The Impossible Art Of Visualizing Dance On Paper

Notating a dance performance is as varied as it is complex.

The Impossible Art Of Visualizing Dance On Paper
[Top photo: Julenochek via Shutterstock]

Think of a short dance routine from your favorite music video, or even a few moves you threw down at the club last week. Now think about how you would describe those moves, using only words and drawings, accurately enough that another person could replicate them exactly.

Detail of “Flowering Trees,” a page from Remy Charlip’s Air Mail Dancesvia The Paris Review

In a fascinating piece for the the Paris Review, Anna Heyward traces some of this history. The complex, map-like Beauchamp-Feuillet annotation method, for example, was commissioned by Louis XIV to instruct aristocrats on Baroque dancing. These notations, along with many other forms invented later, were an attempt to convey the precise movements of dancers so they could be copied exactly in the future. The diagrams were incredibly complex, and required a vast amount of knowledge just to interpret. Most of Heyward’s piece, however, focuses on how choreographer Remy Charlip was able to circumvent these pitfalls by approaching annotation as a provocation instead of a manual, drawing only a few positions and allowing the dancers to figure out the rest.

“I did a whole set of positions, of movements, signs,” [Charlip] said in an interview. “I gave her gestures that I thought were very beautiful and between the gestures I said do a turn. And I left it up to her … It’s their dance, and it’s also my dance.” His figures are sometimes annotated—some with clear instructions, like “roll slowly,” others with more abstract suggestions, like “crackle.” Charlip’s drawings are rough, beautiful, and endearing, a reminder of how much the choreographer relies on the dancer to realize a work.


Charlip’s performances show us how images in the head of a choreographer become the movement of another person. His system of notation—irreverent, idiosyncratic, imprecise—makes visible the process of idea to movement. “The language of dance,” he said once, “is basically physical … there are lots of ways language can be used to convey the physicality of it, and the images and thoughts that are used in dancing … you can get behind a person and you can move them, or you can be in front and have them imitate you. Or you can give them an image … so that they can move from the images.”

Before video equipment became accessible, this was the only way things were: dance was a medium that was incredible difficult to translate to paper, and therefore, to remember. When we think of data visualization, we rarely think of the need to pin down abstract artistic expressions that can’t be quantified – it’s no easy feat, and some would say entirely impossible. But from this problem arose a huge variety of dance annotation, each style with different eccentricities.

Heyward suggests that if choreographers let go of their desire for perfect replication, a much more inspirational translation between the two mediums is possible.

Be sure to read the full piece and check out Charlip’s gorgeous drawings over at the Paris Review.

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I'm a writer living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Interests include social justice, cats, and the future.