“What do we need a notation system for, when we have the video?”
That’s a question I’ve been asked so many times not only by people outside the dance world but by dancers and professionals as well…
And my answer is always this: “Would you ask an actor preparing Shakespeare’s Hamlet, just to put an example, to learn the role, the words, the intention behind those words, from a DVD of Mel Gibson’s version of Hamlet? Or would you hand a recording of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to a musician, expecting him to learn his part in the orchestra by listening to it?”
No one would ever think of doing such a thing, and yet that’s how it’s mainly done in the dance world. We put on the recording of a dancer performing the work we want to learn and try to extract from it the “original text”, the choreography as the choreographer intended… But is it really the choreographer’s intention and vision what we are watching or is it just what that particular dancer could do or decided to do with the material on that particular occasion?
Through centuries, the ability to write down Music and Theatre with universally understood languages has allowed for their heritage to be preserved and transmitted faithfully generation after generation with the reassurance that it will continue to do so for generations to come.
With Dance it is different. Many notation systems appeared and disappeared through time but, without any of them able to develop and adapt to the rapid evolution of dance techniques, Dance has been mainly dependent on generations of dancers and their memories without a solid universal language that could preserve the integrity of the work for the future. And when continuity of memory is lost, we need to turn to recordings not always available or adequate.
Dances depend on our memories and bodies to survive and each dancer will have a different experience of the same movement sequence. Notation does not try to impose how a dance has to be but to provide a basic text on to which a dancer can build their own interpretation and creation of a particular role. It actually gives the dancer freedom to create their own interpretation of the role, knowing that the underlying text is true to the choreographer’s original vision.
Nowadays we have two ways of recording dance: film/video and notation. Film will provide the dancer with an instant recognition of the piece and an overall view of the final product. Notation, on the other hand, represents a symbolic description of the piece that provides enough information for its reconstruction but requires an analysis and translation of every element of the movement.
A film, being the recording of a dancer’s particular interpretation of a work, can often include incorrect performance of a choreography or choreographer’s intentions, and lack depth or understanding of the movement. We are continuously trying to identify the choreographer’s intention in the dancer’s interpretation of the steps, trying to separate correct execution from incorrect execution, sometimes even having to make a choice between two or more different versions in an effort to guess what the choreographer’s vision was. And we almost always struggle to find clear detail in the movement, with it often being obstructed by lights, costumes, camera angles or dancer’s limitations.
Notation provides an analytical description of the dance, that forms the basic text on which a performer can build their own creation. It represents the work before there is an interpretation of it. Unlike film, that offers a general look of the dance that can be recognized by anyone, notation requires an understanding of the dance language, and knowledge and understanding of the notation system used. The process of notating a dance is a lengthy one in which the movement is analysed and can be registered in any level of detail required. Not only detail in the body movement is registered but also the spatial distribution of the dancers, their exact travelling patterns and locations at any time given, and their relation to the music or soundtrack, providing us with a clear structure of the choreography. This does not allow for direct visualization of the movement but instead it requires from the notator to “translate” the score back into movement for the dancers. And that’s one of the disadvantages of the dance notation systems, we are not able to dance to a score while reading it, unlike playing or singing at sight.
Registering and restaging a dance work are not the only uses of notation. Its use as a research tool and teaching device is invaluable as it allows for deep study of choreographic works and styles. It allows students to analyse and compare different extracts of the same dance or different works or styles, side by side, without the need to search in a recording for the right moment, change between different recordings, etc. And it provides a much greater understanding of the movement and the intention behind it.
Film and notation, neither of them should replace the other. While film/video records an individual performance, notation records the work itself, not a performance of it. We can get an instant first impression of a dance by watching a video of it, but we’ll require the notation if we really want to get into the detail, analyse and study that dance in depth. Ideally, for a complete record of any choreography we should include video and notation to get the best of both systems, to create a full picture with all the information possible, and full production notes.
Two notation systems are currently in use by dance companies and dance researchers around the world: Labanotation and Benesh Notation. They are both widely used and although very different in their approach, they both are invaluable tools for the recording, preserving and study of Dance.
If we want our Dance Heritage to be preserved for future generations with integrity, and faithful to the choreographer’s vision, we need to make sure it is not only recorded in film but it is notated too. And not only that, but we need to educate our younger generations so that they can understand its crucial importance. Only that way we’ll be able to follow on the steps of Music and Theatre, and protect the incredibly rich heritage of our Art.
Maria Jimenez is a Benesh Choreologist and the Artistic Coordinator of Scottish Ballet
Maria obtained her Degree in Classical Dance at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and Dance of Madrid while training at the School of Dance Maria De Avila in Zaragoza, Spain. She subsequently became Ballet Teacher at the School in 1991, where she taught until 2001. Moving to London in 2001, to study a Certificate in Higher Education in Contemporary Dance at The Place, Maria also went on to study the Certificate in Benesh Movement Notation and Diploma for Professional Benesh Movement Notators at the Benesh Institute, RAD, graduating in both occasions with Distinction. In 2004, she became Ballet Mistress and Repetiteur for the company Ballet de Zaragoza. Maria joined Scottish Ballet as Ballet Mistress in 2005, becoming Artistic Coordinator in 2014. During her time at Scottish Ballet, Maria has been a regular Guest Lecturer in Benesh Movement Notation at the Superior Dance Conservatoire of Madrid and at the Master in Dance and Movement Arts of San Antonio University of Murcia, as well as guest teaching at Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.