Writing Dance Down: The Art of Notation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

pas de deux wrestlers
“Coreografie.” Encyclopedie ou dictionnaire raisonne des sciences des arts
et des metierspar une Societe de gens de lettres; mis en ordre et publie par M. Diderot.
Paris, Briasson, 1751-1780.

by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal

The Art of Notation, an installation currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Library, highlights the historical development of Western music and dance notation systems. While musical notation has evolved steadily over the last eight hundred years into a standardized form, a universal notation system for dance has failed to achieve widespread use by choreographers and dancers.

Over the centuries, dance compositions have been mainly handed down through demonstration from person to person, from one generation to the next, resulting in an accumulative distortion of the originals. Without notation, unintentional changes become the known version, and the choreographer’s work loses authenticity.

The Art of Notation presents several attempts over the past three centuries to write dance down, or to make graphic symbols recognizable as human movement. As the exhibit demonstrates, dance notation has progressed inconstantly, with various systems being developed to meet the needs of the moment.

One of the earliest systems, known as Feuillet notation, is illustrated by one of the Library’s major treasures: the thirty-five volume Encyclopedia of Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, edited by Denis Diderot and published in France between 1751 and 1780. A plate in the encyclopedia presents a Feuillet score of the dance of two wrestlers from the 1723 opera “The Greek and Roman Festivals”.

Elaborate court dances became very popular in France under the reign of Louis XIV. Dance was considered to be an essential social grace, and dancing masters and new dances were much in demand. A practical system of dance notation was important so that new compositions could be read and learned by the educated classes.

Raoul-Auger Feuillet created a method of notation based on a centerline that traced the dancer’s path across the floor.   Symbols added to the pathways allowed details of the steps to be shown. The resulting dance “hieroglyphics” were elegant and easy to decipher. The system conveyed choreographic information in a simple way, and the style spread throughout Europe.

Popular use of Feuillet notation lasted for nearly a hundred years, but following the French Revolution, dance for the new middle class evolved into simpler forms. Simultaneously, theatrical dance, which grew from the court dances, developed a more demanding technique, a greater range of movement and enlarged movement vocabulary. Feuillet’s notation did not provide for the intricacies of theatrical ballet, and by the end of the 18th century had fallen into decline.

Another dance notation system, created in the 1920’s, by the Hungarian-born dance theorist Rudolf van Laban, is also featured in the Library’s Art of Notation exhibit. Labanotation uses graphic symbols on a vertical staff to capture and represent body position, timing, direction, impulse and dynamics in great detail.

On view in the exhibit are a variety of publications documenting the creation of a Labanotation score for Vaslav Nijinsky’s legendary “Afternoon of a Faun.” Using his own personal system, Nijinsky notated a score for the ballet three years after its 1912 debut. In the 1980’s, dance scholars worked from this score, as well as a set of photographs (by Baron Adolph de Meyer) of the original production, to decipher Nijinsky’s notation and to ensure that their translation into Labanotation was true to Nijinsky’s original choreographic intention.

Laban’s vision was to give dance a written form so that it can be reproduced, and his system remains arguably the best we have today. The complexity of acquiring literacy in Labanotation, however, has proven to be an obstacle to its widespread use in the dance world.

An obvious question is why, with the 20th century advent of the technology of video recording, is dance notation needed at all? Or as noted scholar Ann Hutchinson Guest asks in her book, Dance Notation, “Are present day notators just mad enthusiasts who are in love with little symbols on paper and oblivious to other seemingly obvious answers to the need?”

The answer is that just as recorded music has not replaced the need for printed music, video recording has not replaced the need for notated dance. This is because a recording does not represent the work itself, but a particular performance of the work. On video, the choreography is easily distorted by many factors including camera angle, movement hidden by other dancers, props or costumes, as well as personal mannerisms or mistakes by the dancers. Thus video recording has proven to be inadequate for the faithful preservation of a choreographer’s work.

“Dance is not an ephemeral art form,” said senior Labanotator Sandra Aberkalns in an interview with the New York Times. “Music is just as ephemeral in performance, but the performer can play that score and read it over and over again, discuss it, debate it. When all you have is video or photographs, what you have is primarily the dancer’s interpretation. Ideally you have those too, but what you get from a score are the choreographer’s intentions, and the nuance and depth that you can capture in the choreography are really phenomenal.”

Also on display in the Art of Notation exhibit is a notebook which dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham gave to his partner John Cage as a Christmas gift in 1984. The choreographic notebook contains hand-drawn stick figures accompanied by directional arrows to indicate movement. The charming pictures capture the general flow of the dance.

The exhibit points out that Cunningham was a pioneer in imagining the aid of computers for dance notation, working with the developers of LifeForms software to create a computer program called DanceForms that is still in use today.

Rapidly developing digital technology is surely the future direction for notating dance. The DanceForms animation software, for example, allows a choreographer to visualize and chronicle dance steps in a 3D environment. Labanotation, too, is now available as a software program that permits dance to be copied, edited, and stored on a computer. A newly available iPad app called KineScribe makes writing Labanotation even easier with touch-screen technology.

Other creative technologies are in development that will continue to make dance notation more engaging and user-friendly. Ongoing research drawing on the methodologies of many disciplines – dance, design, computer science, and biomechanics – is pioneering new ways to make choreography accessible through digital mediums. The elusive goal of dance literacy through dance notation, the ability to analyze choreography from the inside out, is swiftly becoming more achievable.


The Art of Notation, Music and Dance
Now through August
Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Library Reading Room, second floor, Perelman Building

One reply on “Writing Dance Down: The Art of Notation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art”

  1. Thanks for writing about dance notation. At the Dance Notation Bureau we are celebrating our 75th anniversary this year! We currently have 832 Labanotation scores of dances choreographed by 286 choreographers and more than 10,000 additional pieces of information about these dances (videos, costume sketches, set designs, music scores). Look at our On-line Catalog of Notated Theatrical Dances (dancenotation.org) and our Facebook page. Study Labanotation this summer in New York, or Motif Movement Notation at your convenience through our on-line course (get college credit).

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