Dance Scene and Trends in Germany

Choreologists and Kinetographers Notate Dance

The choreologist Georgette Tsinguirides of Stuttgart Ballet Georgette Tsinguirides, awarded with the German Dance Award 2010; photo: die arge lola The presentation of the German Dance Award 2010 to choreologist Georgette Tsinguirides of Stuttgart Ballet draws attention to a hot topic: how can masterpieces be passed on to later generations of dancers and choreographers?

Since the first golden age of ballet in the 17th century, notations have been ingeniously devised and rejected. Today, two European notation systems are commonly used around the world - kinetography (“Labanotation”) and choreology (“Benesh Movement Notation”). The German choreographer and dance theorist Rudolf von Laban invented kinetography in the late 1920s for his movement choirs. His pupil Albrecht Knust developed it further and until his death in 1978, taught it at the Folkwang School in Essen, where it is still taught today. All the surviving works by Kurt Jooss, the father of German dance theatre and teacher of Pina Bausch, are notated kinetographically. Using these scores, Jooss‘ daughter Anna Markard rehearsed in particular the legendary anti-war ballet Der Grüne Tisch (The Green Table) and Pavane auf den Tod einer Infantin (Pavane on the Death of an Infanta) around the world.

In 1955, the English musician Rudolf Benesh collaborated with his wife Joan, a dancer at the Royal Ballet, to present the “Benesh Movement Notation“, officially called choreology. Today, it is taught at the Benesh Institute in London. The complete works of John Cranko, recorded by Georgette Tsinguirides, and ballets by neo-classical choreographers around the world are now notated choreologically.


Five lines, like in the musical notation system

Both dance notation systems are based on the five-line musical notation system. Each line stands for a part of the body: the feet, knees, waist, shoulders and head. Classical and neo-classical companies prefer choreology because it can clearly include musical elements of the dance movement language. Modern ensembles, particularly in English-speaking countries and in Asia, prefer kinetography, which very clearly takes space into account. Both notation systems are used for recording movement processes of all kinds. Physiotherapists, for example, use dance notations in their work with people with disabilities. However, they are extremely labour-intensive and, unlike musical scores, can be read practically only by the person notating them.

There are only five ballet companies in Germany that can afford a choreologist (incidentally, this is not a job done only by women; 50 per cent of trainees are men): the Berlin and Bavarian State Ballet Companies, Stuttgart Ballet, Hamburg Ballet and Leipzig Ballet. Cherie Trevaskis (Munich) believes that the most important qualifications for a successful career are “Ballet training and professional stage practice, a knowledge of music and score-reading, leadership qualities, analytical thinking and lots of patience“. Recently, a knowledge of computers has also been required: “In Trevaskis’ experience, the Benesh software is very useful for revising, archiving and dealing with the subject of dance academically“.

Today, choreologists are usually also ballet masters and they demonstrate many steps and sequences at rehearsals. “Choreography goes from the paper through my body to the dancers,“ is how Sonja Tinnes of the Hamburg Ballet describes her work. Like her colleagues, she is also the company’s archivist. Nowadays, video is indispensable, not only for reasons of time and finance.

Synchronous Objects, a model for the future

William Forsythe’s Synchronous Objects, a digital dance library which is currently being created and tested in cooperation with an artistic and academic team, is the most forward-looking approach to archiving dance. For One Flat Thing, the first example of the Motion Bank in Synchronous Objects, we use the technique of superimposing video and annotation,“ says Scott deLahunta, who is working on the project. Forsythe and his staff developed it for Improvisation Technologies (1990 / published in 1999). “The team at that time took a closer look at Laban and also Benesh than we are currently doing for the Motion Bank. But when we analyse the recorded movements, we keep asking ourselves how we can make use of those systems.“ Right now, making contact with various organisations has priority. A global network of choreographers is also being created.

Everyday life today

Choreographers and ballet directors certainly take a different approach to preserving their art. Gregor Zöllig, director of Tanztheater Bielefeld, feels that notations are “no longer up to date“ because a choreography becomes a different work when you have a different cast. He believes that film recordings are the best way to learn steps. “If I had the choice, I would employ a cameraman to record our dance performances on an ongoing basis, to archive them and write down anything else one needs to know.“ Martin Schläpfer (Ballett am Rhein, Düsseldorf/Duisburg) says: “Today, I don’t even know whether some of the ballets I have done will be of any interest at all in ten years.“ That is why from the outset, he, too, has had his ballets recorded “in their current form”. They are technically processed and archived by the Mediathek Tanz, the Swiss Dance Archive.

Marieluise Jeitschko
is a journalist and theatre scholar. She works as a freelance writer, and as a dance and music theatre critic.

Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
October 2010

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