A Knotty Duty: Codifying Dance Knowledge, Plus Nationhood

This is an excerpt from a paper presented by Prof. Basilio Esteban S. Villaruz at the International Conference on Dance Education 2014 (ICONDE 2014), University of Malaya.


What do we codify in dance, inside and outside of its performance? There are various viewpoints: to document a phenomenon, to analyze aspects of choreography or performance, to restage a dance and claim its authenticity, even to prescribe such as an unqualified representation of a national identity—as is a bent in post-colonial Philippines. Some of these angles are cursorily surveyed in this paper. Mainly, it addresses one practical way of knowing dance: by movement notation, its assets and limits. As one practicing this in a system—acquainted with few others—I discuss this mainly as an educational means. Some specific applications are cited, and the wherefores and whereas in such tasks to understand dance in its scope and significance.

The knots Suzanne Kuchner surveyed—triggered by Alfred Gell’s idea on “agency”—were shown at a Canberra conference in 1998. The knotty illustrations she presented were in clear dimensions, sculptural, in wood and fibers. She alludes to the legendary Gordian Knot that Alexander the Great supposedly cut, summarily did away with. I also recall Penelope’s tapestry that she wove daily and unwove nightly. I‘ve seen our T’boli’s intricate abaca weave and tie-dyed designs. Other Philippine tribes also do so in different materials, designs and colors.

From thus do I take the image of knots for both choreographic and movement notation methods. In the first there is a dance called quipo among the Ionians of the Greeks, and similarly the kipu among the Peruvians. A description of the latter shows how a cord tied in knots provides mnemonic cues to space out the dancers. In the absence of a cord, kerchiefs are used.

Among a tribe called Panay Bukidnon (mountain folks) in the Visayas, they have a dance binanog imitating the hawk-eagle. Composer-ethnomusicologist Christine Muyco says that in this the mnemonics are chanted words. At the same time when a man and a woman dance together there is the use of a wing-like shawl by the latter. By which she would capture the man, keeping them tied in space. A binding is also between the dancing and the music to attain what’s called sibud or performance harmony. Further, the watchers join in what’s called ta-ta and make hiyaw or vocal response, thus completing a social event.

Dancing Out the Knots

In dance-work, there are two experiences I here describe. One, that in choreographing.

Here you actually weave or knot moving body parts or several bodies together in time and space. You also do this with the dynamics of both music and dancers, sometimes with the propulsion of a plot. All unfold before an on-looker’s eyes, ears, pulse and kinesthetic sense.

Choreographing takes all these considerations to bring out a dance. You deal with bodies trying and sweating it out to embody a theme, from simply “going with” the music to “telling a story.” You take one or several routes to get through. In that process, you also do knot and unknot, and knot again what you thought to undo. Then you review how you “got along” with all these: the dancers, the music, what ‘got in’ of the story or theme, and “got together” in time and space. Moving elsewhere may require more knots and un-knots to suit a new venue.

In a way, choreographing—especially in these post-post times—is fixing what looks unfixed, or unfixing what looks too fixed. To further complicate the performance mode, dancers might also carve out nuances and tempi from their own capacity—which a choreographer may not have intended. Dancers’ injury or temper may further “subvert” what a choreographer had aimed for. Furthermore, when dancing is to live music the musicians may not always achieve the dance’s intended mood or tempo. That’s another strand to deal with. Perhaps too, to suit an audience’s expectations—which can hype up or play havoc on a dancer’s or choreographer’s ego.

Such are the knots to tie together in such public art as the dance. Such as what the old John Dewey thought of art experience as educational, or in today’s social studies as “cultural.” Thus I think of the three acts of choreographing, performing and viewing dance as tying things together, each one a mode of cuing or consolidating things. These recall Alfred Gell’s understanding of agencies that play out various cultural strands.

K’noting Out the Dance

On the other side is my experience in writing a dance score. This looks very much like a music score. (To aleatory music, this can veer away from traditional scoring.) As dance notator you ‘orchestrate’ roles or parts together, horizontally (Benesh system) or vertically (Labanotation). These are all scored out in time and space, in varying dynamics and gestural textures. It is a one-dimensional map, yet unfolding with inscribed tempi and amplitude.
Of course it is not the dance. But it designates the dance. If you are a good notator or reader of a score, you see the dance in it, and out there as rendered by bodies in time and space.

