expression — the passion — is notated.

While Laban insisted notators that “Write more than seems necessary; better to have too much detail than not enough,” Benesh wished to eliminate excess: “Keep it simple! Don’t clutter with unnecessary details!” (Hutchinson Guest: 1984, 119).

I didn’t want to resort to the film. No dancer does. Liz Cunliffe, the director of the Benesh Institute, is giving me a whirlwind tour of another ballet score when I mention my cinematic apprehension. “It’s like showing Olivier’s Hamlet to an actor just learning the part,” she explains. “You would never want to show a film to a dancer in the beginning.”

“[The still] is not a specimen chemically extracted from the substance of the film, but rather the trace of a superior distribution of traits of which the film as experienced in its animated flow would give no more than one text among others” (Barthes, 1977: 67).

When it comes to learning a ballet, Liz suggests starting with the source: the score. There is clear evidence that notation systems used to revive classic ballets provide more information and interpretive inspiration than ballets documented on film, at least for those who are literate. In a study that compared the effectiveness of learning with film or notation, dancers who were literate in notation preferred



learning and realizing roles by referencing the dance score rather than videos of past performances.5 The editing of a film and the caliber of dancing might give a young ballerina false hopes or unrealistic expectations. Additionally, ballet films are often poorly lit and focus on the upper body, leaving many technical subtleties lost in translation. Samples of notated Romeo and Juliet scores reveal little in terms of artistic expression, but different notation systems and even different dance notators can — and should — convey vital information in the language of the notation system as well as brief notes on what a movement could mean. If the choreographer or director’s visual voice were stronger within the score, perhaps dance notation would become a more valuable primary source.6 However, space and time constraints do not neccesarily allow for these extras. In Design Issues, Ellen Lupton writes that Otto Neurath’s Isotype writing suggests two central rules for generating the vocabulary of international pictures: reduction and consistency. The same argument can be applied to contemporary dance notation approaches. However, in the case of international language and dance literacy, “Reduction does not actually strengthen the relationship between the picture and the object it represents; it can even weaken that relationship by making pictures that are too geometric to be easily read” (Lupton, 1986: 5253). A fine balance of information and interpretive opportunity must be achieved within the constructs of dance notation systems for ballet scores to fulfill their potential as resources and learning tools within the dance community. In its current form, the score to Romeo and Juliet may be of little use to the illiterate dancer who is trying to learn Juliet’s part. However, as a tool of documentation, the score holds weight. Using Roland Barthes’s writing on “The Third Meaning” as a starting point, the reading of ballet scores can be deepened and extended to an illiterate audience by seeing notation as a series of pictographic scenes — or stills — rather than the record of step after consecutive step.7 Scores-as-pictographic-stills do not have to function solely as the written record of ballets for the purpose of future revival. Notation can instead function as a brief visual representation that captures moments of a ballet’s history and living oral tradition. The score can also provide valuable postperformance self-critique for a dancer. Although her reading of notation would be limited, on the most basic level, the dancer would have a better chance of recognizing scenes after she has performed them. In this way, the score functions like a map. The route taken is more relatable and decipherable after the journey.

The opening of Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene, the Pas de Deux. Here, two separate staves are shown paired together. They represent the female and male roles in the ballet. The ballerina is always on the top stave. Her part is signified by a filled-in dot and line at the beginning of each set of staves. Her partner, the male, is signified by a line and empty square. The area between the staves serves as a meeting ground during the pas de deux. It signifies how the dancers will move together. The area above the top stave is reserved for written notes, questions and expression suggestions.

The last page of Prokofiev’s scoring of Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene.

The last page of choreographer Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene, notated in Benesh Movement Notation. Each line on the 5-line stave shows a different type of movement, from the dancer’s head on the top line to the feet on the bottom line. The choreographer, dance notator and artistic director might rely on both the music and dance scores to revive a performance or write a new one.

