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Angharad James

The predicament: Movement Notation in the field?

James, Angharad: "The predicament: Movement notation in the field?", 15th International Congress on Dance Research, Ioannina, Greece, 7-11/11, 2001.

Ethnic identity and national identity have become important issues in recent years, especially with the growth of a common European community and its requirement to have common goals. The issue of preservation is of such importance today. If works are not recorded, the quality, artistry and authenticity of a tradition would be lost and the cultural identity eroded. "Do we possess, or are we capable of developing, a system of notation that will permit us to record the essential features of individual dances?" (Copeland & Cohen, 1983, p. 367).

This contentious issue of recording movement is the debate of this paper. The existence, application and benefits of Movement Notation with special reference to Benesh Movement Notation are identified, addressed and discussed.

1. Introduction

Dance has been my passion for years. Today, my personal interests lie in the world of notation and folk dance. Initially my experiences in the competitive area of Welsh folk dancing motivated my desire to research. For seventeen years I have competed in Eisteddfods and Interceltic festivals with stepping and clogging, involving solo, duet and group competitions. I had become intrigued to firstly discover the factors that drive people to participate in Welsh folk dancing; and secondly as to whether or not the performance context affects the overall expression, and how far the tradition can be altered. Hence, in the final year of my BA (Hons) Dance degree, I undertook an individual investigation into the issues of heritage, identity and theatre in relation to Welsh folk dancing.

Since 1955, questioning the authenticity of tradition has generated emotional debates. "The Journal of the International Folk Music Council (Vol VII, 1955)

has now, following the Conference in Brazil in 1954, restated the position and made it perfectly clear that no individual has a right to change folk song and dance records and claim for them authenticity." (Gwynn Williams, 1955, p5).

This is augmented in the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act where special clauses are written for the recording of folk songs. (Folk dance incidentally is unmentioned). For copyright purposes, the notation score forms a record of a choreographic work. It is considered simply as a means of "fixing" a work of dance in a material form which that work can be performed or reproduced. Hence, it does not solely warrant someone the authorship of a work.

2. Research methodology

Fundamental to oral history is the methodology adopted. Research usually takes the form of an ethnographic study. The term simply means "portrait of people" (Sklar, 1991, p6). Ethnography has an established tradition in social and cultural anthropology, but over the last thirty years it has gained more widespread recognition within the area of sociology and other related social sciences.

"Actions of a group of people" (Shand, 1998, p. 2) are an ideal means for understanding human social life. Ethnography is a medium that provides a researcher with the opportunity to obtain an enlarged view of a dance event in its whole "cultural process" (Sklar, 1991, p. 8). "…peer beyond dance toward all aspects of life and perceive dance in the contextual web of social relationships, environment, religion, aesthetics, politics, economics and history." (Sklar, 1991, p. 6).

As dance incorporates the community's beliefs, values, and history, an ethnographic study will reflect the cultural importance and significance of the dance event. Not only will the ethnographer witness a dance event in its cultural context, but also the meaning of the dance's structure and function will be evident. As Kealiinohomoku pointed out: "…every dance form is an ethnic form because it relies on the cultural traditions within which it developed." (Kealiinohomoku, cited in Sklar, 1991, p. 8). A useful anthropological definition of dance is:

"(1) human behaviour composed, form the dancer's perspective, of (2) purposeful, (3) intentionally rhythmically, and (4) culturally patterned sequences of (5a) non-verbal body movement and gesture which are (5b) not ordinary motor activities, (5c) the motion having inherent and 'aesthetic' value" (Hanna, 1977, p. 212).

2.1. Methodology of an ethnographic study

Ethnography is enriched with "a blending of methodological techniques" (Denzin, cited in Fielding, 1993, p. 157). By entering the field and becoming part of the context new light is shed on hidden or unknown facets of a society.

The research discipline can include an array of techniques to record and preserve the tradition of a community. Scholars such as Collingwood, Goodman and Minton express that dance can be viewed as a language. But is dance a sign-based system? Does it demonstrate the required structure and codes of a conventional language? Joseph Margolis, a contemporary American philosopher questions whether "art is linguistic or quasi-linguistic in nature" (Copeland & Cohen, 1983, p. 368) by taking "discursive, verbal language as the model" (Copeland & Cohen, 1983, p. 368). Must a language exist under a rule-governed system? This debate opens up the argument how an original dance work withstands time; true paintings are associated with the productions' materials and subjects, and notation by convention may represent genuine music and texts. What about a dance work? It's important to consider that dance is "…a transient phenomenon" (Loutzaki, 1985, p. 9), thus in order to explore the subject thoroughly, methods of researching and analysing are essential (see Fig.1: Different research application techniques). It is extremely difficult to capture the complete construct and concept of a movement by employing one technique alone, as reiterated by Eleftherios Kolleros who comments on the usefulness and efficiency of simultaneously co-ordinating and applying verbal and visual means and methods to a project.

