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Sunday, 2 February 2014





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Dance notators in ballet

Many dance establishments around the world employ notators for future references in dance steps and all forms of movements on paper, such as writing music notes lest they are forgotten both by dancers and choreographers after some time.

Rudolf Nureyev and Patricia Ruanne perform a fish dive in the Aurora Pas De Deux during the wedding celebration in Act 111 of Nureyev's production of The Sleeping Beauty, the first ballet to have come under notating.

This is to continue the uniformity of a ballet that has been danced so that there will not be a mix-up. It is not such an endearing process but the dance companies are insistant in retaining one in their service. It is considered a very vital part of dancing and is stored in archives, repertories and on script. At present, they are saved on computers and the Internet the saviour when dancers have forgotten the steps they have danced after a while.

The notator whose responsibility is to write down, notate as they are created and danced. This ‘score’ rather like the one used for music, is used in rehearsals to produce ballets for other companies without having to rely on memory and to build a library of definite information for the future.

Until recently, all ballets have been handed down from generation to generation by the dancers and choreographers who were responsible for such ballets. If such a ballet was not performed for a long time and the dancers died or for that matter, even forgot, the ballet was lost. We read about so many ballets by great choreographers of the past which were very successful but can only guess from old prints, photographs or sketches what they might have been like.

However, today we use television and rehearsal video which can reveal instantly a replay during a rehearsal just like those of any game on television. This might be a perfect record but not easy to learn but as you keep trying, corrections are made and the quality of dance improved.

You have just to look over your shoulder to correct yourself and may surprise the choreographer at your instantly acquired excellence. That is what notating can do; like how the pianist can improve on a written down score on notes she may have forgotten over the time.

How magical this would have been to the person who tried to invent this system of writing down dances in the 15th and 16th centuries. It would have been simply out of this world much more intricate and awesome like shorthand of the past era.

Pierre Beaucamph who was responsible for organising the five positions, made a serious attempt to have his system adopted widely but it was not until the 19th century that a system was devised which is very important today.

Leading to perfection,the fish dive is practised by two dancers from the Royal Ballet professionally displayed by Nureyev and Ruanne in the other picture.

This was at the beginning of the 18th century. When Vladimir Stepanov was a dancer at the Imperial Ballet of the Tsar in St. Petersburg, he used this system to write down many ballets by the great choreographer Marius Petipa including the Sleeping Beauty.

His system was brought out of Russia and was used to produce the first classic for the Royal Ballet and a version of it is still taught to the students of the Royal Ballet School which is sort of a notation.


Very widely used in America, this system is called ‘Labanotation’ and is very popular among choreographers. Invented in the 1920s and 1930s by Rudolf von Laben and was designed to suit all movements, not just dance. The definition was derived from a part of the inventor's name.

Elsewhere as in Britain and other parts of the dancing world, the system is known as choreology and widely spread. In fact, you may have seen the word choreologist in programs at ballet.

Joan Benesh and Rudolf Benesh polished and perfected their idea in the 1950s and it is this system that is used thereafter leading to ballets then produced by Sir Fredrick Ashton for the many companies around the world which perform them.

Though no system can convey to perfection the art of ballet but we can at least can now be sure that the actual steps are reproduced correctly.

The feeling, mood and characterisation that will really make a performance will have to be retained by experienced choreographers and dancers. The little touches of humour, for example, which makes La Fille Mal Gardee such a charming ballet cannot be expressed on paper either in words or notation.


Some ballets of simple steps depending for their effect on truly great performances of a particular style, may still well be lost for the future but at least we are assured that we leave behind a good record of the great ballets created today because of notating. By studying all the symbols, each one of which means something, dancers know exactly the positions they should adopt and the steps they should make.

Notations made possible the science of choreology which means the scientific study of movement. It was copyrighted in Britain in 1955 and among the companies that use it today are the Royal Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, Scotish Ballet and Bakket Rambart. The Royal Academy of Dancing which uses both systems has a notation library.

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