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A Conversation with Lois Rathvon, Labanotation Reconstructor and Stager

Notable Notation

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

March 24, 2006 -- University of Washington, Seattle, Washington

We met on a bucolic spring day at a site on the University of Washington campus in Seattle overlooking glacial Lake Washington to discuss the role of notation in preserving and reconstructing historic dances.  This is a summary of our conversation.

Let’s start by telling us a little bit about your dance background and how you got interested in Labanotation.

I began dancing after we moved to Tacoma when I was 12 years of age, never having any dance before then.  My mother, who was a single mom before that was a popular phrase, wanted us to have lessons and we found a really good tap teacher who was teaching through the WPA program which put artists to work during The Depression.  I got 10 classes for 50 cents! [Laughs.]

My first ballet teacher was Mrs. Thaynton Thayer – I don’t know why I remember that name but I do!  I also began to take from Ivan Novikoff, who rode the bus to Tacoma to teach.  This was at about the same time that Robert Joffrey took from him as well.  At the time, I did not like dancing and performing with him, as I was so much taller! [Laughs.] Mr. Joffrey didn’t mention Novikoff in his background too much – more about Mary Ann Wells, as I believe Wells was a more important teacher.

I really wanted to dance in college, but except for the University of Utah, there really weren’t any dance departments in colleges at the time.  You had to be a PE major, which is what I did at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, where I was fortunate to have a very good modern teacher.

I married, started teaching and continued to take classes wherever I went.  I find it fun that I’ve come full circle now that I’m performing tap with The Fantastic Stardust Follies.  We have a Broadway-Vegas show coming up this coming October (19-22) at the Liberty Dinner Theatre in Puyallup and performed on a cruise ship on the Mexican Riviera.

When I was in Richland, like most dance studios, I went through both barren and fertile periods.  One of the fertile periods produced a small, good, talented group, which made me want to find a college for such students.  (By the way, this group included Paula Prewett who later became ballet mistress at PNB [Pacific Northwest Ballet], Lisa Peterson who was on the PNB faculty, and Les Boday who is on the faculty of Jefferson High School for the Performing Arts in Portland.)

So while I was at the University of Utah, I bought the Ann Hutchinson Guest Labanotation book, brought it back with me to try to figure out – which I couldn’t! [Laughs.] In the meantime, we moved to New York, then to Los Angeles where I enrolled as a dance major at UCLA, after doing a modern dance audition.  Little did they know my first passion was ballet! [Laughs.]

We came back to the Northwest and I signed up for the correspondence Labanotation course with the Dance Notation Bureau in New York.  I completed the intermediate course then went there to take the teacher’s certification course – six weeks with Muriel Topaz.  This was in January, and it was freezing in New York – it was the coldest I’ve been in my life!  Stuff that was in the window display case of the local deli was even frozen!!

I was hired to teach at Cornish College and asked by the chair, Karen Irvin, to help set up the college curriculum.  This was when they were preparing for accreditation.  I felt Labanotation should be a part of this.  It’s no longer being taught there, as the current chair felt she had to re-allocate their limited resources. It’s too bad.

Let’s talk about the reconstruction and staging process.  Why don’t you walk us through the steps?

At the UW’s Chamber Dance Company, Hannah Wiley, who’s the Artistic Director, puts together their annual program of historic modern dance works.  If this includes a work that’s been notated, she contacts me to stage it.  I like working with the CDC dancers as they are mature and have considerable dance experience.  A good example of what I do are the Humphrey works, most of which have been preserved through notation and published.

Hannah contacts the Bureau for the notation score and also obtains the musical score.  Hannah typically does the casting in consultation with me.  We often find ourselves making the same choices! 

I then meet with the dancers and go over the historical background of the dance and ask if anyone else has experience reading a notation score.  We listen to the music and then go to work!

I demonstrate the movement as much as I can, although with Doris Humphrey’s “Water Study” which is all on the floor, I did lots of describing as I don’t go down there much anymore! [Laughs.] The solo for Erikka Turner from this year’s concert was one of the most difficult pieces technically that I’ve staged. 

You’ll find it interesting that the Humphrey Foundation wants her works to come across as fresh and new, so we’re giving some latitude for costuming, etc.  They also send video references along.  These were done by Ernestine Stodelle, who did a series of Humphrey videos – probably before the works were notated – and she talks about Humphrey’s philosophy.

What have been some of your most enjoyable dances to stage?

Hanya Holm’s “Ratatat” comes to mind.  “L’après-midi d’un faune” was a good challenge – and one of the most difficult reconstructions ever. The two-dimensional arms and unusual positions make for a dance that’s not easy to learn.  I’ve done enough stagings now that the Bureau trusts me to do accurate work, but for this one the Bureau sent out a “checker” – Ann Hutchinson herself!  I’ve also enjoyed working on Ruth St. Denis’ pieces.

One of our concerns is how to make the archive of historical dance pieces that are in the Chamber Dance Company’s repertory more accessible.  Dancers who have the opportunity to learn an historical piece have a total understanding of the choreographer’s work, and as a result, make wonderful teachers of these materials.

Which brings up what the future of dance notation might be looking like.

It’s probably bleak.  With the demise of the Dance Notation Bureau, and notation not being taught much, people don’t understand the advantages.

What are some of your hobbies and interests?  What’s the last book you’ve read?

I like mysteries.  I just read a great book – “1421: The Year China Discovered America.”  I saw a fascinating exhibit in Singapore that was about this.

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