Monday, April 15, 2013

Zack Brown's Work

By Zack Brown et al.
Submitted by Charlotte Wile - April 15, 2013

[The following discussion was originally posted on LabanTalk]

From Zack Brown, November 27, 2012


After the recent discussion about crosses of axes, I got a disturbing email from Ann. She told me that she'd heard "through the grapevine" that I was planning to publish my own textbook attacking Labanotation by pointing out its inconsistencies. From her email, I could tell she was hurt by what she feared was my betrayal of all her help and advice. She very graciously asked me directly if this rumor was true, and so I had the opportunity to explain myself to her.

But before the rumor reaches other ears, I thought it best to make a public statement as well, about what I'm actually working on, and what my motivations are.

I am writing a text that tries to explain Labanotation in clear language that anyone - dancers and lay-people alike - can easily learn from. The inspiration for this text came from my own experience as a child, not being a dancer, but becoming fascinated with Labanotation, and struggling for years to learn the system. I ultimately realized that I wanted other lay-people like myself, as well as young people, to have an easier path to entry. That's when I decided to try to write my own text on the subject.

It's true that my text takes a different approach to explaining various details of the system than Ann's books take. My intention is to approach each aspect of Labanotation by doing thorough research in the primary sources (mostly Ann's own books, which I view as extremely important and valuable), and then use my own ingenuity to come up with new ways to explain those aspects of the system, so as to make sense to my target audience.

In some cases, in order to explain things as clearly as possible, I do point out where some aspect of the system seems to be particularly complicated or confusing. But the purpose is always to better elucidate the material, not to launch an assault against Labanotation itself.

My goal is to produce a text that, if a student did learn Labanotation from it, would result in that student using the system correctly. I'm not trying to make Labanotation look bad. I only want to explain the system clearly and thoroughly, in a way that lay-people can understand.

I was hoping to announce my work under better circumstances. But now that someone has told Ann that my intentions are hostile, I felt that I couldn't be sure who else this person might be speaking to, and so I felt that I had no choice but to respond publicly.

I'm happy to answer questions about my work, or address any concerns anyone might have.

Be well,

From Jeffrey Longstaff, November 27, 2012

Thanks for the mail Zack -- personally, I would think that any thoughtful contribution to the literature will benefit the subject.-- obviously the more people who know about the topic, the better!  --and it is so true that different people have different experiences and perceptions of the same material, so the wider variety of experiences that people share, the more possibility that other, new people, will discover something that also leads them into the work.

As an independent thinker and independent voice, myself, I appreciate diverse viewpoints.

I'm glad that Ann contacted you, because it is always best to keep open communication!

I hope your work can interest and maybe excite many new people in Labanotation, and correspondingly Laban Analysis as well!

Jeffrey Longstaff

From Zack Brown, November 28, 2012

 One other comment:

A number of people in the Labanotation community have helped me so far with my text, either by tutoring, answering my questions, giving me feedback on chapters I was working on, or just by giving me encouragement to keep going. When I wrote this public email last night, it didn't occur to me that those people might feel they couldn't reply in public, for fear of violating the privacy of our conversations.

So I'd like to add that anyone who's interacted with me at any time about my own Labanotation work, is welcome to say anything they like. They shouldn't feel obligated to participate in this discussion; but they are welcome to do so if they please.

Be well,

From Ann Hutchinson Guest, December 1, 2012

To follow up on Zack Brown's letter of Nov. 28th in which he 'went public' concerning his work on preparing a very different Labanotaton textbook, and in response to his more detailed letter to me, I have written the attached. Before sending this out, I have checked the content with Zack to get his comments and/or corrections. That done, I am now sending it out for everyone's information.



[Following is Ann's attachment]

A REPLY TO ZACK BROWN‘S LETTER  by Ann Hutchinson Guest

On November 26th, 2012, Zack Brown wrote me a letter concerning his interest in explaining Labanotation, the movement/dance notation system, from a point of view very different from that of existing Labanotation textbooks which are movement centered.  Zack’s explanatory chapters will be based on the symbols themslves and their use.   When ready, the results are to be made available on the net.

