By Ruth E. Grauert
NIKOLAIS was introduced to Labanotation when he attended the Bennington College summer sessions in 1939 and 40 and at Mills College in 1941. The problem of dancers reading and learning a whole new language became apparent to him. Then came Pearl Harbor and his induction into the Army where he advanced to the rank Sergeant in the Criminal Investigative Division (CID). Although he used Holm/Pilates warm-ups in conditioning officers in training, his connection to dance was virtually suspended for the duration. When he crossed France with the U.S. Army, he found himself being shelled, dug into foxholes, and surrounded by death and destruction. His only escape and comfort was his contemplation of dance. Move he could not, but he could scribble notes on bits and pieces of paper that came his way. As a musician, the time element of musical notation was forefront in his mind, and as a dancer he conceived of the musical note pointing the way as his foxhole notes began to take shape. In this the way he danced on paper all through the horror of the march across France to the Rhine. (He was in Paris the day Paris was liberated from the Nazis.) After the war he clarified and copyrighted his Choroscript system of dance notation.
In 1948, Nik handed me a copy of the Choroscript manuscript with instructions to teach this. I began by notating part of Extrados, which helped demonstrate some of the difficulties of all systems of notation: the actual slowness of writing compared with moving, the need to notate multiple moving parts (not only legs but arms, heads, and torsos), and the changing timbre of the motion. I taught it to all the professional students, who composed dances (movement) on paper and then traded their written compositions. This worked in so far as the notation was limited to basic movements and the students understanding of the process. What was of value was the indication of direction of movement of all parts of the body.
Dancers are driven to move rather than to write or read, and when the Nikolais Dance Theater progressed to national (and then international) touring (during the early sixties), Choroscript took a back seat and was finally cancelled from the school program. Nikolais and staff were so totally occupied with choreography, composing music, creating decor and properties, as well as growing administrative details that all other matters took a back seat. By then motion recording devices were preserving the works for future production, and written documentation became redundant.
Read the comprehensive graduate research paper Alwin Nikolais Choroscript (PDF) by Shannon Elliott (M.A. in Dance, York University, Toronto, ON, Canada). Shannon attended the Andrea Olsen workhop at Bearnstow in 2007 and is currently teaching, choreographing, and performing in the Santa Fe and Los Alamos, New Mexico, area.
In 1959 my article on Choroscript was published (JOHPER: Journal of Health Physical Education Recreation, May/June 1959: 6566) and is reproduced below. (To print the pages, right-click in the window and select Print.)