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CHAPTER 8

Everyone Will Be Famous For 15 Minutes - Andy Warhol
The new, gigantic and glimmering Met Opera house in Lincoln Center was naturally a magnet for publicity in 1966. Also, anything connected with it that was unique. So, for a while at least, I shared the spotlight so to speak, as never before had an American dance company hired someone specifically to document its dances. Some considered the Met extremely forward thinking to employ a choreologist on staff. In fact, the very word ‘choreologist’ had a certain glamour and mystery about it. What was it I did? Why did the Met want or need such a person?

In any case, I was able to enjoy a brief period of celebrity with interviews for Time magazine, New York magazine, Newspapers, Radio and TV talk shows. I was asked to write articles about my work for glossy magazines such as “New York Magazine”. “Dance Magazine”, “Opera News”. In a sense, it was hard to believe, and beyond the bounds of probability that this attention was really happening to a choreologist - a job that was considered by some to be little more than that of a glorified secretary.

Part of my job was to attend rehearsals and performances and eventually notate every bit of dancing that passed before my eyes. I suppose that many asked why did Dame Alicia want to keep this written record of opera ballets?

Well, for starters, it had everyday uses as a tool in the Met’s everyday operations. The choreographer or ballet mistress could, and often did, forget a step or dance sequence that was set earlier. I could demonstrate the missing steps from my notes and the rehearsal could go on, whereas before, dancers just fumbled around trying to remember. In a sense, the notation is like the minutes of a meeting: more exact, more reliable than anyone’s memory and with this document the rehearsal can go on to new business.

When the choreography for a ballet is finished – granting the contradiction in terms here since choreography is never ‘finished’ in the static sense – I prepared a final score from my rough rehearsal notes. This final version made it possible for a far more economical use of the, always limited, rehearsal time. It could be used for teaching roles to cast replacements, or for that matter to whole new casts in future revivals.

As for long-range benefits, the final version may be salable to another company, or it can be lent to or even exchanged with a cooperating company.

Because of the efficiency of production based on choreographic scores, choreologists are often asked to stage a work for another company. The choreography of a ballet thus preserved can be transmitted across oceans and down generations, just as the plans for a building enable a builder to reconstruct it, even centuries later. Choreology offers a universal written language. It preserves a dance, but also a dance that can be stolen. Therefore, choreology offers the protection of international copyright.

All this is due to the genius of Rudolph and Joan Benesh.

Photo: Rudolph and Joan Benesh

Fortunately, during the previous season while I was dancing in the ballets myself, it made it a lot easier to analyze what I was writing down. It is far simpler to notate while the choreographer is actually setting the dances, step by step, than when they are already finished and in performance. While traveling with the Met on its annual National tour, I would stand in the wings, straining to see what was going on, or else looking from the corner of my eye while dancing onstage myself, to see what the other dancers were doing. But now, for the first time, I was able to work right along with the choreographers as they composed their dances.

My Method Of Creating A Benesh Notation Score
For those who may be interested in my method of working, I start by analyzing the music, then take rough notes in pencil during the first day’s rehearsal. How many dancers [boys and girls] are performing and their movement patterns, singly or in groups. Next come the steps. A great deal of data can be conveyed in Benesh with a few strokes of the pencil, not only the particular step or movement shape but the location of the dancer or dancers on the stage at that precise moment, the direction they are facing, their relation to the other dancers and the musical beat or sub-beat on which the movement or pose occurs. Under certain circumstances the standard ballet vocabulary can be written almost at performance speed, a bit like shorthand dictation. Details, such as unusual hand movements, strange displacements of the torso or an odd turn of the head can be held in memory and written in later.

After this rough copy is made, I go about tidying it up so that anyone else trained in Benesh can read and understand it. In fact, at that time, 1966-1969, I had been teaching it to the Met ballet mistress, Audrey Keane and some of the dancers as well.
 

