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Movement Notation Systems as Conceptual Frameworks: The Laban System

Suzanne Youngerman

Movement notation is of more relevance to the arts, humanities, and sciences than is generally recognized.1 Notation systems are more than tools for documentation; they are systems of analysis that can be used to illuminate many aspects of the phenomenon of movement. Notation scores embody perceptions of movement. Furthermore, they can provide data, in an unusually revealing form, for research on a variety of topics, including the exploration of the concept of style, of the ways in which movement can be conceptualized, and of the bases for aesthetic evaluations.

     The writings of Nelson Goodman (1976), Joseph Margolis (1979, 1981), and Adina Armelagos and Mary Sirridge (1978) are significant in treating the issue of notationality as having value beyond the practicalities of recording dances. They have discussed notation in the context of the problem of establishing and preserving the identity of a choreographic work. The goal of this paper is not to enter directly into their dialogue, but rather to supplement it with information and ideas that will rectify some of the misconceptions about notation that they express; the aim is also to widen understanding and appreciation of the theoretical aspects of notation. The focus will be on issues, especially the problem of notating movement intent, rather than on the presentation of detailed explanations of the mechanisms of notation.

     There are many dance notation systems based on graphic signs in the European/American tradition.2 Other dance cultures have also developed notations (see Hoff 1977; Strauss, Wing and Leung 1977). Although some of these are of historical relevance only, new systems are continually being invented; for instance, there is now experimentation with computers. There are, nevertheless, three major systems: 1. the Laban system, consisting of a) Labanotation (as it is known in the United States) or Kinetography Laban (as it is referred to in Europe), and b) Effort/Shape. The two systems together are now often called Laban Movement Analysis or Labananalysis in the United States; 2. Benesh Movement Notation, also known as Choreology; and 3. Eshkol-Wachman Notation, which has been used primarily in Israel.3 Each of these systems can deal with many kinds of movement--not just dance.

     There is some controversy as to which is the "best" system.4 Since each analyzes movement from a different perspective, it is likely that the "best" system may depend on the problem at hand. For instance, the Benesh and Eshkol-Wachman systems place more emphasis on showing the end positions of movements; the Laban approach generally notates the process of movement. This distinction is just one of the ways in which movement can be conceptualized differently and in which notation can vary in capturing this conceptualization.5

     The closest kin to dance notation is music notation. Although the latter has had a longer history than its dance counterpart, it still struggles to capture many aspects of its subject, especially in the area of qualitative features. In addition, new kinds of music, methods of composition, and performance criteria have challenged the limitations of existing notation systems. However, the place of notation in the two arts varies in a crucial way. In music, it is the composer who notates the work; the score is the result of the creative process. In dance, it is very rare that the choreographer produces the score. This situation is responsible for much of the skepticism that choreographers have had about the reliability of notation. Although the usual procedure is for the notator to work while the choreographer is either composing, teaching, or rehearsing the piece, this practice does not solve all the problems. The notator writes what the choreographer asks for in terms of movement, even if no dancer present is actually performing according to the choreographer's intent. On the other hand, the choreographer's wishes may not be absolutely clear; for example, instructions are often nonverbal or metaphoric. The extent to which the choreographer, dancer, and notator share the same conceptual understanding of the movements in a dance is one of the central issues of notation. Matching the symbology of the notation system to the movement intent is a major challenge.

     Although the existing dance notation systems may not comply wholly with Goodman's definition of a notation system and may never fulfill his criteria for establishing dance as an allographic art, they have extensive capabilities of a practical and theoretical nature. According to Goodman, "An established art becomes allographic only when the classification of objects or events into works is legitimately projected from an antecedent classification and is fully defined, independently of history of production, in terms of a notational system" (Goodman 1976: 198). Goodman, Margolis, and Armelagos and Sirridge have discussed many of the problems involved in reaching this goal. However, in considering the possible allographic nature of dance, they have underestimated the capabilities of the existing notation systems as well as the future potential of these and perhaps other not-yet-developed systems. It is not the objective of this paper to argue the extent to which present-day dance notation can provide accurate and complete records suitable to serve as the basis for establishing choreographic identification. The systems probably have not been tested adequately enough to draw any definitive conclusions in that regard. On the other hand, I do hope to show that the existing systems are much more technically advanced and conceptually interesting than has been acknowledged by Margolis or other writers. Thus, serious issue is to be taken with Margolis's comments that "notational efforts at scoring a dance are radically less interesting intrinsically than musical scores or the texts of dramas"; "dance scores are primarily heuristic devices for recovering a minimal sense of the principal positions and movements of a given dance"; and "there is no sense in which the perception of related positions and movements . . . could possibly be grounded in an understanding of the deeper structures of the dance, by means of a closer attention to the notation itself" (Margolis 1979; see essay in this issue).

