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Flash Report, 5-23: Saving the Dance
Celebrating 60 Years of Preserving the Art

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

When Ann Hutchinson Guest first sent her notated score of "Symphony in C" to the U.S. copyright office, it was returned. "No story" was the written explanation for why the ballet created by George Balanchine in 1952 was not deemed copyrightable material. Guest, who had co-founded the Dance Notation Bureau in 1940 with a mission to record and preserve classic dances, took the problem to Balanchine. "So, make up a story," he suggested. Guest regaled an audience of fellow dance industry leaders with this and other recollections last night at Lincoln Center, where the DNB, one of dance's great unsung heroes, celebrated sixty years of preserving dances.

"People climb Everest because it is there, and we notated Doris Humphrey's works because they were there and we had access to them," Guest told an audience that included pioneering dance scholars like Francis Mason and Selma Jeanne Cohen. "We thought, these are gems, we can't let them go." We was Guest, Helen Priest Rogers, Eve Gentry and Janey Price. You might not know their names, but you should; as much as dance has been called an ephemeral art, it is in fact recordable, it has been recorded, and these women put in place an institution that has been doing just that. (And whose first address was modern dance pioneer Hanya Holm's Manhattan studio, its second Guest and Rogers's apartment at 33 W. 8th Street, across the street from where I am now writing this. The bureau's name came from then-New York Times critic John Martin.)

The raison d'etre for notation is that it makes possible not only the archiving, but the re-staging of a dance. Notated scores do not sit on a shelf gathering dust, but are actively used for contemporary re-creations. While former dancers of a role rely on memory in re-staging a ballet, notation provides an exact recording of the dance as it was originally intended, and as represented by exact symbols which replicate both the individual body's every movement and the overall deployment of bodies on a stage. Ideally, notators sit at the right hand of the choreographer as he/she is creating the dance.

The system the bureau's founders converged on in 1940 was that devised by Rudolf von Laban, who published the definitive textbook for his method, originally called "Schrifttanz," in 1928. "This work," Guest wrote in the 1967 Dance Encyclopedia, "was the result of years of study and research to find a notation which would be suitable to all kinds of movement. In the past the drawback of the notation systems invented was that each served only one form of dance and was not adaptable to others. The Laban notation, or 'Kinetographie' as he called it, is based on the body and its possibilities for movement. While it is the most logical of all notations, and for the most part pictorial, it is not a shorthand; it reflects in detail the intricacies of the body in notation."

And yet, when they officially organized the bureau, its founders discovered discrepancies in the method as each of them had learned it; their first order of business was to standardize the notation, in consultation with von Laban. Besides preserving dances for their future re-creation, they soon realized that notation could give dances a tangible form that might allow them to be copyrighted.

As essential as it's mission has been, none of this is glamorous work. It's one thing to fund the creation of a new dance, which is quite visible; another to pay for a bunch of scholars scribbling away in funny symbols that the lay-person can't readily decipher. The bureau has often had a shaky time of it financially, and has relied on determined directors and board members -- and dedicated notators, usually experienced dancers who don't need the applause -- to persevere. Many of these were present and honored last night.

Those honored included Muriel Topaz, executive director of the DNB from 1979-85, director of Labanotation from 1970-1979, and former director of the dance department at Juilliard; the late Maria Grandy, the former DNB board chairman, notation and ballet teacher at Juilliard, associate artistic director at the Joffrey 2, and godmother of many of today's notators, including our own Robin Hoffman and Veronica Dittman; Alice Moorhead, who, as a DNB board president during a critical period, helped reduce its debt from $400,000 to $150,000; current DNB executive director Ilene Fox; and Lucy Venable, former DNB president and founding teacher of the DNB's accomplished extension at Ohio State University, who the evening's host Nancy Zeckendorf called "the guardian and guardian angel of our work." Zeckendorf herself, a leading dance philanthropist, played no small role in guarding the DNB's legacy, heading the board from 1976-1991.

From its own founding in 1968, the extension has played a vital role in amplifying the effect of the DNB and thus solidifying its mission, principally by training new notators. "I am so proud of its work and of its intellectual accomplishments," said Senta Driver, a veteran choreographer, notator and member of the DNB board who is known for her ability at trouble-shooting scores. "What the extension made possible -- Laban analysis, motif writing -- this made our impact much wider. It has become a think tank, one of the most valuable things any field can have."

And the thinking goes on, even yesterday. After accepting her award from notator Dittman, Venable turned to her younger colleague and reported, proudly, "Just today we finished our new edition of Humphrey's "Brandenberg 4," which Veronica put on the computer and checked. So we have a new score published, as of today!" That brings the total number of scores notated by the DNB to about 601.

And computers will play a role in enhancing the DNB's work. Following the awards presentation, Fox demonstrated, with projections from a laptop, how the DNB is using Life Forms software to, essentially, animate its system. In this interface, developed by Fox, Hoffman, and programmers at Credo Interactive, cartoon models essentially respond to notated direction. Among other things, this means that dancers learning a work will have not just the symbols but animated human models to look at when watching a score on CD ROM. As demonstrated by Fox in a prototype being developed by Hoffman, score, stage layout, notation symbols, and animation will run simultaneously.

This process, while promising, is still in its early, raw stages. After last night's demonstration, several wags in the audience shouted out that they preferred live demonstrator and notator Sandra Aberkalns.

But the real show-stealer in live performance was Guest, who re-created a diagonal she'd originally performed a half a century ago, when Holm called her in as a last-minute replacement in "Kiss Me Kate." As Guest told us later, after sashaying off the stage: "Once a dancer, always a dancer!" As for us, we, like the other guests, sashayed out cradling in our arms a bound copy of the notated scores for Humphrey's "Air for the G String," "Two Ecstatic Themes," and "Day on Earth" -- truly something to be savored and saved, like the dances.

For more information on the Dance Notation Bureau, go to http://www.dancenotation.org/. For more on Life Forms, go to http://www.charactermotion.com/.

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