Following Zack’s open LabanTalk letter, to which Jeffrey-Scott Longstaff wrote a significant response pointing out the value of considering a subject from different angles, I have written the following, hoping to achieve clarification on particular points.  Where I have quoted Zack the wording is from his November 26th letter to me.  Let me add that I have found his questions about current use of the system to be stimulating and challenging.  Different views can be very refreshing.  My main concern is that a non-movement/dance person like Zack with his sharp, enquiring mind, should understand how and why certain decisions were made during the development of Labanotation.

Clarifications Concerning Labanotation

More than once Labanotation people have said “If we were starting now to create a notation system, we would probably go about it in a very different way.”  The system definitely ‘grew  like Topsy’.

Question No. One:  If notation is a tool to be used for the purpose of recording movement, are we interested in perfecting the tool?  Or are we interested in providing the means through which movement can be described?

Answer:  the individuals concerned with developing Labanotation believe that the notation should serve movement, specifically the Dance.

Fact to be Faced: movement of the human body is complex, and how a movement can be viewed, described, understood may vary considerably.  Is it a mechanical change of a body part in its placement in space?  Or has the movement meaning, is the expression it conveys important? 

Question No. Two: Were (are) the people developing the system totally objective?  Or have subjective elements entered the picture?
Answer: Both approaches have been (and are) involved.

Terminology:  Great care has been taken in determining terminology, so I hope you will re-think some of your choices.

Front Signs: These used to be called “Facing Pins”, originally it was just a white pin, without a box.  Knust used the term Front Signs which we adopted (although some DNB people still talk about “facing pins”).  On stage there is no question where Front is, it is the audience.  But in a room, it is not unusual for the teacher (or choreographer) to designate which wall will be called Front.  Once that is established, the other room directions fall into place.  Laban wanted the Front Signs to be placed outside the staff because they are not movement indications.  After a turn, a new Front is established; it helps orientation to have that new Front indicated in the notation.  The whole dance piece could be written without any Front signs, and could start facing in different directions – an interesting choreographic exercise.  If a group is dancing in a field, there may be no designated Front, orientation may be to the group circle, or to one’s partner.  Many different situations may need to be dealt with.

Forward Symbols:  There are three possibilities for the meaning of the word “forward”.  One (as we have seen) relates to the Front of the room.  The other relates to the forward direction judged from the front of the body, as with the Standard Cross of Directions, based on the Line of Gravity.  The other is based on the Body Cross of Directions, with the result that, when lying on your back on the floor, the direction forward is toward the ceiling. There is also the question of “Where is forward?” when there is a twist in the body, this brings up the establishment of Stance Forward, but let’s not go into that here.

You wrote:
Another example of a change of terminology is that when a body part is defined by two separate body part symbols enclosed in a vertical rectangle, I refer to that as a 'limb' instead of an 'area', because body parts formed with that rectangular enclosure can typically be used in notational contexts that call for a limb, while area symbols that are just a single body part in a square enclosure, are really only good for notating touching or specifying a surface.

I see your point that what we call ‘an area’ (or ‘a unit’), let us say the pelvis to the right hand written in a rectangle, moves in a way similar to a limb.  Let me digress slightly here to point out that we teacher students that the head, indicated by the letter ‘C’ acts like a limb in the way it inclines and rotates, whereas when the C is in a box it is the area of the head for which specific actions such as facing, shifting,, etc. can occur.  However, do not forget that the area sign for the chest is used for chest tilts, flexions, shifting, and twisting, as is the area of the pelvis for tilting, shifting and rotating.  In Labanotation the box symbol represents an area of some kind.  This is also true in Motif Notation where, for example, a symbol had to be devised for ‘any area’.  Don’t forget that two vertical parallel lines represent ‘a limb’, which in Motif may be ‘any limb’, or the limb can be specified – as you know.

You write: So, my work does represent a significant deviation from yours, in the sense that I'm using my own creativity to come up with explanations, and I'm not restricting myself to using the same terminology from your books.

Hmmm, my reaction to this is that it could be dangerously confusing.  I am sure that you do not want that!

