How the Emergence of Dance Notation Shed Light on Choreography's Muted Historical Record
Dance is a performing art, and before the invention of image-capturing technology, its record was a difficult thing to preserve. The survival of any dance work depends either on it being preserved through continuous and uninterrupted tradition, or on it being written down. But, not every written documentation of movement falls under the term dance notation, which — according to Britannica — is the “recording of dance movement through the use of written symbols”; “a system through which actual dance movements (as opposed to positions) could be captured and subsequently faithfully reconstructed.”
Evidence of dance records dates all the way back to the ancient Egyptians, who used hieroglyphs to represent dance movements, but what is considered to be the first true notation system was actually found in Cervera, Catalonia. Dating back to 1496, the “Catalan Manuscript” consists of two pages that contain the first known “use of signs to represent the letter abbreviations [for the five well-known steps] used in Renaissance Italy, France, and Spain to record the popular” court dances, otherwise known as low dances or basse danses. It appears that the “choreographic notation used in the Cervera Manuscript is unique” and a highly advanced conception.
By the 17th century, however, certain dances — and court ballets in particular — involved increasingly complex floor patterns. This led to the emergence of track-drawing systems, the most famous and sophisticated of which is Choreography, or the Art of Describing the Dance (1700) originated by French ballet teacher Pierre Beauchamp (1636 — 1705) and published by his student, dancer and choreographer Raoul-Auger Feuillet (1675 — 1710). Beauchamp and Feuillet “broke up the steps into their mechanical parts, invented symbols for each of those parts, and organized them temporally by bars on the progression line. [The] bars reflect the temporal sequence of the steps according to the musical score.”
Beauchamp and Feuillet, however, were unable to record movement in the upper part of the body. “Indications for the appropriate arm gestures were later developed to accompany the intricacies of the footwork.” Unlike many previous forms of notation, the Beauchamp-Feuillet system “uses the space in which the dance takes place — a square or rectangular room — as a page on which the body moves like a hieroglyph, making the writing.” The dance notation system quickly spread throughout Europe and gained substantial popularity until the French Revolution, when dance for the educated classes at the royal courts declined, and the notation system — “which was unsuited to theatre dance with its greater range of movement — fell into disuse.”