Shuffling on the page: the perils of dance notation

Dashes weave between three distinct lines, topped by a flurry of musical notes. Spindly feet stick out left and right, approaching and distancing themselves from the central line around which they are grouped. On closer inspection the little cross- ings begin to resemble forms and one can make out the traces of figures being described by this seemingly random assortment of shapes.

The question of dance notation is one that has plagued the medium for years. How do you record the exact angle at which an arm should be raised? Or in what way can you make sure that a dancer moves their foot on the fifth beat? The accurate translation of a medium reliant not only on movement but also sound onto flat paper seems an impossibility.

The Beauchamp-Feuillet notation method of the Baroque period traced patterns of steps across the dancefloor, with different lines being assigned to different movements. The Romantic period moved towards stick figure representation of tiny dancers moving across the page in a variety of poses that indicated different turns in combination with the timings and musical notes placed above.

With the development of film, means of recording choreography were majorly improved and simplified. Dancers could turn to film recordings as a guide for not only movement but also an understanding of the impulses behind them. Equally, the act of recording these moments made for a highly engaging subject. Who can forget the scene in Funny Face in which Audrey Hepburn, dressed head to toe in perfect black bookish girl ensemble (black polo neck included), gets up to dance an interpretive piece in the centre of a parody French philosopher’s salon. In the film classic The Red Shoes, the drama of the plot is interspersed with beautiful dance sequences that captivate the viewer and offer an alternate narration to the plot.

However, whilst for recording purposes, film has vastly simplified the notation process, one cannot help but feel that the form is insufficient in recording one of the most essential parts of dance: the interaction between body and space. It is not the movements of the person but the relation of this movement to the space in which they are performing, in the same way that words in literature function orally or paint on a canvas visually, that truly distinguishes dance from other media.

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The problem of this was confronted in the German director Wim Wenders’ 2012 film Pina, a tribute to the choreographer Pina Bausch, for which the director resorted to filming in 3D. In an interview given at the time, Wenders noted, “Between dance and film…there was always like an invisible wall…[3D offered] a tool for filmmakers that allowed us to actually be in space, to be in the same element as the dancers.” The limited public access to seeing 3D however makes viewing the film in its intended medium difficult.

Dance, as it is, is a process rooted in the body which can only partially be recorded (at least currently) in other media. The notes in the diary of one of Pina Bausch’s dancers, John Griffin, reflects the struggle of recording the timings of breath in the company’s restaging of Wind von West. Griffin writes of notation, “Is it a general impulse for movement? A specific kind of movement initiation? An aspect of the overall shape or dynamic register of the movement?” Dance may be one of the most approachable and popular art forms in terms of viewership but as it stands, an understanding of the pro- cess behind the product remains distant. Until our media evolves to accurately reflect the multiple dimensionality of the medium, an accurate understanding of its formation will remain distant, excluding a greater viewership from an accurate understanding of the form.