舞跡可尋 In Search of a Dance Story
舞譜已經過時了嗎？Why Dance Notation?
鄧曉霖（左）和朱孟青（右）Iris Tang (left) and Wendy Chu (right)
攝Photo: Wong Ching-kiu
Performing artists aspire to give their work a sense of naturalness, immediacy, and spontaneity. Nevertheless, drama has play scripts and music uses scores. What about dance, is it the only form without a written text?
舞譜紀錄編舞作品，精準而簡約地記下動作構成、動作的主要意圖，即使與原編舞素未謀面的舞蹈員也能根據舞譜將作品重現。拉班譜舞（Labanotation）和班尼斯動作譜（Benesh Movement Notation）是現時兩套較為人所識的舞譜系統，用符號、線條把舞蹈動作紀錄。拉班系統由德國現代舞開拓者和動作理論家Rudolf von Laban於1928年開始硏究和發展，而班尼斯動作譜系統建立於1950年，以芭蕾舞作基礎，由Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet的芭蕾舞員Joan Benesh 和數學家Rudolf Benesh兩夫婦所寫成。
Dance notation records the movements of a dance and the intentions of the choreographer precisely and completely so that reconstructions by dancers who have never met the choreographer stay true to the original. Labanotation and Benesh Movement Notation are the two most widely-used dance notation systems documenting dance movements with symbols on a staff. Labanotation was developed by the German modern dance pioneer and movement theorist, Rudolf von Laban in 1928 and Benesh Movement Notation is a ballet-based system created by Joan Benesh, a former dancer with Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, and her husband, mathematician Rudolf Benesh in 1950.
dance journal/hk invited Wendy Chu, a Labanotator, and Iris Tang, a Benesh choreologist to share their experiences in dance notation. How did they learn about dance notation? Because dance videos were scarce when she was in high school, Chu searched in libraries for dance books and taught herself Labanotation so she could have a better understanding of modern dance. Later she attended the Hong Kong Academy of Ballet and studied Labanotation with Carl Wolz, the first Dean of School of Dance of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA). Since graduating, she has taught Labanotation at the HKAPA. Tang was one Chu’s students. Looking for an alternative to Labanotation, she studied Benesh notation in Britain after graduating from the HKAPA in 2012. She has been assisting in rehearsing performances as a choreologist since her return to Hong Kong.
An example of Laban; Source: Elementary Labanotation*
In Labanotation, symbols are placed on a vertical staff that is read from bottom to top. The center line of the staff represents the center line of the body and symbols placed to the right and left of the center line are for corresponding sides of the body. Where the symbol is placed on the staff tells which part of the body moves. The center line is for steps; gestures are written on the other lines. Moving out from the center line are movements for the lower leg, foot, upper/whole leg, torso, arms, hands, fingers, head, and paths respectively. The shape of a symbol shows the direction, while the length of a symbol indicates the duration of the movement. Labanotation can effectively record the dancer’s weight transfers and movement changes in detail.
Benesh notation written by Tang.
Benesh Movement Notation, which is read from left to right, resembles the staff used for musical scores and shares the concepts of bars and symbols describing changes in dynamics, such as crescendo and forte. The lines from the bottom to the top of the staff represent the floor, knees, waist, shoulders and top of head of the dancer accordingly. Symbols placed on the lines illustrate the movements and respective body parts. Benesh is pictorial in delineating the posture of body and the trajectory of body movements.
“Dance notation enables one to rediscover dances,” Chu says. Elements in Labanotation act like a multi-faceted lens allowing people to rediscover the constituents of dance movements, including the spatiotemporal changes of the dancer’s body. “Dance notation shows the movement relationship of dancers in crystal clarity,” Tang adds. In duets and ensemble work, the detailed movement relationship of dancers is easily overlooked and often accounts for disagreements among dancers during rehearsals.
As a form of written language, dance notation symbols go beyond the limitations of text. As the intermediary between the choreographer and dancers, dance notators have to master comprehension of the broadest range of movement possibilities. “Sometimes the movements created by the choreographer may not be what a dancer does on the stage,” Chu explains. Performance of a role by difference dancers may change over time and even the same dancer may vary what they do from performance to performance. Chu also points out that notators have to be continuously mindful of the choreographers intentions during rehearsals, and establish good lines of communication, so that the choreography can be accurately recorded. Dance notators must be precise in their use of symbols to represent movements.
The Role of Dance Notation
What is the role of dance notation in a dance production? Video is the most prevalent medium for recording dances these days; dancers imitate the movements shown in a video of the dance to reconstruct it. However, videos have limitations. For instance, it is not possible for a single camera to film every detail of a movement. Even if technological advances one day made possible exhaustive recordings of performances, dance notation would still be essential according to Tang, “To a great extent, performing arts are influenced by the state of performers in the moment. In addition to the movements, the performers’ interpretations of the dance are also filmed. If dancers re-run or adapt a work according to the videos, they may unconsciously mimic the interpretation of the dancers in the video, undermining the possibility of re-understanding and re-interpreting the choreography.”
