Ballet Business | How To Record Ballet

Ballet Business working in the media graphic
Graphics designed by Cheryl Angear Photography

Dancing On Paper

As part of the Ballet Business series of in-depth features going backstage, today we are literally learning the art of dancing on paper.

How do you write movement, in this case ballet, and what are the practical applications of being able to do so ?

a sample of Benesh Notation
An example of Benesh Notation. Notator : Amanda Eyles Photograph : Cheryl Angear

What is Benesh Movement Notation (BMN) ?

Devised by Rudolf and Joan Benesh and first published in 1956, Benesh Movement Notation (BMN) provides an accurate three-dimensional representation of ballet (and dance) movement; it’s a shorthand devised for recording ballet & dance on paper. The latest developments include recording the force and dynamic energy of those movements. 

Notation is written on a five-line stave, similar to a music score. Each line of the stave corresponds with visually distinctive body features, so the top line of the stave is the top of the ballet dancer’s head, through the shoulders, waist, knees and ending with the floor. There are three ways to represent the position of the hands and feet and three more signs to denote bent knees and elbows. Positions are shown in a series of frames and locomotion lines link these positions and show jumps and steps. The notated score can show single or multiple dancers and allows for word notes to further emphasise and provide clarity to the choreographer’s intentions.

Over 1,750 BMN scores of dance works in the repertoire have been written and over 250 of them are available for use in education and research. BMN has surprising uses – for anthropologists, physiotherapists and it has been used in an ergonomic study of seating in an airport !

Ballet Business | Benesh Movement Notation (BMN)

In this video, The Royal Ballet’s Artistic Director Monica Mason talks about BMN and explains what you’d see if you looked at a notated score.

There is, and probably always will be, quite a debate about the usefulness of any type of notation (there are several besides Benesh) over video recordings when it comes to rehearsing ballet dancers in the company’s repetory. Some say that cost implications prevent them from using notators. It’s hard to be exact about what those cost implications are because it depends largely on the company involved and on so many other factors. Liz Cunliffe, Director of the Benesh Institute, told me, “on the whole staff notator’s (full-time employees) are paid roughly the same as other ballet rehearsal staff.  Freelance notators are paid on a per production basis and many things will influence this figure including the complexity of the work, its length, the number of dancers involved, etc. In general they are paid much the same as non notator freelance rehearsal staff who are employed on similar work.”

It it hard to quantify but it could be argued that companies save in two ways by hiring a notator; firstly they save time as the notator can usually teach the steps in a shorter amount of time which can be valuable in stretched rehearsal schedules and secondly by cutting out lengthy rehearsal periods & much repetition of the same steps they may prevent some of the dancer injuries that are attributed to fatigue/repetition. In the busiest ballet companies the dancers might be performing two or three ballets and rehearsing three more during one rehearsal period.

During tough economic times a ballet company might be tempted to dispense with notators – often it’s either a dancer’s salary or a notator’s at stake – and though I’ve said already that it is hard to quantify, it seems possible that this approach could lead to a higher injury rate which could be more costly to the ballet company in the long run.

The other side of the argument has it that video is absolutely fine for teaching professional dancers the steps because most are used to referring to YouTube etc, and that it’s notation that can’t be relied upon.

On November 27th 2011 The New York Times talked to Katherine E. Brown, New York City Ballet’s Executive Director about their new, expensive (and currently unused) digital media suite and said “she emphasized that the control room’s benefits go beyond its ability to produce HD broadcasts. The room, for example, significantly enhances the ballet’s ability to capture, store and retrieve its performances, and because dance notation — the written system of recording the physical movements in a dance piece — can be imprecise, such digital films can be a valuable teaching tool.”

Amanda Eyles has been a notator for over 25 years, regularly working with major ballet companies around the world including The Royal Ballet, and says “it is quite hard to learn something off a video. It’s such an inexact science, unless you’ve got loads and loads of videos which you could then make comparisons between.”

In the UK, ballet companies are only allowed to record one performance per production “so if, for whatever reason, the principal dancer had a slightly sore ankle in that performance, then there might be some movements that weren’t quite as they could or should have been, or for instance the conductor might have played one movement a little bit faster than they were used to, in which case they may have been slightly not quite with the music and yet that then is enshrined as gospel, and so although video is of course very useful, what I like to do is teach the steps and then once they know it I say now look at the video because then it makes complete sense to them. Whereas if you show them the video first then they have this preconceived idea of what it should be.”

Another advantage of notation is that when dancers learn from a video tape, they are looking at the production as the audience sees it, from the front, and so they have to reverse all of the steps. They don’t have to do that with a notator present or when reading a notated score, which has already been reversed by the notator. Of course many dancers are adept at learning the ballet repertory this way and so the choice between video and notation perhaps becomes a matter of time, money and habit.

