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. The only culture without dance is fundamentalist Protestantism, which inexplicably ignores the biblical instruction that there is “a time to dance.”
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, over and over again.
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. At their best, these performers can use motion and music to bring tears to your eyes, or joy to your heart.
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 give a talk one day about his new Firebird 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 further 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 took 50 words to describe three seconds of dance.
Does Mills write 120,000 words (the equivalent of a 250-page 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’d be 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 Choreographics. She found that most early systems were unique to the type of dance being recorded, but were useless when applied to other forms. Not until the 18th century did ballet masters begin developing systems that were based on the human body’s full range of movement.
A Russian ballet dancer named Vladimir Ivanovich Stepanov created one of these systems in 1892 when he published Alphabets of Movements of the Human Body. He had sat down with elderly dancers and asked them to recall a ballet that had not been performed in 50 years. He used his system to record those memories on paper. When he was able to stage a successful performance, the Russian Imperial Ballet made the Stepanov system its official notation. Written on musical staff paper, it shows an aerial view of the back-up dancers, and then individual markings for the lead dancers. Original notations for Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Giselle and many other classic ballets were made using Stepanov’s system. Just as you can see the paper on which Mozart wrote his symphonies, it is possible to see Marius Petipa’s original choreography for the Sugarplum Fairy.
Does that mean Mills and Martin look to Stepanov’s script when 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. Most ballet dancers can trace their tradition through their teachers to the Imperial ballet, where Pepita first staged it.
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 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 past nine years of war in Iraq.”
Just as hemlines and suit lapels change with the times, so does ballet.
Next season, Ballet Austin plans to perform La Sylphide, one of the world’s oldest surviving romantic ballets. Danish master August Bournonoville created the choreography and the Royal Danish Ballet has performed it regularly since 1836. So how does Mills stage an ancient work that his troupe has never performed before?
“I’ve performed some of the solos from it and some of the information comes from research, some comes from being in the studio, some of it comes from video. The style of the ballet is very particular,” Mills says. “We all come with a lot of different experiences, and going into the studio is what that’s all about, bringing them together.”
But what about his new ballets? How does the game of telephone begin?
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 was required to learn 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 Michelle, her notation makes perfect sense. To anyone else, it is an alien language.
“As I’m making my notes, I’m trying to not only write down what I am seeing and thinking, but also what the choreographer is saying,” Martin says. “The process of putting it on paper helps me remember the things that aren’t going to be on a video, things that have to do with the intended effect of a step. Sometimes they are very specific details, like it needs to happen on this exact count. Other times it is a metaphor, or an analogy, and I can go back over my notes and remember this is what the image was.”
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 admits that once a new set of dancers takes 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 different,” Mills says. “I think that’s what’s great about dance, it’s not precious. It’s always moving, it’s always morphing, that’s what makes it interesting to me.”
He adds: “Dancers hear information, but in the end, it’s in their hands to do, so you have to be able to trust them.”
Next year, Mills will debut a new ballet set to Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute. He will polish his ideas and begin painstaking rehearsals with his dancers to create the new work. Martin will be sitting nearby, pencil in hand, taking notes. A new ballet will emerge, but its future will depend on dance fans and dancers. They will decide if it becomes part of a repertoire passed down through the generations, or survives only in Martin’s notes, tucked away in Ballet Austin’s archives.