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The Buzz, 10-31: Nightmare on W. 30th Street
DANCE NOTATION BUREAU LAYS OFF STAFF

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

The Dance Notation Bureau -- whose mission of recording and preserving choreography makes it one of the most critical dance organizations in the world, with a library of more than 600 dance scores by dancemakers from Petipa to Bill T. Jones -- Friday laid off most of its paid staff, including executive director Ilene Fox and veteran notators Leslie Rotman and Sandra Aberkalns, the Dance Insider has learned.

According to sources close to the DNB, employees were informed Wednesday of the decision, which board chair Lynne Weber explained by citing factors including the failure of anticipated grants to materialize and low membership.

The DNB was founded 65 years ago in New York City by Ann Hutchinson Guest, Helen Priest Rogers, Eve Gentry and Janey Price, with the purpose of recording and preserving dances in an intelligible, comprehensive notation -- Labanotation, first published in 1928 by Rudolf von Laban. While details were sketchy at presstime, the lay-off of five of its six paid staffers could potentially have far-reaching consequences for the recording and preservation of major works of choreography so that future generations of dancers can render them accurately.

What makes a notated score more accurate than a video or oral record is not just the scrupulous system developed by Laban, which enables the notator to chart every movement on paper, effectively creating a movement 'score,' but the scrupulous work of the certified Labanotators, who work alongside the choreographer as he or she creates the dance, or, where that's not possible, as he or she or a trusted associate re-stages it. This allows the notator to record not only the end dance, but how the choreographer got there, often appending the choreographer's comments to the finished score. Completing the score can take years.

Finished scores don't just sit on shelves at the DNB's W. 30th Street offices accumulating dust in between visits from scholars; their practical uses are legion. The DNB's notation of Eugene Loring's "Billy the Kid" in 1942, the first ballet notation in the United States, came at the request of the choreographer, who wanted it to help establish his ownership of the choreography. The score for Doris Humphrey's "Shakers," produced in 1948, is today the basis of stagings of the work all over the world.

Staff reportedly laid off Friday include Fox, the DNB's executive director since 1991; Leslie Rotman, director of stagings, who has notated works by Balanchine, Isadora Duncan, Sophie Maslow, and Antony Tudor, re-staging for Ballett Frankfurt, Hamburg Ballet, Joffrey Ballet and other companies; Aberkalns, resident notator for the Paul Taylor Dance Company from 1987 to 1993 and also a leading notator of works by William Forsythe, Alvin Ailey, Jerome Robbins and Mark Morris; administrative assistant Doris Caravaglia; and notation assistant Mira Kim. Librarian Mei-Chen Lu has been retained, reportedly because her salary is not paid by the DNB.

Unclear was whether and how the lay-offs would affect future notation work or notations currently in progress.

If the reasons indicated for the lay-offs are accurate -- lack of grant funds and low membership -- they point to what has long been the organization's Achilles heel. The DNB's functions make it one of the most crucial organizations in dance, and there's little doubt that its executive director and tireless and dedicated other employees realize this in the energy they devote to the DNB's principal work of preserving and re-staging dances. However, its employees' unquestioned commitment to notating and re-staging has not been matched by an equal dynamism in fundraising and publicity by the organization and its board. While the DNB receives some funding -- including, in 2004, a $20,000 Heritage & Preservation grant from the National Endowment for the Arts -- the resources allocated to it, relative to those granted some individual companies and tours, have not been commensurate with its unique role and importance to the field. If the DNB -- and its critical mission -- is to not just survive but to flourish, it may need to bring some aggressive development and public relations muscle onto its executive and board team. The stakes are just too high for it to fail.

PS: Because of the paramount importance of the DNB to the community and the present and future of dance, we have put this breaking story out before we've had the chance to speak with officials on the DNB staff or board. Our intention -- and the intention of our sources -- is not to stir up trouble but to sound the alarm and thus galvanize the community. DNB staff, board, or professional advisory committee members with more information or comments are encouraged to contact me at paul@danceinsider.com.

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