Notation: writing ballet

For most musicians, particularly those of a classical bent, reading and interpreting a score is one of the first things they will have learned. The written manuscript is our only detailed way of recording instruction for how the composer intended the music to be performed. A system of recording also exists in dance, called dance notation; if you don’t recognise what is going on in the schematic below, fear not, neither do most of us. For anyone that’s interested, it is a fouetté (obvious, no?)


Dance has traditionally been passed on through those dancers who learned the steps from the choreographer, to their students and so on: it is essentially an oral history. In recent years, video has been employed to record dance. However, video cannot guarantee the fidelity of the performance; who’s to say that their every step, gesture or angle of the head is exactly how the choreographer intended? If there was a notated movement score, the exactitude of the work could be scrutinised, not just from scrutiny’s sake, but to ensure that the clarity of the original work doesn’t become vague.

There has always been a problem in the dance world with choreography, indeed entire ballets, being lost. If the steps are living only in the memories of the dancers on whom they were created, a ballet can become extinct in the space of a generation. Videos of performances or rehearsals, while useful, can never fully capture a work, getting hold of execution rather than intention in most cases.

Having been through the ordeal of ballet school, with all its trappings, I can honestly say that I have never encountered a notated score. Sure, the resources were there if I were taken with a desire to learn more about it (which I wasn’t), but learning to work with a score or even create one, wasn’t on the syllabus.

Aside from the fact that most institutions don’t teach notation, there’s the issue of there being no unifying format for it either. When Nicholas Sergeyev brought the classics out of Imperial Russia early in the 20th century, they were in some manner of sketchy notation which was particular to the theatre from whence they came, with surely very few possible interpreters around today. Labanotation and Benesh Notation are the two most obvious ones in use today, but most of their employment seems to be as an academic exercise than an archival resource.

People love to refer to the ephemeral nature of dance, that it exists for the moment it is being danced and then it is gone. But why should it be like this? Video and word-of-mouth can get a ballet on stage, for a while at least, but maybe the toil of notating a ballet is the only way we have of recording not just what the ballet looks like, but what it was intended to look like.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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