You speak about ICKL decisions.  My hopes for ICKL have not been fulfilled.  Originally for experts, by invitation only, the doors were opened and we have had keen people but some with amateurish attitudes if not expertise.  For example: I found the need for an 8/8 scale for flexion and folding.  I couldn’t translate Stepanov notation or Nijinsky notation without it.  It took three conferences (six years) for it to be adopted.  The initial reaction “I haven’t found a need for that, why bother?” tended to hold sway.  I asked for a special group of real experts to be established.  No!  Everyone wants to be in on everything.  I thus had to form my own special group with the people to whom I sent the chapters of Advanced Labanotation and also the 2005 revised textbook for their input and approval.  Certain of our best minds have ceased attending ICKL because the level of discussion has been so low.  Now the sessions are mainly geared to practical issues, notating, teaching,  Really interesting.  You should come!

You write:  Certain aspects of Labanotation, I believe, are messier than others. For example, there are multiple different ways of notating body part surfaces.  I would love to know about these instances.  Is it a difference between Kinetography and Labanotation?  I clearly have a lot to learn from you.

You stated: the use of black pins as a catch-all for many different types of enhancements to other symbols, doesn't lend itself to a simple unified explanation.  I have found a link which helps students to understand most usages.  In a right turn sign a pin pointing sideward to the right, points out where your new front will be, producing ¼ turn to the right.  The same pin indicates a right side relationship between two parts.  The conventional use of black pins for the ballet arm positions is a useful modification.  We tried being more exact but it became too cumbersome and harder to memorize.  There are instances where usages in the dance world have influenced notation decisions.  However, these are for practical reasons and have been kept to a minimum.

You write: I want to create a text that a young person could use to ultimately gain mastery of the system.  My thought here is the fact that, once one understands what the movement is, its structure, then notating it is a small step.  It is the time taken in analysis that slows the process down.  This is why people who already know dance find Labanotation easier to use, their knowledge of movement, their ability to analyse is already there.  The ballet dancer already knows how complex leg work takes place, the contemporary dancer recognizes which is taking place in complex  torso contractions, the Spanish dancer knows the content of a Zapadeado sequence.and so on

Comparison with Music Notation.  The statement: “Labanotation is to dance what music notation is to music” is true up to a certain point and certainly has been a very helpful analogy in getting people to understand the role of dance notation.  The Standard Western Music Notation has proved to be enormously valuable in recording on paper works of the past, when used for comparative research and in music education.  Despite such success, it is far from perfect.  We learn this from musicians themselves.  Attempts have been made to devise a better system, and, indeed a couple, based on numerals, have been found.  But they have not been adopted.  The visual design of the notes on the staves, rising and falling, singly or in clusters, facilitates the recognition needed for sight reading.  In a similar way the patterns revealed in a Labanotation score provide an immediate picture that the numerals used in the Eshkol-Wachmann system do not.  Some very visual and fanciful music notations have been tried, such as that by Louis Andriessen, and also Sylvano Bussotti, but the standard method holds fast.

The inclusion of expression has been a recurring concern among musicians.  Many composers give a general indication of dynamics and tempo through use of the Italian terms.  Some modern composers want to go much further.  Other than accent signs, all such indications are placed above the music staff, not through or in the notes themselves. There are conductors who prefer to ignore any written indications of expression, preferring to find their own interpretation.  Just as a reduced, ‘skeleton’ music score can exist, so in Labanotation a simple, basic version of the movement can be given.  The amount of detail included depends on the purpose to which the dance score is being put.
Not true is the statement: “When we make extravagant claims about Labanotation such as to say it can record ‘any human movement’, we only mislead our listeners.”  If it is important to capture particular nuances in an individual’s performance, it can be done.  Witness the specific analysis and notations made of Obama and Romney during their pre-election debates.  showing subtle differences in gestures, in stance, in minor head movements. etc. by specialist Effort/Shape practitioners.  Such subtle descriptions can be included in a dance score when needed.

In music we expect and enjoy differences between performers and between conductors in rendering familiar pieces, but in the dance world too many people, critics in particular, want performances to look like their remembrance of the original. This attitude needs to change.  Different bodies will look different, different training and influences will produce a different approach, a different attitude, a different style.  What the Labanotation score should contain is what the choreographer believes is important, what is strictly part of the composition.

