Notes Made in the Theatre and in the Dark: An exploration of the methods used in ballet documentation and reconstruction by Adelaide Robinson

Notes Made in the Theatre and in the Dark:
An exploration of the methods used in ballet documentation and reconstruction

Adelaide Robinson, Department of Library & Information Science, City, University of London

This text was written by Adelaide as a student assignment, in fulfilment of the requirements set for the Independent Study module at CityLIS, 2016/17.

Follow Adelaide Robinson on Twitter: @adafrobinson

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Introduction

The documentation of dance is a complicated field. As with any kind of live performance, there is a strong divide between what is technically possible to record, and what is possible to be reconstructed from those records. Not only is there a technical difficulty in recording a live performance – with video, written accounts, notation, or otherwise – but some artists believe that to try and document something in an inherently ephemeral medium goes against the point of their art. Therefore dance and theatre historians face challenges on many levels when trying to find documents and recreate performances for a new audience. Theatrical researchers usually have the luxury of scripts, scores, and written accounts from directors and actors, but those looking for ballet documentation have to work around the difficulty that is writing down a narrative with no words.

While documentation can be read and studied satisfactorily by those who simply have an interest in ballet, the job of reconstructing a past performance relies on these often fragmented and conflicting records. Methods of documentation in balletic dance history differ wildly from ballet to ballet: records can vary from informal sketches of dancers to highly complex sheets of notation. (Note; for the purposes of this essay, “dance” will refer to the European balletic tradition.) For some ballets we have no record of the production whatsoever, other than a name. In the modern, digital age, video cameras and new computer software – capable of recognising, recording, and storing movement – may or may not usher in a new era of ballet that will remain perfectly preserved for future generations. But whether or not even this will allow for a genuine reconstruction of any performance from the past remains to be seen. Using the various reconstruction and recreation efforts associated with Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps as a case study, this paper aims to explore the most common methods used throughout the history of dance documentation for ballet, and evaluate their effectiveness when it comes to reconstruction while keeping the following questions in mind; how and why has dance documentation evolved? And if the complete reconstruction of a ballet is impossible, then what is the point of documentation?

Dance Notation

In a 1986 review of recent developments in European dance history, Meredith Little presented the following argument.

“Studies in dance history may be boring to read because the material presented refers to nothing in our own experience; we must invent our own examples in order to make any sense out of it at all. How interesting would studies of Shakespeare be if, at best, only fragments of plays had survived?”[1]

While more standardised methods of notation and the increasing accessibility of filmed performances have proliferated in the ballet world in recent years, making reconstruction an easier task for future directors, reconstructors at present still have to work with these older “fragments” that the previous generation of choreographers left behind.

Dance notation is older than one might expect; European dance notation is generally agreed to have started with Pierre Beauchamp-Feuillet’s system of recording Baroque dance, (1700, in his work Choréographie), which was commissioned by Louis XIV. (It should be noted that other systems of dance notation were used before this publication, but in much the same way that Shakespeare is credited with inventing words as he recorded contemporary colloquial speech, Beauchamp codified existing systems into the first standardised notation system. It is also seen as especially relevant for being authorised by the French monarch.)[2] Dance notation then evolved through various forms and off-shoots devised by choreographers and dancers with different needs to fulfil. This diversity, while fascinating to study, does not lend itself to easy reconstruction of pre-modern ballet.

The most common and popular form of notation used today is Benesh, devised by Rudolph and Joan Benesh (1950s), with Labanotation (1928) a close second. Many directors now employ a notation expert, or “notator”, to work alongside choreographers and ensure that new productions are recorded to the full extent of their ability to be so. Notation experts are now often credited in programmes, as well as the original authors of notation scores, showing that notation has become something well-used and of value in the modern ballet world.

Some dance history scholars have expressed concerns about the growing dependence on notation scores in the current ballet world. Judy van Zile – professor of dance at the University of Hawai’i – argues that depending on the services of a professional notator diminishes the score’s accuracy, as the dance is being recorded by someone other than the person who created (or is dancing) it. This brings up several questions; most importantly, can a separate party accurately record a dance?[3] For the companies putting on popular ballets, this is not a problem; there is always someone available to teach who has danced Juliet before, for example, and this first-hand experience improves the process. For reconstructors of older and less well-documented ballets, trusting one person’s notes – a person who they may never be able to meet or ask questions of – can be a difficult, almost impossible experience. Dance notation is also not easy to read. As Meredith Little puts it, “researchers are finding that each notation system is a language with its own syntax; symbols have different meanings in different contact, and one must translate phrases, sections and whole pieces as well as individual steps and step units.”[4] If a company is without a skilled notation expert, possessing complex scores may be of little value to them.

Pictured: a section from the Sunday 18 March 2017 programme for “The Human Seasons/After The Rain/Flight Pattern” at the Royal Opera House. “Flight Pattern” premiered on 16 March 2017, and the Benesh notator for the production was Gregory Mislin.[5]

Documentation in the Digital Age

As documentation in the library and information sector in the digital age has become increasingly computerised, and many documents are now ‘digital-born’, so has the world of dance documentation made tentative steps towards the same. As Judith Gray put it: “Of all the arts, dance would seem the least likely to accede to the vagaries of rapid change and the relentless advances of this modern technology,” yet computer software has become far more prevalent in the field of dance notation recently.[6] Janos Fügedi’s 1998 review of the application available for recording and preserving dance, while dated, still gives us an insightful look at the potential for these types of software. Computer applications for dance generally include the following outputs; computer animations based on dancers’ movements, born-digital dance notation, and databases of scores. Fügedi has a positive outlook on computer applications, stating that dance research can gain “great benefits” from computer applications in the field and ends his review on the hopeful note that “the connection of local dance notation collections to the Internet (…) will open a new horizon for factual, documented dance based comparative research.”[7] Unfortunately, the majority of dance notation collections are still only available in physical libraries, with computer applications reserved for those with a higher knowledge level of programming and better resources for the more intense processes such as motion capture.