Photo: Teaching a class in Benesh Notation

Producing a Benesh score often involves eliminating nonessentials and searching out clearer ways of stating a movement. This is to avoid redundancy. When dress rehearsals begin there is always more work in checking over the rough working score against the performance and the exact placement of the dancers within the stage set. From all this material I prepare a master score, looking something like an orchestral score. Naturally, the more work put into a score, the fuller and richer it becomes. Even after it is complete, I continue to attend rehearsals and performances to check for any detail that might have been missed, or to see if the choreographer has made a change that would put the score out of date.

Benesh Notation Sample: Paris' variation with the Golden Apple from Dame Alicia's choreography for "Adrianna Lecouvreur"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo Below: The actual scene as described by the notation sample

So, is a choreologist merely a scribe, a trained drudge or hack who knows a kind of shorthand but doesn’t draw upon creativity at all? The answer is a complex negative. First, as in any form of human expression, there is a filter that the material of dance must pass through before it can be expressed in symbols. This filter is the individuality of the choreologist. A dance being born is never precise or well defined. Within the limits of its chosen style it is actually improvisation. Also, and it goes without saying that choreologists don’t write down everything that happens before their eyes. They wouldn’t notate a sneeze, an involuntary twitch of a calf muscle in a charley horse or a dancer falling down.

Backstage At The Met
For me, being familiar with the Royal Ballet repertory that we studied back at the Institute, I wanted to prove to myself at least, that Benesh could handle forms of dance other than classic ballet. I already knew Benesh could record modern and character dance. We had lots of instruction in those. Amazingly, it was even beginning to be used in medicine and sports, but I found opera-ballet to be a horse of a different color. For one thing, singers nearly always occupy the stage along with dancers. Another complexity: opera dancers often have unusual entrances and exits, sometimes even from trap doors or the flies and are often carrying a prop of some kind – a basket, a fan, sticks, a banner, and these must be shown in the notation. One consolation is that in opera, dance sequences are usually short. In regular ballet companies, a choreologist could have a huge, full-length four-acter to cope with, as I was later to find out when I became resident choreologist for American Ballet Theater.

Then there is the immense amount of opera-scenery, pillars, staircases, even full houses that have to be considered. Classic ballets also have these but at the new Met it had reached monumental proportions.

Inside The Metropolitan Opera House
There are four stages at the Met. [see illustration below]. For a quick change of scenery, the main stage in center can be quickly replaced by mechanically sinking it below while another takes its place. Other stages can slide in from either side or from the rear.

Photo: Cutaway drawing of Met interior viewed from backstage

Yes, I know, you are wondering why bother notating a dance in the first place when we have video? Why not simply videotape the dances? Back in the days when I gave frequent talks or lectures about notation, I always got this question. The thing is, apart from the fact that filming or videotaping goes against the musician’s Union rules, you could argue why even have a musical score or a play script if all musicians had to do was listen to a recording or an actor see a film to learn their parts?

A quick glance at a video is helpful in learning a dance. I always found it an invaluable tool for myself but it does not have the details notation does, just as a music CD doesn’t obviate the need for printed music.

I’m often amazed at how young dancers of today seem able to easily pick up a dance just by watching a video of it. It’s a skill I never acquired, but on close analysis it turns out they end up with just an imitation of what someone else is doing. For the most part, videos give an unfair picture of the dance. The lighting may be poor, details of the movement may be hidden by other dancers, props, or costumes. Entrances and exits can be missing or the dancer you are watching may be giving a really bad performance. Learning a dance from video is a wonderful aid, but also consider that you may be studying a poor copy of what the choreographer never intended in the first place.

Further on I will write about how dance notation in the USA has frankly become a dying art. This is not so in Europe where dance companies use sometimes three or four choreologists on staff. My final job as a resident choreologist was with American Ballet Theater. I was their first and only. After I left there were two or three others that came and went. Then the company began to rely totally on video for revivals, unless one of the European companies sent a choreologist to set a work by a major choreographer such as Ashton, MacMillan, Cranko, etc. In America, the government is not nearly as generous with the arts as in Europe or elsewhere. There just isn’t the money to have the luxury of a resident choreologist on staff.

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