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How to rehearse on the bus.

My friend and colleague Kristin once met someone who knew what a choreologist was. Her amazement, however, was shortlived, as this person turned out to be my father. (I should explain that I'm using the term, choreologist, to mean a dance notator who uses the Benesh system.) It has been my experience that, given half a chance, people are fascinated by dance notation - by the concept of its being able to write movement, its mechanics, the possibilities it provides. When asked what I do, I have found myself giving impromptu seminars on Benesh Movement Notation (BMN) at parties and wishing that I had some visual aids with me.

BMN is a form of notation that is used by the dance profession, clinicians, and anthropologists to record dance, as well as other forms of movement. A relatively recent invention, it was created by Joan Benesh (formerly a dancer with Sadler's Wells Ballet) and her husband, Rudolf Benesh, who was an accountant as well as a gifted musician and artist. The fusion of so much knowledge is plainly visible in BMN. It is mathematical in its precision, visual (both aesthetically and representationally), and musical. Publicly launched in 1955 after years of testing, evolving, and refining, it was adopted almost immediately by the Royal Ballet and leading dance schools.

Like any language, BMN is a system of communication that lives and breathes. And it is learned in stages. From a basic alphabet," a vocabulary is built up. The student can then construct sentences and paragraphs, becoming fluent and experimenting with the most effective ways to express, in this case, a particular range of movement. Along with the capacity for accuracy, the system can capture tone, expression, and meaning. Just as our verbal languages have had to expand to encompass an ever-increasing technological vocabulary, BMN is constantly increasing its vocabulary as the body is pushed to new limits.

Many people don't understand that this system is not in any way limited to ballet or to ballet technology. Dancers often ask how it is possible to write down the work of nonclassical contemporary choreographers because there is no vocabulary for it, no glissades or arabesques. You only have to look at its other uses to see that BMN can describe the body and limbs and where they are in space and in relation to each other. Physiotherapists use it to keep clinical records - to record gait and posture, to aid in the analysis of postures and functions, and to transmit handling procedures in therapeutic techniques. BMN is used in anthropological studies to record and analyze the form, structure, and sociocultural content of a dance. The flexibility of the system allows anthropologists to record as little or as much information as is required. It is possible to record the exact position of every finger, if that is relevant, or only a general hand position and direction, if it is not.

In fact, while many people are unaware of BMN or of the existence of any dance notations, there have been many forms of notation dating back as far as 2000 B.C. in China. Earlier dance notations were very limited - often personal, not fully comprehensive, and, with a few exceptions, not widely taught or read. As dance vocabulary expanded, these notations became obsolete. As a result, little is known about social or theatrical dance in the last five hundred years.

Only in this century has notation been commonly and professionally used. Valid and complex systems, each with a role to play in the notation movement - not only human movement, in some cases-include Labanotation (codified in 1928), Eshkol Wachmann (1958), and Co-ordination Method (1987). The boom in notation demonstrates the need to record movement. Spoken languages are dying the world over from lack of use, and precious parts of those cultures are being lost with the language. A new language faces something of a struggle in becoming established, but, of course, the beauty of BMN is that it transcends verbal language. To ensure the survival of a language as new as BMN, it needs to be encouraged and nurtured. As with anything novel or marginal, belief, commitment, and often struggle will be required before it becomes a part of our lives.

Most people in the dance profession have some kind of musical knowledge. Many people can read music or, at the very least, recognize a score. Almost all art forms have some kind of text-something one can research and study repeatedly. Our general ignorance of notation, however, has contributed to a lack of respect for theatrical dance in academic spheres, and, worse, an inadequate sense of its own history and development. A text allows an overview, analysis, preservation, reconstruction, and the ability to see dance remains comparatively ignorant of itself.

Imagine if Shakespeare's plays or Bach's compositions had been passed on from memory. How borrowed, diluted, distorted and changed do you think they would have been? It is uncommon for writers or composers to leave their works to an unrecorded fate. And yet choreographers do it all the time. Choreologist Michele Braban (now rehearsal director of Rambert Dance Company), in a paper entitled "Freeze Frame or Fast Forward," written for the 1993 Benesh Institute Congress, recounts the difficulties she faced after the Royal Ballet commissioned her to produce a "definitive score" of Frederick Ashton's La Fille Mal Gardee. Sounds simple enough. Even given a 1960 archive video (without music), a 1963 first-draft BMN score, a recent rehearsal video, and access to current rehearsals, Braban still faced a monumental task.

In a fascinating and detailed presentation, she recounted examples of the many major differences between the original and current versions. In a fairly short period, the ballet had evolved. Said Braban, "For almost every sequence of movement in the ballet I was confronted with a variety of choices upon which I had to make a decision ... Many changes appear to have been made over the years, but few of these have been added to the original score. I kept asking myself who made the changes, when they were made and for what reason?" The minutiae of a choreographic work may be precisely what is precious. A gesture, a specific hand movement, a look, timing; yet it is such details that often can disappear first.

