As a choreographer, the number one question I get asked is: “How do you write down a dance?” It’s surprising to me how often this comes up. In itself, the question reveals a a literary way of thinking about choreography, as something that can be written. It’s also akin to the question my actor-friend is frequently subject to: “How do you remember your lines?” While there are notational systems for dance (eg. Labanotation), they are extremely complex and too cumbersome for “everyday” use. Labanotation certainly has uses, mainly as a tool for those recording and reconstructing master-works (visit the Dance Notation Bureau), but this is not how choreographers generally “write” their dances.
When you say “write” a dance, does it mean: 1) How do I make choreography up? 2) How I teach choreography to dancers? or 3) How do I document choreography for posterity? I hear all of these things.
The way I start to make a dance is to build “vocabulary,” i.e. steps or movements. (See Vocabulary Test post) For example, for “Ghosts” some recurring moves are 1/2 Umbrella, Disc, Pac-Man, Herding, Dervish, etc.. Naming the moves help us both to clarify the shape of the action and to remember it later. Sometimes I have fun making a movement cheat-sheet, matching names with my squiggly drawings. The second phase of choreography is creating movement sequences that correspond to a structure, whether musical, conceptual or narrative. Sometimes I’ll write down the sequences, but very often I do not.
Whatever notes I have in my purple-and-orange book serve only to jog my memory, but would be completely meaningless to anyone else, except maybe the original cast. My scribblings are not “writing” and do not express the choreography, even if they help me indicate it. When it comes down to it, fundamentally, dancing is NOT writing. It is, like an oral tradition, passed down body to body. Choreography is often generated communally. My dancers contribute to “vocabulary building” — you could say we are developing a common “language,” but that is perhaps a linguistically-biased way of thinking.
Choreography resides in the dancers’ bodies. And it lives there, exerting influence via muscle memory, for years after the original performance. For this reason, reviving a work with the original cast can be surprisingly quick — an entirely different experience from mounting the same work on new bodies. It’s in teaching a new generation the “vocabulary” that you realize all the things you didn’t “write” down. All the nuances of expression, idiosyncrasies have to be learned from scratch, re-invented, not just remembered.
So how do you record all these nuances? With video, of course. So that is probably the easiest and truest answer to this choreographer’s FAQ. Video. Duh!
more to come on this topic . . .