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Obituaries

Muriel Topaz, 70; Dancer Was Choreographic Notation Expert

May 04, 2003|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Muriel Topaz, an influential dance journalist, educator and specialist in choreographic notation, has died. A tireless crusader for documenting dances, step by step, she died Monday in Branford, Conn., of a liver ailment. She was 70.

"Most of the revivals that we see are possible only because someone at some time wrote something down," she told the New York Times, speaking of dance, in 1985.

Topaz spent much of her career writing dances down in the intricate system of diagrams called Labanotation, named after Rudolf von Laban, a Hungarian dancer, ballet master and movement theorist in the 1920s.

As a result of her notated scores, works by such major choreographers as Isadora Duncan, Mary Wigman, Doris Humphrey, Kurt Jooss, Jose Limon, Jerome Robbins and Paul Taylor can be restaged.

However, her greatest achievement may well be the seven complete ballets by Antony Tudor that she documented, along with her book "Undimmed Lustre: The Life of Antony Tudor," published in 2002.

As important as the dance notation process was to Topaz, she also understood that it represented merely the first step in reconstructing a work -- that an artistic sensibility needed to be present as well.

"Just as a lot of people who can read music are not necessarily also conductors, so merely being able to read notation doesn't make you a good reconstructor," she told the New York Times. "A good reconstructor, like a good conductor, must have a sense of style and be able to communicate effectively with others."

Topaz was born in Philadelphia in 1932. In the 1950s, she went to New York to study at New York University and the Dance Notation Bureau, and with Martha Graham and Tudor at the Juilliard School, where she earned a BFA degree.

From 1952 to 1959, she danced in a number of small companies and choreographed through 1961, the year her notation career began. She joined the Juilliard faculty in 1959, and by the mid-1960s, she was restaging notated dances for the Juilliard Dance Ensemble.

During the '60s, she gained renown through writing "Changes and New Developments in Labanotation" and other specialist studies. In 1970, she became the director of Labanotation at the Dance Notation Bureau, an international center for dance documentation and preservation, which Topaz helped expand and diversify.

In 1984, for example, she organized the first International Congress on Movement Notation in Israel. In 1978, she was appointed the notation bureau's executive director and remained there until 1985, when she became the director of the dance division at Juilliard.

She wrote or edited 12 books, served on countless dance panels and boards, and worked as a senior editor at Dance Magazine, where she edited the Young Dancer section from 1995 to 1996.

Topaz also taught Labanotation throughout the United States and in Argentina, Mexico, France and England. Her study guides to dance notation have been translated into a number of languages, including Korean, Japanese and Chinese.

The widow of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jacob Druckman, she is survived by a daughter, Karen Jeanneret-Druckman; a son, Daniel Druckman; and three grandchildren.

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