Within Fig.1, movement notation is one of the techniques, where material can be collected and used for in-depth analysis. Allegra Snyder in her paper "Level of Event Patterns: An Attempt to Place Dance in a Wholistic Context" proffers eight levels of analysis. The dance symbol and movement are assigned at Level 5 and 6 respectively. The appliance of notation can only be of assistance in the documentation, and comprehension of the structure and conceptual ideals of a society's movement vocabulary, within its historical and cultural context. The question is to what degree?

3. What is Movement Notation?

What is it? Is it used and by whom? Is it like music notation? Is it some 'secret code'? These are some of the questions, which are frequently asked when the issue arises.

Movement Notation is coined under the umbrella term choreology, which "…in its broadest sense is the scientific study of dance" (Anon, unknown date & page, (Publicity leaflet)). Recording systems have been in existence for many centuries, dating back to 1588, when Arbeau published his Orchesographie. In reference to Western culture, notation flourished because of the developments in technical and artistry complexity (footwork and floor patterns), within the Court of Louis XIV. Nevertheless, the codification and standardisation of one workable system was probably procrastinated by a change in the cultural development and expansion of dance. Following the French Revolution, dance evolved and grew within the theatre rather than in the Court. It was perceived in academia and aristocratic society as a lower class art form and activity, hence in terms of education, social standing, and respectability dance became marginalised.

It is only since the twentieth century that notation breathed again and has become an issue of concern. This must in part be attributed to people's inquisitiveness and interest in why "…dance unlike other arts and sciences, alone had no notation of its own or written language" (Benesh, 1977, p. 5).

The two main systems of choreology used today is Benesh Movement Notation (BMN for short), and Labanotation (a vertical three-line staff). Both are systems, which consist of a unique alphabet of signs and conventions providing one with a means of analysing all forms of human movement scientifically and aesthetically. For the purpose of this paper and in light of my professional training, Benesh Movement Notation is clarified, elucidated and discussed in depth.

3.1.   Benesh Movement Notation (BMN)

BMN is a visual language where movements are recorded and analysed by drawing the successive movement motifs along a five-lined stave, from left to right. The analogy between music notation and dance notation permits a transfer of skills between these two closely related arts, thus facilitating the ethnographer economically.

The distinctive features of the human body visually coincide with the horizontal stave lines. There is no need to be concerned with the left and right reversal as BMN convention ensures positions are notated from a back view perspective. Not only can one precisely record the body's changing positions, but also the dynamics, location, travel and floor patterns and the musicality and rhythmical impulses. These are not limited to the recording of an individual as the signs and stave can be shifted and rearranged, to include a multiple number of people moving simultaneously.

It was derived by an accountant/musician, Rudolf Benesh and his wife, Joan, a dancer with Sadlers' Wells Ballet Company. The notation system was first published in 1956, but its continuous application was fully invoked by the Royal Ballet in 1960 when they appointed the first professional choreologist, Faith Worth. Barely over forty years old, more than a thousand professional choreographic works have been preserved, and over 180 people are trained choreologists. It appears that BMN's principle usage is with dance companies. Can such a movement notation be of assistance within an ethnographic study?

4. Movement Notation in the field

BMN's application in anthropological research has experienced a sporadic life cycle. In Fig.2, a few examples of projects have been illustrated. It is in the 1970s where the practice came to fruition, but then suffered a definite respite, hindering the developments and further experimental probing of the tools' usefulness. Could this have been the result of the interest and expertise of the people under tutelage at that time? The diminished application of BMN might be a reflection of people's ignorance and anxieties in using such a vocabulary and grammar. As with any unfamiliar language, when either viewed for the first time or with a limited knowledge, they can appear quite alien and intimidating. Furthermore, the issue may have been compounded by the former status and peripheralisation of the art form within the academic world.

Movement Notation, regardless of system should furnish a researcher with the structural detail of the dances in terms of technique, dynamics and style, providing material for classification, analysis and comparative study. The versatility and flexibility are imperative ingredients of a notation system. Thus, the manipulation of the alphabet is obligatory, making infinite number of combinations; consequently enabling a vast range of movements to be translated and transcribed, from the simple to the complex motifs and phrases. Does BMM possess these characteristics?

Fig. 3 and 4 are two examples of BMN excerpts. A short notated sequence, encompassing only the lower limbs is illustrated in Fig.3, whilst in Fig.4 the whole body and limbs have been noted. More signs are in the 'frame' in the latter example, providing a far more detailed and intricate movement analysis of the position. Most probably a distinct feature of the technique and style was required for the argument or investigation. Hence, the notation can either be used to prescribe or describe movements; thus governed by the particular purpose and needs of the investigation. It is not merely a source for the technical description of dances. A whole range of socio-cultural revelations can be utilised through the use of notation;

- the subtle differences between men and women dances, technically and stylistically

- the subtle differences between how the elderly and the youth executes movements: any changes in style or technique?