Putting a greater focus on dance documentation in the digital era has already changed how ballet is produced and shared. For example, the copyrighting of a live performance has been especially difficult for choreographers in the past, as original choreography needs to be “fixed” before it can be put under copyright: the performance is not enough. With the proliferation of better notation systems and the introduction of video cameras to most theatres and dance studios, choreographers now have much better access to enforcing copyright of their original works.[8] Dance documentation also looks to become even more digitally-minded in the future. When computer software for dance notation was new, the hope was that it would lead to a program that would deliver an ‘enhanced’ score, with video and music to accompany the notation. As described by Wilmer and Resende, “in this way a student would simultaneously (1) hear the music of the ballet, (2) have access to the music score, (3) watch a performance of the ballet, (4) see the dance score, (5) see illustrations of each position or movement of the dancers body and (6) find out the name of each position or movement.”[9] Although there is no such definitive program yet, dancers and choreographers do now have much easier access to filmed performances, and the advance of motion capture and animation in documentation software enables a greater understanding of recorded movement than a simple, printed dance score.

Case Study: Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)

Le Sacre occupies a special place in the history of dance reconstruction and recreation. There are over a hundred different productions associated with Stravinsky’s original score.[10] While most of these are completely different dancers, some have tried to recreate Nijinsky’s original choreography; using sketches, eyewitness accounts, and reviews. The lure of the Rite of Spring most likely stems from the fantastical stories of its first performance on May 29, 1913 in Paris. The combination of Stravinsky’s intense, overwhelming score, and Nijinsky’s modern choreography produced a hostile environment for the audience and led to a riot. The performance ran for only six more nights in its original run. The scandal of “the riot of spring” has been a key ingredient of its popularity ever since.

The difficulty of reconstructing Nijinsky’s Sacre has been part of an enduring myth of “the lost masterpiece”. Years after the ballet was dropped from the repertoire, by the director of the Ballet Russes, Serge Diaghilev, it was put up for revival by the same man. According to reports at the time, “apparently no one could remember the movement, even though some of the original cast were still performing with the company.”[11] A revival was in fact staged, but was unsuccessful and used practically new choreography. The most true to life reconstruction of the Sacre was researched and written by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, and staged by the Joffrey Ballet in 1987. It is the methods of dance documentation used for this reconstruction, and the accounts of Hodson and Archer themselves on the process, which will make up the largest portion of this case study. The fragments available to them demonstrated many different varieties of dance documentation; from sketches, to notation, to eyewitness accounts written down in interviews and diaries.

There are almost no records of any notation for Le Sacre. As the production was unlike any ballet that had come before it, there was a difficulty in fitting the expressive new movements in Nijinsky’s choreography into established notation systems. Nijinsky himself seemed to be frustrated with notation, having been quoted as saying:

“I am forced to cry for a ‘partition of movements’ where to place my instruments – which are the human bodies – in a manner that is in absolute accordance with a white canvas for Bakst or group of islands for Debussy. My composition is even less simple because the human body does not possess just 4 strings but an infinite multitude of sensitive and expressive elements.”[12] (Quoted in Hector Cahusac’s, “Debussy et Nijinsky,” 14 May 1913.)

However, although no score from Nijinsky has been found, there was a rumour that he intended to produce one. In Hodson’s preface to the reconstructed score, she quotes a contemporary of Nijinsky, as having heard the choreographer say:

“I have invented symbols to represent the dancers. The note on the stave represents the head, their gestures are indicated by stylised attitudes. I have transcribed the Sacre and intend to transcribe all of (my ballets)… And in ten, twenty, a hundred years, they will be able to dance these ballets as they danced them today.”[13]

The reconstruction process would certainly have been easier if Nijinsky had followed through on this statement.

Rarely does a reconstructor have to rely on a score (whole or otherwise) alone; the most successful projects have had access to a multitude of different, less official records to help the process. While notation systems are useful and complex enough to record the more complicated aspects of movement, it is important to not discount other, more informal forms of records; such as sketches, written accounts from company members and other involved peoples, reviews, programs, costumes, and other such souvenirs and mementoes associated with attending a dance. Much of the information we have on ballets lost to history is due to reviews. As documents, reviews can provide dance historians and reconstructors with a wealth of important information. An example of this can be seen below:

 Pictured: an illustration accompanying a review of the 1921 run of Le Sacre du Printemps in ‘The Sketch’. [14]

This illustration, although meant to provide humorous insights for the review, actually contains a wealth of useful information about the 1921 revival. Firstly, it gives us the name of the principal dancer, Lydia Sokolova, which is useful as the names of individual dancers were not always recorded in early 20th century programmes. There are the sketched out costumes, which provide valuable reference points for costume reconstructors; showing clothing, accessories, the weight and hang of the material, and the fact that the dancers appear not to wear pointe shoes. Most importantly, in the illustrations and in the jokes in the captions, we find useful descriptions of the actual movements of the dance. While ‘oranges and lemons’ is meant to be a humorous commentary, it and the accompanying illustration tells a reconstructor that a movement occurs in the dance where a dancer moves through two lines of parallel dancers with their hands linked. The series of illustrations above the main picture provides an even clearer representation of a particular movement, sketched out in stages. While this document was not intended to be a record of this kind, documents such as this can be invaluable to a reconstructor. Written accounts in reviews are also useful. However, reviews are by their very nature biased, and do not present an objective record of a performance. Reviews in papers can be sensationalised to sell more copies of a publication. This may be a problem in the case of “the riot of spring”, where different accounts of Le Sacre’s first performance may be unreliable due to being repeated and embellished in a ‘Chinese whispers’ style.

