– A music critic writes:
I was wondering if you could recommend a single Balanchine DVD to this scandalously ill-informed balletomoron.
You have two choices:
(1) Balanchine, on Kultur, is a first-rate, smartly written PBS documentary from the Eighties containing excerpts, some of them extended, from most of the major Balanchine ballets. Watching it on TV was what inspired me to go see New York City Ballet for the very first time.
(2) Nonesuch has just put out two DVDs called Choreography by Balanchine containing performances by New York City Ballet, overseen in the studio by Balanchine himself. Start with the one that contains The Four Temperaments and Stravinsky Violin Concerto. These performances, originally shown on PBS’s Dance in America in the Seventies, introduced untold numbers of viewers to Balanchine. The visceral impact of theatrical dance can only be suggested on the small screen, but the Choreography by Balanchine telecasts were extremely well-directed and give a surprisingly good sense of what the ballets look like on stage. (The Balanchine documentary on Kultur contains snippets from most of these performances.)
Ideally, you should watch both DVDs, but my guess is that either one will at least pique your interest.
– A reader writes:
In thinking about your new book on George Balanchine, and your coverage of dance generally: could you display on the Web site, or provide a link to, a dance score? I’m sure most people have seen a music score, and know what music looks like written down. But I think few of us, me included, know what choreography looks like written down (at least I assume it’s written down!). What does a dance look like on paper? I’m sure many of us would like to see what this looks like.
Gladly. To see an introductory example of dance notation, go to the Dance Notation Bureau’s Web site, then click on the “Notation Basics” button in the left-hand column. You’ll see a brief explanation of Labanotation, the most widely used form of dance notation. You can find out more about dance notation by exploring the rest of the site.
I should add, however, that choreographers themselves rarely if ever use dance notation. Most of them don’t even know how to read Labanotation, much less write it. Instead, they demonstrate the successive moves of a dance to the dancers in the studio, and the finished product is documented by videotaping a complete performance. Notation comes later, if at all. Similarly, older dances are usually revived not by way of notated scores but through a show-and-tell process, with archival videotape available as a backup in case of memory lapses. This is why so many ballets of the past are now “lost”: they were neither videotaped nor notated, and once they ceased to be performed on a regular basis, the steps were gradually forgotten.
Unlikely as it may sound, certain dancers are capable of carrying all the steps of a ballet in their heads, Fahrenheit 451-style, and teaching them to the members of a company that has never before performed it. Sometimes they may remember a dance better than the choreographer himself: Balanchine, for example, forgot the steps to Le Tombeau de Couperin after he made it, and it was only because Rosemary Dunleavy remembered them that the ballet was later revived and documented for posterity. (In return for this feat, Balanchine left Dunleavy the rights to Tombeau in his will.)