One week in The Royal Ballet’s Notation department
This is a Diary that Lorraine wrote during her work experience with us at The Royal Ballet. For the first time this season the notation department has offered the possibility of a work experience placement. Lorraine is the first person to take part in this programme and I’m very pleased to share with you her diary of her week with us. Please don’t miss below an extract of the notation of a solo she wrote for us during her placement.
The Royal Ballet’s 1st work experience candidate
MONDAY 3RD NOVEMBER
Arriving at the Royal Opera House at 9.45am, I entered through the Stage Door on Floral Street where I met Robbie Swale, administrator for the First Stage Work Experience scheme, as well as Molly who was embarking upon a placement in the costume department. Robbie introduced us to the ROH and the enormous variety of work that goes on inside this incredible building, joking about how, after eight months of work, he was still discovering new departments and areas of the building on a daily basis. Not surprising as the building itself is massive; with a footprint of around three acres it extends maze-like over ten floors. Departments are located using a system of coloured zones, and are grouped around a vast, hollow central space – the stage and the build area where sets for productions currently in rep are stored.
Following this induction session, Robbie introduced me to Anna Trévien, senior notator with The Royal Ballet and my supervisor for the week, as well as to notators Gregory Mislin and Amanda Eyles. As the notation department does not usually play host to people on placements or work experience, Anna explained that we’d keep the plan for the week flexible, deciding what it would be most beneficial for me to do/see on a daily basis. After briefly running through Anna’s suggestions for my schedule for the day ahead we rushed off to a rehearsal of the Christopher Wheeldon ballet Aeternum. To be in a studio with Royal Ballet dancers was at first a slightly surreal experience but I quickly acclimatised, and was able to concentrate on the notation and the notator’s role in rehearsal as much as my eyes were drawn to the dancers’ incredible techniques.
After lunch in the staff canteen, I accompanied Anna to a rehearsal of Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. With the ballet opening in early December, the rehearsal – for the roles of the Queen of Hearts and the Knave – featured several dancers who would be performing the roles for the first time during the upcoming run. This meant that, whilst the dancers knew the majority of the steps and floor patterns of the solos being rehearsed, choreographic detail and nuances of timing were emphasised and focused on throughout the rehearsal. Here the importance of Anna’s Benesh score became apparent, as she continually referred to it to iron out any discrepancies and to ensure the dancers were performing choreography as close to the intended original as possible. Anna had made me copies of the solos being rehearsed, meaning that I could attempt to follow the notation and look out for correlation between the score and the dancers’ performance. It was interesting to note the use of imagery and written comments in the score which provide vital points of reference within the time-restricted context of a rehearsal, helping to make the notation a usable working tool for the teacher of a piece, rather than simply a complicated record of the choreography. What also became evident in this rehearsal was the close relationship established between the notator and the rehearsal pianist. Ensuring the session ran smoothly and efficiently, Anna communicated with the pianist throughout, using notes in her score and the musical equivalent to ensure that everybody was, quite literally, on the same page.
Next I attended a rehearsal with notator Gregory Mislin, of the Liam Scarlett ballet The Age of Anxiety, the world première of which would take place the following Friday. With Scarlett present, it quickly became apparent that the choreography was still in the stages of being altered and developed. It was intriguing to witness how a notator reacts in these early rehearsals, taking more of a backseat and absorbing every invaluable word the choreographer utters, each of which gestures towards the true intention of the movement he creates. Gregory showed me pages and pages of notes, directions, and basic steps that he had jotted down during rehearsals – transcriptions of choreographic ideas that will eventually take the form of an authoritative notated score. Unsurprisingly given the speed at which the choreographers and their dancers work, all notation produced in rehearsals is drawn freehand – a skill that obviously comes with practice, but one that I had not really had reason to put to use during my notation studies so far.
After catching the end of a lively rehearsal for a gypsy scene from Carlos Acosta’s production of Don Quixote, which brought to light the complexities of notating and organising large groups of dancers, I headed back to the notation office to collect my things and head off into the dark November evening. Before leaving however, I got chatting to Amanda Eyles – a freelance notator who was working with The Royal Ballet to create scores for ballets by the company’s Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor. With McGregor’s choreographic style being notoriously complicated and completely unique, it was fascinating to discuss with Amanda how notators frequently, for the sake of straightforward reading, have to create new methods and forms of shorthand to adequately describe complex steps and motifs. It was also interesting to hear Amanda outline her working process from first draft to final score, and she reiterated the importance of creating draft versions of a score to work through issues such as problematic passages or alternative layouts. Key to this, she insisted, was not being afraid to use too much paper – something to consider with a pinch of salt perhaps for the cash-strapped notation student!
