How’s Choreography Recorded?

Pirouette, port de bras, plié—is there a way to write it down?

This year, the dance world is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of legendary choreographer George Balanchine, and companies from New York to Sydney to Seattle are staging performances of his work. But since many of his original dances were never filmed, how do we know what they looked like?

Before the advent of visual technologies like video and film, dance was almost impossible to record. Music has scores and plays have scripts, but dance has always defied attempts to create a written system of symbolic representation. Obviously, it is difficult to use two-dimensional figures to indicate movements through time and space (although two 20th-century notation systems, Labanotation and Benesh, have achieved modest success). But for the most part, the adoption of a written system has been constrained by the dance community’s reliance on its oral tradition.

The history of Western classical dance begins with the founding of the first dancing academy by Louis XIV in 1661. From there, the fundamentals of ballet technique were built up over centuries and passed down through schools rather than by a literature of dance. Teachers trained students who, in turn, grew up to become dance teachers. Since ballet requires strict body control and clearly defined positions, these generations of teachers were able to develop a working vocabulary—for all those port de bras and pliés that still torment young students—that could be universally understood by practitioners. This language, codified by Jean-Georges Noverre in the 18th century, created a way to talk about the mechanics of dance, but the art of it was still recorded primarily in the memories of the performers and their audience.

It is the choreographer—part creator, part teacher—who represents the human link to the works and traditions of the past and it is he who shapes, through instruction, the dancers of the future. Indeed, the Russian-born Balanchine is regarded by many as the pivotal figure in 20th-century dance in large part because he founded and sustained the first American ballet company, creating the medium through which European traditions of classical ballet were brought to the New World. But Balanchine was also an innovative choreographer, and he, like all choreographers, depended on his students to carry on his legacy. We know what early Balanchine dances looked like not because there is archival footage of them but because a younger generation of dancers in his company learned his technique, soaked up his philosophy, and performed his works—and then went out and trained the next generation to perform Balanchine dances of their own. 

Even today, despite the advent of video, a choreographer without disciples is in constant danger of having his work fade away after his death. Video can capture the external form and movement, and notation the positions, but the philosophy and technique of the great choreographers is impossible to get down. That is why so many of the giants of modern dance choreography—Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham—founded their own companies. It also explains why fierce battles can break out among students about how best to carry on the master’s legacy—the schisms resemble those that beset religious groups. The students may be disputing aspects of technique or interpretation, but what they’re really arguing about is the memory of a dance performance they saw long ago.

Next question?

Explainer thanks dance scholar Marilyn Lawrence for help with this question.