Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Resources and Riches: Dance Notation Bureau

Resources and Riches: Dance Notation Bureau
Submitted by Mei-Chen Lu - August 31, 2011

This is a post print of an article whose final and definitive form has been published in the Dance Chronicle: Studies in Dance and the Related Arts © 2009 Taylor & Francis; Dance Chronicle is available online at:


Because this article was published in 2009, there are a number of changes took effect afterward–

The theory meeting minutes are available to view at

Now the Notated Theatrical Dances Catalog is available online at

For staging inquires, please contact Alice Helpern at

by Mei-Chen Lu

The Dance Notation Bureau (DNB), founded in 1940, occupies a series of rooms with staff working on different projects and activities in a high-rise office building near the Wall Street financial district in New York City.  With a name ending in “Bureau,” people always imagine that there are hundreds of workers.  The size of the DNB is actually small: there are nine staff members with several volunteers and interns handling the staging contracts, dance notation projects, educational programs, library loans, and grant applications.  The DNB is the only organization in the United States dedicated to the promotion, preservation, documentation, and study of human movement and dance through a symbol system called Labanotation, named after its inventor, Hungarian dancer and theorist, Rudolf Laban (1879-1958). 

Labanotation scores function for dance in the same way as music scores do for music.  Typically, the Labanotation score of a dance composition is created by the time the work is staged on a company that is not familiar with the dance.  It contains the analysis of movements, floor patterns, and information about motivations and nuances that are transmitted as the work is being refined by the choreographer or stager.  The score is laid out in measures on a staff corresponding to the music measures.  These detailed scores give permanency to a work by allowing the dance to be performed or studied long after the lifetime of the artist who created that work. 

Dance Notation Bureau History

During the 1920s and 1930s, Laban's system for notating movement was introduced in the United States by Irma Otte-Betz and Irmgard Bartenieff.  At that time, the recording of dance held little interest for most choreographers, teachers, or dancers, but the teaching, lecturing and writing of these two enthusiastic individuals created the opportunity for the system to become known and used.  Their co-authored book, Elementary Studies in Laban's Dance Script, which they themselves published in 1937, was the first that contained reading materials in Laban's notation.  Four other women—Ann Hutchinson (afterward, Ann Hutchinson Guest), Helen Priest, Eve Gentry (then known as Henrietta Greenhood) and Janey Price—all of whom had studied Labanotation with different masters in Europe and the United States, soon joined those advocating dance notation.  On May 15, 1940 these four met to exchange their knowledge of notation and discuss differences in usage, which had not yet been addressed in the United States.  This meeting was also attended by two other influential people:  Hanya Holm, choreographer and pupil of Laban's famous student, Mary Wigman, and John Martin, dance critic of the New York Times and notation advocate.  Martin encouraged them to form a center, suggesting the name Dance Notation Bureau, with the purpose of standardizing Laban's system, and Holm offered her dance school as the DNB’s first official mailing address.  Both of them served as advisors for the DNB. 

The DNB started without members and formalities.  Each founder contributed ten dollars to begin the new organization.  All volunteered to work toward the goal of standardizing Laban's notation system.  To guide the Bureau's activities, seven aims were identified:
  1. to act as a clearing house, research, and work center,
  2. to standardize the Laban notation (as it was then called),
  3. to teach dance notation,
  4. to issue diplomas to those qualified to teach and to notate,
  5. to record dances and ballets,
  6. to form a library of dance works, and
  7. to perpetuate dance through the use of notation.
Two years later, Eugene Loring commissioned the DNB to notate his ballet, Billy the Kid, in order to establish his ownership of the choreography.  Hutchinson, with the assistance of Priest and Anne Wilson, who was a member of Loring's company and later became a board member of the DNB, notated the work.  This was the first ballet to be recorded in the United States using Laban's notation system.  