TUESDAY 4TH NOVEMBER
Tuesday morning began with me joining one of the regular backstage tours of the Opera House, which offer members of the public the chance to listen to knowledgeable tour guides discussing the history of the building and its resident companies, as well as giving them a tantalising glimpse of all that goes on behind the scenes. Anyone taking part in the First Stage scheme has the opportunity to attend one of these tours, and it provided a welcome insight into the work being carried out by various departments across the house. It was also nice to catch up with Molly and find out what she’d been getting up to over in costume.
Following this I attended various rehearsals for Don Quixote and Alice, and, with encouragement from Anna, began attempting to notate small parts of what I saw. Although self-conscious at first, accustomed to only ever showing final, perfected versions of my notation, it soon became apparent that being overly precious about the visual appearance of my work would, in this situation, not get me anywhere. For professional notators, the rough scribbles produced in rehearsals are invaluable primarily through their use as memory aids – as a short-hand stripped back to essentials and key points which can later assist them in remembering longer choreographic passages, floor patterns, timings, or specific relationships. Becoming familiar with what it is beneficial to write down in a rehearsal and what it is not clearly takes practice, especially given the frenetic pace at which these rehearsals operate. It becomes a constant balancing act between getting something of use down on paper and not letting yourself get so engrossed in notating that you loose track of what’s happening in the rehearsal itself – the phrase ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ takes on a whole new meaning in this environment! I was also aware of the difficulties of attempting to notate movement without running it through my own body first. Benesh takes its viewpoint from the back of the space, recording dancers from behind, and it is therefore difficult when sitting facing the dancers to fully conceptualise the way a movement feels (as well as mentally processing the left/right visual reversal necessary to record the movement correctly when viewing it from the front).
In the evening I attended a performance of the Ashton triple bill, watching Scènes de Ballet from the Amphitheatre (where I had an excellent view of the intricate patterns and military organisation of Sir Frederick Ashton’s exquisite choreography), before upgrading to the Grand Tier (taking up the generous offer of a spare ticket from Royal Ballet répétiteur Lesley Collier) for Symphonic Variations and A Month in the Country. It was great to see where all the effort of rehearsal culminates, and having seen the dancers perfecting their technique in class from 10.30am that morning, as well as exerting themselves in rehearsals throughout the day, made me appreciate all the more their unbeatable stamina and strength. The exceptional calibre of dancers throughout the company surely goes to make the work of the notators a little easier!
WEDNESDAY 5TH NOVEMBER
One of the tasks Anna had set me for the week was to attempt to update the score for a solo performed by the lead character of Kitri in Don Quixote. The existing score referred to the choreography of a previous production, not to the Carlos Acosta version in the current repertoire, first performed by the company in 2013. Using production videos from performances recorded during the previous run, as well as potentially having the opportunity to sit in on a live rehearsal for the upcoming remount of the ballet, Anna hoped that I’d be able to accurately record the Acosta version of this famous solo. With this in mind, I began on Wednesday morning to make adjustments and amendments to my copy of the existing score, analysing closely a video of Royal Ballet principal Marianela Nuñez in the role, as well as checking and confirming timing variations in the musical score.
Following this I attended the first stage calls with full orchestra for the modern triple bill (Kim Brandstrup’s Ceremony of Innocence, Scarlett’s The Age of Anxiety, and Wheeldon’s Aeternum) that was due to open on Friday. Sitting with the notators and ballet staff, I was able to listen in as they frantically discussed and scribbled down notes – corrections for individual dancers, discrepancies in tempo to be raised with the conductor, problems with lighting cues, and anything else that varied from the creative vision of the choreographer and design team. Suddenly, choreographic issues were not the only concern as they had been in studio rehearsals, and as notators, Anna and Gregory very much became involved in realising the bigger picture of the production, alongside the rest of the staff. After each piece, everyone would descend on to the stage in order to hurriedly relay the various notes and resolve any issues before the meticulous time-keeping of ballet stage management necessitated the stage be cleared for set change preceding the next rehearsal. Watching rehearsals and performances throughout the week, I was able to look out for corrections that had been given and note where changes had been made and where discrepancies and issues continued to arise.
On Wednesday evening I again watched the Ashton triple bill, this time from the Stalls Circle, sitting directly above the orchestra pit and very close to the stage. With a completely different view from that of the previous night I was able to appreciate more nuanced aspects of the choreography that had not been as visible from further back in the house. The vivid emotion and expression so vital to Ashton’s A Month in the Country was particularly exciting to see so close, whilst the knowledge that I had been stood on that stage myself just hours before only added to my enjoyment! Even the lashing rain that greeted me upon emerging from the Opera House onto Bow Street could not put a dampener on what had been another truly memorable day.
