First published in 1701, Choregraphie details an early dance notation system invented in the 1680s at the court of Louis XIV. Four years after the book was published, its author Raoul-Auger Feuillet, maître de danse to the King, found himself subject to a formal complaint by another maître de danse, Pierre Beauchamp, who argued that Feuillet had taken credit for an invention that was in fact his own. Surviving in modified forms into the 1780s, the system is now known as Beauchamp-Feuillet notation. Voltaire ranked the invention as one of the “achievements of his day” and Denis Diderot devoted ten pages to the subject in his Encylopédie. In 1706, the book was translated into English by John Weaver under the title Orchesography, or the Art of Dancing.
While earlier dance manuals, such as Thoinot Arbeau’s Orchesographie (1588), separated musical notation, textual description, and gestural illustration, Choregraphie offered a complete system for notating the body in motion. The manual begins with five “true positions” for placing the feet, postures that largely correspond to classical ballet, and five “false positions”. From here we move on to steps, “the different figures the leg makes in moving”. The author recognizes these are “almost innumerable”, but nevertheless can be named: straight plain, open, circular or round, waving, and beaten. On the page, they are inscribed with symbols that look like musical notation writhing to its own rhythm: a waving step forwards resembles an eighth note with a wiggly body; an open step inwards conjures a bass clef arching its back. From steps, we move to marks: sinking, rising, springing, capers, falling, sliding, holding the foot up, pointing the toes, placing the heel, and turning various degrees. These marks add perpendicular lines onto the step’s stem, the way a sixteenth note differs from an eighth by means of its second flag. A deluge of rules and exceptions follow — conventions for changing positions, deciphering the proper order of notation, crossing the legs without finding yourself immobile. And all of these bodily graphemes come together in a beautiful, complex syntax of flowing motion, which intersects musical scores on the page, creating transcriptions of the Sarabande, Canary à deux, Gigue pour homme, and other historical dances.
“How can we know the dancer from the dance?”, asked W. B. Yeats’ speaker in a 1927 poem. Chorographical notation asks the converse of this question and provides a solution for learning dance at a distance, separate from an instructor’s knowledgeable body. Like all forms of writing, choreography — literally the writing of choral movement — carries the ideologies of its origins. In the case of Beauchamp-Feuillet notation, it was designed for courtly bodies, its grammar shaped by the postures of royal taste. And yet, it had sway beyond these halls. As Helen Williams argues, offshoots of the French notation may have helped shape the swirling plotlines of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759–67). And in the first half of the twentieth century, when Rudolf von Laban was formulating his Labanotation system for recording human movement, he attempted to update Beauchamp-Feuillet notation to fit “the context of a modern culture of movement defined by industrial activity, the rise in physical and movement education, and the growth of a psychologically inflected understanding of movement.” Even in the least courtly choreographies, such as Lavinia Schulz’s notation for Four Movements of the Dead Woman (1921), we see a familiar set of strategies arise for tracking a whirling body through space and time.
Below you can browse a selection of images from Recueil de dances (1700), exhibiting dances by Feuillet using the notation explained in Choregraphie (1701). A different Recuiel de dances (1700), featuring the choreography of Louis-Guillaume Pécour in Beauchamp-Feuillet notation, can be here.
May 2, 2012