How to Write a Dance
February 4, 2015 | by Anna Heyward
Remy Charlip and the problems of dance notation.
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
—W. B. Yeats
How do you tell a person in another place or time what a dance looks like, and how it should be performed? You could use words, describing, second by second, the movements made by every dancer on stage—but inaccuracies would creep in. Take an instruction as simple as “lower your arm”: How would the precise angle, attitude, and displacement of the arm be explained? As an algebraic vector? And what about the hand, the fingers, the knuckles, the rest of the dancer’s body—what are they doing? Such a method would come to resemble programming code, in which reams of language and symbols come to stand for something that’s supposed to look simple and elegant. The problem is that a dance is read by a human, not a machine.
What about images, then? You could reduce the dance to two dimensions, represented frame by frame, using diagrams and drawings. Yet even for a short sequence, you’d need so many! It would come to resemble a flip-book or an animated GIF, preempting the most efficient and simple method we’ve ever had to record dance: moving images, or film.
Before we had image-capturing technology, the need to preserve dance, as a record, gave way to attempts to write dance down. Dance notation, the symbolic representation of human movement, has developed into systems for making graphics recognizable as living movement. Traditional dance notation marks a path through space and a relationship to music. As Edward Tufte writes in Envisioning Information (1990), “Systems of dance notation translate human movements into signs transcribed onto flatland, permanently preserving the visual instant.” It’s a question of “how to reduce the magnificent four-dimensional reality of time and three-space into little marks on paper flatlands.” Dance never looks the same twice, unless it’s on film.
In the seventeenth century, around the same time he built Versailles, Louis XIV commissioned a method that became the Beauchamp-Feuillet system, made for Baroque dance, “La Belle Danse,” popular in the court. With Baroque, dance became a discipline, not just a pastime, in the Western world. Beauchamp-Feuillet was meant to teach courtiers the steps to the latest dance, but the result was that the style spread far beyond the court. (It was Raoul-Auger Feuillet who first notated the basis of ballet movement, the five positions of the feet.)
With Beauchamp-Feuillet, Baroque became a form of dance that, more than almost any other, exists in relation to its own notation. It alphabetizes the body, using it as a system of grammar. Beauchamp-Feuillet, unlike many previous forms of notation, envisions and uses the space in which the dance takes place—a square or rectangular room—as a page on which the body moves like a hieroglyph, making the writing.
Remy Charlip, who died in 2012, was a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and an author and illustrator; a vital presence in New York from the fifties on, he worked with John Cage, Frank O’Hara, Edward Albee, and Robert Rauschenberg. A master of irreverence, and of sidestepping expectation, he taught a course at Sarah Lawrence from 1967 to ’71 in “making things up” and for two years directed the National Theatre for the Deaf.
Like Baroque dance in the court of Versailles, Charlip’s Air Mail Dances depend on notation for performance—they originated from drawings on cards. Charlip began to make these dances in 1971, having promised to choreograph a dance for his friend Nancy Lewis and then forgotten about it. When he was reminded, with a fortnight to go until the performance, he drew the rough positions on postcards: figures in different poses, demonstrating the landmarks for the dancer to pass through. The transitions between drawings he left up to the performer.
“I did a whole set of positions, of movements, signs,” he said in an interview. “I gave her gestures that I thought were very beautiful and between the gestures I said do a turn. And I left it up to her … It’s their dance, and it’s also my dance.” His figures are sometimes annotated—some with clear instructions, like “roll slowly,” others with more abstract suggestions, like “crackle.” Charlip’s drawings are rough, beautiful, and endearing, a reminder of how much the choreographer relies on the dancer to realize a work.
