Dancing What You Can’t See
Written as a requirement to meet the Typographic Languages unit of MA Design Writing Criticism at The London College of Communication
Dancing What You Can’t See
I think subject-wise it was a beautiful attempt to capture design as a language system and as a framework. It takes this sort of obscure subject and looks at it from a design standpoint. The voice was balanced with research and perspective from actual practitioners and history and all these other elements. – Maria Popova
It was a pretty rigorous effort to nail down something ephemeral and imperfect and this was a good implication of those difficulties. This is a character of writing in which the writer is also a participant or a practitioner and that is foundational for the quality of the piece. – Michael Sorkin
The idea of finding design systems or design thinking in unexpected or overlooked places. – Tom Vanderbilt
In this piece, I really appreciated this confluence of this author’s previous experiences all coming together (and current experience) as: audience member, performer, a designer and a design writer all finding their place in this one essay in a delicate way. We weren’t beaten over the head with the fact that the author had experience in these fields but that translated into authority of voice and a curiosity as well. The research was good – she’s done the legwork. – Alice Twemlow
Dancing What You Can’t See
This essay explores the current function and potential of dance notation systems. As complex systems of documenting ballet, most dance notation is unreadable, even to the professional ballerinas who perform the parts. The essay aims to investigate several questions: What is the function of documentation if it is unreadable within its target community? Why doesn’t a universal notation system exist? How does notation impact ballet’s strong oral tradition? Finally, how can notation, in its current state, serve a useful purpose? The piece bridges an academic tone with personal anecdote. It employs footnotes and images to convey notation’s nuance and complexity.2. The Brief: Summarize the commission you were given (or gave yourself). What was the context for this piece of writing, and what was the challenge posed to you? Where and when was it published? What is the approximate circulation of this publication? Who is the audience?
This piece was written for the Type and Visual Languages unit of MA Design Writing Criticism at the London College of Communication. Tutors asked students to “critique a visual language within the broader design and informational environments.” We were asked to question how typographic languages are used to communicate messages, and to critique the historical tradition of typography in relation to its content. Additionally, I faced an extra challenge: comprehending a written language I had never seen before. The piece was submitted to course tutors in March 2011. It targets the academic audiences within ballet and design.3. The Intent: What point of view did you bring to the piece? What did you hope would happen as a result of your piece?
As a former ballet dancer, I was interested in engaging with a language I felt I should have learned in my training. I was able to integrate my background in ballet with my positioning as a design writer to critically examine the problems and potential of this typographic language. By spending time at the Benesh Institute archives at the Royal Academy of Dance, learning the notation and integrating design theory, I hoped to identify and tackle a series of problems that were not being addressed within the artform.4. The Process: Describe the rigor that informed your piece of writing. (Research process, sources, reporting, fact checking etc., as applicable.)
Since its inception centuries ago, classical ballet has remained in existence thanks to its oral tradition. Dancers learn their parts through movement, which is taught by teachers who learned those parts the same way years prior. And because so much of this unspoken artform is actually spoken (rather than written for teaching purposes), there is surprisingly little in the way of academic writing within the discipline. Therefore my research was anchored in researching visual artifacts — dance notation, orchestral scores, performance film and the Royal Ballet’s live rehearsals. Additionally, I interviewed Benesh Dance Institute Director Liz Cunliffe, who helped me mentally unlock these complicated dance scores. I also made visual diagrams to decode notational language; For example, I matched anecdotes from a Royal Ballet rehearsal of Giselle, with the same part in film stills and two versions of dance notation. In another instance, I compared Shakespeare’s lines from Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene, with the same point in the Prokofiev orchestral score and in dance notation for the ballet. From a visual and design perspective, Barthes’ Image-Music-Text played a key role in grounding my arguments as well as Ellen Lupton’s essay “Reading Isotype.”5. The Value: How does your piece of writing earn its keep in the world?
Although it has not been formally published, “Dancing What You Can’t See” earns its keep by illuminating fundamental problems in the preservation of an artform. Further, the essay suggests that although dance notation systems are flawed, there are benefits to their current iterations. However, the essay ultimately argues on behalf of dancers and critics for the implementation of a universal dance notation system to prevent centuries-old ballets from becoming lost in oral translations and complex written documentation. Because academic writing within ballet is in relatively short supply, this piece’s positioning and reliance on primary sources helps add to the discipline’s limited-but-growing academic presence.