Writing the dance in stone, part one

- through Francois Leclercq

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Dancing Shaman, seen just left of center, with a horned mask, wearing pelts and a tail. Grotte des Trois Frères, France. 13 BCE. From wikimedia.org

Why record a dance? The world's oldest art, depicted in caves and on cliffs, includes depictions of dancing shamans, hunting dances, ritual processions, fertility practices and a dancing figure known as " Wizard ". Some of the oldest pottery and some of the most fascinating petroglyphs in the world are decorated with bound dancers. Why was dance so important to record, especially when artistic creation was such a difficult and privileged activity: highly significant, religious in the broadest sense? Here we are today, in the 21st century, with prehistoric dance recordings of solo dancing, trance dancing, shamanic dancing, hunting dancing, and bound group dancing (this means bound arms and/or legs and joints, producing a single linked group). bodies). Such dance recordings are found among other significant artistic expressions: mainly animals and abstract symbols. Dance seems to define sacred space; bringing a sense of order and a deep connection to the life around it.

Dao Yin Tu table of 44 Taoist exercises, from a Han dynasty tomb, 206 BCE. From wellcome.org

In the late 1970s, archaeologists discovered a Han dynasty tomb dated to 206 BCE. It was the tomb of an important nobleman. Among the treasures buried with the man was a visual code of a Taoist health exercise system called Dao Yin. The graph is called the Dao Yin Tu. It is made up of 44 drawn and painted figures demonstrating movements. There are concise written notes (form names) next to each figure. When looking at the types of dance performances, there are two main categories: descriptive, and prescriptive. Descriptive representations describe a dance. Prescriptive representations show you how to do it – at least they show you how to do some aspects of it, and perhaps evoke another aspect that defies description. Why was this set of health-promoting exercises considered so valuable that it was recorded and left as a treasure?

Chalcolithic, pre-Bronze Age (c. 4000 BCE), petroglyph of four ritual figures. India. Image from the International Encyclopedia of Cartography, courtesy of the Newberry Library

In some cases, such as in pre-literate societies, the dance form was a kind of language in itself, used to convey meaning. A Chalcolithic petroglyph from India shows four dancers in an enclosed field. Characters communicate with visual meaning; a kind of pictogram. Cartographers call this image a pictomap. In the oldest Chinese oracle bone writing, the drawn figure of a dancer is the basis of the word "dance". Meaning, image and language are united in the representation of dance. Dance was considered important enough to serve as a visual language. Consequently, dance was associated with noble and essential subjects. Depending on where the dance recordings are located, it is clear that some dances were considered worthy of recording for the future, stored with other sources of valuable knowledge. Dancing figures are part of the hieroglyphic language of ancient Egypt. There are also depictions of prescriptive dances in ancient Egyptian wall paintings that are not part of the hieroglyphic language.

Tomb of the Dancers, wall painting from the 17th dynasty, Thebes. Prescriptive dance performances. From wikimedia.org

Dance records are abundant in historical Buddhist art, although rarer in the form of dance codices, manuals, and diagrams. This amazing mandala diagram for the solo dance of the deity Heruka at the Lamayuru Monastery in Ladakh shows how the mandala is an integral part of all forms of Buddhist meditation and mental cultivation. The dance diagram is a mandala. Written instructions are included at certain points in the diagram.

Diagram of Heruka solo dance, Lamayuru Monastery, Ladakh, 2001. Photo by Gerard Houghton for Core of Culture

The concept of the mandala transcends geographic boundaries and has deep meaning in various Asian spiritual traditions. In Tibetan Buddhism, intricate sand mandalas, painstakingly created by Vajrayana monks, represent the cosmos and serve as a focal point for meditation and rituals. The act of creating and destroying these mandalas, often accompanied by chanting and rhythmic movements, embodies the impermanence of life and the cyclical nature of existence.

Cham the dances themselves are circular mandalas which unfold and fold over time. Monks often use chalk powder to trace large mandala designs on the floor of the dance court. Mandalas are a means by which Vajrayana Buddhism stores and expresses knowledge. Dance is a form of knowledge and archives of dance: codes, canons, diagrams, notations – and ways to preserve this knowledge.

Mandala diagram on the dance floor, Lamayuru Monastery, 2001. Photo by Gerard Houghton for Core of Culture

The link between dance and the mandala reaches a fascinating peak in the cham dance of Vajrayana Buddhism. Performed by monks dressed in elaborate costumes and masks, cham is not simply a performance; it is a ritual practice of movement – ​​and meditation –, a living mandala. The dancers' ritual footwork, synchronized arm and hand movements, and symbolic gestures embody the deities and cosmic forces that inhabit the mandala. The mandala is structure, practice and recording. He teaches choreography, preserves movement patterns, and helps maintain the accuracy of rituals. Mandalas configure internalized movement as well as the explicit model of bodies.

Labyrinth of Schönbrunn Palace, Austria. Image copyright Schloss Schönbrunn Kultur und Betriebsges.mbH, Severin Wurnig. From visitvienna.com

Mandalas in cham share certain qualities with mazes and mazes in their design and control of human movement, as well as their use in the cultivation of the mind and spirit. Many traditions have left traces of dance and movement that reflect the metaphysical understandings of their own times.

At the dawn of the 20th century, dance notation took a significant leap forward with the invention of Labanotation by Austro-Hungarian choreographer and designer Rudolf von Laban. This complex system uses symbols and lines inspired by musical notation to capture the nuances of human movement, from footwork and body positions to dynamics and spatial relationships. Labanotation has revolutionized the way dance is preserved, transmitted and analyzed, becoming a tool for choreographers, dancers and historians.

Examples of Laban Kinetography from ICKL, International Laban Kinetography Council

The second part of this series, “Writing Dance in Stone,” will feature a young New York choreographer, Mark Bankin, who used Kinetography Labanotation to record 15 fragments of Gorshey Tibetan folk dance. These dances are associated with Tibetan identity and are therefore subject to certain cultural repression. These dances are widespread and carry the spirit of the people. Bankin was so impressed by them that he considered it essential to record these dances for the future, and so he embarked on his modern documentation of Tibetan social dance, revealing other earlier attempts to record this important cultural expression of Tibetan identity.

Gorshey Tibetan folk dance. From chinaculture.org

Coming next month: “Writing Dance on Stone: Mark Bankin and the Gorshey Dances.”

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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