To be read parallel to this notation is the music score. They share not only tempi but also dynamics (accents, suspension or flow, pianissimo or fortissimo, diminuendo or crescendo, etc.), repeats (from da capo), structures, styles, etc. A parallel reading of the music score shows the qualities and range of instrumentation: voices, strings, winds, percussions, and how these weave in and out of each other in coming together. When you choreograph with a music score, you are intimated with qualities and ranges in a musical landscape. Thus partner well with it.

Why does a dance notation score have such textual utility? First, you see the design of the movements from high to low, locations and trajectories, and qualities in force and flow. Second, you see the dancers’ relations to each other, from two to a whole corps, moving together, in unison, canon or counterpoint in time and space. Third, you see the sculpting of movements out in space—confined or expansive—so that you see the total dimensions of a dance. Fourth, you see detailed articulations and dynamics that an idiom or style requires, thus also recognize a dance’s historical or cultural source. All these help us specifically contextualize a dance.

Educationally, a score reveals these dimensions of a dance as a whole, intimating a range of knowledge that parallels or amplifies kinesthetic knowing. Plus how a dance fits in or compares with other dances in technique or style, in progeny and perpetuation.

All these may also be seen in films that document dance. Similar to reading a dance score, viewing a film also requires a lot of previous (or later) knowledge that only one instance of looking may not reveal. Both assume a lot of givens. Each is not a neutral source because you can also see a range of interpretations and productions–that ‘intervene’ in knowing a dance.

In a way the notation score is more neutral than a film. One dance score is not always thought of as the ultimate, so you may have to source out other documentations. Even in classical dance—East or West—there are different schools or styles. I’ve restaged Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides to Chopin from a score done for London’s Royal Ballet. I checked a film of it as danced by the American Ballet Theatre. In various parts it had different tempi, steps and dynamics from another film on Royal Ballet. The latter was the version in the score I had. The same can happen in scoring a folk dance, depending on when and where this was done, and which kind of bodies.

Social and Educational Knots

One oft-quoted “natural” characteristics of Filipinos is their sense of community, starting with family to residency, ethnicity to nationality. Each has positive values. But contrasted with each other, these can effect intransigent loyalties as against national markers, like a national language. And example is the fad for street dancing festivals; virtually each town and city, province and region projects itself in this popular fashion. Some locales would claim superiority over others due to supposedly unchanged traditions, and charge the rest of just inventing theirs or borrowing much to project their bastardized “identity.”

Practically, national artist Francisca Aquino addressed issues like these. Starting in UP and urged by its president Jorge Bocobo, she scoured the countryside to unearth folk dances in the regions. It was the president’s agenda of cultural recuperation in the ‘30s—against the sweep of American incursions. (Bocobo also included archeology, history, literature and music.) Aquino’s books served generations with ‘definitive’ dance manuals in physical education, from the grades to college. At the same time, she inspired other folk dance teachers to follow her example. As already explained, they adopted her notation system. All these served very well in propagating the currency of folk dances, and feeling assured of their “authenticity.”

In the face of such comfort, most felt there is no need to adopt any other. Even in UP. When two colleges attempted to have a consolidated dance degree, the other finally went its separate way due to such “demanding” courses as music and movement notation. In the long run, only that program in the UP College of Music has remained.

Those who understand dance (and music) know the dances of a country come from many peoples and places. A variety in choreographic expressions (folk, ballet, contemporary dance, popular and street dancing) lends prestige to a country’s cultural projection in the national and international scenes. This variety works together for good. Since Aquino’s time, folk dance has been part of the nationalizing agenda in the Philippines. Yet, as seen in an incident about the subli, this asset of diversity-in-unity could be undermined by dance practitioners themselves. Partly this is due to limited ethnographical or cultural perspective. A more nuanced interwoven notion of nationhood is not always found in general, even among educators.

Such as how dance educators resist a more comprehensive movement notation, other than Aquino’s verbal way. Physical education theses require her kind of documentation, often with a statistical summary of recurrent steps (marked as figures in Aquino). Many find no need for another system, but may pair this with film. In many ways film is more “convenient.”

Indeed notation and film complement each other. The latter has immediacy and vivacity which are plus points. But to get a verifiable or comprehensive documentation, one must also do more than one. Films can scan simultaneous versions of one dance through time. Similarly, notation can record different versions, depending on time and place. For original choreographies not yet in the public domain, performance rights may have to be negotiated.

