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Written record of Ballet

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My apologies for what is probably an embarrassing beginner's question: if I want a written record of a play, I can get a copy, with staging directions. If I want a written record of a symphony (or other music), I can get a score. If I want a written record of an opera, I can get a libretto and an accompanying musical score.

If I want a written record of a ballet, I can get ....????

I know for the music, I can get a score, but for the movement, is there a choreographer's record? How do I, as an enthusastic amateur and audience member, get something that helps me refer to a particular movement on stage (independently of the music) ... or how do I "see", in the written sense, how a variation differs from the "standard" movements?


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Bilbobaggins, probably some people who are more knowledgeable than me will reply later, but well, as far as I know, there is no such equivalent in general. Several systems of dance notation exist, the most common ones being the Laban system and the Benesh system, but not all choreographers and companies use it, and it is much more complicated to write and to read than a musical score (it takes a lot of time to write the notation for a few minutes of dance, and it has to be done by a professional notator; all composers can read a musical score but I doubt that many choreographers know a dance notation system!) So it wouldn't be very useful for an ordinary audience member in general...

So there are only written librettos (sometimes with quite a lot of details, for example like Gautier and Vernoy de Saint-George's original libretto for "Giselle"),

and also sometimes some texts depicting the variations (I remember reading something like that about "Giselle") but it can't be as exact as a musical score. The easiest tool probably is video, and it's used quite often to stage some ballets, but it often isn't available for audience members, and it has some shortcomings (it depends on a particular set of interprets, some video materials get old quite quickly, sometimes it misses part of what happens on stage, etc.)

Actually that's one of the really frustrating sides of ballet for me: when one is interested in a play, musical piece, opera, etc. in general it's not too difficult to find a text or musical score and also often a recording. The magic of live performance is missing, but at least one can know what that work looks like (and also it makes it relatively easy to stage even though it has been forgotten for decades). But for ballet, there are so many great works that either got lost, or are still performed but rarely or far away from one's country and there's no way for the eager balletomane to know what it looks like...

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My daughter told me that ballet is still an art orally transmitted from teacher to pupil, but even that doesn't seem right ... after all, in a corps de ballet, not everyone learns all the roles, so any pupil only receives a portion of what the teacher knows. How does a ballet master remember all the parts of all the ballets?

She said that ballet notation essentially goes into archives, but is otherwise not available ... seems a shame there isn't something more like a libretto or an overview of technical items.

I can imagine it would be exceedingly difficult to choreograph without an easy form of notation ... after all, how does a choreographer capture what he/she does or is thinking?

[Post-note edit]

Wow!! I've just looked at the Labanotation websites -- very interesting but very complex. The second site is especially interesting ... a high school in El Paso, TX, that teaches Labanotation to its students and then uses it to transmit dance from other cultures!!

I wish it were possible to get some of the more common ballets (or perhaps even just more common movements) annotated so one could study them at home before a performance.


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Well, that can depend very much on the choreographer, his methods and manner. In the matter of coaching, when Suzanne Farrell teaches one of her roles, I have read that she also tells the stories and makes the points that Balanchine made to her – the intangibles that make the steps part of an expressive whole. It may be imperfect, but it beats hell out of video. It's true, I suppose, that no one can hold every single detail of a ballet in his or her head, but so far the passing of choreography and style person-to-person through the generations -- that is, if it's through the right people—has been the best way. The pros can address this issue much better than I can, however.

There's a nice little scene in the film "The Turning Point" that illustrates this in a very simple way. The great Alexandra Danilova is sitting at a table with Starr Danias, Leslie Browne, and Anne Bancroft (as a senior ballerina facing retirement) and points around the table to each woman, saying, "From me to you, and then to you, and then to you" – signifying the passage of an old tradition to girls born in a country younger than the art form itself.

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The fear that I have is that so many things passed via oral tradition are disappearing in today's world (and in yesterday's world) ... old methods for cooking, for many decorative arts, the art of writing ... and even the art of ballet could be in danger ...

Video or DVD is certainly not the ideal solution ... unless you had multiple cameras and a way of displaying the full stage as a hologram ... what other choices are there?


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Actually, classical ballet steps are not all that difficult to write down; the problem is that different methods use different terms. Also, there are many different variations on each step. In music, a c is a c, with relatively few variations (staccato, legato, forte, &c) but with ballet, you can't just write "two tendus." It has to be "two tendus in a small pose croisé devant with the right leg, in one count each, closing on the accent." Even that only has meaning for a Vaganova-trained dancer--to get others to understand it, you would have to specify where the arms and head are, and that still doesn't take into account where it occurs on the stage or in the music (other than a brief note about the accent). And that's just two tendus! Of course, it would be much simpler if we could all agree on terminology, but there's so much history and tradition involved in all that; in fact, no two ballet methods do each step the same way, so it may actually make more sense to keep the different names...now I've started to confuse myself;)! We've had discussions about this in the Teachers forum before--it gets extremely complicated.

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dirac, I like that scene too and from everything I've ever read it sounds as though it is really the only way. Please, let it keep being handed down and done well.

Here's an old thread on the Labanotation theme.

Sometimes I can't help but wonder if the passing on is somewhat like Akira Kurosawa's Roshomon, in that every dancers's perception/memory of a ballet is somewhat different?

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There's a wonderful story about Massine reviving a work once -- one of his large, symphonic pieces -- and the corps was divided in half. One dancer worked with Group A, and another worked with Group B. (Both had been in the work.)

