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Preserving a New Ballet


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#1 GNicholls

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Posted 30 August 2010 - 06:29 AM

If one is a choreographer, what is the "gold standard" in 2010 for preserving one's new ballet? Is a good-quality DVD enough? I assume there would also be the printed scenario and stage directions, along with plans and photos for the sets, and an audio recording of the music together with the printed score if there is one.

#2 Helene

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Posted 30 August 2010 - 06:31 AM

Many of the big companies tape some rehearsals and all performances. There are generally several recordings from which to choose, even if the work is not performed again by that company.

At the New York Library for the Performing Arts, for example, you can see many performances of the same work on tape. At Pacific Northwest Ballet, taped performances are available in the company Library.

#3 volcanohunter

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Posted 30 August 2010 - 09:55 AM

The big companies also have choreologists on staff who notate choreography as it's created, usually in Benesh notation. It's not limited to ballet companies either. Large opera companies also have choreologists to record and recreate stagings. The Metropolitan Opera once had a web feature on its choreologist, but unfortunately, I can't find it.

I remember seeing a couple of documentaries in which it's clear how important a choreologist can be. In one episode of Peter Schaufuss' Dancer series, there's footage of him working on the creation of Kenneth MacMillan's Orpheus with Jennifer Penney. The dancers are trying to negotiate MacMillan's very tricky lifts and having a great deal of difficulty in the process. MacMillan mutters something along the lines of, "I can see this is going to take hours," after which the camera switches to the choreologist sitting next to him, rubbing out all the unsuccessful lifts from her score with a very large eraser.

The documentary about the creation of Robert Desrosiers' Blue Snake for the National Ballet of Canada captures an injury to one of the soloists during the dress rehearsal (a moment alluded to in Robert Altman's The Company). What follows is a last-minute rehearsal in which Desrosiers teaches the relevant solo to another dancer, with a lot of help from the choreologist.

Unfortunately, fluency in Benesh notation is very limited. Any orchestral player can read a score, but there are few dancers who can read Benesh notation with the same competence.

#4 GNicholls

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Posted 30 August 2010 - 10:24 AM

Interesting -- I see that notation would be complex. Reminds me of Braille music notation of which there are a limited number of users, and a smaller number of competent transcribers.
What happens if a different company wishes to perform the work? Do they rent it and are the fees high? Do the choreographers have to give their blessing?

#5 Mel Johnson

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Posted 30 August 2010 - 10:43 AM

With new work, a company will first have a competent core group of people who know the ballet intimately. These are the "stagers" when it comes time to put the ballet up again. The companies tend to have some sort of video recording, whether tape or DVD, but no electronic means of recording motion have yet been firmly established as "archival", so they have to do the best they can. Film is really the most stable, but quite expensive for inhouse use. And to fill up the redundancy cup, the work is notated, whether in Benesh or Labanotation. With all these data sources, a new ballet can be relatively easy to remount, if the company is able to afford all that information collection. And yes, the choreographer must say it's OK to use it. Marius Petipa doesn't count, but the modern stager has to get paid, too!

PS. Oh yes, it's expensive!

#6 Helene

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Posted 30 August 2010 - 10:47 AM

It depends on who owns the rights. If there's a Trust involved (Tudor, Balanchine, Ashton) for example, the Trust gives permission and arranges for someone to stage the ballet. Sometimes the Artistic Director or Ballet Master in the company can stage it -- Ib Andersen at Ballet Arizona, Peter Boal and Francia Russell at Pacific Northwest Ballet -- and sometimes they hire an official stager. (PNB and Ballet Arizona hire stagers from the Trust for some ballets.) They can also hire coaches, such as when PNB brought in Suzanne Farrell for a day or two to coach "Diamonds", although she didn't stage the ballet.

For living choreographers, like Forsythe, the company gets permission from the choreographer, and usually either the requester is affiliated with Forsythe, like Bennets at Royal Ballet of Flanders, and can stage it him/herself, or the company and choreographer arrange for an approved stager to set the work, such as when Roslyn Anderson stages Kylian ballets and Shelley Washington stages "Nine Sinatra Songs". In the case of Maillot's "Romeo et Juliette", the choreographer visited Seattle to refine what had been taught by the original Juliette, who staged the work and who was scheduled to dance one performance until she ran into visa issues.

From Q&A's and books and articles I've read, the primary way to transmit the steps is person-to-person, with the stager relying on his/her own notes more regularly than notation, and video as a memory aid. However, dancers more and more are saying that after the premier season, they just check out the tapes and learn the parts before the ballets go into rehearsal.

This is a double-edged sword, because what is on tape may be different than what is coached, and the intention is lost without being transmitted from people who worked with the source or someone directly coached from the source.

There are some sources, like the Stepanov notations of Petipa ballets, that are used by Doug Fullington, for example, to reconstruct early ballets, and in this case, the notation and the ability to read and interpret it is key to staging the work.

#7 GNicholls

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Posted 31 August 2010 - 04:05 PM

Very informative! One last question -- does the choreographer of a new work normally hold the copyright?

#8 Mel Johnson

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Posted 31 August 2010 - 04:14 PM

Most prefer to retain their "creator's rights", taking a lesson from Mikhail Fokine, who left the Ballets Russes only to find that he only owned the rights to two ballets that he had created before working for Diaghilev: "The Swan" and "Chopiniana".

#9 sandik

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Posted 04 September 2010 - 07:42 PM

From Q&A's and books and articles I've read, the primary way to transmit the steps is person-to-person, with the stager relying on his/her own notes more regularly than notation, and video as a memory aid. However, dancers more and more are saying that after the premier season, they just check out the tapes and learn the parts before the ballets go into rehearsal.

This is a double-edged sword, because what is on tape may be different than what is coached, and the intention is lost without being transmitted from people who worked with the source or someone directly coached from the source.


As someone who teaches and occasionally stages work from Labanotation (another notation system) I am biased, but I want to point out this distinction -- a videotape is a recording of a specific performance, with all the thrills and errors that live theater is prone to. A notated score is a recording of the work itself, the choreography with the bugs erased (like the really big eraser in the earlier posting!) It's the same as the difference between a CD of a particular orchestra playing Beethoven's 9th and the written score. In dance, we're accustomed to working one on one, learning a work directly from another person. It will be interesting to see what kind of changes happen with this increasing dependence on videotape.

#10 sandik

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Posted 08 September 2010 - 12:58 PM

I was watching a video on the Dance Notation Bureau's website about reconstructing Antony Tudor's Soiree Musicale and one of the dancers (who learned to read notation during this project) had some intersting things to say about the difference between learning from video and learning from notation. It's here if you'd like to take a look, at about the 4 minute mark.

#11 Barbara

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Posted 09 September 2010 - 04:48 AM

Very, very interesting. Thank you, Sandik. I always thought learning Labanotation was something I might have enjoyed.


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