Charlip liked to play with the way we conceive of dance movements. On a recent Friday at the 92nd Street Y, a program put together by Catherine Tharin called “Remy Charlip: I Love You” restaged a number of his works. In his series “Imaginary Dances,” performed at the Y by David Vaughan, choreographic instructions for would-be performances are read aloud with a cheeky apology that, due to lack of funding, they can’t be performed. In “Waiting Dance,” we hear: “Curtain rises. Any number of people on stage, all waiting, for as long as they want to. Curtain closes.” And in “Sardines”: “Eight boys and girls undress and get into a bathtub. They arrange themselves comfortably. The choreographer pours warm olive oil over them. Curtain.”
Some, like “Storm,” are fantastical:
A special well-drained waterproof room is constructed, where over the audience’s heads, a glorious sunset is enacted, cross fading into a full moon rising among stars. Clouds arrive, become denser, and turn everything into darkness. Thunder, lightning, then droplets of rain slowly build up to a shower, then a storm. Hurricane, tornado and flood may be added if budget is big enough.
Charlip’s performances show us how images in the head of a choreographer become the movement of another person. His system of notation—irreverent, idiosyncratic, imprecise—makes visible the process of idea to movement. “The language of dance,” he said once,
is basically physical … there are lots of ways language can be used to convey the physicality of it, and the images and thoughts that are used in dancing … you can get behind a person and you can move them, or you can be in front and have them imitate you. Or you can give them an image … so that they can move from the images.
Among the Air Mail Dances is “Dance in a Bed,” two pages of images, showing movement that takes place in (yes) a bed. The Y showed a film of its first performance, by the dancer Toby Armour: slow and languid, she wears backless silk pajamas and is accompanied by Saint-Saëns’s Le Cygne. But the piece has also been performed by Sally Hess to quick and restless Shostakovich music, and called Nuit Blanche, for a sleepless night. The same choreography inspires two different performances: one for those of us who jump quickly out of bed, and one for those who press the snooze button.
Today dance notation is arcane, and mostly inessential to the art of dance. Even the two most prevalent systems, Laban and Benesh, don’t enjoy wide literacy among dancers. Lincoln Kirstein, of the New York City Ballet, wrote in his Ballet Alphabet,
A desire to avoid oblivion is the natural possession of any artist. It is intensified in the dancer, who is far more under the threat of time than others. The invention of systems to preserve dance-steps have, since the early eighteenth century, shared a startling similarity. All these books contain interesting prefatory remarks on the structure of dancing. The graphs presented vary in fullness from the mere bird’s-eye scratch-track of Feuillet, to the more musical and inclusive stenochoreography of Saint-Léon and Stepanov, but all are logically conceived and invitingly rendered, each equipped with provocative diagrams calculated to fascinate the speculative processes of a chess champion. And from a practical point of view, for work in determining the essential nature of old dances with any objective authority, they are all equally worthless. The systems, each of which may hold some slight improvement over its predecessor, are so difficult to decipher, even to initial mastery of their alphabet, that when students approach the problem of putting the letters together, or finally fitting the phrases to music, they feel triumphant if they can decipher even a single short solo enchaînement. An analysis of style is not attempted, and the problem of combining solo variations with a corps de ballet to provide a chart of an entire ballet movement reduces the complexity of the problem to the apoplectic.
In other words, the very idea of trying to hurry along in the wake of a dance and record its movements is inelegant. But Charlip’s dances show us the fluidity between the dancer and the scribe: they allow us to think of notation as a way to invent movement, rather than just try to preserve and petrify it. One of the chief features of his drawings is their accessibility—they’re like invitations to the audience to join in.
On a radio show, Charlip once spoke about a book he wanted to make, a kind of do-it-yourself instructional manual of Air Mail Dances:
It would be called Dances Any Body Can Do. And they would be mostly household dances, like, dance in a doorway, dance on the stairs, dance in a bed, and other dances that you can do that would be very simple. And I’d like to do a second book called Advanced Dances, and those would require more technical proficiency. And then I’d like to do a third book, and those would be called More Advanced Dances, which would be very difficult to do, like dancing on the tip of a candle flame, or dancing on a cloud …
And here, the recording trails off.
Anna Heyward is a writer and reporter in New York.