In a place where performance studies and fan studies intersect, documentation of any live performance owes much to the devotion of its audience. Many sketches of the original 1913 Sacre have been found and used in reconstruction attempts. The most influential were drawn by Valentine Hugo (née Gross); an illustrator, painter, and ballet enthusiast whose works can now be found in the Valentine Gross Archive in the Victoria and Albert museum’s Department of Theatre and Performance.[15] Valentine Hugo, a devoted follower of the Ballet Russes, made many sketches of their rehearsals and performances between 1910 to 1914. Her motivations and process were described by Richard Buckle in the following quote, presented in the introduction of a book of Hugo’s sketches:

“The motive, of course, behind the tireless jottings of Valentine Gross, was to record a series of uplifting theatrical experiences (…). Her notes made in the theatre and in the dark could be caught unconscious, because she did not know what or how she was drawing. Together with the scribbled name of a dancer or the collar of a costume they were an aide-mémoire which might turn out to be legible and helpful, or as happened in a number of cases, might not. She would not consider these notes as drawings and would probably shrink from showing them to anyone else.”[16]

Pictured: Page of a sketch book showing blue crayon preliminary sketch made in Théâtre de Champs-Elysées during rehearsal or performance of Le Sacre du Printemps, Diaghilev Ballets Russes, 1913. Sketch by Valentine Gross.[17]

These informal forms of documentation should not be discounted; in many ways, Valentine Hugo’s “scribbled” sketches may have been of more use to reconstructors than any attempts at notation the choreographer tried to make. Drawings from a passionate fan can record more emotional context than even the most complex of notation systems. Hodson and Archer’s reconstruction of Le Sacre du Printemps hinged on two important documents; Stravinsky’s musical score, on which he had written descriptions of some movements above the stage, and Nijinsky’s contemporary Marie Rambert’s recreation of the score based on Dalcroze eurythmics, which was recovered after her death in 1982.[18] Despite this, it may have been the ‘unofficial’ documents that were the most useful to the reconstruction efforts.

Conclusion

If a perfect reproduction of a live performance is impossible, then what is the point of dance documentation? Many artists shy away from documenting, (specifically filming) their work, arguing that to document a live performance is to go against its inherently ephemeral nature. However, Renée Conroy argues that the purpose of documentation is vital in order “to enable today’s dancers to have a more robust kinaesthetic understanding of the works that pave the way for contemporary choreographic masters”.[19] By having more access to documents that record dances and dancers in their historical context, choreographers will be able to study the technical aspects of dance in a way that they may have not previously explored. Having a stronger focus on historical records of dance; including notation scores, photographs and pictures, and notes, could improve the choreographic process for many a company, and bringing dance documentation out of shoeboxes and old journals could improve the overall standing of dance history. Had the sketches of Valentine Gross been ignored, for example, a wealth of essential information on the Sacre, and several others of Nijinsky’s ballets, would have been lost. In his introduction to her works, Buckle praises her efforts: “dancers, choreographers and historians must for ever be grateful to her for the pains she took.”[20] While most methods of dance documentation – even film – are arguably unsuccessful in completely capturing a performance, documentation should still be treated as a vital part of the production process. Without it, many productions would be lost to history.

There is also the argument, as Sarah Rubidge puts it, that “works are artistically valuable in themselves, and should be made available to contemporary audiences for their intrinsic, rather than solely for their historical, value.”[21] Ballet enthusiasts should be able to relive the productions of the past in as much detail as possible; not just to learn, but to enjoy. If dance documentation continues to evolve in the digital age, those wanting to re-experience a production should not have to analyse sketches and score fragments, but instead should be able to watch the performance from their own homes or their local theatre and performance collections. With virtual reality making its way into the arts, balletomanes may even have the chance to relive ballets in a totally immersive experience. While many companies have put up 360 degree videos of rehearsals and behind-the-scenes featurettes before, the Dutch National Ballet were the first company to premiere a ballet that was created and produced for virtual reality. The show, ‘Night Fall’ was created in conjunction with the Samsung virtual reality department, premiered with free access online on World Ballet Day in 2016, and was also available to watch at the VR cinema in Amsterdam on the weekend of the 27th of August. This ground-breaking event highlights the third reason that dance should be documented; for posterity, for the dance itself, and also for the wider opening of access to the arts. Richard Heideman, press manager for the Dutch National Opera & Ballet, told Digital Trends that “it is also meant to see if we can reach a new audience with this project. We intended to reach out to people who would normally not buy a ticket to a theater or ballet performance, but are willing to try the VR project — and we hope it gets them inspired and excited to also try the live on stage experience one day.”[22]

Not only is documentation essential for reconstructing the ballets of the past, but it should also be used to introduce more people to the ballet of the present. Valentine Gross’s sketches were sold to tourists and ballet lovers in programmes as Le Sacre du Printemps played in Paris. These pictures were no doubt regarded fondly by those who never made it to the original, seven-show run, as they are regarded fondly by dance historians and enthusiasts today. As dance documentation evolves further into the digital age, it should continue make wider access to live performance art a priority.