From Zack Brown, December 1, 2012

Hi Ann,

For me, there are two technical issues involved:

1) Do my explanations of how to use Labanotation result in correct usage by students?

2) Do I make good terminological choices?

There's also the question of whether negative rumors about me are true or not; but I suppose I'll have to let my work speak for itself, when I have something ready to release to the public.

Returning to the technical standpoint, the reason I distinguish between making good terminological choices, and writing explanations that result in correct Labanotation usage, is because correct usage is clearly the more important of the two issues. If a student can produce scores that use all the symbols correctly, then they have successfully learned Labanotation. The terminology could have been defined in terms of squeaks and whistles, instead of human language, and the student still would have correctly learned how to use Labanotation.

In other words, terminology is completely distinct from correct usage.

The value of shared terminology is that it allows Labanotation practitioners to communicate with each other outside of the context of actually producing a score. If you say "front sign" and I say "front sign", then we have an easier time understanding each other when we want to talk about front signs. And that can be a very useful thing. But that is still only indirectly related to using Labanotation correctly. Shared terminology may help the communication and teaching process, but it is not an intrinsic part of Labanotation.

And a good thing, too! If we were all constrained to use the same terminology for all time, then we would also be constrained in the new ideas we might want to express.

For example, enclosing two body part symbols in a vertical rectangle may have seemed initially to be an obvious case of an area symbol, because the rectangle is a similar shape to the square, which is also used in area symbols. But my new idea is to categorize a rectangular-constructed body part in terms of how it's used, rather than the shape it's drawn with; and so I call it a limb symbol, because body parts defined by that rectangle can be used exactly like limbs, while area signs defined by an enclosing square are really only useful for touching or for defining surfaces.

In your response to me, you counter this by pointing out that the symbols for the chest and pelvis use the square symbol, but are still used in many more contexts than just touching or defining surfaces.

But where you conclude that the rectangular structure should therefore also be called an 'area' like the pelvis and chest are, I disagree. There are many, many area signs that use the square to define them; in fact you can put any joint symbol inside a square, and it becomes an area. And in all of those many cases, they are only useful for touching or for defining surfaces.

So, what you say about the pelvis and chest is correct; but the conclusion I draw from that is that the symbols for pelvis and chest represent exceptions to the general rule. So I say that the square shape is used to define area symbols for touching and for defining surfaces; while the rectangle is used to define limbs along with the other mechanisms for defining limbs; and there are a very small number of clear exceptions to this; including the pelvis and the chest.

The above paragraph seems to me to be a very clear terminological categorization. We have area signs that behave one way; we have limb symbols that behave another; and we have a small number of clearly identified exceptions.

Consider the alternative, represented by the traditional terminology that considers all the square formations and rectangular formations to be area signs. In that case, one area sign might be used in a very different way from another. The categories and exceptions all still exist, they just aren't identified in the explanatory texts. Instead, the usage of particular 'area' signs are explained through example, with the hope that enough examples will make it clear to the student, how each different area symbol should be used, and which area symbols can and cannot be involved in flexion, folding, and other limb-related actions.

With my new set of definitions, the student can still use Labanotation absolutely correctly. The terms I define do not in any way change how those symbols are used in a score. But at the same time, the student can now be told that there is one very large group of symbols, called area symbols, that all behave in the same way as each other and are used in the same ways; and there is another very large group of symbols, which are limbs, and include the rectangular formation as well as other sets of limb symbols; and those limb symbols also behave in the same way as each other and are used in the same ways. And the student can also be told about the very small number of specific exceptions to these categories, such as the pelvis, chest, and shoulders; which can then each be explained in turn.

I don't believe in changing terminology just on a whim; but if it results in a cleaner, clearer explanation of how to use the system, then I think it's justified.

You made quite a few other points in your email; but in order to keep a clear focus, let's start off with this issue of limbs and areas; since it seems to be a very good example of the sorts of things my text does, that you object to.

Be well,

From Zack Brown, December 14, 2012

Hi Ann,

In this second reply to your email, I'll address the terminology surrounding front signs. Specifically the front sign that is written as a square with a flat pin inside it.