- the differences and similarities between local, regional and national dances

- the differences and similarities between different dance groups

- the developments and evolution of dances and it appropriate styles and meanings within a society/area/nationally, over a period of time

- movement in terms of accuracy and interpretations: weighting significance?

In Fig.5, only stage plans, incorporating the location, patterns and direction of the dancers have been recorded. The general floor patterns of the dance were the important elements, hence only a selection of the alphabet was necessary. Choosing appropriately from the rich and full language is the key. There is no need for irrelevant material on the page, thus obfuscating and confusing the role of the instrument. BMN permits this comfortably and effectively. Nevertheless, it is vital not to simplify and distort the movements through one's choice of signs. In which case, how can the recording be objective? How can the original intent be maintained and preserved by avoiding misinterpretation? This is an issue with all research techniques. What is important while recording is to look at movements with an open mind, viewing dance from the culture under investigation and not using one's own cultural parameters and personal experience. To enter the field with preconceived ideas is inappropriate as a researcher may affect the reading of a particular setting. The conscious awareness of one's identity and agenda is vital. Therefore, as an ethnographer one must critically examine oneself.

All notation systems are languages, which are not style specific. Nevertheless, BMN has tended to be viewed as a notation system for classical ballet, which reiterates the fact that it was initially encouraged, marketed, and applied upon the genre of classical ballet. However, BMN's application has spread to fields further than classical dance (see Fig.6: Applications of BMN). The versatility of the alphabet of the notation language is the key rather than the historical growth of a notation system.

Working alongside other research mediums, the significance of the movements and how they are combined can be identified and analysed. Word descriptions are always useful but it can lead to misconceptions, hence the misinterpretations of components of a dance. The verbal and visual application modes work interdependently. Many might say in this technological age why use notation when a video camera is more practical and quicker to record? Notation does not require much material, only paper and pen, decreasing research expenditures. It inevitably endures a longer time span than the technological equipment, as the latter undergo such rapid developments. Nevertheless, this is not to say use one rather than the other, but both mediums provide different elements and information to the research.

Video provides one with an interpretation of the movements and the work as a whole, but is it the definitive work? The style and impression are ejected rather than the concept of the dance and the choreographic intention and detail. These features within a score could provide the idiosyncrasies of people's perception of movements and the range of freedom they have within a dance. Nevertheless, like all application modes, they do not give all the answers but a vehicle to assist in the understanding of the dance and dances.

In conclusion, notation provides one with another visual "means of acquiring and storing knowledge" (Benesh, 1977, p. 4), cultivating a broader insight into dance. This is not to say that when one is learning and disseminating information about a specific dance, that they should only read and learn from notation. Notation is an accurate, precise source unencumbered by stylistic interpretations. But to acquire a holistic representation, all the resources consummated by the techniques mentioned in Fig.1 should be used simultaneously.

5. Conclusion

One must consider that a notation system is but a facet of dance, both academically and artistically, which should not be neglected. Within this study, BMN has been discussed, as this is the system I professionally used. This is not to say that the other notation systems are not suitable. It is a matter of personal taste as to which system is preferred. In an ideal world it would be efficient and profitable to have one established and accessible universal semiological system. One of the problems in the past might have been that many systems were designated to a specific genre and could only mainly be interpreted by its inventor, making it abstruse for others to decipher the movements. A universal alphabet would be pragmatic. An example of such a notion is manifested and proven with the scientific classification of biological specimens, where the same alphabet is used regardless of the country's own language.

In conclusion, with a need for international understanding in response to heterogeneous living and ethnocentricity, a mode of communication within dance is fundamental, as augmented by Ann Hutchinson Guest, "To appreciate what notation means in the preservation of dance, one has only to contemplate the theatre without the written word. What of Shakespeare's plays would we have inherited - if anything? Our musical heritage too would be almost non-existent if no music notation had been developed and - equally important - had achieved wide acceptance and use." (Guest, 1984, p. 2).

Is it not about time for movement to possess one? Being "the alphabet of movement" (Benesh, 1977, p. 9), a basic understanding of a notation system is required, in as much as the Greek alphabet is imperative to the Greek language. The profile of the study of dance and dances could only benefit from such a contribution, by enhancing and intensifying scholarly debate, and thus raising the role and importance of dance in the academic world.


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Angharad James studied at The Benesh Institute during her placement year at University of Surrey where she graduated in 1998 with a BA (Hons) Dance in Society. She is an avid Welsh folk dancer and stepper, who competes regularly at the National Eisteddfod of Wales. For the Faculty of Education at the Royal Academy of Dance, Angharad teaches Benesh Notation and Folk dance on the distance learning degree programmes. Her research and interest lie in the world of notation and folk dance. Angharad is currently producing a short manual of recordings of Greek dances with recordings in Benesh Movement Notation, music notation, dance instructions and contextual background. The four-month project is taking place at the Dora Stratou Theatre in Athens, Greece.

Angharad James



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