Friday 12 April 2013

When words are not enough... by H.M. Castor

Illustration from the Codex Manesse (a medieval songbook), c.1304-40
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The large measure of the basse dance must begin and proceed with a reverence, then with a bransle, then with two simple steps and with one double, then with two simple steps as before, and then with a riprise and a bransle.

(From S'ensuyvent Plusieurs Basses Dances Tant Communes Que Incommunes, a treatise on the Burgundian style of basse dance published by Jacques Moderne in 1532/33. Translation by Geoffrey Mathias for an article in Vol. 2 of the ‘Letter of Dance’.)

The 15th-16th century Burgundian dance described in the text above would most probably be pretty straightforward to pick up if someone showed you how to do it. Unfortunately, of course, no one from that time has been able to hang around long enough to provide the demonstration for us, and the artwork of the period doesn’t, sadly, include step-by-step sequences. Terms that were obvious in their meaning to the writer are no longer so for us, and as for the details of bearing and style, the use of hands and head, etc. – well, as you can gather, frequently no attempt whatever was made to describe them. Although wonderful detailed research is now carried out by dance reconstruction experts, and fascinating approximations are achieved, the fact remains that fully accurate reconstructions of movement are impossible to create from instructions that were, in essence, just an aide-memoire for an audience already well-tutored in the type of dance described.

Words, after all, are not the medium through which dance is taught. Dance teachers do a lot of talking, of course – clarifying, explaining, giving musical counts and corrections and pointing out features of movements they are demonstrating – but their principal method of instruction in the first instance is to show the pupil what is required.

Click here, and you’ll see a photograph of the choreographer Christopher Wheeldon in rehearsal with the San Francisco Ballet. If, instead of standing as shown in the photo, he’d said to the dancers: I want you to stand on your right leg facing the left diagonal but with your torso turned to the front, your left leg raised in attitude, your supporting knee bent, your arms raised parallel to one another, elbows bent at approximately right angles but with your forearms sloping a little upwards from your shoulders, your hands relaxed, just above head height… the dancers would, I think, have spent considerable time struggling to follow the instructions – or would’ve fallen asleep. Instead, he can simply demonstrate and say: “Do this.”

That’s fine when Wheeldon – or any individual choreographer or teacher – is present. But what if he or she isn’t there? Indeed what if the crucial person is, not merely on the other side of the world teaching his/her ballet to other dancers, but gone more permanently: what if s/he is dead? How can dance survive, be it a Burgundian court dance or a full-length theatrical performance, when writing it down in words is either inadequate or incredibly laboured (or both)? Can it be captured and preserved in any other way?

Before film and videotape came on the scene (as well as afterwards – but more of that later), the answer was sought through notation: the use of symbols, rather than words (just as symbols are used in musical notation). Indeed, over several centuries, many different attempts were made to create systems of notation for dance. Although codes using letter abbreviations go back at least as far as the 15th century, the first known attempt at creating a fuller system of symbols came when Choreography, or the Art of Describing Dance was published in Paris in 1700, with Raoul Feuillet credited as the author, although (as my Encyclopedia of Dance and Ballet tells me) the credit almost certainly should have gone instead to the dancer and choreographer Pierre Beauchamp.

An example of Beauchamp-Feuillet notation from Orchesography or the Art of Dancing ... an Exact and Just Translation from the French of Monsieur Feuillet, by John Weaver, Dancing Master. London, c. 1721. 
by baldwinn [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Beauchamp-Feuillet system showed the paths the dancers should trace across the floor, and onto those path-lines were added symbols that indicated, for example, the direction of a step, or a turn, or a beaten step. A significant number of people must have learned to read this notation, because I understand that it was widely used throughout Europe during the following century, especially to record social dances popular among the wealthier classes. After the French Revolution, however, it fell out of use.

Systems based on stick figures – an obvious tactic! – were developed during the 19th century in France by the dancer, choreographer and musician Arthur Saint-Léon, and in Ukraine by a dancing master called Friedrich Albert Zorn. Here is an example of Zorn’s system:

An example of Friedrich Zorn's system of notation
by Huster at fr.wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], 
from Wikimedia Commons

Even the untutored eye can see that there’s a fair amount of detail here – more than you’d get, say, from the footprint dance instructions beloved of many 20th century ballroom dance manuals – but still, the system is crude, and relies on the reader knowing a great deal about the required style without being told. We are still in the realms of the aide-memoire, albeit a sophisticated version – and, indeed, if the notation was only ever intended to be read by contemporaries in the know (dancing masters familiar with the dance fashions of the day, for example), there was no need to go further. The loss of detail is only regretted now, by anyone who is interested in the history of dance – but the notator of the time was not creating the score for us.

Within the world of ballet, however, the requirements around preservation and communication have become profoundly different. Maintaining the traditional versions of the classics – e.g. Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle or The Nutcracker – is deemed very important, as is giving newer works longevity. Until well into the twentieth century, most ballets survived only by being handed down from one generation of dancers to another. Although this is hugely valuable (and today’s dancers always seek, if possible, coaching from dancers who have previously performed a great role), memory is not perfect, steps inevitably develop personal embellishments or simplifications… and so things can and do morph on the way, rather like a game of what was known in my childhood (is it still?) as ‘Chinese Whispers’. And therefore, while we have the texts of plays from the 19th century and the scores of operas, we cannot truly say with confidence at so many generations’ remove that we have anything more than an approximation of the ballets.

