As I learned in our studies of LMA theory, choreographers capitalize on many different and often divergent qualities and properties when they create movement pieces. In my perusals of the Dance Notation Bureau in the special collections section of Thompson Library here at The Ohio State University, I thought it would be interesting to study the descriptions of and Labanotation scores for two pieces, the styles of which I consider as antitheses of one another. I studied Lark Ascending, the ballet by Bruce Marks and Trio A, the post-modern piece by Yvonne Rainer, looking for contrasts between the conception, requisites for performances, and the appearance of the notation scores for the two pieces.
The first piece I studied is Lark Ascending, one of Bruce Marks’s ballets that premiered in Aspen, Colorado in 1977. Robin Hoffman recorded the score that I studied in 1994, and he based the notation off of the performances of the Louisville Ballet Company. From reading the description of the ballet, I could easily perceive a narrative and the clear conceptual themes of aspiration and liberation. The main storyline (-storyline is key to ballets!)- involves the lead character, the Lark, who “…knows she is a creature of the air, and she longs to fly. The Men are the creatures of the earth, they are the force which keeps her earthbound…In between the [pas de deux], the Lark struggles…Finally…she makes her ascent” (Hoffman v.). From this description, it is obvious that symbolism, narrative, and emotional representations of the movement are essential components of the ballet. The file I studied also included specific commentaries on the characterization of the dancers in the piece: the Lark is to be an emotional role, full of longing and desperation, and the five men are to be noble and self-assured (vii.). The choreographer also appears to have placed much emphasis on specific costuming, casting, and lighting requirements. For instance, the introductory text to the notation score states that accomplished, classically trained dancers are required, and the costume of the Lark is described as consisting of a “long sleeved, scoop necked, low scoop backed, footed unitard…Pointe shoes are dyed to match [the ankles and feet of] the unitard” (xii.).
From studying parts of the 177 page notation score of the ballet, I could identify the usage of repeated motifs in the movement vocabulary. For instance, I noticed the recurrence of arm and upper body undulation and unfolding as in the wings of a lark (xvii.). Some important elements to the score include: angling of the body, which is arguably one of the most essential components of ballet, the utilization of breath physically speaking and as a performance quality, and arcing lines that connect the staff lines of different dancers, signifying partnering, another key component of ballet dances (e.g. on p.50, 62, 64). For the most part, level changes were gradual, with much sustained movement, and I saw few movements in the mid-level. Mostly, the score consisted of high and some low levels, the lower level movement being restricted more to the male dancers than for the Lark. When looking at the occasional direction written in the margin of the score, I recognized the use of adjectives to detail and promote a certain quality of movement. For example, one note instructs men to enact a “noble, princely kneel” (4). Every note on the score expounds upon the effort qualities and the characteristic airs of the movements. I noticed two distinctly varying tempo/dynamic shifts within Lark Ascending. In the “Country Dance” section, I could perceive more up-tempo dancing with more frequent level changes than in other sections (88). In the last section of the “Last Lift” section, the dancing becomes more sustained with longer durations for each level (166-177).
The second archive I studied contained portions of Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A notation score with descriptions of her style and philosophies about dance. Rainer experimented with “new ways of selecting and structuring movement…” largely opposing the very codified, romanticized form of ballet (Beck 1). Rainer was one of the artists who ushered in the genre of post-modern dance, and she celebrated the participation of artists from other disciplines, which is vastly different from the Lark Ascending score and ballets in general which call for highly trained and qualified professional dancers. Opposite Lark Ascending, which definitely follows a narrative form, Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A has no tie to “story-telling or expressivity” (2). Rainer wished to reveal the effort and process involved in creating and performing a dance work, avoiding the appearance of effortlessness, a quality which ballet embraces (2-3). Among her major philosophies are: saying “no” to “spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe no to glamour and transcendency [sic] of the star image…” (3). Rainer wanted her pieces to be about the mere act of dancing. In Trio A, all dynamics are lacking in order to display the movement simply for what it is, unembellished. The piece is really a performance consisting of three simultaneously danced solos lacking all interaction; this is quite converse to a ballet like Lark Ascending in which character interactions are key. In the introduction to the portion of the score I looked at, I noted that Rainer made no stipulations for male versus female dancers or trained versus trained dancers (5). As for the notation itself of Trio A, I immediately noticed the usage of the symbols for ad lib dancing, which is definitely unheard of in the very structured form of ballet. I also read in various portions of the score that body parts touch other body parts (body-on-self contact), and flexion is common-two contradictory elements to ballet, which calls for the elevation and extension of the limbs (ct. 52). Although the score I studied for Trio A was only a one-minute portion of the four-and-a-half minute piece, I could detect extremely varied level changes and a lack of sustained movements within the piece. The notes written on the score are quite pedestrian/utilitarian in their language (e.g. “Put right hand behind back”) as opposed to the descriptive language of the ballet (ct. 55). Facings and formations of the dancers are largely non-existent in this score, especially when viewed alongside the very structured score of Lark Ascending.
In almost all ways, the ballet Lark Ascending and the post-modern piece Trio A are opposites. This makes sense, though, as from reading the file on Yvonne Rainer, I learned that the dance movement she helped pioneer was in direct opposition to the widely accepted Western dance culture of ballet. From form to dynamics, costuming to dancer expertise, and from duration to level change, these two dances can exist on disparate ends of the dance spectrum.
Yvonne Rainer: Trio A. Draft – “A Dance History Collection” by Jill Beck original Notation by Sian Ferguson produced by Sian Ferguson produced by School of Hartford Ballet. Labanotation score.
Labanotation score, Lark Ascending Choreography: Bruce Marks, 1977 Labanotation: Robin Hoffman, 1994