In the late 1940s, mathematician Rudolf Benesh caught his wife, Joan, a dancer with Sadler’s Wells, struggling to remember and record her steps. Later at work in his office, he jotted down a few lines meant to represent someone sitting at a desk, then fetched a colleague and asked for a second opinion. Soon an entire system of written symbols was created to represent all ballet’s possible movement.
Those who practice this system are known as choreologists. There are only a handful of them in the world, but The Australian Ballet has been at the forefront of documenting ballet since its inception. Our current Choreologist, Mark Kay, took time to chat about his work.
08 Jan 2010
What is choreology?
Well, that’s a big question. Everyone thinks I write the ballets – which is not correct at all. Choreology is a form of notation where you write all the steps down and it’s something I picked up at The Australian Ballet School. I went through an injury spate and so I took this on. I was encouraged by the staff there because they thought I had the potential. I went to London, did a choreology course and my dancing career came to an abrupt halt early in my life. But I got this job and have been doing choreology ever since.
For the dance companies who don’t have a choreologist, how do they record dance?
Video. A lot of people think that video is the most reliable form of recording dance. I mean, it has its advantages, but it has its disadvantages as well. For example, if you focus on only a few dancers, there’ll be people dancing on the other parts of the stage and you won’t be able to see what they’re doing. The major classical ballet companies in the world have a choreologist. Then there’s The Royal Ballet and they have two or three on staff.
Are there ballets that are really difficult to record?
When the system for choreology was first devised, in the 1950s, ballet was still very classical. Contemporary ballet didn’t really exist. Contemporary in those days were ballets like Les Presages which were classically based. But these days when you have dancers performing in water, or hanging from ropes, that’s when you start to come up with new methods. There was a ballet in London where a boy danced with a chair. And we had to work out a system of how to record the chair. So, even though it’s an object, it was recorded like a person. The more contemporary the ballet is, the more detail you need to write. Notating classical ballet is easier because it’s all based around the technique of classical ballet. However, contemporary is a totally different thing.
You mentioned choreology is very mathematical. Do you have a mathematical mind yourself?
Yes, I have a very musical-mathematical mind. Choreology is a very logical system. When I was studying and working in London, there was a committee I was a part of where we sat down and talked about new symbols. We came up with new ideas, new ways of recording movement, and creating new symbols for different movement. So, yes, it requires a mathematical and logical way of thinking.
Do you feel a great sense of responsibility when notating a ballet so that when it’s restaged in the future, it’s true to its original form?
Oh, yes, most definitely. You’re recording history. For example, Petrouchka was originally notated by the Birmingham Royal Ballet but the notator couldn’t come out here and teach it but they were happy for me to take the notation and teach it. The original notator and I know each other quite well – the world of notation is a small one – and we sat down and talked through the work and his notation. Then I went off and taught the ballet and that was a really pleasing thing.
What do you love most about your job?
I suppose working in the studio and teaching ballet with the notation is the best part. The ultimate goal for me is seeing that you’ve taught every step on stage and everyone knows what they’re doing on opening night. It’s really satisfying to see all your work up there on stage.
Any advice for younger people who are thinking about choreology?
You need to have a logical mind and a good knowledge of dance. It’s a long-learning process. But once you get into it initially, you’ll want to get into it further.