Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Submitted by Ann Hutchinson Guest - June 11, 2001

The fascinating discussions on whether or not Labanotation is a language passed me by, so engrossed was I in getting on with putting into advanced Labanotation textbooks various subtle details concerning that language. Now, somewhat belatedly, I am catching up and am presenting my two cents worth (possibly a little more than just two cents!).

First, I must thank Bradley et al. for their work in pulling together the many discussions on this topic; it makes fascinating reading and is much appreciated.

Second - where to begin? I will dive right in and agree that the basic Labanotation textbook is Eurocentric, but the system is not. That textbook was written for the needs of the people interested at the time. Special textbooks need to be written for each major dance culture. This could and should be done. It has not happened because of lack of funds and also because of lack of interest on the part of leaders in specialized forms to undertake to spearhead such texts. The six recently written advanced Labanotation (LN) textbooks deal with each topic - Hands and Fingers, Center of Weight, Handling Props, Spatial Variations, etc. - in a universal way. Body Variations (still in progress) will deal with the many subtle ways in which movement is initiated, how particular body parts are featured. These include the minute, subtle head movements used in Japanese dance forms; rotary patterns of upper and lower torso central to certain African dances, and so on. In the many movement languages, we see the choices made from the whole range of existing possibilities, the full vocabulary. Through time specific choices developed for each culture from the whole range of movement language possibilities. This choice became their 'signature', we instantly recognize the high carriage and stamping footwork of Spanish dance, or the undulating body sway found in Polynesian dance.
Laban, with his personal interest in the spatial aspects of movement, presented his highly interesting Space Harmony dialect. Many of us 'speak' that 'language', but it is not THE Basic, universal language of humankind. For Labanotation to be universally applicable, years ago the personal heritage from Laban had to be eliminated, analyses were adopted which related to the universal physical and spatial facts. In contrast Laban Movement Analysis is admittedly Laban based. This is no longer true of Labanotation.

When people say that Labanotation is a script, what do they mean by script? Is it comparable to writing down telephone numbers? Comparable to stating bare facts such as "Step forward on the right foot on count 1 while extending the left arm forward at shoulder level?" The manner of taking that step, how weight is placed, how the foot is used, the speed, control, quality of the action can all be observed and written down to the point where one can see from which culture around the world that walking style comes. How and why is the left arm carried forward? At least five different descriptions can be used depending on the intent, the expression, the purpose, the message being conveyed. When studying a particular dance culture, focus must be on these variations. What is the inborn understanding of the villager who performs a particular dance?? Whatever is part of their native movement-language style, it is also describable in the language of Labanotation.

Children learn by mimicry, they learn their speech language which is corrected and refined by the parent. They also learn their indigenous movement language (if there is one) by copying. From the child's initial disorganized movement, gradually movement patterns are copied, the specific local movement features are gradually mastered. Do they know what they are doing? Do the best exponents of a particular movement culture know what movement aspects they are using? It is not unusual to find that experts in complex movement patterns cannot tell you what they are doing or how they do it. It takes the trained eye and highly trained movement understanding to 'spell it out' in the full language of Labanotation. It is not unusual for such dance experts to resent analysis of their particular movement patterns by outsiders, they feel that something that is inherently their own is being coldly dissected and hence 'destroyed'.
One can make a comparison between such subtle analysis of movement and phonetics which are applied to variations in speech pronunciation to pinpoint the differences between how people speak the English language, for example. Are we aware of the variations we are using?
How else is Labanotation like a language? In spoken language we have nouns, verbs, adverbs and other parts of speech. In the movement language the parts of the body, a prop, partner or part of the room, etc. are the nouns. The verbs are the actions - turning, springing, falling, etc. How these are performed are the adverbs. In movement sentences we can find similarities to spoken language in the construction of the sentences, the value that is given to a word, its place within the sentence, how it functions. Take, for example, a series of springs (jumps), these can be the highlight of the phrase, the focal point, or they may be subservient to the need to travel; in this case travelling, the main focus, is achieved through springing. Or both may be of equal importance.

Few people have had the interest to look more deeply into the language structure of dance, few people have had the tool for such in-depth inspection. In the process of recording structured dance movements, choreography, the notator goes through an intimate relationship with the movement. What exactly is the rhythm? The space pattern? How best can this phrase be written? What was the choreographer's idea? How can this idea be conveyed in notation, transferred into symbols on paper? In the advanced textbook on Spatial Variations I have recently been concerned with indicating the difference between moving away from a flexed state (a departure) or moving toward being extended, but not arriving at an extended state. For each of these the experience of the mover is very different. In both instances an incomplete movement occurs, no clear-cut state is arrived at, movement is unfinished. But such unfulfilled movement can be very expressive, even powerful. Such awareness of movement and the ability to express it on paper is a far cry from "Step forward on count 1."
Comments on the block shapes which Laban chose to indicate direction always interest me. Despite the fact that they are pictorial and hence easy for children to learn, during past years we have, for various reasons, tried to change them. Ideas were put forward and discarded. Why? Because the main spatial structure of the movement is shown by the block shapes; modifications, the subtle variations are shown by smaller signs, pins, hooks, etc. placed alongside or attached to those shapes. Many people have complained that the block shapes do not look like movement, the flowing lines of the Benesh system are more eye appealing. But at some point visual representation ceases to serve, each visual system ends up resorting to abstract symbols. Labanotation has the advantage of being an abstract system from the start, but with that comes the disadvantage that there is a certain segment of the population who cannot relate to abstract indications or ideas.

In reading what others have written on this topic I am very impressed with their clear articulation, in particular Discussion 19 by Jack Clark and Discussion 20 by Naomi Isaacson. I am unfamiliar with the names of some of the people who contributed and would be interested to know their background and to what degree they are familiar with Labanotation and/or LMA.
I was glad to note that Jimmyle Listenbee brought up the existence of Valerie Sutton's Sign Writing System which is used by deaf people for their newspapers and other reading materials. At first I could not understand why deaf people did not just read the existing newspapers until it was pointed out that, to them, English is a second language, Signing is their first and therefore that is the language they want to see in written form.

Turning to Greg Shenaut's Discussion 27 in which he wrote of LN scores having a considerable amount of written language included with the score. All such verbal text is for the benefit of the reader, the student, the potential producer of the choreography. How familiar are they with reading notation? What is their background experience in relation to this style of dance? For educational purposes as well as wishing to see the best possible use of the score, all such texts have been painstakingly added to provide the best possible heritage. I am puzzled by Greg's comment about the Labanotation section of The Bournonville School, he writes "...there is actually more English than LN in the package." Kirsten Ralov purposely left her wordnote section rather lacking in detail as she wanted people to read the notation. This intentionally included many fine details on the movement style. The wordnote section of The Bournonville School has been reprinted whereas the Labanotation has not - for obvious reasons. But it is the Labanotation section which is the more valuable to posterity, particularly with the index which includes the stylistic 'weighting' in the use of key Bournonville movement patterns throughout the book.

How detailed is the Language of Labanotation? The problem so often faced in notating is that of deciding how much detail to include. The decision may rest on finances, is there time available to include detail? Or on the readership for whom the score is being written, many readers are put off by too much detail in a score. In this respect dance notation, its writers and its readers have not yet come of age, we are not fluent enough in this language.
Movement as a language - people accept that this exists. Labanotation is the written codified language through which specific forms can be studied and understood.

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