For a choreographer, using video over notation is also a matter of habit/personal choice. Eyles says “some choreographers really like it, and other choreographers don’t use it at all.” Eyles finds that  “I can demonstrate most things apart from lifting, so if it was a very tricky partnering situation I might say, ‘hold her here and your grip is like this’ but if a lift isn’t working particularly well then I would enlist the help of either a bloke, who could do it, or a video, and then the guys can go ‘oh I see he’s just doing that, just before he picks her up’ and it makes it very easy for them to see what it is.”

BMN in Ballet Schools

It’s not surprising that many students, dancers, choreographers and Répétiteurs use video to learn the steps when you look at BMN at grass-roots level, in the schools. Vocational ballet schools in the UK rarely incorporate notation in the curriculum.

The Royal Ballet School currently has no BMN on the curriculum (though I’m told that moves are afoot to incorporate it).

Ballet Company life

The Royal Ballet company has two full-time notators which are supplemented by freelancers when required (see below for an example when Onegin was in the rep).

English National Ballet School has incorporated BMN but in the company there are no notators on the staff and freelancers are brought in as needed (for example, Wayne Eagling’s new version of The Nutcracker). 

At the affiliated school for Birmingham Royal Ballet – Elmhurst School for Dance, BMN is taught as a two-year sixth form course by the company’s two notators.

Northern Ballet hasn’t used notators for a number of years. During vocational training, ballet students are encouraged to choreograph where they show talent, and without some background in notation at an early stage i.e. during education, they are far more likely to turn to their iPhone or similar to record their work and to continue doing so throughout their career.

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To show you what a notated score looks like, the two photographs below have been specifically chosen by notator Amanda Eyles as good representations where you can compare the notated score and the position of the dancers in the photographs.

Taken from Liam Scarlett’s Royal Ballet production of Asphodel Meadows, the notation follows the photograph for ease of reference.

two ballet dancers in a lift
Sarah Lamb & Johannes Stepanek in Asphodel Meadows Photograph : ROH/Johan Persson

Below is an extract from the notated score for Asphodel Meadows, showing in BMN how the positions of the dancers in the above photograph would be represented. The ‘lollipops’ on the left indicate male and female dancers.

an example of Benesh Notation
Excerpt of Notated score for Liam Scarlett’s Asphodel Meadows for The Royal Ballet Notator : Amanda Eyles Photograph : Cheryl Angear

The second extract highlights this photograph from the same ballet, with Bennet Gartside and Tamara Rojo :

Tamara Rojo and Bennet Gartside in Asphodel Meadows photo by Johan Persson
Tamara Rojo and Bennet Gartside in Asphodel Meadows Photograph : ROH/Johan Persson

And below you can see the BMN score for these two dancer’s positions as they would be represented.

an example of Benesh Notation
Excerpt of Notated score for Liam Scarlett’s Asphodel Meadows for The Royal Ballet Notator : Amanda Eyles Photograph : Cheryl Angear

So in this Ballet Business feature I want to delve into the world of a notator to find out the practical applications for BMN, what sort of person makes a great notator and what is involved in practice and training.

A ballet notator’s world

There are approximately twenty notators in the UK – like many ballet niche roles (for example, tutu making) it’s a very small profession – and perhaps ten of them will be in full-time work at any given time, anywhere around the world. There are also freelance notators, as Eyles explains, “when The Royal Ballet had a revival of [John] Cranko’s Onegin then Jane Bourne, who worked with Cranko when it was first made, came in and taught it. They could have chosen to give the score to one of the resident notators but they quite like to have the original notator if they can. It’s one of those odd little professions that has just remained pretty steady actually, it’s never really exploded into massive success but then it’s always kept going as well.”

So how does the notator work in the ballet studio during rehearsals ? Eyles explains, “when you are working with a choreographer it varies massively. Essentially the main advantage of it as a tool in the studio is that, if the choreographer is the director, then you are a bit like the producer, because you’re making it happen. Although that probably isn’t the case with every choreographer; some choreographers are extremely clear about exactly what they want and exactly how they want it to happen in which case you are recording what they ask for, and possibly contributing in terms of saying ‘those people over there are one beat later than those people and which one do you want?’ In which case he’ll say “oh no, I like that version’ and you say ‘okay everyone, do that,’ and in other cases it’s much more organic and the choreographer will be much less specific and allow the work to evolve in a different way, in which case it’s more of a collaborative thing. As a notator you are doing anything from just allowing it to happen to saying ‘well, yesterday that phrase fell on the music in such a way and today they’re a little bit earlier’ and it’s providing feedback as much as anything. With a piece I’ve done with Kim Brandstrup at The Royal Ballet, he had an iPhone and just videoed what he’d done at the end of each rehearsal, so that he could go back and look at it, and in a way that role of being a reflective part of the process is also what notation does. Quite frequently you find that the choreographer will come in and say ‘what was the last thing we did yesterday?’ because unless you are videoing it on your iPhone (or by other means), it’s quite hard to remember, especially if you are throwing lots of ideas around and saying ‘no try this, try that. No, let’s do it faster, slower, on the other foot’, etc. And so, very often, the first question from the dancers and the choreographer will be ‘what was the last version. Did we end up doing this or that?’ Of course, a video is fantastically useful but it’s still very useful to have a notator because it’s not just about the recording of the movement; it’s actually about having another pair of eyes in the studio. Some choreographers, for instance, don’t like to be interrupted, so one only contributes what is appropriate. But I’ve always found that choreographers like to use the other pair of eyes, so I would normally say ‘if I noticed something do you want me to point it out or do you want me to wait until the end of the rehearsal?’ and generally they’ll say ‘oh no, let me know’, because of course they’ve got so much going through their head they can’t possibly notice everything, it’s not humanly possible.”