Through the dedication of the Bureau’s founders, the dance world slowly started accepting dance notation.  In 1948, George Balanchine, who had a strong interest in notating his own choreography, contacted Hutchinson to study notation.  This request resulted in the DNB notating his ballets as they were set on the Ballet Society, predecessor to the New York City Ballet.  At that time, the dance scores were only regarded as records and the works were still staged from memory, as a teacher or dancer worked with another dancer.  It was not until much later that notation proved its real value for choreographers or stagers to mount a dance directly from a notation score.  In 1958, the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in New York City staged Balanchine's Symphony in C from the Labanotation score.  This was the first of many stagings from scores in both ballet and modern dance.

Renowned modern dance choreographer Doris Humphrey was also convinced of the value of notation.  She had created her own system for recording dance but was not able to fully develop it.  When introduced to Labanotation, she became a supporter.  Her dance, the Shakers, was notated in 1948 by Hutchinson and Els Grelinger in Humphrey’s repertory class in New York City.  In the following years, many of her works, including Variations and Conclusion from New Dance, Partita V, Desert Gods from Song of the West, Soaring, Water Study, With My Red Fires, and Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, were also notated in her repertory classes at Dance Players Studio, the Juilliard School, and the Connecticut College Summer School of Dance.  Ritmo Jondo, Day on Earth, and Night Spell, which Humphrey created for the José Limón Company, were documented in Labanotation when she served as choreographer and artistic director of Limón’s company.  Today, the total number of performances of Humphrey’s choreography staged from Labanotation scores has exceeded sixteen hundred.

In 1950, Hanya Holm’s Kiss Me Kate in Labanotation form achieved a milestone when it secured copyright for the choreographer under the dramatic-musical composition category (choreographic classification did not exist at this time).  By means of a Labanotated score, choreographers had finally gained the right of protection of their creations because such scores, like videotapes and DVDs, represent an ephemeral art form in the tangible format required by the United States Copyright Office.

After its efforts at standardizing the notation system and its success in creating notated dance scores, the DNB was able, in 1952, to fulfill another of its seven goals—that of forming a library.  In 1968, Lucy Venable, then the DNB president, accepted a teaching position at the Ohio State University (OSU).  Venable, with dance department chair Helen P. Alkire, formed the DNB Extension for Education and Research within the OSU Department of Dance.  Due to then unstable finances at the DNB, which relied on support from intermittent government grants and private foundations to maintain notation projects and other activities, Venable brought to OSU the original DNB scores where, it was thought, the materials would be more safely housed.  OSU made two photocopies of the original scores: one copy remains at the DNB and the other is in the New York Public Library.  Since 1969, newly acquired original manuscripts have been stored in the DNB Library in New York City, now occupying a space that is approximately 400 square feet.

In the 1970s, the DNB created the Dance Notation Bureau Press to publish notation scores and books.  Doris Humphrey: The Collected Works (notated by Hutchinson, Grelinger, Odette Blum, Muriel Topaz, and Jane Marriet) was the first of a series of notated dances that was made available for purchase by the artist’s consent.  Over the course of thirty years, a number of textbooks for Labanotation and Movement Analysis were issued: Elementary Labanotation: A Study Guide (Topaz), Study Guide for Intermediate Labanotation (Marriet and Topaz), Elementary and Intermediate Reading Studies (Elementary: Topaz; Intermediate: Peggy Hackney, Sarah Manno, and Topaz), Readings in Modern Dance (vol. 1: Jane Edelson, et al.; vol. 2: Michele Varon), Space Harmony (Cecily Dell, Aileen Crow, and Bartenieff), Methods of Perceiving Patterns of Small Group Behavior (Martha Davis), Primer for Movement Description Using Effort-Shape (Dell), and many others.  These books are available for purchase through the Dance Horizons website,

In the 1970s and 1980s, the concept of a notation score was expanded from a simple score of recorded choreography to a complete package including dance production information.  Ann Hutchinson Guest recalled that Herbert Kummel, the first executive director of the DNB, commented that the dance score was incomplete.  He pointed out that music, costume, lighting, sets, props, movement style, casting, and other information, which assisted a stager to realize the dance on stage, needed to be carefully documented as well.  The majority of scores now include the production information in the score's introduction.  Materials that do not fit in the score's introduction are assembled separately as a supplementary package, accompanying the Labanotation score when it is staged.

