Benesh dance scores: key contributions to the Royal Ballet in London

In February 2020, I was invited as a choreologist by the Royal Ballet company to restage Live Fire Exercise (2011) by the choreographer Wayne McGregor at the Royal Opera House from Amanda Eyles’ Benesh score. It was going to be (and hopefully, still will be!) the first time this piece was restaged, but the 2020 season was interrupted (then canceled) due to the virus. Thanks to the invitation of the Centre Benesh (France), this article offers the opportunity to share my experience nonetheless.  Thanks to this and by accepting the unfinished (or should we say?) the living nature of everything in life, I am very happy to tell you about my founding experience at the ROH and put some considerations in writing, which everyone who cares about the transmission process of ballet will want to know about. 

  1. Dance scores: lasting records and essential tools of transmission at the Royal Ballet.

Since the 1950s, the Royal Ballet in London has been using the dance notation system created by Joan and Rudolf Benesh. In fact, most major dance companies do this, and here’s to hoping that the ones who don’t, will do so very soon!

What is more, the Royal Ballet’s team of notators is always involved when new ballets are created or when past works are restaged. They are key contributors to the creative process, thanks to which, restaging can also happen more quickly. Moreover, every time a new piece is created, the choreographer’s style and artistic vision are perfectly recorded for future use. 

It was incredibly stimulating for me to see the notators working on several scores in the office they share at the ROH. How could I not be moved by the many scores carefully organised on the walls! In order to ensure high standards in their dance scores, they take into account the dancers’ unique knowledge of choreographic works, when they work together with repetitors in the studio. That is what I had the pleasure and honor of doing for Wayne McGregor’s Live Fire Exercise

  1. Amanda Eyles’ original Benesh dance score of Live Fire Exercise(2011). 

Thanks to Amanda Eyles, who wrote the dance score of the original production, I could already start learning Wayne McGregor’s choreographic work 5-6 weeks before going to London. Dance scores generally are a very powerful tool for transmission and keep a reliable and complete record of a piece. Working with Amanda’s score, let me appreciate her in-depth knowledge of the piece and remarkable Benesh notation skills. 

A video of Live Fire Exercise (2011) offers a good overview of the piece, which no doubt has its benefits. But it definitely isn’t enough to learn Live Fire Exercise quickly, easily, and most importantly accurately. How frustrating, for instance, that you can’t see the dancers’ movements when the stage lights are dark. Every detail matters.

In McGregor’s pieces, dancers are encouraged to personally explore individual moves in order to surpass themselves in every performance. This is intrinsic to the British choreographer’s artistic intent and really brings his pieces to life. Clearly, a video isn’t enough to ensure that level of subjectivity. The video captures only one personal interpretation during one performance of one cast, so you really don’t want to diminish the quality when restaging it.  Thankfully, it is explicitly mentioned in the score by Amanda. Even in the uncertain times the world is facing today, this element of certainty liberates the full potential of physicality.

  1. In no time thanks to Benesh! 

The principals often work on 5-6 different pieces in a single week. Do you think you’ve got a minute to lose? No, the dancers need very concise instructions from the repetitor and choreologist in every rehearsal. 

It was reassuring for me to know that many dancers of the new production’s two casts already knew his style. Several had even performed the original work in 2011. Their skills, intuition, and capacity for expression made it incredibly exciting to work with them. It also was extremely valuable when Gary Avis, one of the Royal Ballet’s experienced repetitors, joined us in the studio.

When I acted as the repetitor, it was wonderful to be able to share clear instructions about the choreography, including the intrinsically organic nature of McGregor’s choreography. I could even answer any questions about Michael Tippett’s music, including any differences between music phrases and movement phrases. Thanks to the score I could also say which body part leads the movement. When necessary, anything could be checked with a quick glance at the score! Without Benesh notation, it would have been impossible to transmit everything accurately.

Notation is precise, which is required when working with excellent dancers and genius choreographers. Benesh dance scores are the most reliable and therefore most efficient tool that make sure you don’t waste anyone’s time.

Charlotte Siepiora

Special thanks to Nicola Marian Taylor for the proofreading.

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