Rudolf Benesh and the Notation System

  • Rudolf Benesh and the Notation System
27 Aug 2022
In 1957, a choreology institute was established in London after obtaining the copyright for Benesh Movement Notation, which was named after its creators. Since 1962, Benesh dance writing training has been provided at this institute. The first work written in the Benesh system was the Petrouchka ballet, authored by Joan Benesh in 1957. In 1962, the Benesh Institute of Choreology was established to develop the system, oversee its progress, protect the copyright of ballet works, and archive and preserve these works.

Usage Areas
The Benesh movement writing system, initially created to preserve classical ballet works, has extended to all areas of movement due to its capability to serve as a universal notation for human movements. The system is applied in dance, medicine, and technology. It is used to document new treatment methods for children with disabilities and the hearing impaired, and to transfer and implement treatment methods employed by physiotherapists in their scientific studies.

Benesh Notation System in Turkiye
The writing system, originally created for ballet, was developed by experts in various fields and divided into specialized branches. One of these branches is Turkish Folk Dances Benesh Movement Notation. In 1962, Suna Şenel was sent to London by Valois with a British Council scholarship to receive training in movement notation. She completed her four-year education in 18 months, taking intensive lessons from Rudolf and Joan Benesh, and in February 1964, she became the third choreologist to complete the advanced notation program and the first choreologist in Turkey. After graduation, she taught at the Royal Ballet School and the White Lodge and worked with Joan Benesh on the writing of notation theory books.

Using Gestures with the Writing System
To notate movements with this system, the dancer's feet and hands are noted first, followed by the center of gravity according to the foot position. Knee and elbow bends, head position, and body movements are detailed in sequence. Detailed topics such as steps, jumps, hand-foot contact, and foot contact can be written with symbols in the system.

Basic Symbols and Rules
In the Benesh Movement writing system, movements are represented with specific symbols on a musical stave. On the stave, which consists of five lines and four spaces, the lowest line represents the ground, and the other lines represent the ankle, knee, waist, shoulder, and overhead levels, respectively.

Symbols and Meanings
The dancer's body is visualized on the stave from behind, and symbols corresponding to movements are placed accordingly. In this left-to-right reading system, movements of the right hand and foot are written on the right, and those of the left hand and foot on the left. The system, based on three basic symbols, derives other symbols from these. A short horizontal line indicates a hand or foot aligned with the body, a short vertical line indicates a hand or foot in front of the body, and a dot indicates a hand or foot behind the body. The height and distance of the hands and feet from the midline of the body are visually indicated. A line in the headspace of the stave indicates the head's position when changing direction. A direction sign is placed under the stave when the direction changes.

Symbols by Ballet Positions
 Symbols corresponding to the angle of the feet and hands are written based on the dancer's center of gravity and body levels on the stave. The five basic ballet positions indicate the position of the supporting foot and the working foot, as well as the hands, body, and head.

Symbols by Music Terms
 There are symbols for musical nuances, and the dance is notated in detail. In Benesh movement notation, since movements are written on the stave, movement values are also shown with special symbols in accordance with musical rules. These symbols include the "number" symbol for accents, the "and" symbol for eighth-note values, the "te" and "ti" symbols for sixteenth-note values, and the "de" symbol for a glitch. Notation musical symbols determine the duration of movements and are written above the top line of the stave. These symbols do not have a single duration value like musical notes. For example, the "number" symbol alone has a quarter-note value, while with the "and" symbol, it becomes an eighth-note value. For movements of four beats, the music symbol is omitted; if there is a pause, the "number" symbol is used to indicate silence. Movement and musical lines are written according to the score writing rules, with the measure line of the music stave as a basis. Both movement and musical scores are seen together in examples from Rudolf and Joan Benesh's book.

The Life of Rudolf Benesh
 Rudolf Benesh was the son of a Czech father and an Anglo-Italian mother. His wife, Joan, worked as a mathematician in the late 1940s while she was a dancer at Sadler's Wells ballet. Struggling to notate and decipher dance steps, she designed a dance notation system while working in the office. Between 1947 and 1955, the system evolved. Dame Ninette de Valois announced that the Royal Opera House would use Benesh Movement Notation. The following year, Rudolf and Joan wrote an Introduction to Benesh Dance Notation.
 The first dance notated with the system in 1957 was Stravinsky's Petroushka. Faith Worth was the first professional Benesh notator. In 1962, the Benesh Institute of Choreology was established. In 1968, some dances of Australian Aboriginal dancers in the Northern Territory were notated by anthropology students. Joan and Rudolf also wrote Reading Dance: The Birth of Choreology. In the 1990s, the Royal Academy of Dance and the University of Surrey developed software for Benesh notation.
Benesh Institute of Choreology
 The Benesh Institute was founded in 1962 with Sir Frederick Ashton as president, Arnold Haskell as vice president, Nicholas Dromgoole as chairman of the board, and Rudolf Benesh as director.
 In 1965, with funding from the Gulbenkian Foundation, the Leverhulme Trust, and the Pilgrim Trust, the Institute purchased buildings in London to house its growing library and its first full-time training course.
 Early graduates joined Joan in forming a team of teachers and researchers exploring the use of notation in various applications, including modern dance (Janet Wilks), East Asian classical dance (Marianne Balchin), folk and national dance (Robert Harold), character dance (Melvin Bura), historical dance (Wendy Hilton, Belinda Quirey), choreographic analysis (Kathleen Russell), and work study and medicine (Francis Green and later Julia McGuiness Scott).
 Highdown Tower, the Institute's residential training center in Sussex, opened in 1973. Designed around a three-year college degree program, the training included diverse dance and movement studies and was ahead of its time.
 Rudolf Benesh died in 1975, the same year Joan Benesh retired as director of the Benesh Institute training course. In 1986, Nicholas Dromgoole, then President of the Benesh Institute, honored Rudolf and Joan Benesh for their service to dance on the occasion of the QEII Award. He remarked:
 'In 1975, Rudolf Benesh tragically contracted cancer, and his death deprived the dance world of one of its greatest innovators. Despite his quiet and reserved demeanor, he had a talent for engaging those around him, earning their loyalty and love. Positive, determined, and stubborn in what she believed was right, Joan was his perfect counterpart. Together, they made a terrific team and truly changed the world of dance'

- Zeynep GÜZEY, The reasons for the emergence of choreology, the fields in which it is used and its function in the age of technology, Master Thesis, 2003.
- Sema Erkan ŞAHİN, Application of Benesh movement notation in Turkish folk dances, Master Thesis, 1998.
- Singh-Beatty/53a63c22dde421f82a87b0b19f164403dbf5cebe 


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