Eyles confirms what you would reasonably expect to be the case given the paucity of notation training at vocational schools and tells me that most choreographers wouldn’t be able to read BMN, but the common language of the studio and her dance training (it’s essential to be trained to a professional level though not necessarily to have been a performer) allows a constant flow of communication nevertheless.”It is essential that you know what it feels like in order to be able to write it down.”

Being tidy and musical in ballet rehearsals and beyond

What are the other ingredients needed to become a notator ? “The course structure* has changed significantly over the last few years. When I did it, it was a year and three months. Now it’s more modular so it follows almost a degree structure. You can do two years of the course which gets you up to pretty proficient standard and then if you want to do the professional qualification, which would be what you’d want in order to go into company work, there is still a face to face element and a placement with mentors within companies. It tends to appeal to a very particular sort of mind-set. Being tidy. I’ve always thought it would appeal to people with quite neat handwriting. But I think you have to love the finicketyness of it. You have to like the order of it, in terms of getting things organised, and that’s what I love about the score.”

Another essential ingredient is musicality, “the musical element I’ve always found is hugely important and in fact is one of the areas where, as a notator, I think you can be the most useful to a choreographer because you can be a bridge between them and the pianist, which is an ideal situation if one is in a company that has full-time pianists. I find that I’m constantly nipping over to the piano and just checking ‘okay we’re calling this phrase, this’ or ‘this phrase is where we need it a tiny bit slower because she’s doing this really complicated movement.’ There’s a sort of communication all the time so that what one is hoping to achieve is that the pianist will be putting marks in the score to ease the rehearsal process so that when you come back to it the following day and the choreographer says, ‘let’s go from the fish dive’, he knows where that is.  And quite frequently that will be the notator who makes sure that that is the case. Not to do the pianist a dis-service; many are very instinctive and they will note it down but sometimes they can’t do everything so they’re trying to play the piano and listen and they can’t possibly catch everything. Quite frequently something clearly becomes a focal point that we would be going from, the beginning of the phrase, say, and normally I’ll just nip over and say ‘have you go that down?’ and sometimes they have and sometimes they haven’t. It’s a double-check that we’re literally on the same page. I do find, certainly in my working career, one works closely with the musicians present in the studio because the joy of notation is that it operates in a very musical way, and I find that my feedback is very often of a musical nature. It’s not my place to query steps, because that’s what the choreographer is creating, but if I’m contributing it is often in saying ‘yesterday they were reaching that phrase by eight and now they’re not getting there until one and is that okay or do you want them to get a move on?’ A lot of things do evolve and sometimes the choreographer goes ‘no, I quite like how it is now and leave it’ or he says ‘no, I preferred it when they reached the end of the phrase and let’s go for that’ or they might say, ‘I’m not sure, I’ll decide later.’ But it’s because one generally will have more than one cast in the room when something is being created; not always, that would depend on both the company and the choreographer.  Some choreographers only like to have one cast present because they find having lots of other people in the room very distracting, although that makes it harder for the ballet staff because then they are having to ensure that all the subsequent casts have all the information absolutely right.”

The ballet company structure dictates the studio set-up. “Sometimes you find it’s just a choreographer and a notator or sometimes you’ll have a ballet master/mistress in there as well, or sometimes you find that actually the ballet mistress and the choreologist/notator roles are one and the same.  I’ve done both. I’ve done situations where I’ve been the notator with other members of ballet staff there; I’ve just been the notator, and then I’ve also been in a situation where I’m essentially the ballet mistress but I’m thinking with a notator’s head.”

Ballet Business – the company structure

“I have found in my career, whatever role I’m doing, that notation training is fantastic because it just means I notice everything, in a way that is useful. In order to write something down, you have to be really clear about what it is. It’s all very well to think about it in the abstract but when you have to commit it to paper you have to define it in a very particular way and so therefore if you’re committing movement to paper you have to be clear about what it is you’re trying to achieve, and that skill of seeing things in a particular way, I’ve found enormously useful in many elements of my career not just the pure notation side.”

