Tuesday, January 26, 2010

How Much Laban Is There in Labanotation

How Much Laban Is There in Labanotation
Submitted By Ann Hutchinson Guest - February 15, 2008

[Following is a reprint of an essay originally posted on LabanTalk and CMAlist on January 16, 2008. For a more detailed presentation of theoretical developments, A History of the Development of the Laban Notation System is available; order information is included at the end of the article.] 
By Ann Hutchinson Guest
Because Labanotation bears Laban’s name, people have difficulty determining how much of the present day system contains his original ideas, connects to his theories and has developed since his time. The 1995 publication A History of the Development of the Laban Notation System presents the original symbology used by Laban in his 1928 and 1930 Schrifttanz (Written Dance) publications and reveals how symbols have been changed and usages further developed during subsequent decades. Also to be considered is the movement analysis underpinning the system, how this developed and how it contrasted with Laban’s Choreutic spatial approach. In about 1933, as his creative energies became focussed elsewhere, Laban lost interest in the system, he no longer wished to be concerned with notation and generously ‘gave his system to the world’.

The system he had started could well have died on the vine had not a younger generation made it their chief concern. The first of these was Albrecht Knust who specialized in layman dance, particularly movement choirs. Over the years he added significantly to the system, creating an eight-volume encyclopaedia in German in the 1940s and publishing Hand Books of Kinetography Laban in German in 1956 and in English in 1958.

During the 1930s Sigurd Leeder taught and expanded the system in England, his strength lying in his creativity in exploring movement and developing ways of expressing his findings in the notation. While Leeder did not produce a textbook, interested students, most notably Ann Hutchinson, took notes and discussed his developments. In New York Irma Otte Betz, a correspondence student of Laban’s since 1926, was teaching at the Hanya Holm Studio. These uses of Laban’s original system occurred independently, Laban had not established a center to guide and control the development of the system he had started.

The formation of the Dance Notation Bureau (DNB) in New York grew out of 1940 meetings between Ann Hutchinson, who represented Leeder’s work, Helen Priest, who had been a student of Albrecht Knust in Germany, and Janey Price and Henrietta Greenhood (later known as Eve Gentry), both students of Irma Betz who had died in December 1939. These three sources revealed differences in terminology, use of symbols and movement analysis. In adopting the Laban system for the purpose of furthering the art of dance, the DNB became a clearing-house for sharing information and a center for further developments.

Evolution of Labanotation (LN) theory and symbology, beyond Laban’s initial publications, resulted from application of the system and practical needs to analyze and document movement. Particularly in New York City, needs arose from notating the movement style and choreographic works of Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Hanya Holm, Agnes de Mille, George Balanchine and Fred Astaire. In the notating process many of Laban’s initial notation principles needed to be changed and symbols and theory were developed as a result of these needs. While A History of the Development of the Laban Notation System provides a more detailed account of this evolution, some key changes and developments to the system are given here.

Spatial Analysis

Laban’s fascination with the spatial aspects of movement led him to a directional description of the actions taking place; the spatial placement of the limbs or limb segments was the standard description. His use of geometric forms as presented in Choreutics led to his basing directions on the constant vertical line centered in the body. In using the icosahedron as a spatial model, the forward point in that shape establishes the direction forward, the ‘Stance Forward’ as a fixed direction. No matter how much one twists or bends, that icosahedron forward remains the forward direction. While most other notation systems based directions on the build of the body and on a physical analysis of movement, this was not Laban’s concern; it was an area that needed to be developed for the recording of theatrical dance.

Icosahedral Directions

Each point in the icosahedron is, in fact, an intermediate point, not one of the standard 45° directions. Therefore, an accurate indication for each of these directions requires a more detailed notation. To avoid such extra indications, it has been the practice in Laban Studies from early on to use the symbols for the standard 45° directions for the icosahedral directions. Thus, for example, the right side high symbol is used instead of a 1/3rd displacement from side high toward place high (the vertical). This simplification has led many students to believe that the direction system used in Labanotation (LN) is based on Laban’s Space Harmony ideas, i.e. the spatial shapes of a cube, the icosahedron, etc. These constructs produce interesting movement possibilities, but these are not based on the way peoples around the world naturally move.