Depite development in the English language, Shakespeare’s tragicomedy is still accessible to anyone who is literate in a Latin-based language system. Dance notation systems are readable only to a small percentage of the ballet world.

doomed doomed writings writings In ballet years, Romeo and Juliet is a relatively new production,8 and the notation has survived nearly as long as the ballet itself. In terms of production accuracy and interpretation, what about classic ballets that have been orally passed down longer than they have been officially scored in a dance notation system? In January, The Royal Ballet performed Giselle 170 years after it was first staged in Paris. From plot, to documentation, to performance, Giselle is a classic steeped in drama, mystery and misunderstanding. In the ballet, Giselle is a beautiful peasant girl in love with dancing. She longs for a loving partner. Loys, a mysterious villager, is the perfect match. But this love is too good to be true. Loys is not who he claims to be. He is Count Albrecht, a man of the court. Despite professing his adoration for Giselle, marriage is impossible. Soon it is discovered that Albrecht is betrothed to Princess Bathilde. Giselle is heartbroken — her hopes for a future with the man she loves are dashed. In a moment of hysteria, she dances wildly with Count Albrecht’s sword and impulsively kills herself by its blade. If you saw the ballet — on film or live — you could probably piece this story together. But what if you went back to the written source? Where is Giselle in the notation?

Prokofiev was commissioned by the Kirov Ballet to write the score, and the ballet was first performed in 1935.






Scenes from Giselle: The Mad Scene. Stills from a film, like the ones above, can convey emotion, but it is difficult to have a complete view of the technical footwork and movement. Below the stills are two scorings of the same scene from Giselle, both written in Benesh Movement Notation. Joan Benesh, the co-founder of Benesh Movement Notation, scored BMN A. Compared to BMN B, it is an early example of how Benesh Movement Notation was used. BMN B employs significantly more English-based directions, while BMN A adheres to the original ideals of the system: less is more.

hat, or that he is a very rich man. The notation and performance of the current version is only as accurate as the memory of the mediator allows. Somewhere, in the delicate dashes, arches, circles and lines, the doomed maiden lives. Her movements are accounted for and recorded. Fragmented phrases leave hints of her fury and passion. But can you see Giselle’s despair? Probably not. And most likely, neither can the dancer who plays her.9 But Liz Cunliffe can see it. All of the markings are the set of keys that unlock and revive a classic ballet. The score is “the recipe,” she says “All of the ingredients are there. If you can read and translate the notation, you will have your ballet.” “What about the expression?” I blurt, with Gisellelike impetuosity. But dance notators must be pragmatic. Ballet is a series of deliberate yet fleeting movements. There isn’t time to take a theoretical or expressive approach to notating choreography that is already losing its form. The more-than century old ballet must be read for a century more. In a growing but still limited range of specific symbols, notators must document Giselle in a way that preserves the movement and leaves room to read between the footsteps. In a Royal Ballet rehearsal of Giselle, Artistic Director Dame Monica Mason coaches Principal Artist Francesca Filpi who will revive a scene from the ballet. No one in the quiet Clore Studio is looking at a score. The technical and expressive direction comes from Mason and the music. The rehearsal is running smoothly, but wait — there are issues with accuracy, especially in Filpi’s mime scene. Since its first performance in 1841, Giselle has more-or-less survived the oral traditions of ballet companies.10 In the earliest scored versions of the ballet, most of the legwork was documented using Stepanov notation. To save time, the upper body was left out of the Stepanov score. Repetiteurs or artistic directors were expected to know the arm and head placements. “Giselle — like every other nineteenthcentury ballet and many more recent ones — is a pastiche of things handed down and newly reproduced, things remembered and gaps repaired, adaptations to modern theatre practice and dancers and audiences,” writes Marcia B. Siegel (Siegel, 2010: 54). At present, countless meanings can be drawn from a single symbol: In the Clore studio rehearsal, Mason waves her hand above her head in whimsical circles. The small movement could mean that the character is harebrained, or that he wears a silly

