What Is Choreology?
Joan and Rudolph Benesh
The term choreology for human movement notation, or dance script, was coined by Rudolf Benesh in 1955. Benesh defined choreology as "The aesthetic and scientific study of all forms of human movement by movement notation".
London-born Rudolph Benesh (1916 – 1975) was an accountant by profession and also a gifted artist and musician. His wife Joan was a dancer with Sadler's Wells ballet. Her attempts to write down dance steps to memorize inspired him to invent a reliable movement notation system which he called choreology.
In 1947, Rudolf and Joan started the collaborative development on the system. In September 1955, choreology was launched at the Royal Opera House with the publication of "An Introduction to Benesh Dance Notation". The book was featured among the British government pavilion exhibits of Technological and Scientific Discovery at Brussels’ Expo in 1958. The Benesh Institute of Choreology was founded in 1962 to train choreologists.
Today, choreology has become a useful tool to choreograph, record, reproduce, and analyze human movement in all its forms contained in the purely kinetic, non-verbal, language of body movements. The benefits of such a tool for staging and reviving ballet productions, as well as for health rehabilitation, and ergonomic design, are invaluable.
Rudolph Benesh was not a mover himself. He was a small, shy, bearded man who did most of the research and development on his notation system sitting down at a desk. The signs he developed to describe body movements, or body language down to the smallest detail had to be foolproof. If someone who had just come into his office could accurately read and demonstrate a previously unseen movement sequence that someone else had written in his notation, he was satisfied.
How Does Choreology Work?
Choreology or Benesh Movement Notation is a true and accurate, 3-dimensional non-verbal description of moves, steps, and entire ballets. It is a concise and visual script that precisely conveys the abundance of information required for analysing, studying, teaching or reproducing human movement, dance and body language. Its variety of uses may range from individual analysis of say, a cerebral palsy victim, ergonomics, anthropological research, to the complete score of a full-length Kirov Ballet production. The data described fall neatly around a sightly enlarged musical stave under the following parameters:
- timing, rhythm and dynamics
- steps, movement and positions of the limbs, head, hands, feet and body
- location of a person on a given stage and scenery
- the direction in which the subject is facing/travelling
- the subject's relationship to others on the scene described
- dynamic quality of a movement
- props being used and handled
Movements are annotated by writing the body's changing positions along a five-lined stave. A series of notated "frames" link positions into fluid movements, gestures, or dance steps with movement lines to a timeline or musical accompaniment.
The Benesh 5 lined stave is slightly larger than a musical stave and provides a matrix for the human body. The feet are plotted near the bottom line and the top of the head reaches the top line, with the rest of the body in between.
The extremities (the hands and feet) are then visually plotted on the stave canvas with only 3 basic signs. These signs indicate "in front", "behind", or "level" with the body. In this way, Benesh solved the problem of writing three-dimensional movement onto two-dimensional paper.
This ingenious way of plotting the extremities in relation to the body on a timeline (the stave), enables a trained choreologist to read movements and dance steps motorically as if performed by the reader.
Just like in a full orchestral score used by a conductor to manage an orchestra, a choreology score describes detailed movements and steps complete with rhythm and phrasing for individuals (soloists) and entire groups (corps de ballet), each on their own staves.
Choreological scores are the backbone of full scale ballets productions. They contain all the steps for all the cast, information on scenery, lighting, costume, and production details.
A choreologist assists the choreographer during the creation of a new work and assists the ballet master during rehearsals of revivals.
Maintaining Originality for Prosperity
Why Not Use Video?
Before video and choreology, the dance repertoire was passed on by demonstrating the steps from dancer to dancer. Unfortunately, that method produced new productions that vastly differed from the original piece of choreography. Imagine trying to rehearse a performance of Beethoven's Eroica symphony without the written score, just from listening to some audio recording of it.
Video is useful to examine a particular dancer's performance but today, most major dance companies rely on both video and choreology to avoid arguments and to:
- accurately stage the most original classic repertoire
- preserve the originality of new ballets
Basic Principles of Choreology
Choreology provides the ability to teach students the dance syllabus and the repertoire from world-class dance companies. The Choreology department of the Royal Academy of Dance in London lodges over 250 ballet scores that are available for educational purposes. It provides worldwide access to examination syllabi without the need for translation. The greatest beauty of choreology is that it is a universal kinetic language. By-passing the Tower of Babel's world of separate languages used by individual nations, and the complex terminology of various dance styles, often depicting the same movements, choreology is a universal means of describing pure, nonverbal body language.
Les Noces - Bronislava Nijinska
Example of a Choreologist's Job
Never having seen the ballet in real life, l staged the Stravinsky ballet Les Noces for Oakland Ballet Company from the score.
The challenge was to study all the steps from the choreology score so I would be able to demonstrate them to the dancers. Most dancers do not have time to learn choreology, so they need a choreologist to teach them their steps. With a 42 strong cast, half of them male, with demanding jumps to do, the task was heavy but successful.
The critics said that the production had put Oakland Ballet on the world map of ballet. Our production was filmed at the Zellerbach Auditorium, Berkeley, California by Educational Media Associates as part of a series on Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.
Working with a Film Director
Anyone who is familiar with Stravinsky's music agrees that his timing is rather tricky. Hence, the dancers in Les Noces rely entirely on what we call dancer's counts during rehearsal. Such counts are duly written in the choreology score but they don't help a film director who cannot read the notation. So I offered to create a comprehensive storyboard linked to the music score to give Jerome Schnur, the film director, exact musical cues for the choreography, scenery and lighting changes, which can only be found by reading the music score in conjunction with the choreology score. Jerome gave me a big bonus of gratitude for sorting out his Stravinsky frustrations!
Because of its success, I was invited to stage the ballet for the Paris Opera, Dance Theater of Harlem (a black dance company in New York), and several other dance companies.
The Finished Production: Les Noces - The Wedding
Had YOU ever heard of Choreology?
Uses of Choreology
Today, the Benesh Institute is a department of the Royal Academy of Dance in London. In the Ballet world, a trained choreologist is the backbone of a successful production. Why? Because by reading the script, a choreologist can teach the original steps of a dance work to the dancers, and help the production team. The advantage of using a purely kinetic method for describing and studying dance and movement is that the core movement itself is conveyed rather than some vague verbal or physical description of a movement. This has attracted choreology to other movement related disciplines in human body language such as:
- fitness and dance teaching
- motion studies
- the film industry
- 3D animation software
Body language has found choreology, a comprehensive tool, to accurately describe how the human body moves. Many people do not know what choreology is and are not even aware that such a thing as dance/movement notation actually exists. If you have come to the end of this article you are now one of the lucky few who do.
© 2012 Juliette Kando
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