Bibliography

Anderson, Jack. “THE JOFFREY BALLET RESTORES NIJINSKY’S ‘RITE OF SPRING.’” The New York Times. October 25, 1987. http://www.nytimes.com/1987/10/25/arts/the-joffrey-ballet-restores-nijinsky-s-rite-of-spring.html?pagewanted=all&pagewanted=print.

Conroy, Renee. “Dancework Reconstruction: Kinesthetic Preservation or Danceworld Kitsch?” American Society for Aesthetics, 2016, 5–9.

David, Irving. “Choreography and Copyright – Make the Right Moves.” Dance UK, 2012. http://www.danceuk.org/news/article/choreography-and-copyright/.

Dormehl, Luke. “The World’s First Virtual Reality Ballet Experience.” Digital Trends, 2016.

Fügedi, János. “Computer Applications in the Field of Dance Notation.” Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 2/4, no. 39 (1998): 421–41.

Gray, Judith A. “Dance Technology: Current Applications and Future Trends.” In The Evolution of Dance Technology. The American Alliance for Health, Physical Educations, Recreation and Dance, 1989.

Hodson, Millicent. Nijisnky’s Crime Against Grace: Reconstruction Score of the Original Choreography for Le Sacre Du Printemps. Pendragon Press, 1996.

Hugo, Valentine. Nijinsky On Stage. Edited by Jean Hugo and Richard Buckle. First. London: Studio Vista Publishers, 1971.

Jarvinen, Hannah. “Kinesthesia, Synesthesia and Le Sacre Du Printemps: Responses to Dance Modernism.” The Senses and Society 1, no. 1 (2006).

Koegler, Horst. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet. London: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Little, Meredith. “Recent Research in European Dance, 1400-1800.” Early Music 14, no. 1 (1986): 4–14. doi:10.1093/earlyj/14.1.4.

Rubidge, Sarah. “Reconstruction and Its Problems.” Dance Journal 2, no. 1 (1995).

V&A Collection. “Le Sacre Du Printemps | Gross, Valentine | V&A Search the Collections.” Accessed April 20, 2017. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1253870/le-sacre-du-printemps-drawing-gross-valentine/.

V&A Theatre and Performance Collection. “Le Sacre Du Printemps | Gross, Valentine.” V&A Collections. Accessed April 17, 2017. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1112109/le-sacre-du-printemps-drawing-gross-valentine/.

Wilmer, Celso, Cristiana Lara, and Cristiana Lara Resende. “Illustrations and Nomenclature Stave for Dance Movements: What Visual Communication Can Do for Dance.” Resende Source: Leonardo 31, no. 2 (1998): 111–17. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1576513.

Zile, Judy Van. “What Is the Dance? Implications for Dance Notation” 17, no. 2 (2009): 41–47.

[1] Meredith Little, “Recent Research in European Dance, 1400-1800,” Early Music 14, no. 1 (1986): p. 4

[2] Horst Koegler, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet (London: Oxford University Press, 1977). p. 60

[3] Judy Van Zile, “What Is the Dance? Implications for Dance Notation” 17, no. 2 (2009): 41–47.

[4] Little, “Recent Research in European Dance, 1400-1800.”

[5] Cast sheet: The Human Seasons/After the Rain/Flight Pattern, 18th March 2017, Royal Ballet, London. (London: Royal Opera House, 2017)

[6] Judith A Gray, “Dance Technology: Current Applications and Future Trends,” in The Evolution of Dance Technology (The American Alliance for Health, Physical Educations, Recreation and Dance, 1989).

[7] János Fügedi, “Computer Applications in the Field of Dance Notation,” Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 2/4, no. 39 (1998): 421–41.

[8] Irving David, “Choreography and Copyright – Make the Right Moves,” Dance UK, 2012, http://www.danceuk.org/news/article/choreography-and-copyright/.

[9] Celso Wilmer, Cristiana Lara, and Cristiana Lara Resende, “Illustrations and Nomenclature Stave for Dance Movements: What Visual Communication Can Do for Dance,” Resende Source: Leonardo 31, no. 2 (1998): 111–17, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1576513.

[10] Millicent Hodson, Nijisnky’s Crime Against Grace: Reconstruction Score of the Original Choreography for Le Sacre Du Printemps (Pendragon Press, 1996). (Introduction).

[11] Ibid. p.7

[12] Hannah Jarvinen, “Kinesthesia, Synesthesia and Le Sacre Du Printemps: Responses to Dance Modernism,” The Senses and Society 1, no. 1 (2006). p. 78

[13] Hodson, Nijisnky’s Crime Against Grace: Reconstruction Score of the Original Choreography for Le Sacre Du Printemps., p. 23

[14] De Grineau, Brian. The Pagan “Shimmy Shake” at the Prince’s. July 6, 1921. V&A Theatre and Performance Collection, Blythe House, London.

[15] V&A Theatre and Performance Collection, “Le Sacre Du Printemps | Gross, Valentine,” V&A Collections, accessed April 17, 2017, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1112109/le-sacre-du-printemps-drawing-gross-valentine/.

[16] Valentine Hugo, Nijinsky On Stage, ed. Jean Hugo and Richard Buckle, First (London: Studio Vista Publishers, 1971). p. 12

[17] V&A Collection, “Le Sacre Du Printemps | Gross, Valentine | V&A Search the Collections,” accessed April 20, 2017, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1253870/le-sacre-du-printemps-drawing-gross-valentine/.

[18] Jack Anderson, “THE JOFFREY BALLET RESTORES NIJINSKY’S ‘RITE OF SPRING,’” The New York Times, October 25, 1987, http://www.nytimes.com/1987/10/25/arts/the-joffrey-ballet-restores-nijinsky-s-rite-of-spring.html?pagewanted=all&pagewanted=print.