From 1970 to 1989, a total of 400 scores were submitted to the DNB Library.  The works of Gerald Arpino, Balanchine, Laura Dean, Bill T. Jones, Kurt Jooss, Bob Fosse, Hanya Holm, José Limón, Donald McKayle, Agnes de Mille, Alwin Nikolais, David Parsons, Moses Pendleton, Anna Solokow, Antony Tudor, and others were notated through the generous support of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with private foundations.

The DNB continues to act as the center of theory development in Labanotation.  Since the 1980s, the DNB has regularly hosted theory meetings for notation professionals to discuss developments in the use of the symbols.  The minutes for these meetings are posted on the DNB's website:  In 1999, the Dance Heritage Coalition included the DNB in its America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures: the First 100.  The DNB has also begun to focus on new choreographers, adding the works of Robert Battle, Peter Quanz, and others to its collections.

DNB Library

The DNB Library was established in 1952.  Lucy Venable, then a part-time DNB staff member and a professional dancer with the José Limón Dance Company, volunteered to organize, manage, and catalogue two file drawers of Labanotation scores and other notations with advice from Genevieve Oswald, then curator of the Dance Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.  The DNB Library now maintains the world’s most substantial collection of dance and movement notation, including folk and nonwestern dance scores, information on current and historical notation systems, technique studies, educational materials, examples of notating sports, and studies of animal movement patterns.  The backbone of the library is its unique collection of over 760 Labanotation scores of notated theatrical dances.  They represent more than 210 choreographers, among them Alvin Ailey, Balanchine, Battle, Agnes De Mille, William Forsythe, Martha Graham, Humphrey, Lin Hwai-min, Mark Morris, Jerome Robbins, Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, Anna Sokolow, and Tudor.  In addition to the Labanotation scores, the DNB Library collects supplementary information, including marked music scores, costume patterns, fabric swatches, light plots and cue sheets, prop and set information, newspaper clippings, programs, photographs, correspondence, rehearsal or performance videos, and music cassettes and CDs.  Each year, the library adds to its comprehensive collection five to ten new scores produced by staff or contracted notators and acquired through donations.  Through this rich collection, the Bureau assists twenty to thirty stagings from Labanotation score yearly, and lends approximately 200 dance scores and their supplementary materials for educational and research purposes.

The Library is divided into three categories:  the Marjorie Isaac Archive, the Research Collection and the Maria Grandy Circulating Collection.  The Marjorie Isaac Archive, occupying sixty-five cubic feet, is a manuscript repository of over 760 original Labanotation scores, along with subsequent notation and choreographic revisions and editions.  Original manuscripts, together with handwritten pencil scores and computer-generated LabanWriter scores, are inventoried and stored in acid-free folders and boxes.

The DNB Library has an ongoing cooperative effort with the NYPL and Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute at OSU to microfilm original Labanotation scores.  The microfilm negative is stored in the NYPL vault.  The NYPL and OSU each keep one positive copy of the microfilm.

The Research Collection, along with the Marjorie Isaac Archive, is the heart of the DNB Library.  Materials in the Research Collection are available, sometimes requiring permission from artists or their representatives, to researchers, stagers and students.  The Research Collection has several components, the largest being the Master File (ninety cubic feet).  This contains a copy of the original Labanotation score photocopied onto acid-free paper, which is the master preservation copy.  It also contains materials that supplement the notated score: a marked music score, costume sketches and/or fabric swatches, light plots, set information, programs, newspaper clippings, photographs and correspondence, which would not fit in the introduction of the score.  Only the production information is assembled as a package and lent to stagers.  The rest of the materials may be accessed, with supervision, at the DNB library.  The primary source of the Labanotation score together with the above-mentioned supplementary materials provides vital information about a particular dance to stagers, researchers, and students that can be found only at the DNB Library.

