Thursday, January 14, 2016

Motif Notation - How Did It Start

Submitted by Mei-Chen Lu and Charlotte Wile – January 14, 2016

Mei and Charlotte are very intrigued by Ann Hutchinson Guest's article "Early Development and Publications in Kinetography Laban/Labanotation," which was published in the DNB Library News Volume 10 Number 1.  We approached Ann again and also Valerie Preston-Dunlop, two pioneers in Motif Notation, regarding how Motif Notation started.  Each provided insightful information. 


By Ann Hutchinson Guest

Motif Notation, originally called Motif Writing, is a system for graphically recording movement concepts using symbols derived from Labanotation.  The need to allow freedom in the performance of a movement concept, for instance the choice of any direction, any part of the body, any kind of transference of weight, etc. led to establishing additional symbols not found in Labanotation.

My personal need for such freedom arose after I had published two children’s books using the structured, three-line Labanotation staff.  Having spent two winters in Europe observing the teaching of dance to children in different countries, I produced Primer for Dance, Book One which was followed by Book Two.  In 1959 I tried out Book One while teaching a group of five year-old children at the 92nd Street YMHA.  Each child had a book to take home which delighted the parents, especially the fathers who reportedly commented “Now I can see that dance is not all airy-fairy; it has form, structure!”  During the first two sessions I did not refer to the book, but put basic signs on the board, the children trying out the movements indicated.  Thus they were familiar with the signs when they came to using the book.

It was when I started drafting ideas for Book Three in this series that I suddenly realized - this was all wrong!  Children want to move, to try out their own movement ideas.  At age five they do not have the physical coordination or experience to “step forward on the right foot on count one, step to the side on the left foot on count two” and so on.  While children pick up the elements of Labanotation easily enough, before long the structured movement patterns become too much.  Laban had been strongly against children being taught notation because he saw it as inhibiting their creativity.  In contrast, I believed that they should encounter notation early on, it was a matter of how it is presented to them.  Had Laban developed Motif Notation and seen the results, I am sure he would have had a very different attitude.

At the International Council ofKinetography Laban (ICKL) conference in 1961, I spoke to my colleagues about my need to use the symbols ‘out of context’, as I called it.  They could not imagine what I was talking about, and, meeting that attitude, I found it difficult to explain.  However, within the next few years Valerie Preston-Dunlop began using the individual symbols during her courses on Laban’s Modern Educational Dance for physical education teachers.  It was one of these teachers who suggested the name Motif Writing.  In 1967 Valerie published Readers in Kinetography, Series B, Motif Writing for Dance.   In 1971 I was invited by Keith Lester to provide a course on movement exploration and analysis for the Teacher Training College at the Royal Academy of Dancing.  For this course I used the Motif symbols and found an increasing need to develop them further.  I had previously been in touch occasionally with Valerie in discussing symbols, but by then she had become much involved with other things and was no longer interested.  As there was no appropriate textbook available, each week I produced sheets for the RAD students.  By the end of the second year I had the makings of a book.  Thinking to give it the catchy title Your Move, to interest the students, it was published in 1983 as Your Move – A New Approach to the Study of Movement and Dance.  Use of this book as a textbook for our Language of Dance® (LOD) training courses made us aware of where it needed revision.  The revised edition, for which Tina Curran was co-author, came out in 2008.  It is currently being translated into Spanish and Japanese.

Everyone welcomed the advent of Motif Notation because use of the symbols seemed so simple and self-evident.  It was commonly thought that no rules were required -  you performed the movement stated and then went on to the next.  With different people using Motif symbols in different contexts, this openness soon became a problem.  In addition to the organization established in the Your Move book, a very comprehensive book on the subject by Charlotte Wile, working closely with Ray Cook and with me, is nearing completion*.

Motif Notation is used as a prescriptive tool, the movement indications being open to being realized physically according to the reader’s choice.  Motif is also used as a descriptive tool in observing and identifying the main features in movement sequences.

Because it stems from root actions, that is, the basic building blocks of which all movement is made, Motif Notation is applicable to all styles of dance, indeed, to all forms of movement from swimming to acrobatics to ice skating, etc.  It is used productively by participants of all age levels and skills.  Used in conjunction with a first exploration of movement, the visual symbols provide a valuable introduction to dance/movement literacy.  In LOD Motif usage also incorporates terminology that is clear, logical and as universally-based as possible.

*Note from Mei: Charlotte Wile's Motif Notation book Moving About was already published in 2010.  


By Valerie Preston-Dunlop

The idea came to me for a new version of Laban’s notation the year that he died 1958, a version that allowed for structured improvisation since that was one method of choreography that was increasingly prevalent. I consulted him and he replied, as he often did, “You do it”.  

I had experience of using the notation in new ways from 1947/8 when Warren Lamb and I were sent into Pilkington’s tile factory to assist Laban in his analysis of the workers’ movement patterns on the power press machines. My task was to write the women’s movement in notation and that was not at all straightforward.  The prime question was “where was centre”? from which all directions might be judged. Centre was not in any of  the places centre normally is for a dancer. For the worker it was the centre of her work area about a foot or so in front of her waist with her press, her handle, her pedal, her conveyor belt, her pile of sand and her stick situated in relation to that centre. From there she judged all directions. Was I writing exactly what her body parts did or how she conceived of what she was doing?  So for me the distinction between intention and action raised an issue for a movement notation as early as 1948.

