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Ballet's secret role: What is a ballet notator and why are they vital?

Dancers and choreographers may be household names, but without notators, your favourite classic ballet would no longer exist.

By Lorraine Gregory (Benesh Notator)

22 May 2015 at 5.00pm | 12 Comments

Have you ever wondered how The Royal Ballet stages so many different productions in one Season? How they are able to prepare ballets by choreographers as stylistically diverse as Frederick AshtonKenneth MacMillan and Wayne McGregor? And how do they get the Company up to performance standard so quickly and efficiently? Much of this can be put down to The Royal Ballet's team of notators.

The Royal Ballet's notators use a system called Benesh Movement Notation (or BMN for short) to preserve ballet repertory on paper. The notators create a BMN score that is an exact record of the dance – visually it looks similar to the musical score used by the orchestra conductor. When a ballet returns for a revival, notators will prepare the dancers for rehearsals by studying the BMN score. They are then present throughout the rehearsal period, using the score not simply to teach the basic steps, but to clarify musical details, check that props are being handled correctly and ultimately to ensure that the choreography and staging remains as close to the original as possible.

At the same time as restaging old work, notators will often be involved in the creation of new ballets. Gregory Mislin joined the notation department for the 2014/15 Season, and worked with choreographer Liam Scarlett during rehearsals for The Age of Anxiety, which had its world premiere in November 2014. During rehearsals he made copious notes on every minute element of the choreography, notes he subsequently used to write up the master BMN score of the ballet. After the frenetic pace of rehearsals, during which the entire focus is on perfecting the ballet for performance, the process of writing the work up using BMN is a lengthy one. With each step and every musical nuance needing to be clarified, it can take up to two months to write a one-act ballet in full.

Gregory used his completed master score to reteach and refresh The Age of Anxiety to the dancers before the Company toured the ballet in the USA. Without this resource, the process would not only take considerably longer, but choreographic detail, essential to the company’s heritage, would risk being lost.

BMN has been in use by The Royal Ballet since its creation in the 1950s by Joan and Rudolf Benesh (the former a dancer with Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet; the latter – her husband – a mathematician and artist). In 2015 the Company offered a work experience placement in the notation department, offering a trainee the chance to immerse themselves in the entire process of notating a ballet. Read an extract from the diary of last year’s work experience student.

The majority of large ballet companies worldwide use BMN in some form, be it through employing full-time notators on their staff or through inviting freelancers in to stage particular works. Currently, training in BMN is offered only by The Benesh Institute in London and The Conservatoire of Paris (CNSMDP) in France. While notation departments such as that at The Royal Ballet are well-established, and their work essential, notation can often seem obscure to members of the audience. Find out more about Benesh Notation.

By Lorraine Gregory (Benesh Notator)

22 May 2015 at 5.00pm

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged Anna Trevien, Benesh, Benesh Institute, Gregory Mislin, history, notation, recording, Rehearsal

This article has 12 comments

  1. trevor l responded on 23 May 2015 at 5:36pm Reply

    At the risk of sounding naive, why not just make a film of each production?

    • El responded on 24 May 2015 at 9:11pm

      Because the ballets were choreographed as early as the 1800s

    • Trevor, this is indeed a good question and one often asked. It's hard to reply in a few sentences but simply a video is only a copy of an interpretation of one show. Variants happens because dancers are human and not robots and things can happen, different proportions between partners might alter the look or technique of lifts or even different emphasis asked by the ballet masters or stagers might change the feel of the production. As a Benesh Notator we will cross check our notes from videos prior to the rehearsals and makes notes. But in the studio it is still much quicker to check a piece of paper that the switch a media device on, find the right section and eventually find the right moment and then find out that the camera is actually focusing on a different part of the stage at that time!

    • Matthew Dougherty responded on 19 November 2018 at 7:04am

      No notation system is perfect, any additions such as video or motion capture can fill in the gaps in building a mosaic.

      Film is shot at 24fps, most video cameras will do 25 or 30 fps, and computer cameras can usually do 60fps. So there are time resolution and physical camera angle issues.

      A notation system (music or dance) can be printed as a PDF, is smaller in size, and allows easier distribution.

      Viewing video allows you to examine frame by frame, which can create great insights, but is labor intensive. A notation system can illustrate certain concepts more concisely, and is more compact.

      Much like a sculptor who may use various models to create the final form. In this case a collaboration between the choreographer, the performers and others in the production.

  2. could you post some images of the pages of notated text. I would really like to see it having read about it. I am wondering if it would be possible to create a notation system from these notes that help students with learning differences to make lecture notes?

  3. Please could I add to the above comment seminar and workshop notes - not just lecture notes.

  4. Trevor, because with a video a lot of the little nuances can be lost. With a notated ballet, each time it is resurrected it is taken from the original, where every little detail has been recorded.

  5. Stuart Dixon responded on 28 May 2015 at 12:39pm Reply

    Do the dancers themselves use these to learn the steps, similar to reading a musical score. A sort of homework for them.

    Does every dancer have his/her own copy.

    Does this extend to every corps dancer having his/her own or is it one for all the corp.

  6. Could you explain the difference between BMN and Labanotation? Thank you!

  7. Stuart, this was indeed one of the initial thoughts when Benesh notation was created that each dancer should be able to read the score and could then practise their sections prior to rehearsals. For various reason this however does not happen in reality. Partly because not all dancers can read it or to always to a high enough level (but some definitely do!) and for this reason it's quicker if one person sets it during a rehearsal.

  8. Michael, Benesh and Laban are 2 different people that created their own notations systems.
    Benesh uses a musical stave as a base and is read from left to right. By using a music stave this enables the movement to be recored in rhythm. Click the "find out more" of the article link for more detailed information. This is the notation used by major ballet companies such as The Royal Ballet.
    Laban is more commonly taught in the educational system as he was also a very creative artist. His system is read from bottom to top and the music is then added beside the notation.
    Both system use a similar approach to analyse movement but have very different ways to record it. Generally Laban is used for educational context and Benesh is used with professional companies, but there are always exceptions to the rule!

  9. Noelle Virginia responded on 22 August 2016 at 8:59pm Reply

    Not in any way to take away from the excellent notation described here, readers may enjoy looking into that used by Nijinsky, Ballet Russe etc, as it has a long and fascinating history, and is often the way we can discover what Petipa et all choreographed.

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