[19] Renee Conroy, “Dancework Reconstruction: Kinesthetic Preservation or Danceworld Kitsch?,” American Society for Aesthetics, 2016, 5–9. p. 2

[20] Richard Buckle in Hugo, Nijinsky On Stage. p. 14

[21] Sarah Rubidge, “Reconstruction and Its Problems,” Dance Journal 2, no. 1 (1995).

[22] Luke Dormehl, “The World’s First Virtual Reality Ballet Experience,” Digital Trends, 2016.

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.

UPDATE: 30/7/2017 Ada’s completed essay is now available Notes Made in the Theatre and in the Dark.

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.

fullsizerender

(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)

On Documenting Performance and Suzanne Briet

This post was written by Tom Ash, and originally appeared on his blog ‘Adventures in Library and Information Science‘ on 28/11/16.

Tom’s reference to Toni Sant’s presentation, and indeed, Toni’s presentation per se, highlights the differences and connections between the concepts of documents, and the processes of documentation.

These terms appear straightforward in meaning, but on closer examination, prove more complex.

Briet suggests that the definition of a document may be considered from a wide conceptual basis, beyond a text, to include paintings, sculptures and even animals. The issue being whether the entity stands as ‘evidence in support of fact’.

It is widely deemed that the processes of documentation aim to record the endeavors and the outputs of humankind. To maintain ‘the record’. Documentation is about collecting, organising and interpreting the ‘evidence’ or the documents, to allow for use/reuse at a future time.

But what exactly do we mean by ‘the record’? Are there different sorts of ‘record’? Is ‘the record’ ever complete? How much ‘evidence’ is needed to form ‘the record’. Can a single ‘document’ fully represent ‘the record’?

We could consider that documents, in themselves, provide only a partial representation of an event, an idea or concept. That they only partially represent ‘the record’. Whilst the goal of documentation is to create, ideally, a complete record of an phenomenon or happening,  the work is undertaken within the context of the availabe ‘documents’. As complete a record as possible is facilitated by the instantiation, dissemination, indexing, organisation, understanding and interlinking of documents.

Ideally, one could imagine that the purpose of documentation is to create such an accurate record of an event, that the ‘reader’ (viewer, participant, audience, player), cannot distinguish between an original event and a ‘playback’ from the library or archive.

This latter experience is afforded by what I have referred to as  ‘immersive‘ documents.

There is much to consider here: how does documentation of a book, or a newspaper, differ from documentation of performance? Can we reconcile and even integrate the approaches to documentation, from LIS and performance studies?

The work of Briet, and other documentalists, is worth examination, and Tom’s thoughtful post here takes a step in that direction.

LR 29/11/2016

On 31st October #citylis hosted an fascinating event called The Future of Documents: Documenting Performance. The one day interdisciplinary symposium was intended to “bring together scholars, researchers, artists and practitioners from the disciplines of library & information science and theatre & performance, to share and consider respective conceptual views of documents, and the processes and procedures associated with documentation1

The event was ‘sold out‘ with attendees from a wide range of performance organisations as well as library and information scientists and a contingent of interested #citylis students, including myself, in the capacity of both technical support and attendee.

The event was organised by Dr Lyn Robinson and Joseph Dunne of Rose Bruford College, born out their mutual interest in the documentation of participatory experience, performance and partially-immersive, or complex documents, described by Robinson as:

“.. (these documents) provide the reader (player, participant, viewer) with a compelling and realistic world, but one which is delineated to varying extents from actual reality. The reader knows that they, and the document with which they are engaging, are a part of the real world (for want of a better phrase). This is in contrast to the experience delivered by fully immersive-document (as yet theoretical) where the reader cannot distinguish between the unreality and reality, and the interface between human and computer is invisible and frictionless.”2

The day was arranged into 3 acts or sessions. In the first session, Documents and Documentation, the focus was on how memory institutions document performance. Following on from that Exploring Performance as a Document looked at how we can document non-traditional aspects of performance. The third and final act, Beyond the Boundaries, considered what should be documented from newer forms of performance.

Performance Documents or Performance Documentation?

Following a warm welcome and introduction from Lyn and Joseph, the first session featured an excellent talk by Toni Sant, titled The Future of Documenting Performance: Plenty of Performance Documents but Not Enough Performance Documentation. Sant has a background in Performance Studies, (holding an MA and PhD from New York University) has also lectured on performance and digital technology, in Malta, New York, and most recently he has worked in the United Kingdom as Reader in Digital Curation at the University of  Hull.

In his talk Sant spoke about Documentation from a Library and Information Science perspective and referred to the work of Suzanne Briet, whose manifesto on Documentation Qu’est-ce que la documentation?, was highly influential to a number of LIS thinkers, particularly Michael Buckland, whilst earning her the nickname Madame Documentation. In talking about Performance Documentation Sant used Briet’s definition of a document as ‘evidence in support of fact’ 3 and:

“any physical or symbolic sign, preserved or recorded, intended to represent, to reconstruct, or to  demonstrate a physical or conceptual phenomenon” 

As Buckland states, in his article What is a “document?” the implication of Briet’s work is that Documentation should not be concerned solely with texts, but with access to evidence.3   Sant champions Briet’s work on documentation over those of performance studies scholars such as Peggy Phelan, who claimed in her writings that performance cannot be documented:

 “Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved,  recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations: once it does so it becomes something other than performance”4

Sant went on to argue that documentation of performance is often an afterthought and that there is a tendency to mistake documents for documentation. Documentation he said is the process of storing and organizing documents (physical and digital)  in a systematic way to ensure long-term access.

