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
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
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.