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Speaking with Choreographer Gemze De Lappe

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Dance, perhaps more than any other art form, is transmitted from one artist to another, one generation to the next.

Unlike music, which has a brilliantly refined, widely known notation system, partsgirl.gifdance has only the useful but clumsy and rarified system known as Labanotion that cannot fully capture the expressive subtleties of choreography. And while in recent decades video has become an invaluable tool for documenting dance, it also lacks the nuances of body-to-body transmission.

That is why Gemze de Lappe -- dancer, choreographer, teacher and longtime protege of Agnes de Mille, the woman who changed the way dance was used in the Broadway musical -- is such a treasure. And that is why, seemingly ageless at the age of 91 -- still fleet, disciplined, razor sharp and funny -- she has become such a focus of the Lyric Opera's production of "Oklahoma," for which she has recreated de Mille's original 1943 choreography, including the crucial 15-minute "Dream Sequence" ballet. To be coached by de Lappe is like consulting a dance oracle.

I first met de Lappe in New York in the late 1970s when, as a young dancer, I was part of the Isadora Duncan Centenary Company, which recreated the work of that pioneer of modern dance. De Lappe had originally trained with Irma Duncan (one of Isadora's six adopted daughters), as well as the groundbreaking Russian choreographer, Michel Fokine, in whose New York company she danced.

I was in awe of this calm, fastidious woman who still moved like a dream and was such a part of living dance history -- a woman whose Broadway credits included the role of Simon of Legree in the original production (and film version) of "The King and I," choreographed by Jerome Robbins. And after watching her on stage at a Lyric rehearsal of "Oklahoma" a couple of weeks ago -- demonstrating and fine-tuning every move of her dancers -- I remain so. -- Hedy Weiss

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There is nothing like learning from a living master in any art form. in addition, dance is fortunate to have Labanotation. Having worked with Labanotation in many setting for many years and find it to be much more "brilliantly refined" than music notation at capturing expressive subtleties. It is more complex than music notation. But it is less complex than using a foreign language, and no more "clumsy and rarified" than communicating with one. Try it, you'll like it.

This article comments on "Labanotion;" however, I believe the author means to comment on "Labanotation," a system of writing dance that has been in use for more than 80 years and has been used to record more than 800 dances, as reflected in the archive of the Dance Notation Bureau. This lack of precision in spelling carries through in the article's unbalanced misrepresentation of Labanotation. The reason Labanotation is still in use today is the ease in which a dance can be read and its accuracy in recording movement. A trained dancer can be reading basic notation within an hour. New York Theatre Ballet dancers all learned to read notation in the time they learned Antony Tudor's "Soiree Musicale." (A video of the process is viewable on NYTB's website.) Also, Labanotation does have the capability to record nuances mentioned in the article. Mark Morris, a skeptic about the system, tested it when his work "All Fours" was notated and later staged by people not familiar with the dance or his work. He commented about "throwing in everything but the kitchen sink." He gave permission for the performance staged from the notation after seeing that the dance had been captured. (Other dances of his are currently being notated.)

If I use analogies in music and theater, the author confuses a music score or a script of a play with directing an orchestra or a play. We don't expect an orchestra or a theater company to take written music or words and produce a quality performance without someone giving artistic direction. The same is true in dance. The Labanotation score captures movement just as a music score captures music notes and a theater script captures words. It doesn't replace a director, and this is what Gemze de Lappe, an amazing dancer and stager, but not someone who has been trained in using notation comments on.

We wouldn't have works by Mozart or Shakespeare had they not been written down. A number of Balanchine's dances would have been lost had they not been notated, and nuances can easily be lost as memories fail. The Dance Notation Bureau is dedicated to making sure the dances survive, and it has Labanotation scores of more than 250 choreographers. It has been responsible for thousands of performances that have been contacted for dances that were recorded in Labanotation.

The Dance Notation Bureau (DNB) whose mission is to advance the art of dance through the use of a symbol system – Labanotation (Note: the author in this article spelled the word incorrectly). Many people have this misunderstanding that the system does not work well in terms of reconstruction or staging; however, every year the DNB has assisted to stage 80-150 performances from Labanotation scores all over the world.

Since 1940, we have notated 804 scores from 287 choreographers in different styles and genres. Many choreographers, such as George Balanchine, Antony Tudor, Doris Humphrey, and Paul Taylor, have their works notated in Labanotation. "Mindy Aloff defends dance notation" was published in the February 2012 issue Dancing Times UK (https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B8Q3wiYtY7OCa3VHcEt4Wkk4UGM/edit?pli=1) which showed the value of notation.

Having a work notated is expensive and it also requires special skill to read a score. Nevertheless, all musicians are literate of reading music notes; why cannot a dancer being literate of reading symbols that record dance legacy?

