notation du mouvement

Sandra Aberkalns, notator, is on the staff of the Dance Notation Bureau, New York. She is regularly called upon to notate or restage dance works.
Sandra, which projects did you work on in 2001?

For me, projects are always overlapping. Rarely do I have the luxury of completing one project completely before beginning the next. 2001 was no exception.
Last year I finished the "master score" to Alvin Ailey's Quintet, which I had begun in 2000. I also attended rehearsals to notate Choo-San Goh's Beginnings, when it was staged for DanceGalaxy (a New York-based ballet company), and Jerome Robbins' Dances at a Gathering at the San Francisco Ballet.
Other projects included going to the University of Oklahoma where I coached Doris Humphrey's Soaring; guest teaching at Barnard College in New York; and publishing several articles on dance and notation.
Before giving the "master copy" of a score to the DNB you work through different stages. Could you describe this process?

The first thing I do, before rehearsals begin, is to find any information I can about the choreographer or work that may help me with the score. I search for videos, reviews, articles, and photographs, among other things. My first stop is usually the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center. I then go to the Dance Notation Bureau (DNB) to see if the choreographer has any works notated. The Internet is another valuable tool for locating material that may not be found at either the Performing Arts Library or DNB.
If I'll be notating a work that requires a music score or special recording I prefer to find these items before I go into rehearsal. Sometimes it's easy to find the music score—but how do you know which of the fifteen versions in front of you to buy? At other times, I'm able to find the music score at the Performing Arts Library but special permission is required from the publisher to photocopy it. It's also possible that the score or recording is out of print. If that's the case I hope the stager will have one, or both to give me. If the music is unpublished I'm out of luck.

The rehearsal process is usually intense. You have a stager sharing a lot of information, and dancers trying to learn the choreography, steps, and style of a choreographer with which they may not be familiar in a very short period of time. The notator is responsible for writing down the steps, how the choreography relates to the music, drawing floor plans (how dancers move across the stage), and listening to what the stager is saying about the dance (which can include imagery, emotional motivation, and historical information). At the end of the day I've written a lot of information, but my notes are a mess. Notation symbols, word notes, dancer counts are mixed up all over the page. Twenty-four counts may be squeezed onto two pages or spread out over six pages. For a given section of ballet the soloist's movement may be written on one legal pad and the corps on another.

So at the end of each day's rehearsal I create the first draft of the score. This draft is very important, as it becomes the foundation for the rest of the notation process. The first thing I check is how the dancers are phrasing the movement (are they dividing the 24 counts as three sets of 8, or perhaps as 6 x 12 x 6), which determines how I'll set up each page. Once I understand the phrasing I can organize the other material. Staffs are written for the notation symbols; word notes are grouped together; floor plans are drawn; and information from several pads can be coordinated. I need to be able to see clearly what information I have and what I'm missing—where there is certainty and where there are questions. If I have a music score I begin marking it with the dancers' counts. More than once, while marking the music, I've discovered that I'm missing an entire movement phrase. The next rehearsal it will be easy to watch for that phrase and insert it into the draft. As it's not always possible to finish a score as soon as rehearsals are over it's even more important to have this legible draft to work from.

Once rehearsals are over the notator begins work on the final manuscript. The first draft is written for the notator's benefit—the final score is written for the reader's.
Layout is very important in the final manuscript. Transferring movement (going from a legal pad to 10 square per inch graph paper) might change how many counts can be written per page. If an entire movement phrase can't be shown on one page, then how should the phrase be broken? Are the dancers' staffs presented in the most logical order? Does a word note belong in the notation score alongside the movement or in the Introduction? Where is the best place for the floor plans to be written—along the bottom of the staff or "running" up the side of the page?

Movement analysis needs to be closely scrutinized. Does the turn amount agree with where the dancer is facing at the end of the turn? Is a dancer stepping twice onto the same foot? Are the contacts between partners accurate? Notators rely on their instincts when writing movement in rehearsal but they also need to be objective about the choices they've made. For example, in Dances at a Gathering the only directions the dancers were given for a side-to-side bend was "to bend a lot". The analysis I chose by instinct may be entirely appropriate, but there are two other ways I could have chosen to write this movement. So before I make a final decision I have to consider which analysis best describes that action.

Last but not least there's the Introduction. This section, which precedes the notation portion of the score, is considered a historical document in its own right and is a major source of information about the dance. Style Notes offer a summary of style, quality, and dramatic intent for that dance. In the Music Section the stager will find information about the discography and music score. Depending on the complexity of the work the Introduction may include any or all of the following topics: Libretto, Biography, Cast Lists (original cast and the notated score), Casting and Audition information, Historical Notes, Music, Style, Costume, Lighting, Set, Prop, Photograph and Video information, Notes to the Stager, and Glossary.

For one of your scores—Artifact II by William Forsythe—you decided to use color in the score. Can you explain why?
During the course of the staging it became clear that this choreography consisted of three distinct aspects, which needed to be clearly defined in the notation score.

  • Structured improvisations (tasks). Movement parameters are defined and the dancers are required to explore the movement possibilities within those parameters.

  • Choreography, which is consistent from cast to cast—a directive. Either Forsythe has indicated how he wants the movement executed, or the sequence of movement naturally restricts the dancer from making choices. Partnering mechanics such as who is holding whom, and when are rarely modified (how they hold can change from cast to cast).