Another facet of the recording of dance is that, previously, choreographers have had little in the way of copyright protection. A BMN score is also a means of establishing choreographic copyright, and the Benesh Institute functions as a registration body for, and a source of, choreographic scores. It is no accident that stalwart believers in BMN include the late Kenneth MacMillan, John Neumeier, Glen Tetley, Richard Alston, Peter Wright, John Cranko, Christopher Bruce, Angelin Preljocaj, Roland Petit, and David Bintley.

BMN owes much to MacMillan, late president of the Benesh Institute, whose commitment to Benesh notation made it the leading system used by major companies worldwide. Some seventy-nine scores exist of his works alone. "I am amazed when my ballets are re-created without my being there," said MacMillan. "There it is in front of me from a piece of paper. My original intention of movement is absolutely caught every time by Benesh notation."

Many of the world's ballet companies benefited from the use of a choreologist in the restaging of a work being added to their repertoires. Choreographers who rely on choreologists are concentrated in Europe; BMN has been slow to take off in the U.S., largely due to its beginnings and growth through Royal Ballet channels (many U.S. ballet companies have had works staged for them by freelance choreologists).

Choreographer Siobhan Davies says that "it's not only the piece of paper; it's the relationship between the person who has written it down, the person who's making it, and the performers." When a choreographer builds a lasting rapport with a choreologist, they will then notate and restage works with a combination of the accuracy of BMN and the knowledge and understanding that can only grow from working closely with someone over a period of time.

Unfortunately, even in a company with a long tradition of notators, you, as salaried company choreologist, may still find that the dancers, your colleagues, and the director have only a very rudimentary idea of what you do and what the process involves.

In this age of technology, we are used to instant results. From instant banking to instant soup, the concept that "time is money" leads us away from activities that demand meticulousness and investment. We are used to pressing buttons. By comparison, notation seems archaic. It is a slow, laborious process.

A study conducted by the Benesh Institute found that a choreologist - from initial rehearsals to the final beautifully written master score (otherwise known as "the bible") - will have dedicated eight to twelve hours to each minute of choreography.

Because they are asked to fulfill too many roles and expectations, company choreologists often complain that they are rarely able to complete master scores and worry that their working scores may only be fully intelligible to themselves (something like the difference between a neatly written letter and a quick note to yourself). This is an ongoing problem and one that will only be truly addressed by education - of directors, ballet staff, managers, and dancers - and an injection of money. One practical solution to this problem would be to divide up the roles of a choreologist between those who concentrate on writing scores and those assistants or repetiteurs who have the ability to read scores and to conduct rehearsals.

Every choreologist dreams of a computer program that could interpret scanned - in, handwritten notation and produce a master score that could then be proofread and edited where necessary, complete with computer-animated figures for checking accuracy. BMN has been computerized. Most of the examples shown here are computer-generated, but the program is akin to word processing - it does not read. Work is in progress, but in the meantime, the choreologist needs a steady hand and a lot of pencils.

It is easy to see why, in the short term, video can seem very appealing - it gives immediate audio and visual information that everyone can share. And in the short term it is extremely useful to all concerned, including choreologists. But the lifespan of a videotape is limited (about seven years), and technology is changing so fast that equipment and tapes become obsolete. A videotape captures one performance - what is achieved on that occasion but not necessarily what was intended. A tape is often flawed, too dark to see clearly, too far away, or with close-ups.

A good score, however, will tell you all entrances and exits, all choreography as it was intended, the choreographer's counts, musical cues, and details of gesture and acting. And - if kept in special archival conditions and barring unforeseen disasters - it will endure for a very long time.

For all the effort involved in notating, the choreologist can save a choreographer or company a colossal amount of time. As Peter Wright wrote, "BMN safeguards our heritage and new works for future generations, and very importantly, saves a great deal of money and time through the quick, efficient, and accurate way ballets ca be taught."

Clearly, the use of systems such as BMN can be an investment that pays dividends, both financially and historically. And while few dance companies are rarely in a position to invest in anything, it is a testimony to the effectiveness of notation that over twenty companies now employ full-time choreologists. More than a thousand scores have already been produced.

It is also worth mentioning that learning notation creates invaluable knowledge, skills. clarity, and discipline. Throughout the world choreologists are now rehearsal directors, ballet masters and mistresses, repetiteurs, assistants, teachers, professors, and arts administrators.

Can you imagine how much more efficient it would be if dancers were as literate in score reading as musicians? Perhaps it wouldn't be very effective for dancers to learn their roles or parts this way, but if they could read over the scores, refresh their memories, and clarify any questions, they could study their roles and even rehearse on the bus without fear of injury!
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Title Annotation:Benesh system of annotation for dance companies
Author:Lloyd-Jones, Kally
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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