In January 2016, I had the chance to spend two weeks in the Benesh Notation Department of The Royal Ballet as part of a work experience placement. It was a very interesting and nurturing experience which taught me a lot about the role of the notator in (and outside) the studio. I was following and assisting Anna Trévien (the senior notator) in her work. The main thing she was involved in during my time there was the creation of Christopher Wheeldon’s new ballet, ‘Strapless’. She is in charge of making the BMN score of it, which is a very demanding task! In order to get the most precise and accurate recording of a ballet, the notator has to attend every single rehearsal and follow closely everything that is happening in the studio as things evolve and change a lot during the creation process. The notator also has to work very fast to catch steps and patterns as they are being created, and Anna’s quickness to notate things right away in the studio is one the first things that struck me. Luckily we can now use video support as well, which can be especially helpful when working on parts that involve many dancers. On ‘Strapless’, we would usually film the last recap that the choreographer would do with the dancers at the end of a rehearsal, so that we could go back to it the next day in case of doubt. The notator is the person that everyone refers to in case of discrepancies (for example when a section has been changed without everyone being there and the different casts are not on the same page). Another very important part of the notator’s work is to make the link between the choreographer and the pianist (or musical director). Indeed, not all choreographers can read music, and the dancers counts that they use can be very different to the music bars and counts. The notator is usually the one that ‘translates’ the choreographer’s references for the pianist (and the other way around). All of this is the ‘studio’ part of the work.
But the notator’s role does not stop there, of course. Once the creation period is over and the ballet has been performed (and only then, as until it is on stage things can always change), the notator has to write the BMN score, using all notes, drafts and videos that were taken during rehearsals. Anna even explained that they often wait for the ballet to be revived once to review the final score before sending the original to archives for safe keeping. Once a score is finished, it can be used to revive the ballet in the most accurate way anywhere in the world!
I had the opportunity to see Anna do that for ‘The Winter’s Tale’ (choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon as well) during my placement too. It was great to see how she was able to answer the dancers’ questions in just a few seconds by looking at the score, and give them very specific details that could not necessarily be seen in a video.
It was also very impressive to see how she would switch from one ballet to the other in a few minutes and know everything about each one without getting them mixed up!
This work experience placement really was a great opportunity and I learnt a lot about what the notator’s work is like in the field and all the skills that are involved.