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3. Dance
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Page 9

3. Dance

A work of dance may of course be transmitted by direct instruction
from one choreographer or dancer to another. This kind of transmission,
like the oral transmission of verbal works, presents at any moment the lat-
est stage (or one of the latest stages) in a continuously evolving tradition.
This social product may be judged aesthetically satisfying and is certainly
of importance for cultural history. But another legitimate interest—in the
intentions of the creator(s) of the work—may in many instances be more
accurately conveyed by a physical document, even if the earliest surviving
one does not go back to the time of the creator(s), since the text of any
given document is relatively stable (barring unusual physical deteriora-
tion). In any case, the physical recording of dance texts, like that of music
texts, is obviously desirable. But there is a major difference in the histori-
cal development of such recording in the two arts, for symbolic dance
notation on paper (as opposed to written verbal accounts or printed step
tablature) goes back only to 1700 (the Beauchamp-Feuillet system), and
no one notation system even today has such widespread acceptance as
the now conventional music notation does. It is instructive to look at the
illustrations in Mary Ann Malkin's 2003 Dancing by the Book, which give a
sense of the variety of systems proposed in the eighteenth century.

At present, Labanotation, a system introduced in the 1920s, may be
regarded as the dominant form, having been championed by the Dance
Notation Bureau, which possesses over seven hundred Labanotated scores
(see Erika Kinetz's article, 7 November 2005). The Benesh system, how-
ever, has been favored by the Royal Ballet in London. Although stan-
dardization is helpful, any comprehensible notation is important for the
preservation of individual works. Nijinsky, for example, who was much
interested in the problem, created his own notation and on more than
one occasion wrote out a score for L'Après-midi d'un faune (as reported by
Jennifer Dunning, 9 December 1989). Textual critics of dance may in
some cases have variant texts on paper at their disposal; and any dance
score—like any piece of musical or verbal notation—may contain erro-
neous readings, identifiable both through an intimate knowledge of what
is stylistically plausible for the choreographer in question and through
recourse to such external sources as reviews and other contemporary

If the search for appropriate notation has been a significant strand
in dance history, another—not surprisingly—has been experimenta-
tion with technology that can record movement. For many decades now,
dances have routinely been filmed or videotaped, often from multiple
angles. More recently, digital photography has been used, and there has
been research on software (such as LabanDancer) to convert scores into
animation. Computer programs are used by some choreographers as an


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aid to composition; and stages of their work, if saved, can give textual
critics access to drafts. Motion-capture technology can create a digital
record of a performance in a sequence of shifting lines and shapes, which
can in turn be given vestigial human form. Trisha Brown's how long is an
example of a dance piece that includes a video projection of a digital re-
cord of the movements being made simultaneously by the human dancers.
(It was discussed by Matthew Mirapaul on 13 April 2005.) A film record
of a performance of this piece would thus also preserve a second kind
of record of the movements involved. There have been choreographers
who regard pictorial representations of dance as perhaps more valuable
than scores. Martha Graham's admiration for certain still photographs of
dancers is well known; and Murray Louis recently expressed satisfaction
with the preservation of his legacy through videotapes of his repertory
(reported by Anna Kisselgoff on 17 December 2005).

One can understand how still and motion photography can be crucial
for the study of an individual dancer's technique. And of course the tex-
tual criticism of dance must take into account every kind of documenta-
tion that exists for any given work. But the idea that a visual record of a
dance might be superior to a score, or even render it unnecessary, simply
because the dance is a visual form of art, betrays a misunderstanding of
the relation of work and performance in the performing arts. Each visual
record preserves only a single performance, which is an interpretation of
a set of instructions; every performance is a postulation of the work, and
the instructions accommodate them all, except when an interpretation
goes beyond what can be regarded as implicit in the instructions. The
instructions themselves may be consciously altered over time, as differ-
ent generations adapt the work to their own sensibilities. But for anyone
interested in authorial intention, even a film of a performance directed or
performed by the choreographer has its deficiencies, since it still reflects
only one occasion and since (even with multiple cameras) it cannot show
everything that could be observed by viewers of the live performance.
The situation is precisely the same as the one that exists in music, where
no one performance can be a substitute for the score. Muriel Topaz, one
of the directors of the Dance Notation Bureau, made the point well at
a 1962 conference: a dance, she said, like works in any of the other per-
forming arts, has "a substance, a compositional integrity that transcends
the initial [and, one should add, any other] performance" (quoted in Jack
Anderson's obituary of her, 1 May 2003). That transcendent integrity is
distilled in the score or scores, which encompass various interpretations
reflected in performance.

Topaz's comment was concerned with the originating choreographer's
intention, but it could be applied to the revising vision of later choreogra-
phers who alter a piece. Pictorial evidence is of course basic for studying


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the history of performance and thus of reception. But for the history of
intended texts, as they changed over time because of shifting intentions
on the part of the creator of a piece as well as of others, scores are of
crucial importance, when they exist (though pictorial evidence should in
any case be scrutinized critically for clues to such intentions not available
elsewhere). Scores may contain music notation and words along with the
dance notation if the work includes music and/or words (sung or spoken),
as most works of dance do. The music and/or words may have their own
independent textual history, but once they are joined with dance, the cho-
reographer's intention for them takes precedence over earlier intentions,
and what might have been regarded as a textual error in the music or
the words under other circumstances would not be erroneous if intended
by the choreographer. Nevertheless, a dance score may contain errors in
any of its conjoined elements, and a knowledge of the textual history of
each of those elements gives an editor the basis for making emendations.
What may seem to be an error in the musical text may be shown to be
an error indeed by analyzing it in conjunction with the dance notation
at the same point. The situation is in principle the same as that faced by
textual critics of all mixed-media works, whether or not the elements in
them have separate histories.