In the face of these, may I (still) repeat some assets in movement notation from the educational viewpoint. I can only speak of what UP does. Its dance degree requires four semesters of dance notation. There used to be six, but when the program grew from diploma (four years) to the baccalaureate (five years) and students had to take more courses, the courses in notation was reduced to four but with increased class-hours.

The students read and write to be able to execute dances from scores, or for examinations. All these extend the range of their dance repertoire in various dance types. Beyond this, learning notation gives insights in dance techniques, styles and idioms. Dancers have to analyze movement, thus interiorize and exhibit the specifics of a dance.

Moreover, notation writing or reading demands musical understanding, with which movement must weave in. An intensive course in music theory includes Dalcroze’s eurythmics, singing and playing of musical instruments. Music history is gained through listening, even score reading, in four semesters. Students are asked to perform period pieces, even choreograph to them. Philippine and Asian dance also amplify their musical understanding. Also required are a minor in music and a music ensemble playing.

Beyond their dance improvisation and composition, some collaborate with student and faculty composers. For required recitals, one or two students produce a full-length program. Some do a field work to undergird their subjects. Producing these recitals themselves, they spend for venue rental, designs, recordings, technical needs, and original music if commissioned. Formidable demands, but they learn first-hand to exhibit their theatre production courses.

What Strands to Bundle as National?

Inasmuch as folk dancing was not only taught as an educational tool but also as an agency for national identification, it remains an aspect of nation-building. Thus such primacy as that with the Bayanihan Philippine National Dance Company (of Philippine Women’s University) that first earned its fame at the Brussels International Exposition in 1958. On the other hand and unfairly so, it remains the only one to enjoy a national subsidy. The law that made Bayanihan national promised to name and provide for other groups, some much older, but this is yet to happen.

Of late, Ballet Philippines (BP) also aspired for the same national exceptionalism through a bill in congress. Already BP has the Cultural Centre of the Philippines (CCP) as its home-base, with a private school (three studios) and performance venues available, plus the center’s biggest subsidy for dance. In the bill, BP asked for a subsidy twice that for Bayanihan. Where folk dance groups had timorous objections to Bayanihan’s singular privilege, in ballet there was vociferous in opposition to grant such to just one ballet company.

Aside from this opposition from two major ballet companies, objections also came from non-mainstream or contemporary dance groups. Mainly these survive through their own studio schools and erratic sponsorship, yet they operate professionally. Often they also work as a network, collaborating in several projects.

Amid these, BP proclaims itself as a flagship company. This claim reinforces its prestige and privilege so that it is first to represent the Philippines at home or abroad. Often they get a big slice for production subsidies from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and easily from other national institutions.

This kind of jockeying for status parallels how dance is taught in the Philippines. The folk dance has always prevailed through the physical education that stemmed from the work and influence of Aquino and her disciples. To this day this has sustained wonderful and long-lasting results through the educational system. Much of Philippine folk dances might not have survived without that.

On the other hand, there are only two schools that have dance degrees (not in physical education). One is at the College of St. Benilde of De la Salle University. It structures an integrated program where departments interface with each other, and all found in one building. It has a small group that stretches the experience of the dance majors. In a consortium, a majority train and dance with BP, a professional and subsidized company.

The other school is in UP where academic courses are spread out in different colleges in a big campus, requiring much running around. Its own old one-studio space is in the College of Music. There the dancers have intensive and extensive work in dance and music. They may also opt for a non-credit apprenticeship with UP Dance Company. (Others do theirs elsewhere, like in BP, etc.) These academic and apprenticeship thrusts are well-knit together, with dance notation as a plus.

While hyping up an isolated course in the Philippines, in dance notation and showing its advantages as a practical and analytical tool in dance education, this angle also points out what are lacking. Thus this paper also talks of how the dance—in the educational system, in professional performance, and in effect with the general public—has been used for an integrating or nationalizing agenda that many have been lopsidedly, even unfairly, provided.

All these to show what threads are still left unknot, that otherwise would further a fuller dance education and make equitable a national purview about the art of dance.


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Francisca Reyes Aquino

Benesh system


Steve Villaruz and UP Dance Company

Bayanihan Dance Troupe