Sant’s talk was a call to action, saying “forget Peggy Phelan” and arguing there was a need to focus less on documents and more on Documentation.

Connaissez-vous Suzanne Briet? 

Renée-Marie-Hélène-Suzanne Briet was born in Ardennes, 1 February 1894, but grew up in Paris. She was part of a generation of women who would come of age in the wake of the First World War. After spending time as a teacher, Briet began her career in Librarianship, at the Bibliothèque National in 1924, and would not only bear witness to but also influence the development of the Library profession in France as a result of its convergence with the field of Documentation. In his article Suzanne Briet:  An Appreciation Ronald E. Day claims that Briet’s vision of documents and documentation agencies:

“…constituted a revision of librarianship and a radical redefinition of what we consider to be documents.” 5

Recognising the importance of the work of the staff in the national  library, Briet wrote that it was the duty of librarians “to conserve, to catalog, to make [materials] accessible on the one hand; to orient and instruct on the other.6

Her time at the BNF coincided with a great sea of technological change, the year of her appointment (1924) saw the electrification of the 17th century Richelieu building,  she described the effect of this writing:

 “I attended the birth of electricity at the BN. . . . During winter season, and under cloudy skies, all work was impossible in the reading rooms and offices after three in the afternoon. . . . It was an unforgettable spectacle to see the green lamps burst into flower on the tables”7

Administrator Pierre-René Roland-Marcel’s efforts to modernize the services and structure of the BNF led to the creation of the Office of Documentation. In 1928 after remarking that the already ‘overburdened’ staff were struggling to answer written requests for information from the office, as it disrupted their normal activity flow, Briet was assigned responsibility for coordinating all such requests, assigning them to qualified Librarians or forwarding them onto the Office of Documentation, as necessary.8

In 1927 Briet was assigned the task of compiling a directory of special collections held across major French Libraries. At this time she was influenced by the Institute of Intellectual Co-operation (IIC) of the League of Nations, which made a number of recommendations regarding the establishment of national information centres in  national libraries. According to Naack these recommendations included:

 (1) each national library establish a “national information center” where   researchers could find out in which library or special collection the printed materials or documentation they needed would be located; (2) that the national information center be adequately funded and provided with card catalogues, printed bibliographies, biographical sources, union catalogues and directories of  special collections throughout the country; (3) that these national centers be in close contact with one another in  order to answer questions about resources within their home country and to centralize researchers’ requests for information that would need to be answered abroad.9

Over the next two years Roland-Marcel and Briet laid the foundations for such a centre at the BNF,  and developed plans for a Centre d’Orientation that would respond to requests for information from French and international researchers. From 1934 to 1954 Briet was in charge of the Salles des Catalogues et des Bibliographies, more commonly known today as Salle X.

Briet alongside chemist Jean Gérard was responsible for co-founding the Union Française des Organismes de Documentation (UFOD) in 1931, the french equivalent of  ASLIB or the American Documentation Institution.  Soon after she was tasked with surveying documentation centers across the country the results of which were published in a 1935 directory (Répertoire des centres de documentation en France).  In 1937 she attended the World Congress of Universal Documentation, in Paris, alongside other notable figures such as Paul Otlet, Henri De La Fontaine and H.G. Wells, the latter of whom gave a lecture in which he argued that his concept of the ‘world-brain‘(a form of world encylopaedia) was a precursor for the concepts under discussion at the conference.10 

In 1950 Briet became the founding director of studies for the  l’Institut National des Techniques de la Documentation, one of the oldest Library schools in France when the training programme of the UFOD was formally adopted by the prestigious  Conservatoire Nationale des Arts et Metiers. Briet herself was closely involved with the curriculum including being a teacher. The programme was spread over two years and:

“…included a general introduction to selection, acquisitions, cataloging, classification, indexing, diffusion, exploitation, and   reproduction of documents.   The second year focused on research and on documentation in the specialized fields, including the social sciences and economics as well as science and technology.”11

Following on from her interest in ‘professional education’, Briet was awarded a Fulbright grant to visit the United States from 1951 – 52, and whilst there she continued her survey of professional education. According to Maack, she also sought to understand the meaning of ‘reference work’, with a focus on technique rather than technology, and on users and reference services, rather than information retrieval.12

In 1954 at the age of 60, she took early retirement to pursue a 2nd career, as a historian, studying Rimbaud, Rimbaud’s mother and Jean, Comte de Montdejeux. When her memoirs, were  published, in 1976, she arranged them in alphabetical order, dispensing with a chronological order in favour of  presenting her recollections under key words, described by Maack as ‘idiosyncratic’.13

Briet died in Boulogne at the age of 95. When looking reflecting back upon her life and career she expressed the following as summary:

 “At the age of twenty, I had as my motto: ‘To weep perhaps, but never to hate.’ At forty it was: ‘To serve.’ At eighty it could be: ‘To return to the Spirit’ “(l’Esprit) (1976, p.30).

Pour Briet Qu’est-ce que la documentation?

Briet’s treatise on documentation which was published in 1951 by EDIT, the publishing arm of the UFOD, was not some lengthy treatise, but rather a slim volume stretching to around 37 pages long. It largely went unnoticed outside of France until the publication of Michael Buckland’s What is a Document? in 1997.