  • Choreographic directives open to dancer choices. Forsythe has often spoken of his desire to provide the dancers with an environment within which they can find their own personal style; of choreography as a "channeling of the desire to dance" rather than a fixing of steps to which the interpreter bears a transitory relation. For example Forsythe gives the directive "rond de jambe a terre en dehors in plié." The rond de jambe itself is mandatory; the dancer may choose:
    • To plié at the beginning, middle or end of the rond.
    • To stay in demi-plie or sink into a squat.
    • To stay "on the leg", or pull away from her partner creating an off-balance.
    • To stay facing the same direction or swivel as much as a 1/8 or 1/4 of a turn.

From my perspective the challenge was how to cue the stager visually when she is looking at a task, a choreographer's directive, or movement that is a directive but open to interpretation in ways other than what is written. Color was the solution.

Red is used to indicate structured improvisation. It's important that the stager describes the parameters of the task in words and then lets the dancers work the solution out for themselves. Only if the dancers are having problems executing the task may the stager demonstrate what has been notated, which is a sample realization of the task.

Black is used as in any notated work. The movement is to be taught and danced as written. The notation has a built in understanding that there is the possibility of some variation due to individual training, technical ability, or physical limitations.

Blue is a combination of directive and choice, reflecting Forsythe's special approach. The stager begins by teaching what is written in the staff—then it's up to the dancer, who is encouraged to explore personal choices in executing the material.
Blue in the staff coordinates with blue numbers (in hexagons to the right of the staff), which correspond to similar numbers below the staff. This notation shows the stager the range or types of choices made by other dancers and accepted by Forsythe's re-stager. While this notation shows possible movement choices, the dancer is not limited to the same choices.

  • The dancer may naturally adapt the movement, articulating what they know about dancing through their movement choices. If the choices fall within the "Forsythe esthetic" the stager doesn't need to say anything.

  • Alternatively, the dancer may make an artistic choice, which doesn't work well, or is willing to explore the movement but lacks the necessary skills. In either case the stager can help the dancer refine their interpretation by referencing the notation examples below the staff.

  • The dancer may also choose to not make any choices, and simply execute the movement as taught.

For this same score you included a multimedia document. For you, what is the relationship between the various methods for documenting dance?
All the new technology is exciting: CD-ROMs, digital photography and video, software programs that create 3-D imaging, movement capture. Multimedia documents can facilitate and enhance dance preservation and documentation, but it's important to remember that technology is only a tool. The Forsythe CD-ROM was possible because supplementary materials to the score were acquired when the work was notated.

For the past 60 years the DNB archive has served as a repository of not just notation scores but a variety of materials. Along with the score the notator may submit photographs, costume designs, fabric swatches, props, lighting and set designs, music scores, audio recordings, articles, reviews, miscellaneous correspondence. The goal is to preserve the entire dance, not just the steps.

For several years the DNB has been working on creating a multimedia database on which could be stored the LN score, music (both score and audio), video, photographs, production information, oral histories, etc. The database used by the DNB will be comprehensive, but also flexible. Each score is unique, and information needed for one dance's CD would not be necessary for another.
Besides notating, you also stage works from the score. You came to France to stage a work by Paul Taylor for the Opéra de Paris, and also a work by Hanya Holm for CNSMDP dancers. How do you define this role?

As a stager working from a score I have a unique link to the choreography.
Staging from a score provides insights into a work that are different from those available through reviews, video/film, photographs, or personal experience.
Except for the method used to learn the choreography, my goals, once in the studio, are no different than any other stager—a successful production.

The responsibilities of the stager vary from situation to situation.
If a coach is coming at a later date, the stager may only be required to set the choreography. However, more often than not the stager will both set and coach the work. When I was at the Opéra de Paris the stagers (I was with Christopher Gillis and Cathy McCann) were not responsible for production elements. The Taylor Company stage manager came to Paris to set the lighting and consulted on the prop and set construction, and the costume designer, Santo Loquasto, came to supervise costume construction. At CNSMDP, when I staged Hanya Holm's Jocose, I was responsible for staging the work and working with the in-house staff on production elements.

When one looks at the list of American choreographers, which have been notated, you can see that in the past 62 years the DNB has succeeded in documenting American Repertory in its diversity. What is the DNB's policy? How do they choose which works to notate?

The DNB has always been clear on its long-term mission. It's to document and preserve dance for future generations, and provide accessible repertoire for the dancers of today. The DNB is constantly re-evaluating which choreographers/works have been acquired and where there may be gaps that need to be filled.
This mission is not restricted to preserving "American" dance or choreographers—it's a global vision.

The Archive, Research and Circulating collections are the heart of the DNB, and it's the diversity of this collection that attracts scholars and dance professionals from around the world.
The Collection is achieved in many ways:

  • Mutual desire, on the part of the artist and DNB. The Balanchine Project is a perfect example. The DNB wanted to increase its collection of Balanchine works and Balanchine wanted his work notated. Over 20 ballets were eventually notated.

  • An organization approaches the DNB. The Estate Project for Artists with AIDS is a project of the Alliance for the Arts, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserve works by artists at risk. The Alliance for the Arts identified a need in the community and formed a consortium to address those needs. The DNB was able to acquire Lacrymosa by Edward Stierle and House of Breath, Men's Duet by Matthew Nash through this project.

  • The DNB targets a specific genre of work or group of choreographers. The DNB realized that African-American choreographers were under-represented in the library. The DNB then approached the choreographers/estates to determine their interest in having works notated. Leni Wylliams, Talley Beatty, and Alvin Ailey (Revelations) were three choreographers included in this special project.

Interview by e-mail, March 2002, by Marion Bastien