Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Submitted and © by Naomi Isaacson - June 28, 2001

Ann's comments re-awakened the question as to whether or not LN is a language in itself. This probably is not important other than in relation to the original question as to whether it could replace a foreign language as a course requirement - I believe we all see its value as an educational tool, and a system for understanding as well as recording subtleties of movement meaning (though it still seems to me to be a means of learning and writing the very complex language of movement, rather than a language in itself?) - but there is also the question of its value to students of disciplines outside of dance in their understanding of the weltanschauung of colleagues from different cultures. Scholars obviously benefit from being able to read relevant publications in 'foreign' languages. I believe their inter-personal communication could also benefit greatly from improved movement perception and understanding of cultural movement signals when they actually meet colleagues from other countries.

We are still a long way from movement studies being regarded as essential for proper understanding of the human condition (though politicians - and those who formulate rules of etiquette - seem instinctively to know this, as witness the banning of traditional dances in order to impose new cultural and religious norms, or the 'elbows off the table' rule). Perhaps this is the result of reluctance literally to take responsibility for one's actions, both conscious and subconscious. Whilst many people can hide behind words - and sometimes even start to believe their own fabrications - it's much more difficult even for trained dancers, let alone the 'average person' (number three-and-a-quarter??) to do likewise with movement. So increased knowledge would actually constitute a type of invasion of privacy - of which precious little is currently retained in this age of Big Brother computer records......

Even if the notation is studied in relation to dance, the perceptual skills required for accurate writing can help in understanding certain traits of members of varied groups, provided such awareness is raised during the training process (which, as mentioned re Motif developments, I believe to be essential). Whilst the "body language" approach has been both misused and abused, due to a great deal of misunderstanding with regard to sweeping generalisations and limitations, if used correctly it can be very helpful in developing greater sensitivity to certain cultural norms, thereby facilitating greater empathy between members of different cultures. (I have found that if I really try to minimise my long-schooled, erect dance posture, which sometimes seems to intimidate people rather than generating admiration, I can establish rapport more quickly - one advantage of getting older, and carrying extra weight, is that this greater submission to gravity gets easier day by day!).

As an example: 'A', from a Western background, tends to be very 'up-front' and quite forward in presenting his/her wants and opinions. 'B', from a different culture, is quite the opposite. (I run the risk of over-generalising here, so please take this just as one of many possible illustrations, not as a sweeping classification). So if 'A' makes a proposal for an activity to include participation by 'B', the latter might well be very slow in expressing opposition to the suggestion even though feeling quite strongly about it (even more so if there is a question of spending money involved, as refusal due to lack of funds may be taken as shameful and involve loss of face). On the surface this may be to the advantage of the 'A', as he/she can pretty well railroad the proposal through to final execution - but in the long term it could erode what may have been a more positive and fruitful working relationship, as well as depriving A of B's possibly valuable input. The problem might not arise if 'A', better attuned to observing 'B's nuances of behaviour - or attempt to cover up natural response behaviour - within the appropriate cultural context, were to delay decision-making to allow time for 'B' to formulate a suitable response. (Instant gratification versus the 'Ten-year Plan'?).

The above probably seems 'old hat' to most people on this list - yet I have seen it happen even amongst dance notators, who are very attuned to subtleties of meaning in dance, but not always so in social or business situations. As dance people often spend so much time in the ivory tower of a field which in any case demands sublimation of the personal will to the demands of the work (or conversely the over-exertion of the ego to force a point), we can easily fall into the trap of inaccurate observation, or interpretation, in the Real World…….(Am I inept? No, it only looks that way!). So we do need to go into both the cultural and the psychological ramifications of movement if we are concerned with true understanding of the language of movement, and the possible spreading of notation study in areas outside of dance.

To what depth we choose to dig (or how widely outside dance we want to explore), is a personal choice; but ideally the notation should offer the means of recording as much, or as little, detail as required. If this results in too many symbols for the 'average' person to learn and remember, one can always refer to the excellent textbooks. I remember wondering, when I first started learning LN with Ann (1964), what on earth Knust could find to fill 12 volumes of his encyclopedia (though admittedly German is a lengthy language; I tend to be more concise when speaking than in writing, and was always amused when a translator would take five minutes to express one of my intentionally short English sentences in Zulu, for example - is the wordiness a cause of the different relationship to time in each culture, or a result of it? - what will happen when even acronyms are too long for our Western computer boffins; is there such a thing as a micro-acronym? - perhaps lower case instead of capital letters? Will people have to grow smaller to deal with over-population? There's a thought; perhaps this is the reason for the obsession with losing weight! I remember a friend once suggesting I apply to Balanchine rather than the Royal Ballet, as he liked tall dancers and there was a height limit for the RB; in the end I went to neither, though I recall Dame Ninette de Valois once asking me at a Balletmakers rehearsal why South African dancers moved with such a good sense of space, much broader than English dancers, and I said I thought it was because we had so much open countryside). To return to the Knust question, now older and hopefully wiser, I realise I've still only scratched the surface.....

One paradox is that even when a dance is abstract, ie about movement and energy, line and shape, it inherently expresses a very human state of being, emotion, a sense of purpose or lack of purpose (even Alwin Nikolai's so-called depersonalised dances conveyed very human emotions and relationships almost despite themselves). So it is essential for a notator, reader or reconstructor to have a maximal understanding of the possibilities of interpretation available, and the expressiveness of the tiniest gesture. (I'm sure anyone working with motion capture must feel frustrated at the current limited detail, though it must be very exciting to be working in a field with such future potential).

It was undoubtedly with a surprised shock of illumination that the general public started to understand how much the written, or printed, word would influence civilisation (if not human nature).

Could the spread of printed dance, or other movement, exert an influence of such magnitude? A pipe dream? Perhaps......

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