The Research Collection also includes audiovisual materials that supplement the Labanotation score.  Examples are reel to reel tapes (ten cubic feet), LP vinyl records (two cubic feet), audio cassettes (twelve cubic feet), music CDs (seven cubic feet), videotapes (forty cubic feet), and DVDs (five cubic feet). 

In addition, there are other components in this collection, including the Richard Holden Collection of dances in Benesh Movement Notation (four cubic feet), the Publications Archive of the DNB journals, newsletters and bulletins (nine cubic feet), the photography collection (two cubic feet), as well as the Research Files on different notation usages and other notation systems (four cubic feet).

The Maria Grandy Circulating Collection is named after a former DNB board chair who was also the first ballet mistress* to learn Labanotation.  She staged many works from scores and trained dancers with the aid of notation.  The main component of the circulating collection is notated theatrical dances, which consist of photocopies of the Labanotation score (1000 items) and materials related to the score, such as music scores (500 items), music CDs (150 items), videotapes (250 items), DVDs (175 items), and other supplementary materials (50 items) designed to enhance the user's understanding of the dance.  The circulating scores may have certain restrictions set by the choreographers or their estate.  According to their wishes, the score may be made available for study, research, or staging.  The DNB often serves as a liaison between the choreographer (or estate) and those who wish to use the score.

Currently, the catalog of notated theatrical dances is available for download on the DNB's website  The DNB has been working to make the catalog of the dance scores searchable online for stagers, researchers, students, teachers and DNB members.

The library also circulates dance notation books, including Labanotation texts in foreign languages, books on other notation systems, and assorted dances published in various notation systems.  In addition, it has a sizable collection of curriculum materials, such as theory examples, repertory excerpts, sample course outlines, and visual aids.  The Technique Research File includes information on advanced theory topics as well as recent developments in the Labanotation system adopted by the International Council of Kinetography Laban, an organization formed in 1959 to assure the consistency and continued development of the Labanotation system.  The World Dance Collection has dances from Africa, Europe, Asia, North America, and South America.  Scores range from one to one hundred pages in length. 

The DNB Library is staffed by a full-time librarian and is open Monday to Friday from 10 am to 6 pm by appointment. Evening and weekend appointments may be arranged under special circumstances.  The library is open year round with the exception of major holidays.  Research questions about notation, specific choreographers, or dances can be submitted to Mei-Chen Lu, Director of Library Services, by telephone (212-571-7011) or email ( Staging inquiries can be sent to Kristin Jackson, Director of Programs, at

* Grandy danced primarily with the Robert Joffrey Theater Ballet, and she staged works from Labanotation scores for companies throughout the world.  See her obituary by Jack Anderson, “Maria Grandy, 61, Ballet Coach And Head of Notation Bureau.“  New York Times, April 1, 1998.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Knust Collection

Knust Collection
Submitted by Charlotte Wile – August 24, 2011

As part of a recent LabanTalk thread about online notation resources, Marion Bastien wrote about the “Collection Knust.” This wonderful treasure trove contains 204 short scores written or collected by Albrecht Knust in various styles (folk dances, ballet, modern dance, and choral dances, etc.). The scores are available on the website of the Centre National de la Danse. The web site is in French.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Jeffrey Scott Longstaff’s Web Site

Jeffrey Scott Longstaff’s Web Site
Submitted by Charlotte Wile - August 11, 2011

Everyone interested in Laban-based concepts and applications should take a look at Jeffrey Scott Longstaff’s website, which contains numerous informative and thought provoking publications.

For example, a recent addition is Longstaff, J. S. (2011), Rudolf Laban's (1926) Choreographie - Origins of a Conception of Body-Space, which includes an English translation of Choreographie by Evamaria Zierach and Jeffrey Scott Longstaff.