Some of the classic productions were brought out of Russia in 1918, however, by Nicholas Sergeyev, thanks to a system of notation developed in St Petersburg by dancer Vladimir Stepanov (and published in his 1892 book Alphabet of Movements of the Human Body). Sergeyev used his precious notation notebooks to stage the same ballets for Ninette de Valois’s Sadler’s Wells company in the 1930s. Three decades later there was confirmation of the accuracy of the notation (at least when working in conjunction with Sergeyev’s memory!), for when the Royal Ballet took its production of Sleeping Beauty to Leningrad in 1961, it was recognized by Russian audiences immediately.

 Extract from La Bayadère, choreography by Marius Petipa – Stepanov notation, c. 1900
by Mrlopez2681 (commons) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But by that year – 1961 – two newer systems of notation had already begun to transform the way that ballets were recorded in the West and had made possible at last the preservation of works in detail, with the choreographer’s original intentions faithfully recorded even as the work was being created in the rehearsal studio. In the 1920s the Hungarian Rudolf von Laban developed a system that was to become known as Labanotation. And in the 1940s and '50s, Rudolf and Joan Benesh, a mathematician and Sadler’s Wells dancer respectively, together developed Benesh Movement Notation. Nowadays, as many dance companies as can afford it have a notator on the payroll. The Royal Ballet, for example, has been using the Benesh system since the 1950s. (And after training as a Benesh notator myself some years ago, I worked with them in that for capacity for three years.)

An example of Labanotation
by Huster (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Labanotation, as you can see above, is written on a vertical stave. Benesh, on the other hand, is written on a normal musical stave, in which the bar lines correspond to the bar lines in the musical score.

Benesh Movement Notation 
copyright Rudolf Benesh, London 1955

Each system has its advocates, of course, but unfortunately I cannot go into any detail about Labanotation because I am not trained in it. I can say, however, that the period I spent learning and working with the language of Benesh Notation was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life. It is a vastly flexible and subtle language, capable of recording all forms of human movement from the grandest classical jeté to the smallest wiggling of a finger. It can record any number of dancers on stage together, and their relation to one another as well as their individual movements. Equally, it could record the posture you are sitting (or standing or lying) in as you read this article.

Sir Kenneth MacMillan - one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century - was a fan of Benesh Notation, and worked closely with a notator, Monica Parker, for many years. He said: "I am amazed when ballets are recreated without my being there. There it is in front of me from a piece of paper. My original intention of movement is absolutely caught every time by Benesh Notation."

But why – you might say – don’t ballet companies just video their work? The answer is that all companies – The Royal Ballet included – use video as well as notation. The two form a useful partnership. But trying to learn an entire ballet from a video would be akin to trying to learn a symphony by listening to a recording. Not only would it be a monumentally slow task, but you would have to guess at the counts, trust that no one made a mistake on the day of filming, and you would be unable to distinguish reliably between choreographed detail and the interpretive style of an individual dancer. Not to mention the fact that, with a full stage or studio, it would be difficult for the camera to catch every detail of each person’s movement. A notation score, however, contains all this information; former director of The Royal Ballet (and great dancer) Sir Anthony Dowell has said that the use of BMN "cuts down the rehearsal time by half".

That doesn’t happen, however, by handing the dancers a sheet – or a heavy file – of notation. Most dancers can read little if any notation, and the notator can easily feel rather like a medieval scribe: the only person around who can understand the mysterious scribbles on the page! Instead the notator’s job – if a work is being recreated from a notation score – is to learn everyone’s steps and teach them by showing them. Whatever the developments in notation methods, the importance of showing above telling in dance instruction has not changed.

If you want to see a notator in action (teaching, rather than writing notation), click here for an example of a rehearsal taken by the Royal Ballet’s Principal Notator, the hugely knowledgeable and utterly fantastic Grant Coyle, working alongside Dame Monica Mason in coaching the dancer Marianela Nunez. Note how Grant focuses minutely on the counting and movements, how Dame Monica consults him on details – and spot his notation score, lying open on the music stand beside him!

The international centre for Benesh Movement Notation is the Benesh Institute in London. For more information, click here.

H.M. Castor has written several books about ballet, but rather more about history. Her latest, VIII, is a novel about Henry VIII, and is published by Templar in the UK, Penguin in Australia, and will be published by Simon & Schuster in the US later this year.

H.M. Castor's website is here.


adele said...

The more posts like this you write about the ballet, the happier I will be.Fascinating throughout! I wish I'd had it when I was writing my ballet novel...maybe I will write ANOTHER one!

Joan Lennon said...

That was GREAT! Thank you so much - and that clip of the rehearsal was riveting!

Off you go, Adele - I'd read it in a flash!

H.M. Castor said...

Thank you both for your lovely comments!

Mark Burgess said...

Fab Harriet, thank you. I didn't realise that notation could capture so much so accurately!

Leslie Wilson said...

Utterly fascinating!

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