譜舞者甚至能夠方便一個舞團的運作：「Royal Ballet就有兩位全職駐團和幾位半職的譜舞者，他們由去另一舞團教導委約搬演作品，到寫新作品的舞譜都一手包辦。舞團重演時，譜舞者亦能分擔Rehearsal Master的工作，先把動作的基本教導舞蹈員，再交由Rehearsal Master仔細調整。」
Furthermore, choreologists can facilitate the operation of a dance company. “In the Royal Ballet, there are two full-time and several part-time choreologists, they manage projects ranging from instructing another dance company when a piece is commissioned, to notating a new choreography. When the company re-runs a piece, choreologists can also share the duties of the rehearsal master, as they can teach dancers the basic movements before handing it over to the rehearsal master to polish the performance.”
Whether a dance company uses dance notation or not depends on various external factors. Chu has noted a decline in the global demand for dance notation except in France, where the major national dance academy provides Benesh and Labanotation programs. Notating dance takes substantial time and resources, moreover, the motivation to invest in dance notation is further diminished as chances of re-runs of dances are rare in Hong Kong. However, dance notation is of utmost value as a tool for education and movement analysis. According to Tang, conditions for Benesh are similar. Even dance companies outside Hong Kong that had previously hired full-time choreologists are increasingly rephrasing job descriptions for openings as “Rehearsal master who has knowledge of dance notation”. Tang has never notated a complete score for a local choreographic work, yet she has discovered another role for a choreologist, “When I enter a rehearsal room, I think about how to facilitate the rehearsal and connect the choreographer and the dancers. As I record and observe the rehearsal, I get to understand the habits and style of the choreographer. When miscommunication between the dancers and the choreographer occurs, I can step-in at an opportune time ‘translating’ for both, or even, offer the choreographer advice on the direction of the rehearsal based on my observation. This fascinates me most when I work in the studio. Certainly, this identity is established on the trust of the choreographer and the dancers.” Chu observes that even though Tang has never written a full dance notation score for a production, she has not moved away from the purpose of a choreologist—clarifying the intention of a work of choreography—and has played the role of choreologist appropriately under the current circumstances.
班尼斯動作譜（下）和拉班舞譜（上）A Benesh score (below) and a Laban score (above)
攝Photo: Wong Ching-kiu
A Tool for Dance Education
Apart from dance productions, Chu regards Labanotation as a crucial tool in dance education: “Even without an aim of becoming a dance notator, students can still acquire indispensable skills to understand movements when they are trained to analyze and observe movements through Labanotation, such as knowing the position arms and legs at a certain beat within a continuous movement. Movement analysis in Labanotation enables dancers to have a sound grasp of what constitutes movements and the relationship between the body and space. While chorographers are coached in their ability to observe movements and to be able in the end to clearly express them in language by learning Labanotation.” Being a choreologist and a dance teacher, Tang is also convinced of the benefits of choreologist training for dance teaching. “If I simply instruct students to walk two steps, each will walk according to their own understanding of the instructions and none will do the same movement. However, if I break down the movement into its details, students will move clearly and uniformly.”
A Living Language
Ordinary expressions, improvisation, and the use of props in dance can be challenges to dance notators; minor details such as “which corner of the chair is being touched” need to be accurately recorded. A non-ballet movement requires thorough analysis, comparable to drawing a thread from a cocoon. Tang has documented the ‘orchid palms’ in Chinese dance, taking note of the changes in each joint of the dancer’s fingers. Dance notation systems have been improved to cope with new genres of dances and presentations on the stage, but getting back to the requisites, the two notators from different systems both emphasize the same point—dance notation aims at being user-friendly. If no one can read the notation due to the over-analysis of movements and complexity of the score, the purpose of the notation is ignored. “Is there even a need to analyze which finger the performer used to pick up the microphone? This is a decision make by the actor based on his or her feeling at that instant on stage.”
Wendy老師提到拉班舞譜的一種應用——「主題記錄」（Motif Writing） ，不只紀錄動作的主題內容及意圖，同時也可以用作爲創作工具。「主題記錄」把動作的基本概念寫出，如行走、轉、跳、收縮或延伸等，但不會把當中的仔細端詳寫出來，就好像是低「解像度」的舞譜，演繹空間多了。
Chu brings up Motif Writing, a special application of Labanotation that not only records key elements and intentions of movements, but also serves as a tool for creating dances. Motif Writing enables recording of basic movements, such as walking, turning, jumping, stretching, and so forth, but does not provide a detailed account. It is like a ‘low-resolution’ dance notation allowing more room for interpretation.
Similar to any language, dance notation systems evolve as time and circumstances change. Dance notation can be a tool for dance appreciation, movement analysis and recording, useful for dance education, and creating dance in innumerable ways.
延伸閱讀 Further Reading
有關拉班舞譜 For Labanotation
*Elementary Labanotation: A Study Guide with a chapter on Motif Description by Odette Blum
Website of Dance Notation Bureau (with Basics of Labanotation)
有關班尼斯動作譜 For Benesh Movement Notation
A blog by the director of Benesh International to share a glimpse of notation in professional capacity.