Dancing on the Page

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Jen Reel / Texas Observer
Michelle Martin, associate artistic director of Ballet Austin, leads a rehearsal.

Almost every culture dances. In Texas, we two-step. In Austria, they waltz. The Congolese do the soukous. And the tango is required learning in Argentina.

Popular dances can range from the formal to the obscene, but for most of us, they consist of a few simple steps that are repeated, with variation.

Beyond swaying and shuffling, though, are the higher forms: choreographed dances performed by professionals, sometimes involving dozens or hundreds of people moving for hours. Ballet is perhaps the most advanced.

Ballet Austin, despite its modest size, creates top-rated dance. The man responsible is artistic director Stephen Mills, one of the country’s top young choreographers of contemporary ballet. Troupes across the country have performed his Hamlet, set to music by Philip Glass. I was listening to Mills talk about his new Firebird at a preview event when I began to wonder how he records his choreography. Then I watched as a ballerina took to her toes, leaned hard to the right, swept her arms behind her, cocked her head even farther to the right, strained her eyes to the left, and then ran in a half circle across the stage. How do you write that down? I just used 40 words to describe three seconds of dance.

Does Mills write the equivalent of a book to describe the movements of every dancer in every two-hour ballet he creates? And how does he synchronize those movements to the music?

“I don’t write anything down. Does anybody write anything down?” Mills asks in a later conversation, with a sly smile at Michelle Martin, the associate artistic director.

Martin responds with an eye roll you could see from the back of a theater, a skill she learned as a top ballerina. After retirement, she became the ballet mistress at Ballet Austin, where part of her job is to record and recreate the steps, motions, and flourishes exactly the way Mills creates them. If you think a video camera can do this alone, you are wrong.

Keeping a ballet alive for the ages, it turns out, is an art in itself.

Since words alone are clearly inadequate for recording a dance, choreographers as early as the 15th century looked to the music staff to notate their work. Dance historian Ann Hutchison Guest examined the systems developed over the years in her book Choreo-Graphics. She found that most early systems were unique to the type of dance being recorded, but were useless when they were applied to other forms. Not until the 18th century did ballet masters begin developing systems based on the human body’s full range of movement.

A Russian ballet dancer, Vladimir Ivanovich Stepanov, created one of these systems in 1892, and it became the official notation of the Russian Imperial Ballet. Written on musical staff paper, it shows an aerial view of the backup dancers and individual markings for the lead dancers. Original notations for Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Giselle, and many other classic ballets were made using this system.

Does that mean Mills and Martin look to Stepanov’s script when their troupe is performing a classic? Well, no.

 “All dancers grow up learning classic ballets like Swan Lake. It is passed on from generation to generation,” Martin explains.

But doesn’t that amount to a 120-year game of telephone, with each generation altering the original message just a little bit? Absolutely.

“If someone came from the mid-1800s and visited us here in the theater today, they would be shocked and amazed at what they would see,” Mills tells me. “Bodies have changed so dramatically over the past 100 years, even over the last 30 years. The caliber of dance has raised because the level of pedagogy has raised. We learn more and build upon that knowledge.”

So the Swan Lake of today is not the Swan Lake performed in 1892?

“Art always builds on itself and what is happening in the community, what’s happening in music, what’s happening in fashion, what’s happening politically,” Mills says. “Artists right now are really working in a very minimal kind of way. Ten years ago, they were working in a neo-baroque, over-the-top way. I don’t know if it has to do with the economic times in which we live, or the war in Iraq.”

Just as hemlines and suit lapels change with the times, so does ballet.

Michelle Martin is the Stepanov of Ballet Austin. When Mills, or a visiting choreographer, is creating a new work, she’s in the studio with pencil and paper taking notes as the dance takes shape. As a ballet student, she learned Benesh notation, a system that resembles sheet music.

“It is very labor intensive,” Martin says. “I have my own kind of shorthand that uses dance terminology and notes that I make as we go. But it has very little to do with traditional dance notation.”

She writes on a white legal pad, and by the time she is done the pages are rubbed thin from repeated erasing after the choreographer and the dancers changed their minds. Along the red margin she keeps track of time in both beats and minutes. Her notes mix English and French words with abbreviations that resemble mathematic equations. Arrows point in different directions to boxes with words in them. To Martin, her notation makes perfect sense. To anyone else, it is an alien language.

When another ballet troupe decides to perform one of Mills’ original works, Martin moves to that city for several weeks. She shows the new dancers a video and then sets to work using her notes to teach them how to build the ballet.

When most of the work is done and the dancers are nearing their dress rehearsal, Mills will pay a visit to make sure his moves have been faithfully recreated. At that point, his ballet will have become part of another dancer’s repertoire, taking on new life, to be passed down from dancer to dancer.

Mills says he has absolute trust in Martin’s loyalty to his vision, but he acknowledges that once a new set of dancers take on his work, the ballet can’t help but evolve.

“It’s a very subjective art form. People remember things differently; I remember things differently. From a ballet I made just a month ago, I will remember things differently,” Mills says.

“That’s what’s great about dance: It’s not precious. It’s always moving, it’s always morphing.”

Excerpted from The Texas Observer (May 28, 2010), a truth-telling nonprofit biweekly that should be the envy of every state.www.texasobserver.org

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