Using this distinction became a norm for my writing since much of my dance work was creative of the structured improvisation type.  I recall using intention in writing the Transversal 7-rings card for Laban’s 70th birthday celebrations, 1949, he having just ‘found’ these 7 ring families and wanted the Laban diaspora  to know what they were.  I recall a letter of utter confusion coming over the pond from Ann Hutchinson since clearly what I had written could not be danced. No, but it could be intended and the dancer’s technique and understanding of how to embody directional instructions ‘for the body as a whole’ would enable him to find the phrase. That is what Laban wanted and that is what I wrote. I understood Ann’s frustration completely.

Glancing through old letters I found one from Laban dated 1953 that related to my helping him with his book Principles of Dance and Movement Notation. His mind was on quite other topics at the time particularly movement observation of behaviour and personality so he leant fairly heavily on my assistance. The action stroke appears in that book indicating that a flow of movement is occurring. Ann’s first edition of Labanotation came out at mich the same time and I have her gift to me of a signed copy in my study.

In 1958 the question I put to Laban was not out of the blue but simply one step further in developing a method of writing that accommodated basic creative activity. The idea for Motif Writing was already born but not yet formulated or named.

1962 is the next evidence (in the Laban Guild magazine) I have of how my thinking was developing where I taught a class that uses the basic ideas of Motif Writing without having yet come up with a name ie a simple vertical staff for the whole body into which or onto which symbols for movement intentions or motivations can be written. In 1963 my Handbook for Modern Educational Dance was published although I recall writing the first draft in 1959. As is common knowledge it sold widely not only in the UK. The text is packed with descriptions of structured improvisation. The connection between the 1962 class and this book is obvious. I was introducing people to the idea that notation could serve their purpose as teachers of creative Modern Educational Dance.

By 1963 Paddy Macmaster started to work for me as I opened Beechmont Movement Study Centre. Together we worked on what was to become Motif Writing, a name suggested by Paddy.  I published a booklet An Introduction to Kinetography Laban in 1963 introducing the ideas of Motif Writing and the 2nd edition, tidied up and better produced by Macdonald and Evans, came out in 1966. Classwork documents exist of the courses we both led, and a correspondence course we started for overseas students, dated 1966/7.  Readers In Kinetography Series A, writing short dances using the full notation, came out in 1966 and Series B, writing dances in Motif Writing, came out in 1967.   One of our criteria was that we should only introduce new signs if absolutely essential. For example it was essential to formulate the new sign to jump, and to distinguish twisting a body part and rotating the whole body.

Dance was at that time in the Physical Education departments of schools and colleges with Laban’s ideas being integrated into not only dance but other PE activities.  I was asked to produce a Reader on the popular Educational Gymnastics, creativity on apparatus, that had started at I.M.Marsh College in the UK and spread to colleges in the USA, Canada and Australia.  Paddy and I started to write it and it soon became apparent that new signs and symbols would have to be created. I decided against it and the preparatory materials sit in my archive uncompleted.  By now ICKL had started and I was in the unenviable position of arbitrating between two warring Titans, Ann Hutchinson and Albrecht Knust both of whom I knew well.  As the systems developed the ideas that had come up in Motif, such as whether a sign indicates motion or destination, found their way into developments of the full notation.

About the same time I was approached by Cambridge University, who had somehow heard of Motif Writing, to help with a test on ambidextrousness for pilots, it being judged that decidedly right or left handed pilots were safer in a crisis than those who had a second or two to chose which hand to use. Although not really my scene I collaborated and wrote all manner of daily activities, threading a needle, a golf swing, cutting paper with scissors… It taught me a great deal about movement and what our notation systems can and can’t, do and don’t write. Shortly after I was asked by London County Council to use notation to plan the work schedule for school cleaners, emptying waste paper baskets, cleaning black boards, sweeping corridors et al.   The idea of Motif Writing was getting out of hand and I declined. The next request was from a drama school where emotional and narrative intentions were to be included. I declined again for new signs would have to be invented and I was not going in that direction. 

So for me Motif Writing serves its purpose as the creative sister system to Laban’s notation essentially structural in nature and open to interpretation. Of course Ann Hutchinson has taken it in a further direction in her Language of Dance literature where I decided not to go, but that is her choice. At Trinity Laban our postgraduate Choreological Studies dancers use Motif Writing’s principles primarily to help them clarify what is structurally significant in their created materials. They do not learn it as a system. We call that part of their writing simply ‘symbology’.  It is taught by Melanie Clarke, a first rate notator and director from the score, so any student who wants to can learn more from her.


  1. Dear Mei and Charlotte could you give to us more information about this two articles from Ann and Valerie? I am very interested.

  2. Raymundo, can you be more specific and list your questions?

  3. Thanks to the DNB staff for this interesting material! For information, I remind you that a short article of Jacqueline Challet-Haas will be published in the next ICKL proceedings. It will present the way she introduced Motif in France in the 1980's, essentially (but not exclusively) based on V.P-D and A.H-G approaches. She decided to call it "Symbolisation du mouvement" (Movement Symbolization), making it grow in an interesting parallel with V.P-D "Symbology".

  4. Thank you Raphael for your comment. We look forward to the ICKL proceedings.

    This Facebook page may also be of interest:

    "Symbolisation Du Mouvement Danse - SMD"