Musicians have scores to follow when they are playing music or conducting an orchestra and actors have written scripts from which to learn their lines. But until recently, ballet choreography was more often than not passed down by memory from generation to generation of dancers.
Although it hasn't been in widespread use, dance notation actually has a very long history. Some scholars think the ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphics to notate dances but the earliest recorded notations are two Spanish manuscripts of the 15th century in which letter names for well known steps are combined with horizontal and vertical markings. Since the time of court dancing in the 17th century various methods of notating dance in written script have been attempted but they proved accessible to few.
As classical ballet technique became established the notation had to show more than just steps, so stick figures were added to illustrate the leg, body and arm positions. And as theatrical dancing became more sophisticated in the 19th century, dancers needed to know not only the direction but also the level, the duration and the rhythmic content of the movement. To meet the demands of 20th century choreographers, who use an extensive movement vocabulary including natural human movement rather than the strict ballet vocabulary, the important systems developed in this century have been based on abstract symbols. The search has been for a notation that can record any form of movement rather than simply one particular style.
In the 20th century, two methods of notation have proven highly successful and popular for both ballet and modern dance techniques. Rudolf von Laban and Rudolf Benesh created vocabularies for preserving dance by a written score based on the positions of the body as well as its flow and occupation of space.
Today almost every major ballet company has a notator/choreologist on staff. These choreologists record works as they are created for the first time and also notate the major repertoire performed by the company.
Notating such ballets as Giselle, Don Quixote and The Nutcracker will leave future generations of dancers with a record of how these ballets were performed today. We will never know quite how the ballets looked when they were originally created in the 19th century because they have been mounted through the years on the basis of people's memories of performances in which they once danced. Inevitably, such ballets look very different from the original versions. Steps have been eliminated and/or added, styles have been changed and the original intentions of a choreographer may very well have been lost once he/she was no longer around to check up on his/her ballet. What we can hope for is that the atmosphere of the piece is reproduced to give us an idea of the original. Notating ballets today guarantees us much more accurate detail of choreography as it was originally intended.
The National Ballet's choreologist and ballet master is Peter Ottmann, a former company soloist. Like choreologists in most other ballet companies, Ottmann uses the notation codes copyrighted by Rudolf Benesh and his wife, Joan, in 1955 and known as the Benesh Movement Notation.
In 1993, Ottmann went to London to study at the Benesh Institute, The International Centre for Benesh Movement Notation, which the Beneshs founded in 1962. The Institute is a training centre for students who wish to teach or work as notators with dance companies. It also acts as an examining body, houses a library for movement scores and co-ordinates the development of technique and protects the copyright of choreographic works.
Benesh Movement Notation uses a five-line music staff and figures that are always drawn looking from behind them. Special signs indicate the missing third dimension and specific timings are noted above the staff lines. The symbols form the most important part of the code and show when the extremities of the body fingers, toes, top of the head are level with, in front of or behind the body.
Completed notation scores are supplemented by written notes made by the choreologist. Video is also a tool used in both the notation and reconstruction of works from notated scores.
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