This puts ballet dancers at a disadvantage to members of other performing arts disciplines. A violinist in the ballet pit orchestra of Giselle would not be expected to learn a part by listening to the conductor sing its melody. The score is readable and readily available to him (Hutchinson Guest, 1984: 2). Not only can he interpret the notes; he can also communicate that score to his audience. In contrast, the literacy rate for reading and communicating a ballet score is low. “The world of art depends upon [communication],” writes Rudolph Benesh, founder of Benesh Movement Notation. “Indeed, what is art if it is not communication and what is its use if it is not communicated!” (Benesh, 1977: 17). Benesh thought of his dance notation system as a creative process — an art as much as a technique. However, the ability for this artform to communicate is severely limited. It is not only rare to find a dancer who relies primarily on notation to learn choreography; it is rare to find a dancer — the ultimate communicator who conveys meaning through movement for the paying audience — who can read dance notation at all. Using Barthes’ contract of “the teacher and the taught,” we can see how easily dancers may become vulnerable students on the ends of potentially nonreciprocal relationships (Barthes, 1977; 196). Relying on the teacher to mediate or translate can give an impressionable dancer a skewed perception of her role. Without access to a score, she cannot objectively research her solo. Although she physically realizes the part in performance, the creative and interpretive right is in the hands of the translator. For those who are literate in dance notation systems, a well developed classic ballet score can not only preserve “the recipe” but also provide useful options and suggestions for artistic direction. Still, notators cannot ignore the brutal fact that some ballets are now notated 100 years after their first performance. It is possible to find a definitive music score, but the definitive dance manuscript to Swan Lake? It wasn’t even misplaced— it never happened.

“Musicians learn music with and through the written score; it is an integral part of their study and their subsequent work. They know how to handle notation; it is not a remote, colourless ‘foreign language’ to them. The percentage of dancers educated to be literate in dance is still so small we can take as a basic premise that most are not” (Hutchinson Guest: 1984, 144).


From The Ballet Called Giselle: “The scene of madness now resembles a phrase of mime set to music and varied with a little dancing, instead of being largely danced as it was when first produced, to judge by contemporary notices. I also have very vivid memories of Pavlova in this episode, whose dancing expressed delirium and culminated in a series of frenzied petits tours ending with her collapse and death” (Beaumont, 1944: 131).


Left: Variation of the Sugar Plum Fairy, from The Nutcracker, scored in Laban Movement Analysis. The dance notation system uses symbols to notate direction and level of movement, what part of the body is doing the movement, and the length of time the movement takes. Below: Because Benesh Movement Notation is based on a 5-line stave that denotes time, musical scoring can be included, in sync with the dance notation. Excerpted from The Choreographic Art: An Outline of its Principles and Craft.

BEYOND BEYOND MOVEMENT MOVEMENT Besides concerns with preservation and literacy, discrepancies in classic ballets illuminate other contemporary concerns within dance notation: improvisation and space. One ad lib written into Giselle’s mad scene signifies that the dancer should move in a circle — any circle she likes — until she picks up the sword that sends her to her death. However, the notated directions must be contextually considered: Where is the dancing happening? How can notation anticipate the stage? Documenting how dancers interact with performance space is one example of how dance notation can enhance a ballet’s revival: To convey Giselle’s frantic demise, a dancer might need to run a longer circle on the 80-foot-wide London Coliseum stage, and narrower, but deeper ones on the floor of the Royal Opera House. Sixty swans elegantly drift across a vast stage and effortlessly form three identical lines. Their choreography is notated in the dance score, but when a large corps de ballet is involved, notators might extend the potential of dance notation systems. Detailed floorplans based on the stage in question might appear next to the traditional ballet score. Multiple floorplans might be included to anticipate staging issues at other venues. The birds-eye view provided by the notator is a way of visually writing the ballet for those who read dance notation, and also directors, stage managers and the 60 ballerinas who must fly together.

