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What Is Choreology?

Even the use of props like the umbrella in this picture can be written down in choreology.
Even the use of props like the umbrella in this picture can be written down in choreology. | Source

Joan and Rudolph Benesh

The early days of the development of choreology.
The early days of the development of choreology. | Source
Joan and Rudolph Benesh
Joan and Rudolph Benesh | Source

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.

Pas de Deux notated on the right on 2 adjoined staves, one for each dancer.
Pas de Deux notated on the right on 2 adjoined staves, one for each dancer. | Source

FoolProof

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

"Grand Battement" to the side, raised arms.
"Grand Battement" to the side, raised arms. | Source

The Stave

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.

Full fledged choreological score with linked staves for individual cast members.
Full fledged choreological score with linked staves for individual cast members.

Choreographic Scores

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

The moves and timing are accurately described to maintain a work's originality.
The moves and timing are accurately described to maintain a work's originality.

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

Teaching Dance

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

Source

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

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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
  • ergonomics.
  • physiotherapy
  • motion studies
  • the film industry
  • 3D animation software

To Conclude

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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Comments 7 comments

Sue Adams profile image

Sue Adams 3 years ago from Andalusia Author

Quite right Marcus. Many technical and dynamic details are included in the notation, which, as you mention, are often not visible on a video.


Marcus Ampe 3 years ago

Concerning 'Why Not Use Video?'

An important element not mentioned about Benesh notation is it accuracy and indicating information which can not captured by the visual recordings, like grips and positions of hands and parts of the body been hidden by the partner.


Sue Adams profile image

Sue Adams 3 years ago from Andalusia Author

Hello again A.J.,

It is very surprising how few people are familiar with choreology. It's a topic that would fit well on Q.I. (Quite Interesting), a British comedy quiz program hosted by the wonderful Stephen Fry.


ajwrites57 profile image

ajwrites57 3 years ago from Pennsylvania

Sue Adams, I find this information to be truly astounding! A score for dancers and dance movement!? Never been aware of it. We take our bodies and our movements for granted. Awareness of movement would affect out lives in many ways. I know professional atheletes analyze movement and was sure dancers did, but the existence of choreology amazes me. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with me. Shared!


Sue Adams profile image

Sue Adams 4 years ago from Andalusia Author

I'm sad your dream didn't come true Marisa but indirectly you are still involved in the dance world as it is your passion I believe. A dancer's career being so short, I became a choreologist after I stopped dancing. It seemed the perfect way to stay working in the theatre on the other side of the fence, on the directing side.

As for you, shin_rock, when you know the basics of choreology you become a much better dancer. My only regret is that I didn't learn it before I became a professional dancer as it made me so much more aware of my body. The Benesh Institute offer correspondence courses. Check it out maybe? (link above in article)


shin_rocka04 profile image

shin_rocka04 4 years ago from Maryland

I've been dancing for a while now, and never heard of choreology. This is some pretty interesting stuff. Thanks for the hub. Much appreciated!


Marisa Wright profile image

Marisa Wright 4 years ago from Sydney

When I was a teenager, my dream was to become a choreologist. Severe illness as a child meant I couldn't study ballet seriously enough to make a career of it, and other styles of dance weren't even on my radar - so choreology seemed the perfect way to be part of the ballet world.

Unfortunately my parents weren't impressed - having never heard of it, they couldn't see how it could make a secure career - and besides, they couldn't afford the fees for the Benesh school. So I did a sensible (and free) secretarial course and went out to work, with the intention of studying later - but ended up getting married and changing my direction.

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