Meg Moore, your ignorance of dance notation is remarkable (name misspelled by the way). I assume you have heard of Balanchine and Tudor? I will let them tell you a little about their thoughts on Labanotation:

George Balanchine (1904-1983) wrote in the preface to the 1954 edition of Labanotation by Ann Hutchinson " . . . I became . . . aware of a need for an accurate and workable method for notating my works. To me the prime requisite of such a notation system would be its ability to correlate faithfully the time values in the dance with the music, because my choreography either closely follows the line of the music or contrasts directly with it.

"When I heard of Laban's system of notation it seemed the most completely developed method evolved to meet this need. After studying the system . . . I realized this was indeed the answer and I decided to embark immediately on the long-range project of having my ballets recorded.
Symphony in C, Orpheus, Theme and Variations, Symphony Concertante, and Bourree Fantasque, are among those already completed. Thanks to these scores I am now assured that these ballets will be accurately performed in the future. . . . Labanotation records the structure of a dance, revealing with perfect clarity each of the specific movements of each performer. . Through Labanotaton we can actually sit down and compare or analyze different styles of dance. Even the complicated techniques and studies take up litle space and are easy to reconstruct intellectually through the notated patterns. There is no longer any need to wade through pages of verbal descriptions, which eventually become unintelligible." Twenty two of Balanchine's dances were notated in his lifetime, and twenty two more have been notated since his death.

Anthony Tudor (1908-1987) had 30 of his dances notated including Dark Elegies and Lilac Garden. In his will he specified that if a ballet had been notated the performance was to be based on the score. In a 1976 testimonial letter in support of the DNB he wrote:
"This is to reaffirm my belief in the benefits that the dance, in general, and choreographers in particular, are deriving from the activities of the Dance Notation Bureau. The three small dance works that I made on Juilliard dancers several years ago with a grant from the National Endowment, which included a proviso that such works would be made accessible to any small company of sufficient technical capacity, have now been reproduced many times..... It is a good thought that the works of José Limón and Doris Humphrey, two of the most famous American choreographers, can survive because the Bureau is making it possible" (DNB Library Newsletter vol. 2, no. 2).

I think that whoever wrote this article seems to have misconceptions about both music and dance notation.

I read dance and music notation and I was a dance major and music minor at Juilliard. I have had many discussions with musicians with whom I have worked over the years and I strongly disagree that music notation is "brilliantly refined." I have heard many comments, especially from composers, that music notation is not "accurate" and that it does not capture and express every new technical aspect of music or emotional attitude or psychological content with any kind of completeness and this is also true with dance notation. Yet for centuries the musicians have striven to improve their notation system.

This is also the case with written text. The written book, story or play script does not have everything in it, either. The reader or actor must bring the text alive by a tone of voice and interpretation. Many dancers are not yet used to this idea and it is easier for them to learn steps by copying them from video or from a teacher than to study dance notation. Copying and imitating is the way dance has been learned for centuries.

I learned to read music when I was nine years old, even though I started my dance studies at the age of six, and years later I fell in love with dance notation at Juilliard. Notation provides me independence and creativity as a dancer: I do not need somebody else to teach me the steps. In addition, dance notation allows me to learn from other choreographers directly, rather than just learn from what other writers have written about the works or from other dancers’ memories of how the dance was years ago. Each dancer has a different memory of how the dance was in the past. Notation adds a whole new facet to the dance literature: concrete facts and details about choreography.

The writer describes music notation as “brilliantly refined” and dance notation as “clumsy.” Just like a beginning piano student who does not know enough and is learning to read music and play piano can sound very clumsy, so is the case also with a dance student who is learning to read dance notation and who has not yet mastered enough reading skills.

The writer also states that music notation is “widely known” and dance notation is “rarified.” It is true that dance notation has never reached similar popularity as music notation has. Nor has dance notation been a required subject in many dance-related programs, which is a shame, because of the knowledge it could provide for the dance field and potentially also to other movement-related fields, arts and sciences. Unfortunately many dancers (or dance audiences) do not have opportunities to understand the art of dance at a deeper level, because dance notation courses are not easily available.

I disagree with the writer’s implication that the popularity of an idea or practice is always related to its real value or usefulness. I am sure that everyone can think of instances of popular notions that serve no real value and other ideas that have not yet gained widespread acceptance yet would be very useful and can be useful for those who successfully use them.

Dance notation has an important value that cannot be satisfied in any other way because dance scores provide us information about our culture and history and of how and why dance works. Dance notation can be used in many ways as a practical tool for teaching dance and dance theory and dance notation expands the potential for both learning dances from the past and creating new dances.

The current popular norm is that dance exists in the memories of many dancers who all remember it differently and in the end, the dance is gone into the grave. Most dancers do not see the value of preserving works, so notation seems worthless. But the details of a dance, if written down, remain in the dance score for future generations.

I think the writer is ignorant of current and future possibilities of dance notation. Notation does not obviate the value of brilliant dance teachers and dance coaches. De Lappe certainly is a treasure, but that does not prove that dance notation is valueless.

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This page contains a single entry by Meg Moore published on May 3, 2013 11:13 AM.

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