It begins with the definition of a document, not in terms of material objects such as the book that Paul Otlet, favoured, but by declaring, “Un document est une preuve à l’appui d’un fait” “A document is evidence in support of a fact.” She then provides a more detailed definition claiming that a document is:

“any concrete or symbolic indexical sign[indice], preserved or recorded towards the ends of representing, of reconstituting, or of proving a physical or intellectual phenomenon.”14

Briet’s definition, dispenses with the notion of tieing documents to a physical format and instead focuses on a wider definition of documents, giving an example as follows:

“Is a star a document? Is a pebble rolled by a torrent a document? Is a living animal a document? No. But the photographs and the catalogues of stars, the stones in a museum of mineralogy , and the animals that are cataloged and shown in a zoo, are documents.”15

Briet’s explanation of documents is that objects can be documents when placed into a system such as a taxonomy, catalogue, or indice. Most famously she claims that even an Antelope could be a document, in the circumstance of it being a newly discovered species placed inside a botanical garden:

“Let us admire the documentary fertility of a simple originary fact: for example, an antelope of a new kind has been encountered in Africa by an explorer who has succeeded in capturing an individual that is then brought back  to Europe for our Botanical Garden [Jardin de Plantes]. A press release makes the event known by newspaper, by radio, and by newsreels. The discovery becomes the topic of an announcement at the Academy of Sciences. A professor of the Museum discusses it in his courses.The living animal is placed in a cage and cataloged (zoological garden). Once it is dead, it will be stuffed and preserved (in the Musuem). It is loaned to an Exposition. It is played on a soundtrack at the cinema. Its voice recorded on a disk. The first monograph serves to establish part of a treatise with plates, then a special encyclopedia(zoological), then  general encyclopedia. The works are cataloged in a Library, after having been announced at publication…The documents that relate to this event are the object of scientific classifying (fauna) and of an ideologic [idéologique] classifying (classification). Their ultimate conservation and utilization are determined by some general techniques and by methods that apply to all documents-methods that are studied in national association and international Congresses.”16

Lastly she argues “The cataloged antelope is an initial and the other documents are secondary or derived.” By this reasoning objects such as paintings, sculpture, photographs and films are documents, and even a person being studied perhaps for scientific, medical or anthropological reasons could be described as a document. Michael Buckland, in his article about Briet’s definition argues that although she doesn’t make her rules explicit the following can be inferred about defining documents:

Briet’s rules for determining when an object has become a document are not made clear. We infer, however, from her discussion that:

1. There is materiality: Physical objects and physical signs only;

2. There is intentionality: It is intended that the object be treated as evidence;

3. The objects have to be processed: They have to be made into documents; and, we think,

4. There is a phenomenological position: The object is perceived to be a document.

This situation is reminiscent of discussions of how an image is made art by framing it as art. Did Briet mean that just as “art” is made art by “framing” (i.e. treating) it as art, so an object becomes a “document” when it is treated as a document, i.e. as a physical or symbolic sign, preserved or recorded, intended to represent, to reconstruct, or to demonstrate a physical or conceptual phenomenon?17

Wild Antelopes

Returning to performance and performance documentation, we must ask what can Briet’s rules and Buckland’s interpretation of them tell us about how we document performance? Taking the rules as defined above the performance itself is not a document, any more than a wild antelope running around the plains of Africa, but writings, photographs, sound recordings and so forth of the performance can be considered documents. And these documents can, it could be said, in the spirit of Briet’s original assertion, be considered as the “evidence in support of fact” that the performance exists or took place in that they are “intended to represent, to reconstruct, or to  demonstrate a physical or conceptual phenomenon”.

 – Fin –

References

  1. Robinson, L. (2016 )Documenting Performance: the backstory.
  2. ibid
  3. Buckland, M.K. (1997)”What Is a “Document”?”, Journal of the American Society for Information Science 48(9) pp. 804-809.
  4. Phelan, P. (2003) Unmarked : The Politics of Performance (1), Routledge, Florence, US. Available from: ProQuest ebrary. p.146
  5. Day, R, E. (2006) Suzanne Briet:  An Appreciation.  Bulletin December 2006/ January 2007
  6. Maack, M. N. (2004) The Lady and the Antelope: Suzanne Briet’s Contribution to the French Documentation Movement. Library Trends 52(4): 719-747 
  7. Briet 1976:66 in Maack 2004
  8. Maack
  9. ibid
  10. World Congress of Universal Documentation En.wikipedia.org. (2016). World Congress of Universal Documentation

  11. Maack

  12. ibid
  13. Briet, S. 1976 l’Esprit 1976, p.30 In Maack 2004
  14. Briet, S 1951 p.10 in Briet, S., Day, R. E., Martinet, L., & Anghelescu, H., G., B. (2006). What is documentation? : English translation of the classic French text. Scarecrow Press.
  15. ibid
  16. ibid
  17. Buckland, M.K. (1997)”What Is a “Document”?”, Journal of the American Society for Information Science 48(9) pp. 804-809.

Further reading

How do we document performance?


This post is by Louise Wallace, who attended our Symposium on Documenting Performance on 31/10/16. Here Louise writes about the presentations, and the concepts of ‘whose point of view’, and ‘who for’, in respect to documentation. This post first appeared on Louise’s blog (a library odyssey) on November 6th.

On Monday I attended a symposium at City, called ‘The Future of Documents: documenting performance’. As both a library school student and someone with an embarrasingly large collection of theatre programmes and tickets, this was bound to be a fascinating and enjoyable event! The day left me with a lot to think about, especially the different ways in which we document performance, whose point of view we are documenting, and who we are doing it for.

The first speaker of the day was Toni Sant, and he called for a focus on “documentation” rather than just “documents”. I think that for me this means thinking about the purpose of documentation and what future users will get from it, rather than being dismissive of traditional “documents” themselves.

