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Flash Preview, 7-27: Journey to Another Galaxy
DanceGalaxy Directors Recognize Notating as a Star

By Sandra Aberkalns
Copyright 2001 Sandra Aberkalns

On Monday at 7 p.m., the house lights will dim and DanceGalaxy's season at the Joyce Theater in New York will begin. On the program will be two premieres. The first is "Reflections," choreographed by New York City Ballet's Ballet Master in Chief, Peter Martins, to music composed by his son and NYCB principal dancer, Nilas Martins. The second is "Orange" by Australian choreographer Stanton Welch. There will also be an encore presentation of "The Flow Bear Waltzes" by Adam Miller. Last but not least there's Choo-San Goh's "Beginnings,"a ballet that has not been seen in New York for so long -- approximately 18 -- years that it could also be considered a premiere of sorts.

Obviously, a lot of planning and hard work went into getting this program up on the stage, but sometimes more goes on during a company's preparation for a season than meets the eye. During its rehearsal period DanceGalaxy not only had the usual suspects: choreographers, stagers (representing choreographic estates), dancers, lighting designers, press, etcetera coming and going, but there were some unusual suspects as well. I was one of the latter, and it wasn't the first time I "did it" with DanceGalaxy (I also did it in 1999 with William Forsythe's "Artifact II").

For me "doing it" is notating a ballet.

Even though I've worked with the company before I can't just show up to a rehearsal and start writing. So, how are works chosen to be notated, what permissions are required, who pays for the work to be documented, and who owns the score when it's finished? As I take you through the process of how I happened to notate "Beginnings," I hope to answer these questions, but first a little background information to get you up to speed.

In 1983, Sally Brayley Bliss invited Choo-San Goh to choreograph a ballet for Joffrey II which became "Beginnings." [Side note: The young cast included an apprentice. Who was the new kid on the block? Robin Hoffman, the DI's own webmistress!] In my opinion this would have been the perfect time to notate the ballet as the choreographer's intent was literally coming straight "out of the horse's mouth." However, manpower, time, and money all have to be taken into consideration as to what works are notated at any time, so it is not uncommon to "catch" works when they are restaged at a later date. Even today, the demand to have works notated exceeds the number of Labanotators available.

In November 1987, at the age of 39, Goh passed away of complications related to AIDS.

In 1988 Janek Schergen, a friend and colleague of Goh's at the Washington Ballet, became the artistic director of the Choo-San Goh & H. Robert Magee Foundation. Schergen wanted to preserve his friend's works in a format other than video, so in 1990-91 he enrolled in the Benesh Institute to learn Benesh Movement Notation. However, since that time he has been so busy staging Goh's ballets around the world that, to date, he hasn't had the time to notate them. Approximately 18 months ago DanceGalaxy's co-artistic director, Judith Fugate, went to Singapore to stage a Balanchine ballet at the same time Schergen was there to stage Goh's "Birds of Paradise." Fugate was so taken with that work that upon her return to New York she and Medhi Bahiri (DanceGalaxy's other artistic director) contacted Schergen about staging a Goh work for them. "Beginnings" was chosen, as it was "the right fit" for their company.

Last year, around Christmas time, Medhi and I ran into each other and I asked him what the company was up to. He told me that after the New Year the company would be headed back into the studio, and the Goh ballet would be taught sometime around the first week of March. I was thrilled by the news -- I had already forfeited an opportunity back in 1981 to notate a work by Goh and I was not about to let a second chance slip through my fingers. So then and there I asked Medhi for permission to attend company rehearsals and without skipping a beat he agreed. Even though I had DanceGalaxy's permission to sit in on rehearsals, I also needed permission from the choreographer's estate to notate the work. Permissions were readily granted. Schergen is obviously pro-notation, and according to Fugate and Bahiri I'm "not a stranger" (besides my previous work with the company, Bahiri and I are alumni of Rosella Hightower's Centre de Danse).

Now that permission has been granted, who pays for these works to be notated? In the United States it is the exception rather than the rule that a dance company pays for a work to be notated. It goes without saying that, especially for a company based in New York, finding money to pay for royalties (choreographic and musical), stagers/choreographers, dancers, studio rentals, theaters, etc. is already a daunting task without having to subsidize a score. However, when I asked if DanceGalaxy would ever consider having a company notator, the directors didn't hesitate to say, "Yes, we would love to have the possibility." As artistic directors, efficiency is very important to them. If a notator can answer questions about a work after the stager has left then that benefits the entire company in both time and money. Also they are aware of the problems that can arise when works are learned from video.

The reality is that for now it is the Dance Notation Bureau (DNB) that actively raises funds to finance projects such as this one, and so it happened here. The DNB receive funding from organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), and the National Initiative to Preserve Dance (NIPAD) among others. Providing funding for notating these works in no way interferes with the rights of the choreographer/estate. When a choreographer/estate give permission to notate a dance, it doesn't imply performance rights for the DNB or anyone else. However, when choreographers, estates, and companies cooperate (by giving permission, and letting the DNB know when rehearsals are going to happen), this symbiotic relationship is at its best, and the real winners are future generations of dancers.

So, that's how it came to be that during a week in March I notated a ballet called "Beginnings." While the dancers got blisters on their feet, I got calluses on my fingers. When they went home at the end of the day and soaked in a tub, I went home and cleaned up that day's notes. As the dancers refined their performance, I refined the information in my score.

Everything that can go right did go right with this staging. It started with friendships (old and new) but it was also about collaborations, mutual respect, a love of dance (to perform and preserve), and the desire to uphold one man's legacy. The result is that DanceGalaxy has acquired a beautiful ballet while Schergen, the DNB, and the dance community have a score. Me -- I'm a little sad. Experience has taught me that completing the final manuscript of a dance that I've fallen in love with can be a bittersweet experience. Over the next few months my pencil will fly across the paper and before I know it the score will be done. I wish I could slow down and savor each moment more but I can't help myself -- I'm dancing!

Rehearsals, permissions, funding, rights -- all of these elements are vital to the notation process, but the logistics are only one side of the coin. The flip side is the art of notating works -- how notators capture choreographic style and intent. So if DI readers are interested let me know and I'd be happy to tell you all about it. DanceGalaxy plays the Joyce Theater through August 4, and tours to Stockton, California in the Fall. For more information about the Joyce season, please visit the Joyce web site.

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