The Planes

In icosahedral studies, the planes around the body have a rectangular shape. However, because of the body build, all the planes around the body are spherical; all limb movements are basically circular, a portion of an arc or have a rotary action. The theory underlying this fact is not usually taught as part of an introduction to Labanotation, however, the same theory is clearly revealed in the explanatory drawings of the Eshkol/Wachmann (EW) system. The Labanotation (LN) analysis of space is exactly the same; but where EW uses numbers for points in space, LN uses symbols of particular shapes. The EW system is the only other system that incorporates the different systems of reference in analysing direction, one of the important features of LN.

Analysis of Deviations

When an ‘indirect path’, a deviation from the standard path of a directional movement was needed, Laban’s spatial theory stated that such deviation could only happen toward one of the eight schräger, the three-dimensional diagonals. In 1935 Irmgard Bartenieff and Albrecht Knust translated steps from Feuillet notation into the Laban system. When the foot, in moving from front to back, was indicated to deviate sideward, making a curved, more open gesture, they could only use a diagonal deviation which produced a lopsided curve; what was needed was indication of a sideward deviation. Such deviations can be into any direction, any level. This aspect of Laban’s theory did not serve needs found in established dance forms; thus this change had to be made.

Center of Gravity

The center of gravity provides a clear example of the need for more correct analysis and symbology. In the early days the sign for the pelvis was used to indicate the center of weight (the center of gravity). At that time Laban and others believed the center of gravity was at a fixed point in the pelvis. Through research, Hutchinson soon learned that it is a moveable point of balance and can even be outside the body. Knust was also aware of this and a new sign was mutually adopted for the center of weight to differentiate it from the indication for the pelvis.

Upper-body Movements

Laban’s early notation system provided a simple means for showing an arm gesture that included the body, i.e. carried the upper body with it. When only an upper body movement was needed (no arm movement to take place), the direction symbol used was that which would have taken place if the arm had carried the upper-body there. It was noted that performance of these movements by experienced practitioners varied in degree; it was not (and was not intended to be) a precise statement of what was actually happening. In addition, the directional analysis for such body movements is different from the rest of the system. The process of notating modern dance technique, particularly that of Martha Graham, demanded specific statements. Thus in DNB notation circles this upper-body analysis was not used.

An Appropriate Description

In the early 1940s, in the process of notating modern dance choreography, members of the DNB found themselves notating the movements in terms other than those used by the choreographer. If the movement is not space related, stating the spatial placement of the parts of the body was not a truthful or appropriate description. The notation did not reflect the choreographer’s intentions. In seeking to respond to the choreographer, the notators searched for other ways. This led to an expansion of the system through, for example, providing anatomical descriptions. Hutchinson invented the symbols for folding, unfolding, lateral and sagittal flexion, extension and others. In Laban Movement Analysis (LMA), Irmgard Bartenieff who, through her work as a physiotherapist, brought in and developed the anatomical aspects in understanding movement.

These were the major changes that needed to be made; many additional minor adjustments had also been required.

Laban’s Disapproval

Laban was not happy about the changes that the DNB notators had to make. In Germany, Albrecht Knust also needed to make such changes in his development of Kinetography Laban (KIN); in doing so he also incurred Laban’s displeasure. It must be remembered that, in the field of dance, Laban only notated his own choreography, and did not personally encounter other needs. His work in Effort was a new development quite apart from the LN/KIN system.

The Giving of Credit

Many people automatically assume that the highly developed, sophisticated system that LN is today, was totally the result of Laban’s work. Some recognize that Knust made a huge contribution and that Ann Hutchinson and her colleagues at the DNB also contributed greatly. Not generally known are Maria Szentpál’s contributions, in particular her role in developing the Time Signs and the Track Pins. With a sense of symbol families and visual recognition, Hutchinson invented a remarkable number of signs, for example, the much needed 8/8 scale for flexion and extension, and the modified symbols needed in Motive Notation to indicate freedom of choice in performance of a movement instruction.

The Movement Alphabet®

In her development of Language of Dance (LOD), Hutchinson looked at what Laban had provided in the way of a list of basic actions. She found this list to be incomplete and inconsistent. For example, Laban had rotation and twisting of a body part identified as of equal importance, whereas rotation is the basic, main form of the ‘rotation family’ and twisting is a more specific application, a sub-category. Her research into the works of other dance educators led Hutchinson to codifying what is now called The Movement Alphabet, i.e. the list of root actions, or, if you will, the basic building blocks of which all movement is composed. The search was for universal elements and it is on these that LOD is based.