What we might think of as traditional documents related to performing arts are scripts, programmes, posters, photographs, technical plans, designs, reviews and articles. Liz Harper told us about her work at the Royal Albert Hall, and how their archives are used for education and promotion. A wonderful example of this is the mural by Peter Blake, composed of photos of performers drawn from the archive, which now adorns the entrance hall.

Interactive version and quiz of the Peter Blake mural: http://appearing.royalalberthall.com/

It was exciting to hear from Jenny Fewster about the development of AusStage, a database of performing art events, venues and resources in Australia. Ramona Riedzewski from the V&A spoke about their collaboration, using AusStage as a basis for creating a database for UK performing arts. An “IMDB for the performing arts” sounds like it would be a fantastic resource for researchers, professionals and enthusiasts alike!

Video is another way of documenting performance, normally from the point of view of the audience. Archival videos are often filmed with a single static camera, such as those filmed for the National Video Archive of Performance held at the V&A, or for the British Library’s collection. Other, multi-camera recordings are made for commercial use, such as for National Theatre Live or Digital Theatre. Stacie Lee Bennett spoke about the use of hand-held cameras and GoPros in developing training resources for actors and dancers, using the camera to capture the performer’s perspective. GoPros were also suggested as a way of creating an immersive experience of a perfomance, with multiple possible viewpoints.

Sound recordings are also used as a way of documenting performance. Eva del Rey spoke about the British Library’s Drama and Literature recordings, which include gems such as the only known recordings of James Joyce’s voice (reading from Ulysses), as well as oral histories and audio recordings of live performances. The BL’s ‘Save Our Sounds’ project highlights the problem of format obsolescence and degredation (or “plastic-rot”) which affects archives such as these.

Listen to James Joyce reading from Ulysses: http://blogs.bl.uk/english-and-drama/2013/04/james-joyce-on-record.html

Audio recordings can be a better choice for documenting performance, as Yaron Shyldkrot demonstrated in his paper about theatre in the dark. In this case, there is a focus on the atmosphere of anxiety and isolation created by being in complete darkness. This feeling can be recreated more effectively using sound and headphones, rather than trying to film or photograph the performers.

It was great to hear about documenting another aspect of performance when Hansjorg Schmidt spoke about The Library of Light. I think it is exciting to explore the different ways of documentation that are possible, for example the use of network technologies, as explored by Zeta Kolokythopoulou in her presentation. She described the use of livestreaming and Twitter in Forced Entertainment’s Speak Bitterness, which encouraged audience members all over the world to partipate with their own contributions using the hashtag #FESpeaklive.

Article by Time Etchells of Forced Entertainment about Speak Bitterness: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/oct/16/speak-bitterness-confessions-forced-entertainment-live-stream-tim-etchells

An interesting comment came from an attendee, suggesting that we should not dismiss the effectiveness of a paper document over current trends for video and technology, for example the prompt book (a master copy of the script, annotated with the actors’ moves and technical cues), which may be a better record of a complex performance. It is important to think about who we are documenting performance for and what future users will want to get from it, whether it is the perfomers or companies themselves, audience or researchers, or all of the above.

The question of whether a performance can ever be truly documented, or if it is a unique live experience that cannot be captured is an interesting and, I expect, eternal one. However, the importance of the documention that is possible cannot be ignored, as was demonstrated by the breadth of possibilities explored at this event. I would like to thank all of the speakers, and I am sorry that I have not managed to mention every one in this post!

See the full programme and abstracts here.

The event on Storify.

APAC (Association of Performing Arts Collections): http://www.performingartscollections.org.uk/

Left in Sehgal’s darkness


This post is by  James Hobbs, who attended our Symposium about Documenting Performance on 31st October 2016. Here James reflects on the session presented by Yaron Shyldkrot, Documenting Darkness. This post originally appeared on James’ blog on November 4th 2016.

Left in Sehgal’s darkness

When the Berlin-based artist Tino Sehgal has a new exhibition, it can be hard to find out what is going to take place. He forbids any of the normal digital or paper trails of exhibition marketing and publicity: there are no videos of the work, no catalogues or wall texts. Even contracts with the exhibition organisers are verbal only.

Sehgal’s name came was mentioned in The Future of Documents: Documenting Performance, a symposium at City, University of London on 31 October 2016. Yaron Shyldkrot, who is working on a PhD at the University of Surrey, was talking about documenting darkness in theatre and dance, and the disorientation and uncertainty it creates for viewers. “You can’t be in the same picture as the dark,” as the writer and performer Chris Goode puts it. Sehgal has used darkness in some past works, which usually involve performers interacting spontaneously with spectators, leaving no physical residue once they are finished.

documentingperformance

Yaron Shyldkrot presenting at #docperform 31/10/16 by James Hobbs

The darkness of Sehgal’s non-documentary approach shone out for me during the day. It is an approach that “minimises discourse to maximise the experience”, the curator of his new show at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris says. The question of just who performances are being documented for was a recurring question through the day of the symposium. While many performers, choreographers and archivists recognise the importance of retaining at least some tangible form of memory of a fleeting moment, Sehgal turns that on its head, leaving us, metaphorically and sometimes literally, in the dark.

This way of working, it seems to me, is less about the artist leaving documented legacy (his approach is very well documented, if not his work), and more about his anti-market views and myth constructing. (Would he be as well known if he did allow his work to be documented?) But even in our age of the ubiquitous camera, he encourages us to focus on the moment of the performance rather than see it through a lens or discuss it to oblivion. And it certainly frees up time for archivists to get on with other things.

It was a great thought-provoking day – thanks to Lyn Robinson and Joseph Dunne for organising it.