THURSDAY 6TH NOVEMBER
Carrying on from where I had left off on Wednesday morning, Thursday saw me continue to amend and begin to write up the Kitri solo from Don Quixote. I was scheduled to attend a rehearsal, led by répétiteur Alexander Agadzhanov, of Carlos Acosta and Marianela Nuñez in the solos from the ballet, however Nuñez having performed the previous evening, decided at the last minute to rest rather than rehearse. Already in the rehearsal room, I watched Agadzhanov put Acosta through his paces and was slightly lost for words when the latter, half-joking, asked me for “the lady’s opinion” on the tempo at which he should perform a manège!
Following lunch, I watched the second stage call of the modern triple bill before devoting the rest of the afternoon to writing up the Kitri solo. Anna, who had been in back-to-back rehearsals all afternoon, returned to the office at 6.30pm to find me still working away, and very kindly sat with me and went through what I’d done. Throughout the week, the general enthusiasm and dedication of the notation staff was more than apparent, and their willingness to help and to discuss their work with me in detail was very much appreciated. Their job can vary so much from day to day and requires a huge amount of energy and passion for teaching and rehearsing in the studio, and an equal amount of commitment to writing up and perfecting the final scores. Perhaps it is this latter part of the role that is more significant in the long term for without the scores recording the steps there would be little for generations of ballet staff, present and future, to teach and rehearse in the studio.
Writing up a score, as I had already gathered from my studies, takes time and great precision (a sign written a millimetre to the right of where it was intended can cause havoc for instance), and as such requires exceptional levels of patience of the part of the notator. This hit home when, after spending the afternoon writing up the majority of the Kitri solo, Anna pointed out that my notation would be much more useful practically as a tool in a rehearsal if it was laid out in a completely different way! Whilst this is not exactly what one wants to hear when tired, hungry, and slightly brain-washed after hours spent staring at tiny marks on paper, it was actually fantastic to go through with Anna precisely how she, as a professional notator, would go about laying out the solo. Her primary concern was understandably the ease with which the notation could be read and comprehended at speed in a rehearsal context, and, bearing this in mind, the alterations she made to my version of the solo all made complete sense. Looking back, and in terms of what I can apply immediately to work for my ongoing notation studies, I’d say that this conversation was one of the most beneficial of the week, giving me a true insight into the thinking process of a notation professional. It also made clear what was to be my primary task the following morning!
FRIDAY 7TH NOVEMBER
Almost immediately after beginning to re-write the Kitri solo on Friday morning my initial trepidation at the task ahead faded and I was able to appreciate the vast improvements in terms of clarity and layout between this version and my previous attempt. Remembering Amanda’s comments at the beginning of the week, it became easier to see my efforts of the day before as a rough first draft, invaluable in terms of process, but not to be looked upon as a perfected final product, despite the hours of hard work involved. Notators, it would seem, exist in two time zones at once – the first, the incessant, ceaseless time devoted to a jam-packed schedule of rehearsal and performance; the second, a slow-motion (almost Proustian) time that engulfs the notator in the midst of score-writing, Taking my time, I followed Anna’s advice, and began to notate a version of the solo that, to my eyes at least, was eminently more readable, concise, and practical.
I watched the general rehearsal of the modern triple bill in the afternoon and was pleased to have a chance to see the second cast performing the roles. This brought to light the differing interpretations dancers can bring to a piece and highlighted the important part played by the notator, in the absence of the choreographer, in ensuring that all dancers performing a role are aware of the original intentions and aspirations behind the choreography. As had become evident throughout the week, time spent in early rehearsals with a choreographer, in which the notator can listen to and look out for exactly what it is that he or she is asking for, is of immense value and critical importance in guaranteeing that choreography be recorded and passed on in a form as true to the original as possible.
Friday night was opening night and contributed to the general feeling of excitement and apprehensive energy that shrouded the Opera House throughout the day. I had a ticket to watch the show from the Balcony (I think I’d sat in just about every seat in the house that week!) and again appreciated previously unnoticed aspects of choreography and design that a different viewpoint brought to light. Of the three performances I saw that week this was perhaps the most interesting given that I had witnessed the development of two of the three pieces from studio rehearsals on Monday, through mid-week stage calls, and finally to finished product. The dancers seemed to find an extra level of energy from somewhere (on Friday night – after a fifty-plus hour week!) and the auditorium was awash with happy faces and engaging chatter. Performances like this and the enjoyment they clearly generate in audiences makes all the hard graft put in by staff across the Opera House worthwhile. Walking back over Waterloo Bridge, I reflected on a fantastic end to what had been a brilliant and inspiring week – packed full of tasters and snapshots of life at the ROH, I had experienced the many elements that go to make the workload of a dance notator with The Royal Ballet so incredibly varied, invigorating, and rewarding.