And the rewards of being a notator ? “The joy of it really is in fact when you’re reproducing something; ones contribution in the creation process is dictated almost entirely by the choreographer – how the choreographer sets out how he wants to do it – but when one is then teaching the production on to another company or another cast then that’s when notation really comes into its own because you are there and you can say ‘no, this is what the choreographer wanted’ and what is really beautiful also is that in this day and age of video being very much viewed as the be all and end all, that you quite frequently have dancers saying ‘I looked at the video and she’s not doing that’, and you say, ‘no, I know she’s not but in fact this is what he [the choreographer] wanted to achieve and so this is what we’re still trying to achieve.’ You can still be aspiring to the true intention of it, otherwise all one sees is a reproduction of what another person did.”

“Of course I’d never claim that video isn’t a useful tool, it’s just it’s one of the notators most unfortunate moments when you hear a dancer say  ‘oh, but she’s not doing that on the video’ and you think, ‘I know she’s not.  In an ideal world we’d like her to be…'”

During and after the notation process, “the score will belong to the person who is paying for the ballet. So the choreography copyright belongs to the choreographer and the score copyright is actually owned by the company. The notator has no copyright at all.  You’re just the recorder of it.  So on the bottom of each page you have a choreographer copyright and the score owner. Sometimes the score owner may also be the choreographer, for instance if you have Richard Alston Dance Co : Richard owns the company and the choreography, so in that case both would belong to him but in terms of The Royal Ballet then The Royal Ballet will own the notated score because they have paid the notator to write that but the choreography belongs to the choreographer and it’s his only sure-fire way of him proving that someone has plagiarised his steps, because there is still a very murky area about when video evidence is admissible, and to my knowledge notation is acknowledged as an accepted way for choreographers to prove, if they want to bring a case against somebody, although it’s very hard to do even with notation. The Royal Ballet are very good because they always credit you in the programme and that isn’t the case with all companies. I’m always very glad that they do because you are part of the process; you are the amanuensis.” [Ed note : literally, a trusted servant]

And does Eyles and other notators watch the ballets they’ve helped to create ? “Oh yes, you would always watch, certainly the first night and if you’re in a situation where you can watch a few performances, then yes.

I always find the recognition is when the dancers come to check things with you and say ‘is that right ?’ and they understand that it’s a vital part of the process. So at the end of the day one is part of a process that involves many people.”

It seems to me that the notator’s work is enormously rich, varied and rewarding, even if, at its bare minimum, you are simply recording the steps.  What is valuable here is of course the notated score – the finished product – but allied with that and perhaps more important still is the notator themselves and that extra pair of eyes in the studio. 

As a vital part of the creative process, whether that is creating a new work or setting the work on a new company, it is the notator who carries with them the choreographer’s intentions. In ballet we place enormous emphasis on having a clear, straight and uninterrupted line of knowledge passed down through time and a notator’s knowledge is every bit as necessary.

Glossary of ballet terms

A notator/choreologist studies dance notation. The choreologist studies the movements that the choreographer created.

The word Répétiteur is a French word which comes from the verb “répéter” meaning : “to repeat”. In a ballet company, that means “to rehearse.”

Ballet Master/Mistress (also Balletmaster, Ballet Mistress, Premier Maître de ballet or Premier Maître de ballet en Chef) is the term used for an employee of a ballet company who is responsible for the level of competence of the dancers in their company.

Ballet Business | Benesh Movement Notation training options

*There are two qualifications : The Certificate in Benesh Movement Notation (CBMN) and the Diploma for Professional Benesh Movement Notators (DPBMN).

The Certificate in Benesh Movement Notation (CBMN) is a flexible distance learning, part-time programme consisting of six modules to be completed over two-three years and accounting for 1200 study hours in total.  Each module costs £675 (£4,050 in total) and there is a fee of £150 for each assessment re-sit.

The Diploma for Professional Benesh Movement Notators (DPBMN) is also flexible and modular.  This time there are three modules and one of the entry requirements is that you have successfully completed the CBMN or it’s equivalent. For both courses there are other entry requirements so please check the documentation thoroughly and heed the advice to speak to the Programme Leader to discuss whether the Certificate/Diploma is suitable for your circumstances and future plans. The middle module consists of a three month work placement with a professional notator as a mentor and this accounts for some of the cost of the one year course – £8,500.  This time an assessment re-sit will cost £100.

Assuming straight passes the training will cost £12,550 (excluding some other costs not included in the fees) after which point you are qualified for work within a repertory ballet company as a Benesh Movement Notator.

This feature has taken over a year to complete and I would like to thank all involved for their help and perseverance, in particular Amanda Eyles, Liz Cunliffe and Liam Scarlett.

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