Bibliography Barthes, R. 1977. Image Music Text. Translated from French by Stephen Heath. London: Fontana Press. Beaumont, C. 1944. The Ballet Called Giselle. London: C.M. Beaumont. Benesh, R. and Benesh, J. 1977. Reading Dance: The Birth of Choreology. London: Souvenir Press Ltd. Brahms, C. ed., 1941. Footnotes to The Ballet. London: Peter Davies Ltd. Carrière, J. 1994. The Secret Language of Film. Translated from French by Jeremy Leggat. London: Faber and Faber. Hutchinson Guest, A. 1984. Dance Notation: The Process of Recording Movement on Paper. London: Dance Books. Morris, G. ed., 1996. Moving Words: Rewriting Dance. London: Routledge. Preston-Dunlop, V. 2006. Looking at Dances: A Choreological Perspective on Choreography. London: Verve Publishing. Robinson, J. ed., 1997. Music and Meaning. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Sauer, T. 2009. Notations 21. New York: Mark Batty Publisher. Siegel, M. B. 2010. Mirrors & Scrims: The Life and Afterlife of Ballet. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. Stuart, M. and Dyer, C., et al. 1953. The Classic Ballet. London: Longmans, Green and Co. Van Praagh, P. and Brinson, P. 1963. The Choreographic Art: An Outline of its Principles and Craft. London: Adam and Charles Black Verdy, V. 1977. Giselle: A role for a lifetime. New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc. 1977. Images Benesh, J. Giselle Act 1. London: a Complete Preliminary Master Benesh Movement Notation Score. Owner of score: The Institute of Choreology. Choreographed by Perrot and Coralli, revised by Petipa. Performed by the Royal Ballet 1st January, 1934. Date of notation 1956-1970 in London. Dayioglu, S. Romeo And Juliet. London: an unpublished Benesh Movement Notation Score. Owner of Score: Royal Opera House. Choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan. Performed by the Royal Ballet, February 9, 1965. Notator unknown. Giselle (S.T.B. Version). Owner of score: Institute of Choreology. Choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. Recreated by Joyce Grahame. Performed by the S.T.B, 1971. Prokofiev, S. 1935. Romeo And Juliet. Romeo And Juliet, Suite No. 1. 1946. New York: MCA Music. (1946) pp79101. Wells, S., ed. 1997. Shakespeare, William. The Complete Plays: Tragicomedies. London: The Folio Society. 1997.


Before we part ways, Liz shows me one last piece of notation — a solo from Swan Lake. Unlike the others, this score is not in pencil. The delicate marks are made by new computer software. Now that the Benesh Institute is equipped with the technology, a ballet score is not complete until it has been notated digitally. However, a notator must write everything by hand before digitizing the score. Liz insists this score is beautiful. I struggle to find the beauty in a score that communicates supposedly vital, technical information to only a few members of its target community.

Twenty-five years ago Ann Hutchinson Guest11 called for a unified dance notation language, but there has been no move towards a universal visually written dance vocabulary. Notation methods are still developing. More people are becoming increasingly literate in one type of language. However, because notation is an expensive and time-consuming profession,12 ballet companies can only afford to employ one type of notator. As soon as one notation system gains prevalence, other techniques of visually scoring a ballet will become obsolete. Scores that have barely lived will die and lose not only any remnants of expression, but also their functionality and purpose. As it is impossible to rely solely on film, it is also impractical to depend on reviving and expressing a ballet through its score. Still, ballets should not only be notated to preserve choreography, but also to document how we choose to remember works as moments in ballet’s history. Ballet will always be disseminated tête-à-tête. It is a dancer’s teacher, who takes her through the steps, who tells her how to move. Years before, this teacher probably learned the same part the same way. Although creative control can be thrown into question, ballet’s continuing reliance on its oral tradition is neither good nor bad. When a classic ballet is passed on through moving visual language, so are its spirit and essence. Ballet is an art form designed to convey meaning in fleeting moments. Scores or even film cannot replace the experience of a performance. Rather than serve as an official source for a ballet’s revival, the score is a timestamp — a tangible marker —within the immortal life of a dance. The Swan Lake score in front of me is visually stunning. Like the watercolor palette of dancers in the studio down the hall, the notation is a frosted window to an inaccessible world. I can’t let Liz leave without asking her why the page is so beautiful. “There is so much information,” she tells me. “It’s all there.” But I wonder how anyone will ever know. “A comprehensive system of movement notation which can serve universal needs must be the product of many people experienced in a variety of movement backgrounds. “ (Hutchinson Guest, 1984: 7)


12 “1 minute of choreography requires: Two hours of rehearsal time, six hours for writing up notes outside of rehearsal. Thus one minute of choreography requires eight hours of work to produce the dance score. A ballet lasting thirty minutes would therefore take about 240 hours to notate” (Hutchinson Guest: 1984, 125).

The completed score of a male solo in Swan Lake. A Benesh score is not finished until the notation has been through the time-consuming process of digitization. After writing notation by-hand, notators must rewrite their drafts using dance notation software developed by the Benesh Institute. Completed scoring like the one pictured is used in textbooks for students learning Benesh Movement Notation. All scores courtesy of The Benesh Institute.