My current thinking is that I'm fine with using the term 'front sign' to refer to all the different types of front signs as a group. I think there are three or four different ones, relating to the line of dance, the focal point, and so on. I see no reason to change the terminology regarding front signs as a group.

But the specific type of front sign that I'm talking about, i.e. the square with a flat-headed pin inside it, I believe needs a new name and a new explanation. The name I'm currently leaning towards is "standard forward symbol".

Part of the problem is that people use the same term, 'front sign', interchangeably to mean this particular type of front sign, and front signs in general. So I think a name for this particular type of front sign would not be out of place, given its significance, and the desire to avoid confusing the issue of how other types of front signs behave.

Another part of the problem is that the square-plus-flat-head front sign doesn't actually point towards the performer's front, unless the performer is standing up in an untwisted pose. But since the performer can be in a twisted pose, or laying down, the significance of the term 'front sign' starts to become confusing. If a person is laying on their back, their 'front' is clearly upwards. And yet the front sign will not point upwards. Instead it points in the direction of the performer's feet. That's clearly not their physical front.

The reason the front sign does this is because it is constrained to indicate a 'forward' that is flat on the stage. And so it is constrained to interpret the performer's position on stage, within the context of trying to identify an appropriate definition of forward that is flat on the stage. So the square-plus-flat-head front sign is not primarily concerned with the performer's front at all, but rather with a direction that is flat on the stage, and that relates in some significant (but not absolute) way to the performer's front.

Now, in my investigations, I've discovered that the simplest way to explain how the standard cross of axes defines the 'forward' direction at any given time, is to simply say that it takes 'forward' from the most recent square-plus-flat-head front sign.

I understand that the standard cross really takes forward from the turn signs; but as far as I can tell, that's a distinction without a difference. Whether it uses the turn signs or the front sign, a student relying on either explanation would still produce correct notation.

So I explain the standard cross as taking forward from the most recent front sign. And this is where the idea comes from, for calling that front sign the 'standard forward symbol'. The reason is that, since the standard cross depends on this front sign, the term 'standard forward symbol' verbally identifies the way in which the cross depends on it: the front sign defines forward for the standard cross. Hence, 'standard forward symbol'.

With that explanation, the standard forward symbol is no longer tied to an essentially artificial statement that it represents 'front' for the performer. Now, the explanation is that it assigns forward for the standard cross, based on a calculation applied to the performer's pose. I think this will make a lot more sense to the student, since it's actually what the front sign is doing in fact. It takes the performer's pose, based on whatever changes have occurred via turn symbols, and performs a transformation that ensures that it always indicates a direction that is flat on the stage. And the reason it does this is because the standard cross of axes requires a definition of forward that is flat on the stage.

I feel this represents a big improvement over the old explanation. In the old explanation, the front sign had no essential purpose, in spite of being required to be updated throughout the score. The only value anyone could identify for it, was that it made the score more readable. But no other symbol depended on it, and it had no influence on the performance at all. It was considered to be a complete redundancy. Not only that, but in any sort of more complex position, it would cease to express the performer's true front, and would instead express something completely different, the reasons for which never seemed justified, given that no other symbol depended on the front sign.

In my new explanation, I believe I correctly locate the purpose of the square-plus-flat-head front sign as being to define forward for the standard cross of axes. This explanation gives purpose to the front sign, and makes it more visually easier for the reader to deduce forward for the standard cross. And by renaming this front sign the 'standard forward symbol', I tie it even more directly to the standard cross, where it belongs. Making this terminological and explanatory change, in no way affects the way the symbols are used in the score, and will result in students producing correct notation, with no deviation from the notation they would have produced using the old explanation.

Be well,

From Zack Brown, December 16, 2012


My apologies - in the above email, I should have made it clear that I am only speaking about the standard cross of axes, as it relates to stepping, not to gesture. So I didn't mean to imply that the standard cross took 'forward' from the most recent front sign in all cases; only in the case of direction symbols used for stepping. I'd like to thank Odette Blum for alerting me to that oversight.

Be well,