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Step, lines, and videotape: using DVDs and videos to learn repertoire.

In this technological age, computers, cell phones, and recording devices make our lives run faster and more efficiently--even though we sometimes feel trapped by them. And so it is in the dance studio. Videotapes have been used for more than three decades to record choreography and to help restage pieces. Since their introduction 10 years ago, DVDs have also come into play as handy tools for preserving or setting ballets. But every system of recording and documenting choreography--from Labanotation to the most current DVD system--has a built-in set of strengths and weaknesses. The trick is to know when, where, and how to use them.

In a school setting, videos and DVDs are generally used judiciously as a teaching aid. At the School of American Ballet, longtime faculty member Suki Schorer reviews ballet videos at home, and then almost always teaches the students without showing the tape in the studio. The exception is for complex choreographic groupings. "If the patterns are very complicated and I have to move a lot of people, I'll show them the video to know where they have to go," says Schorer. "But that's rare." Recently she taught SAB students the first movement of Balanchine's Concerto Barocco and Valse-Fantaisie, and allowed the students to watch performance tapes of New York City Ballet after the ballets were set.

Likewise, Lola de Avila, the interim associate director of the San Francisco Ballet School, prefers to teach students choreography without using videos or DVDs. "Video is a wonderful tool, but you shouldn't overuse it because it lacks depth," says de Avila, who also rehearses the San Francisco Ballet company dancers. The company studios, however, contain both VCRs and DVD players. "Some ballet masters prefer videos, others DVDs. It's a matter of availability," says de Avila.

For both Schorer and de Avila, students' temptation to imitate what they see on tape can be tricky. "I try to pass on the movement quality that Mr. B conveyed to me. He would say, 'Bend here, explode there,'" says Schorer. "On video, you have the personality of the dancers--you don't want to teach someone else's mannerisms or personality. You want to draw out a dancer's own individual movement quality." De Avila sees tapes and DVDs strictly as reference material. "When you are writing a book, you will use other people's books to keep you informed. But you are not going to write what someone else said," explains de Avila.

With its full schedule, American Ballet Theatre runs on union time, and that means every minute is of the essence when apportioning rehearsals. Keeping pace with rotating repertory pieces and a roster of full-length ballets means teaching dancers new roles quickly and thoroughly. Since last year, ABT's associate artistic director Victor Barbee has used DVDs in the studio to set works, and has transferred many of the company's archives of VHS tapes to DVDs of performances. "Dancers now are so quick at learning things," says Barbee, who recently reset Lar Lubovitch's Othello on the company with the help of DVDs. "You can spend eight hours a day learning 20 dancers' parts or put the DVD in and say, 'This is you, this is you.' They get it. Then you go back and put in the nuances."

University dance departments have also turned to DVDs in their quest for efficiency in the studio. Myra Woodruff, chair of the dance department at Texas' Southern Methodist University, recently received a budgetary allotment to switch from videotapes to DVDs. "We're a little behind the curve, but it's the technology that everyone is moving toward," says Woodruff. This semester, Douglas Becker from the The Forsythe Company will set Forsythe's The Vile Parody of Address on the SMU students using a DVD of the ballet. Woodruff, a former Graham dancer who has set Graham's works on her students, also hopes to see Graham's works transferred from outdated, often damaged videotapes to DVDs.

Lynne Weber, the board chairman of the Dance Notation Bureau, which fosters the use of Labanotation, says that both dance notation and video recording have their strengths and weaknesses. Labanotation, a system of symbols developed by Rudolph Laban in 1928 to record movement, is analogous to music notation. "A music score gives you the notes the composer wants played. The Labanotation score gives you the movements the choreographer wants done," explains Weber. Recently the Merce Cunningham Dance Company asked Weber if it could use a Labanotation score of Totem Ancestor, because video shots of the piece, taken from different angles, obscured some of the movement. Labanotation not only provides information about the steps, but also the cause-and-effect sequence for the steps. For example, the score may indicate a kneeling dancer stands up and leaves the stage because she has been touched on the shoulder by another dancer.

Nonetheless, Weber advocates the use of video and DVDs, and the DNB is developing a technology whereby a video screen simultaneously shows the videotaped choreography with the Labanotation scrolling alongside. "Videos and DVDs give you a good overall picture," says Weber. "You can get the feeling of the work from the dancers."

Of course, not all videos or DVDs are equal. Because of union restrictions in theaters, ABT is allowed only one archival recording of a performed ballet for posterity. If a dancer makes a mistake or the musicality is off, it's there forever.

Relying only on a recorded performance can end up eroding the choreography's style and substance, not to mention the oral tradition that dance has depended on for decades. "Dance was always taught by someone who did it and learned from someone who did it before and so on," says de Avila. No matter the technology available, nothing trumps going through the steps with someone who has danced them.

Joseph Carman, a contributing editor to Dance Magazine, is the author of Round About the Ballet.
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Author:Carman, Joseph
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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