When the dancers came together, in one segment, Group A turned to the left, while Group B turned to the right. Pandemonium. Accusations. Curses. A film was found. And there, yes indeed, when they were dancing it, Group A Leader turned to the left, while Group B leader incorrectly -- and singularly -- turned to the riight. So both stagers were, in fact, doing EXACTLY WHAT YOU TOLD ME TO DO!

HOWEVER. The difference between staging and Rashomon is that there is one truth: the particular version being staged. If 10 different dancers stage something 10 different ways, it doesn't mean that all 10 are "right." Some dancers are accused of only remembering his/her own part -- and sometimes these accusations are dead on. Not all stagers are equal. Some people see better, some people remember better, some people have a deeper understanding of the work -- and some who may get 10s on any objective perception test may have learned the work from an idiot.

The first time I saw the Danes' "La Sylphide," I noticed 22 aspects of staging -- just gesture and stage business, nothing as complicated as how far the head should be tilted forward or how high the back leg should be -- that were not in the ABT production that I had "grown up" seeing. I wrote them down. Two days later, I overheard a dancer visiting from ABT say, "It's exactly like ours." I hope this person never stages. The text -- the steps and patterns -- are probably quite similar.

I liked Hans's explanation very much -- two tendus. We could have a Tendu thread -- Ballets with Important Tendus in Them And How They Differ!

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OK...(hoisting up my sleeves, and searching for a spade)....

i'm really sorry i didn't see this earlier, however "better late than never".

as a trained bensesh notator, here are some of my 'answers' to bilbo's original questions:-

1. yes, bilbo, there are written scores to almost all works done by major world companies

2. they can only be read by people trained to read them, so they would be no use to you

3. however, they CAN be read by people trained to read them, so, in that sense, all these things CAN be considered 'safely' recorded, and able to be passed on

4. there certainly ARE scores which tell you "where to breathe" - i seem to recall there is even a (rarely needed and therefore rarely used) benesh symbol for 'breathe'

5. these written scores are stored safely (i.e. ideally in lockable fireproof cabinets) in score libraries - the major companies have their own libraries, and ALSO send duplicate copies to the benseh institute library, in london. for labanotation, i am unaware of the specifics of their storage arrangements, but i am quite confident it would be similar (i.e. multiple copies in different locations, at least one of which protected by archival storage conditions)

6. choreographic copyright could be breached IF anyone and everyone had access to these scores AND could read them - so even if the notation method was simple enough for anyone to pivk up easily, the scores would not be made readily available.

7. what else was there?... ;)

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As to point #6, Grace, I don't believe that reading a notation score would in any way undermine copyright or patent rights to the material recorded. Those who can are free to read whatever they can. It is only when the material so written is plagiarized that the creator's rights come into play. Notation is a kind of specific symbolic language peculiar to dance, and those who can read it are free to do so, saving only contractual restrictions on access rights negotiated at the time of recording, usually with the choreographer. As Benesh was only developed ca. 1955, we are still quite a way from most of the material passing into public domain, but at some time in the future it will. We will have to see then what becomes of the material. The possibility of automobile accidents and jaywalking has not restricted the opening of roads and streets.

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Hmmm ... let me take one step back ... I am fully in support of the dancers having and needing far more detail (best learned in person and via oral tradition) ... and notation, whether Benesh or Laban, seems to have far more detail than a audience member would need ... but how about the poor audience member, who has never been a dancer, and wants to be able to describe and discuss a particularly moving movement/moment ... he's read one or two books on classic ballet steps, but needs a guide to the particular ballet he's seen ... because he can relate the movement to a particular moment in the story.

... is there perhaps an annotated syllabus or libretto, so that not only is the plot line described (that's in most program guides), but the key dance movements are identified? What is the ballet equivalent of the Opera Lover's Guide to Operas, providing a syllabus and interposed a gude to the major arias?


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There are the several Balanchine/Mason Great Ballets books, and Cyril Beaumont's Complete Ballets and its supplement, both of which comment on vocabulary occasionally, but I don't know of anything which discusses steps and mimetic content in great detail for ballets which are around now.

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Well ... when I go to the Royal Opera or Royal Ballet, the Program Guides (at GBP 6 each -- about USD 9.50) are flying off the shelves ... they include a syllabus as well as some fascinating historical information on the work, the author, early productions, illuminating critical analysis, social commentary, etc.

And the gift shops of the NYCB or the Royal Ballet sell all kinds of operatic guides and books on ballet ... seems there is an audience starved for knowledge ...

As for niche market :) , I'd consider it a wonderful market for Ballet Alert ... if "we" could write the descriptions, we could probably combine them as a book (for the Gift Shop set) or make the text available to ballet companies to insert into their "Program Guide", to be sold at individual performances ... and it seems we have a wonderful collection of dance experts, who also have marvellous descriptive and writing skills ... and perhaps even a publishing connection?:)

Have I just done a business plan???:D :eek:

Do you think there would be interest in a small BA group putting this together? I know at least one willing customer :D :D ... and potential participant ... we might even be able to "pre-publish" them here on the site, for feedback ...


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I could probably write the grant, but my qualifications to really deliver the goods would be very limited compared to others on this site. ... if I were sitting on the grant review committee, I wouldn't fund me, even though I like the idea, purely on that basis .... :D:)

So, sorry for having taken us on a tangent ...


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