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Ballet scripts?

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In the program that you buy at the theatre there is a synopsis of the ballet you are about to see. This is a compressed, 300 word or so, description of the storyline. Mentions the major roles but nothing more detailed.

At the other extreme, there could be a complete choreological description of the dance. Every scene broken down by role and movement. I'm not sure that these exist in many cases, but it represents the most granular of written descriptions if they do exist.

Now, somewhere between these, not quite as granular as the choreological description and not including the choreology, but certainly much more detailed than the synopsis, I figure there must exist a description of the ballet. A scene by scene, role by role description of what the dancers are doing. Something that names the roles and groups of dancers (eg: "Big Swans", "Little Swans"). What's this called?

Just so I can talk about it a little more, let me call it a "Ballet Script" and I'll use the right name when I know it.

Are ballet scripts publicly available?

The reason I'm asking:

I'm a viewer of ballets. Someone who has not had ballet training but who has acquired what knowledge he has by osmosis from being around dance schools taking photos and seeing as many ballets as he can afford.

For mainstream ballets, having seen several performances and read about them, I get to know the "What" of the ballets. The acts, the scenes, the roles but maybe not quite to the level of someone who is staging the ballet. For not so mainstream ballets (lets pick "The Leaves are Fading"), I might see one performance in a couple of years - I don't know the roles, the scenes and so on. After a few months I might remember snippets of the dance but couldn't describe the dance in detail. Short of taking a notepad into the performance and furiously jotting down some sort of shorthand of what I'm seeing, I have no way to create a "nudge" for my memory.

If I want to write about a ballet that I've seen, it would be great to have a ballet script that I could refer to. Where I could think "Ah Yes! That's where that group of four came in from the left, pas de bourreed to centre..." And so on...

So, does this thing I've called a ballet script exist? What is it really called? Is it possible to get hold of one for a particular dance? Are companies loathe to let such things become public knowledge for reasons of copyright, plagiarism and so on? What do small companies need to get hold of if they want to perform a particular ballet (Like "The Leaves are Fading")? etc... etc...

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Some, but not all, dances are notated now. Choreographers have devised shorthand to write down their ballets since ballet began, but there are two major contemporary systems -- Labanotation and Benesh notation. I believe these are called "notation scores," but notators may have a more precise term for them.

I don't think they are generally available, and they'd be difficult to read. They're less precise than a musical score, in the sense that they provide the basic step and, as much as is possible, the dynamics of the dance -- terms such as "bound movement" and "free movement" are incorporated into the notation.

I'm not an expert on notation by any means, and I hope someone who knows more will see this and jump in. Doug Fullington reads Stepanov notation (the language in which Petipa's ballets are notated) and will be able to write much more precisely about notation generally.

When a company wants to stage a ballet there are a variety of ways to do it. One is have the choreographer and/or his assistant come and teach it, role by role and step by step. One (unfortunately, IMO) is to get out the video. There may be a house tape of a performance, kept for archival purposes. (The problem is that it's a record of a single performance and may be inaccurate, also that the camera doesn't capture the entire stage unless it's at the back of the house, and from that angle can't pick up detail, especially in a narrative ballet.) Of they send a notator who stages the ballet from the score. "Girls in green, three pirouettes." Sometimes the choreographer, or a stager, then comes in and prepares it for the stage, sometimes they don't, and I'd maintain I can usually tell the difference in performance. Works staged only from notation tend to look very flat and, at worse, rather lifeless. Notators would disagree, of course :(

I can sympathize with your question, Roy. I remember standing through Sleeping Beauty 7 nights in a row my first season of ballet to try to learn it -- only in the sense of what comes next, the general structure; the individual parts came later. Today, I'd rent as many videos of Sleeping Beauty as possible.

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An afterthought -- some ballet scores have been published, scores of a few 19th century ballets. Also, a Danish teacher and stager named Kirsten Ralov prepared a four-volume book of the Bournonville Schools (the classes set down at the end of the 19th century that preserved the Bournonville technique). One volume was in Benesh, one was in Labanotation, one was the piano score, and one was in words.

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Sorry, Alexandra, when I mentioned a "choreological description", I was actually meaning a notated script using either Laban or Benesh notation. I've had a look at both of these just out of interest - It's very detailed and would take a good year or two's study to master. Labanotation is a more general system of movement notation and is adaptable to all sorts of movement recording whereas Benesh is highly geared to classical ballet.

I was actually after a level up from there. Something that talks in words about the dancer's movements but not in the detail that notation would give.

That aside, the Ralov work sounds very interesting. Sort of a Rosetta Stone of the ballet world! I'll have to chase that one up.

Regarding the way ballets are staged: Yes, I think when the Australian Ballet did Bella Figura Kylian actually came out here for a couple of days. But he'd already sent an assistant choreographer ahead to do the major staging work and his role was to give the production his imprimateur. I think there's a special name for that sort of assistant choreographer, but I've forgotten. I've seen the National Theatre Ballet here use videos - but I still can't help thinking that there must be a written script which is not at the notation level which they would use in working with the dancers. Maybe I'm wrong...

I'm slowly building my collection of ballet DVDs just so that I can do as you say - watch 'em 'till I drop! But the non-mainstream ballets are just not on DVD as far as I can tell. Commercial reality stifles artistic desire yet again!

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Sort of like a libretto or a synopsis, Ray?

Well, from an audience perspective, I've found old reviews help jog my memory, also there are a few compendium books out there like "Balanchine's 101 stories of Great Ballets" which helps for most repertory up to 1975 (and memorializes a few works of that time that really didn't get incorporated into repertory). It's not a step by step record, but it helps.

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Roy, the only company I can speak of is the Royal Danish Ballet, and there at least some of the producers (the ballet masters on staff who staged, directed and coached ballets) did have notebooks. The old Bournonville ballets were written down, in stick figures for movements, and the mime written in French. Then there would be subsequent notes about changes -- why they were made (an adaptation for a specific dancer, etc.)

Some of the contemporary ballets -- the story ballets of John Neumeier, for example, also had notebooks. I saw the stager making notes in them -- Neumeier sent a stager from Hamburg to work with the dancers, and she made several changes; these would be written down. I didn't see them, so I don't know what they looked like. I'm sure no company would ever let these books out of their hands.

You're right about contemporary repertory -- there may be dozens of Swan Lakes, but it's very hard to find any new work. It's such a small market, I think they'd say. Even "Swan Lake" won't sell more than a few hundred copies, so the Best of Graeme Murphy doesn't have a chance. There is some new dance on television, but not much -- especially not much here. There's more in Europe.

The internet holds the promise here, I think. There's a bit of it going on now -- the Kennedy Center Millennium stage broadcasts daily at 6 p.m. A few months ago, you could have seen reconstructions of a dance by Isadora Duncan, Antony Tudor's "The Planets," and Jose Limon's "Choreographic Offering." I'm sure within five years there will be regular broadcasts of dance on the internet -- some of it self-produced.

Until then, repetitive viewing is the only way -- it's frustrating, but nice, too, because ballet is NOT a mass market art form.

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Thanks Leigh, Alexandra.

Yes, a sort of libretto is more like it and possibly the notebooks that Alexandra speaks about are the sort of thing. Not just a storyline but also a brief description of how the storyline is being told in movement.

But from what you are both saying it seems that even if they exist within companies, it is extremely unlikely that they would be made available to the public. Ah well...

Old reviews is good thinking... and there must be stuff on the web (like this bulletin board!) which has information about newer ballets. By the way, I've printed out the entire classicism archive and it makes good reading.

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