by Melanie Simpkin BA, AIChor
When I completed my Benesh Movement Notation (BMN) training, I always thought I might like to teach the subject one day, but I never imagined I would do so in the shadow of a smouldering volcano! Fast forward a few years and that was exactly where I found myself, in a dance studio in Cholula Mexico, at the foot of a very active Popocatépetl.
Cholula was the last stop on a month-long tour of Mexico, delivering a masterclass devised by the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) to introduce its ballet teachers to BMN. This particular course was developed as part of the RAD’s Continuing Professional development programme for its graduate dance teachers and students. The object of the notation training was to instruct teachers in how to read and understand the BMN which is now included in every syllabus book published by the RAD.
The Director for the RAD’s Central America region, Julieta Navarro, clearly identified this need for her members as well, and arranged for a month of training to take place in four locations, in three different cities (Mexico City, Guadalajara and Cholula) across the country. When the call came to me to deliver the course, the prospect was a daunting one. I had already been working with the RAD for three years on the publication of the notation in the textbooks of the new examination syllabi, so I was familiar with the work that initiated this project, but I had never actually taught BMN before.
Armed with my trusty laptop and course notes, I headed out into the unknown, the indefatigable Ms Navarro as my chaperone. I taught in four different ballet schools, a week in each location, and what I found in each one was an overwhelming enthusiasm for ballet and a passion for dance in general in the teachers I met, coupled with the pride that they are associated with and members of the RAD.
What I also discovered, however, was that those same passionate people are terrified of Benesh Movement Notation! This was made clear to me on Day 1 of each course. Without fail, students would approach me timidly and admit their dread of the subject; they would never understand it; it looks too complicated; how will I ever read it! etc. etc. I assured every one that by the end of the week, by the end of Day 1 even, they would be recognizing, reading and understanding the notation of the exercises that they teach every day. And in so doing they will find that the notation provides a greater insight and depth to even the simplest exercise than the written word will ever do. Notation is cleaner, more efficient, more accurate and less prone to misinterpretation than the written word or any video of a performance will ever be.
My students were skeptical at first, not of the notation itself necessarily, but rather of their own ability to pick it up. I thought to myself that I had a mountain (or a volcano!) to climb ahead of me. However, day by day, little by little, they became less daunted by the subject and their initial trepidation was replaced by fascination. Throughout the course, we covered the basics of the positions of the feet and limbs, elbows and knees. We looked at rhythm and timing, repeats, body contact, direction, travel and location, and with each new topic came a growing confidence in a new understanding, and their initial fear evaporated. It was as rewarding for me as a new teacher as it was for the students.
By the end of the week, my students were dancing off the page, developing a fluency to their understanding and laughing at their anxiety about the subject five days earlier. Because notation isn’t difficult. Yes, movement can be very complex, and you would think that to be able to write it down on a piece of paper would indeed be very difficult: you are trying to put something 3-dimensional onto a two-dimensional page. But because BMN is a visual system of notation (ie it doesn’t use abstract symbols which need to be translated before they can be put into practice) it is actually very simple, and you find that you can start to read the notation very quickly. My students in Mexico were proof of that very thing. The signs become part of your vocabulary. Eventually, you come to understand that you are not reading the notation as such, but reading a language: a movement language. In this case, it was the language of classical ballet, but it could be applied equally to jazz dance or folk dance or flamenco. And in fact, as I said to my students in my introduction on Day 1, some of whom had little English (I have virtually no Spanish!), we would eventually be speaking the same language! And so it proved to be.
Over the course of the month of July 2013, more than 100 students were introduced to Benesh Movement Notation through the CPD training devised by Liz Cunliffe at the Benesh Institute for the RAD and organized by Ms Navarro, who even arranged to host journalist Will Grant from the BBC for a feature on the provision of ballet training in Mexico. Our notation masterclass appeared in this documentary.
People will often ask what’s the point of notation when a class or a performance can be filmed very easily these days, and then reconstructed from the footage. The point is that it preserves the heritage of our combined dance history with greater accuracy and permanence than any other media. It’s a universal language, without which many of our great historical works and modern classics would be lost. Anything we can do to raise the profile of notation within the dance world at large and to emphasise its many benefits over longhand notes, memory or video reconstructions we will do. It’s just one more mountain to climb.
CPD training “Reading Dance Through Benesh Movement Notation” devised by Liz Cunliffe at the Benesh Institute.
Images of Notation students in Cholula by Deborah Bonello
Melanie studied at the Arts Educational School and the University of Surrey before continuing her study of Benesh Movement Notation at the Royal Academy of Dance. She completed the Certificate course in 2008, and graduated from the Benesh Institute’s Diploma course in 2010. Melanie is now a freelance choreologist and has been a BMN tutor at the RAD since 2014.
She is the author of Benesh notation scores for the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera, London, and American Repertory Ensemble.
She was invited by the RAD, as a guest teacher, to conduct a series of Benesh workshops throughout Mexico, and continues to provide assistance to the RAD; writing, editing and proofreading the Benesh notation in the updated syllabi.