Documenting Dance: The Rite of Spring

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This post, by Adelaide ‘Ada’ Robinson, originally appeared on her blog “The Accidental Scientist“, on February 3rd, 2017. It is reposted here with permission.

The text outlines Ada’s idea to research the documentation of “The Rite of Spring” for her Independent Study module, which is part of the MA Library Science at #CityLIS.

Ada has a longstanding interest in ballet, and was inspired to combine her knowledge and enthusiasm for the art with her academic studies in library science, after attending the #docperform symposium last year.

We are very much looking forward to Ada’s finished work and hope to post it here later in the year. In the meantime, you can follow Ada’s progress over at her blog.

We also hope to encourage more dance documentation enthusiasts to join us.

You can follow Ada on Twitter @adafrobinson

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“So what does ballet have to do with library science?”

… Is a question people have been asking me a lot over the past week. Hopefully, I’ll soon have an answer. Welcome to Independent Study: dance edition.

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The question of how to document dance first came to me at the ‘Documenting Performance’ conference, (October 31st, 2016), which had a mix of fascinating talks by speakers from both LIS and performance studies. Topics covered included theatre, live street entertainment, darkness, and dance. Since that day – as a huge ballet fan and library science student – I’ve been thinking about the idea of documenting dance more and more.

While researching Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ for work, I found that there are over 150 different versions of the production. Different dances, set to the same music. However, the original Ballet Russes production, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, has been lost. When the time came for someone to attempt a first revival of the show, they found that no-one remembered the original choreography.

russian-ballets-at-paris-001

 

While this might be par for the course for some ballets – I have a children’s encyclopedia (featured in the first photo above) that describes a multitude of shows lost to the ages – you would have thought that the Rite would have escaped that fate. Because on May 29th, 1913, the first performance of ‘The Rite of Spring’ ended in a riot. Stravinsky’s innovative and intense music, coupled with Nijinsky’s avant-garde choreography (depicting a human sacrifice), terrified and incensed their first audience in Paris. It was a scandal that rocked the arts world, and was possibly the most talked about performance of its time.

My first question: And no-one thought to write down the steps?

Second question: How do you even write down choreography?

This forms the beginning of my as-of-yet-untitled Independent Study. The topics I am going to cover in my research – and in weekly blog updates – will be as follows:

  • How ballet choreography is documented and passed on to companies.
  • How/why choreography etc can be ‘forgotten’.
  • What methods different choreographers have used to recreate forgotten or lost productions.
  • ‘The Rite of Spring’ as a case study.
  • Why performance studies can be useful to LIS.

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(The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet, Horst Koegler, OUP, 1977).

 

I go to the ballet a lot, and I’m pretty active in the balletomane community. However, I don’t know a great deal about how choreography works and how shows are documented. I have DVDs of certain productions, but I’m still not sure on how the choreography of classic ballets survived in the pre-camera era. That will be the first question I tackle, and next week I’ll update with a short review of my findings.

I also thought it would be fun to show videos of dancers in rehearsal at the end of each post, so here is a clip from a rehearsal of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works, which is currently showing at the Royal Opera House. If you get a chance – go. I saw it last night and I think it’s one of the best modern ballets there is, and the score is absolutely beautiful too.

Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli rehearse Woolf Works (The Royal Ballet)

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