Tuesday, September 28, 2004

thoughts on notation

Examine the use of Notation in the study of Dance

Notation is the written form of dance, using symbols and a staff to represent both the movement performed and it’s relationship to time, space, and the body of the dancer. In Laban notation even the floor plans can be recorded for the perusal of the dancer.

Notation has the potential to change the way dancers work. It could be called the literature of Dance and ‘all the benefits which literature and literacy bring[i]’ will enhance the working lives of dancers. A literate dancer eliminates the need for hours in the rehearsal studio because they can study a score at home. No special equipment is needed, just knowledge of the symbols and what they mean.

Being able to record dance as it is created will aid the choreographer. No longer having to memorise each phrase and its minor adjustments, notation enables the choreographer to simply refer back to previous notes. It would be unthinkable that the orchestra would sit waiting whilst each bar is individually created by the composer, and then learnt by the orchestra, bar by bar, taught by ear as the composer hums. Why then should dancers be unable to see movement on the written page? With a notated score the dancer can look over any particular phrase or motif that presents difficulty and analyse it in his or her own time till they are happy with it. They can see how many times a motif is used or developed, allowing them to easily prepare for that moment in mental rehearsal.

A dancer asked to fill a role as an understudy can come to rehearsal prepared for the role if given a notated score. Even if the dancer speaks a different vocal language to the choreographer, the potential universality of dance notation means the dancer will understand the movement he or she is required to perform, echoing the standard issue of music notation or chemical symbols.

Notation also creates a reliable way of recording choreography for future generations. Watching dance on film is unreliable because we are watching one dancer’s interpretation of the choreographer’s movements. This was evident in Unit (4?) where we were learning the set study. The dancer in the video performs the dance in a very different manner to the way the dance was taught at our teacher’s course, providing opportunities for discrepancy. The notated score allows the student to have a definitive version of the correct movements.

Unfortunately, the score provided is of such a high standard that only an A level student of a very high standard would be able to read it. The majority of A level students, with only a years worth of experience cannot learn the dance from the score provided. To be at that standard the dancer would need to have learnt notation from an early age. Indeed, to produce dancer confident in and capable of recreating works from notated scores, dance notation needs to be taught as the dancer is learning the very basics of dance, much in the way that children at primary school are familiarised with standard music notation as they learn to play simple instruments such as the recorder.

The potential ideal of literate dancers being able to communicate easily through the common language of notation is further hindered but the lack of a standard form of dance notation. There are two major forms of dance notation, Benesh and Laban. These differ from each other greatly, Benesh having the ability to be written on a conventional music staff, being read from left to right, and Laban being written on it’s own staff, read from the bottom up, focusing on the spaced travelled. Dancers are usually trained in one form or another, rarely both. This would create problems if a dancer trained Laban notation were handed a Benesh score. For notation to fulfil it’s potential in dance, it needs to be standardised. There are few specialists in the dance world who choose to stud notation meaning that the in depth research for such standardisation to occur is a long way off.

The main problem with dance notation is there is no way of recording emotion in a notated form. Music notation has the Italian musical terms to convey a little at least of the feeling with which the composer intended the piece to be interpreted. Dance notation lacks this. From the notated scores we have worked from in lessons, I have no way of knowing the emotion or feeling behind the work. Dance is communication using the body, and without knowledge of the dance idea, the dancer is unable to communicate effectively, and the dance piece fails. My choreography in Unit 1 was based on the sensations and emotions of loss, deep longing and anger. Without being able to communicate these on a score, the dancer would be unable to communicate the full feeling and give the necessary quality to the movements.

It is this sense of movement quality and emotion that makes dance. Dance is a live transient art form. Yes, notation provides dance with the means of a literature, but it cannot permanently record the feelings.

[i] From Dance Notation

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