The International Council of Kinetography Laban/Labanotation (ICKL)

In 1959, after Laban’s death, Lisa Ullmann initiated the idea of establishing an organization to oversee the continued evolution and adaptation of further developments. Thus ICKL was founded, the core members being Albrecht Knust, Sigurd Leeder, Ann Hutchinson and Lisa Ullmann. Through biennial conferences the many different usages that had developed through isolated usage were reduced through rigorous discussion and consensus to a few, these being considered alternate usages for particular descriptions. ICKL has guided adoption of new symbols and new usages and continues to this day clarifying technical matters as well as sharing teaching methods and the process of reviving a work from the written score. An index of ICKL technical matters is available through www.ickl.org.

The Name ‘Labanotation’

Because 'dance notation' is a generic term, the Dance Notation Bureau was advised legally to select a name that could be registered as being specifically what the DNB notators were using and teaching. To honor Laban's original idea, Hutchinson had the idea of coining the term Labanotation from the verbal statement: "We use Laban notation." To distinguish it as a registered name, Labanotation must always be written with a capitol 'L', to avoid its becoming a generic term, as happened to Hoover, Kleenex, etc.


There is no question of the value of Laban’s groundbreaking contributions in the field of movement; he has enriched so many areas of movement study. That in certain aspects his research did not go far enough and possibilities remained undeveloped does not detract from his great accomplishments. In no field is one man totally responsible for a major breakthrough, contributions have inevitably come from others. While important contributors cannot always be named, the people centrally concerned in the field should be informed of how much of the present-day Labanotation system is based on Laban’s original ideas and publications.

A History of the Development of the Laban Notation System is available from the Language of Dance Center USA. To order, please send contact information (name, mailing address, email, phone) and check payment to: Language of Dance Center, 465 East 16th St, Brooklyn, NY 11226. Price $15.00 (includes postage within the United States)

Other books containing explanations of the Laban system have been published but these are the important reference books.
Arranged in chronological order
Laban, Rudolf. (1928). SCHRIFTTANZ, Universal Edition. Wien copyright 1928 by Universal-Edition, Leipzig.
Laban, Rudolf. (1928) SCRIPT DANCING – LA DANSE ECRITE. Universal Edition, Wien, copyright 1928 by Universal-Edition Leipzig.
Laban, Rudolf. (1930) SCHRIFTTANZ, La Danse Ecrite – Script Dancing, 2, Kleine Tänze Mit Vorübungen; Petites Danses avec Exercises Preparatoires; Short Dances with Preliminary Exercises. Universal-Edition Wien, copyright 1930 by Universal-Edition Leipzig.
Laban (and others) Schrifttanz Magazine published from July 1928 until October 1931 (11 issues).
Knust, Albrecht. (Circa 1953) Kinetographie Laban, Parts A – O. Eight volume unpublished manuscript in German, available through microfilm print-outs at the Dance Collection, New York Public Library, Lincoln Center, New York.
Hutchinson, Ann. (1954) Labanotation, The System for Recording Movement. New Directions, New York.
Laban, Rudolf. (1956) Principles of Dance and Movement Notation Macdonald & Evans, London.
Knust, Albrecht. (1956) Abriss der Kinetographie Laban (in two parts). Verlag “Das Tanzarchiv”, Hamburg, Germany
Knust, Albrecht. (1958) Handbook of Kinetography Laban (in two parts). Das Tanzarchive, Hamburg, Germany.
Hutchinson, Ann. (1970) Labanotation. Theatre Arts Books, New York.
Knust, Albrecht. (1979) Dictionary of Kinetography Laban (Labanotation) Macdonald and Evans, Plymouth, U.K.
Hutchinson, Ann. (1983) Your Move: A New Approach to the Study of Movement and Dance. Gordon & Breach, New York.
Hutchinson, Ann. (1991-2003) Advanced Labanotation. A series of 9 books on specific topics. Harwood Academic Publishers, New York.
Hutchinson, Ann. (2005) Labanotation Routledge, New York.
Hutchinson, Ann and Curran, Tina. (2007) Your Move: The Language of Dance Approach to the Study of Movement and Dance. Taylor and Francis, New York.

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