     Armelagos and Sirridge also have misconceptions about the value of notation in regard to capturing style. They define style as a combination of

a "spatial vocabulary" and a distinctive pattern of kinesthetic motivation. A spatial vocabulary is an inventory of acceptable positions and position sequences; and kinesthetic motivation is best described from the dancer's side as a sense of the pattern of the movement flow, the originating impulse, the stresses and transitions. From the audience's point of view, kinesthetic motivation is the quality and direction of movement thus produced. (Armelagos and Sirridge 1978: 131)

They distinguish two types of style, as follows: "A cohesive vocabulary and motivation choice produce what we call style1 constraints. Contrasted with these are the style2 characteristics produced by the dancer's individual manner of execution at the performance level" (Armelagos and Sirridge 1978: 131). Although one could challenge their definition of style as well as differentiate more than two levels (e.g., style of genre, style of movement technique, style of the choreographer, style of the work, style of the dancer), the important point here is their insistence that there is a problem in distinguishing what is "in the steps" from what is contributed by the dancer. This difficulty is partially a function of the need to discriminate the more elusive qualitative features of movement. They argue that it may be possible for notation to handle most spatial vocabularies, but that the crucial dimension of kinesthetic motivation is resistant to notation. "Labanotation," they write, "is precise, but becomes descriptive, and even pictographic when it attempts to notate movement ideals and motivation" (Armelagos and Sirridge 1978: 131). They concede that one system, Effort/Shape notation, "does try to account for some such factors. But . . . it sacrifices precision for completeness" (Armelagos and Sirridge 1978: 135). If precision is equated with quantitative measurement, then theirs is a valid criticism. Effort/Shape, while covering the phenomenon of movement holistically, does deal with qualitative and not (at this point) measurable units. However, if precision is seen as the ability to pinpoint the source of motivation, then their evaluation needs to be reexamined. Notation, even of spatial vocabulary alone, can reveal much more of movement intent and style than is generally recognized. An example given later in this paper will illustrate this potential. Furthermore, existing notations can capture aspects of personal style, and they have both prescriptive and descriptive capabilities.6

     Determining the range of interpretation permissible, and thus the point at which a performance of a work ceases to be part of that classification of performances that is identified as the choreographic work, is a choreographic or aesthetic problem. Notational constraints are not in themselves the main handicap. The existing notation systems are in fact in a constant state of revision and refinement. As new problems arise, new solutions have been found.7

The Laban System: A Conceptual Framework for Dance

The Laban system originated as a corollary of a much wider search for an understanding of the principles of movement, of the sources of movement expression, and of the value of dance to humanity. Given its theoretical breadth, this system is of particular significance to the philosophy of dance. However, my use of the Laban system to illustrate the theoretical nature of dance notation is not meant to be a polemic for its superiority; rather it is intended to provide a concrete point of reference for the discussion of some underlying aspects of movement notation and of some specific capabilities that may or may not be possessed by other systems.

     The name of Rudolf Laban (1879-1958) is of course associated with the development of Labanotation. What is little recognized is that this system of notation was not an end point of his career, but rather one part of a much more encompassing involvement with movement: choreographing; championing movement for the layman as well as for the professional dancer; innovating in the field of dance education; researching the movement of factory workers; and, above all, searching for a conceptual framework for the analysis and interpretation of movement. This latter aspect of his work is generally unknown in the United States; much of his writing has never been translated into English.8 The body of literature he has left is but one example that refutes the common allegation that there have been virtually no studies of dance of philosophical import.

     There are important distinctions to be made, however, between what Laban wrote and did in his lifetime and what has been developed from his ideas. The areas of movement analysis considered as part of the Laban system today have evolved over the decades and have been shaped by the contributions of many individuals. In the United States, his legacy has tended to be divided into two main areas, called Labanotation and Effort/ Shape. The latter has roots in an earlier system called Eukinetics. The concept of Effort, and the notation for it, were not formalized until Laban became involved in analyzing the movement of factory workers during and after World War II. The Shape aspect of the system was not formally developed until later in this period by his student Warren Lamb. Irmgard Bartenieff, who was instrumental in the growth and spread of Effort/Shape in the United States, developed an aspect of Laban's work based on the analysis of the kinesiological level of movement, a system called Bartenieff Fundamentals, which has been incorporated into the Effort/Shape system as it is taught in the United States. The study of spatial relationships, which Laban called Choreutics, is also included in Laban studies. The various subsystems of Laban's work have had different histories of development since his original formulations. His colleagues and students have been responsible for the transformation of Labanotation into a highly technical tool and of Effort/Shape into a system of movement analysis with diverse applications.9 Currently there is interest in reunifying his work according to the principles that underlie all the systems. Thus, rather than separating Labanotation from Effort/Shape, the whole system is often referred to in the United States as Laban Movement Analysis, Laban Movement Studies, or Labananalysis. A brief description of the main areas of Laban Movement Analysis follows.


This is a system of notation for the description of the structure of movement. It deals with the "what," "where," and "when" of movement. The shape of the basic sign indicates the direction of movement, the shading of the sign refers to the level of movement (high, middle, low), and the relative length of the sign shows the time duration. The placement of the sign on a three-line vertical staff indicates the body part moving, Reading the staff vertically reveals succession in time; reading horizontally reveals interrelationships of body parts at one point in time. Thus, direction, level, and timing of an action are captured in one symbol. Sequencing of movement, the distribution of body weight, the configuration of movement in the body, the relationship between movers, and the orientation of the whole within the performing space can be readily grasped. Moreover, there is flexibility within the system as to the amount of detail provided. For instance, a walk can be broken down into minute detail or shown in a generalized form. Motif writing, developed by Valerie Preston-Dunlop (1966-67) as a derivative of Labanotation, can be used to abstract the general patterns of a movement sequence.


This notation system describes the quality of movement, the "how'' or adverbial dimension of moving. Effort studies deal with changes in the use of bodily energy: how one activates one's weight, attends to space, orients to time, and controls the flow of muscular tension. Each effort factor is conceptualized as on a continuum. Thus, weight or force runs from "light"--an overcoming of gravity--to "strong," a powerful engaging of one's weight. The space factor deals with attention to the environment: is there a "direct" focus or an "indirect" or "flexible" multifocus? Time can range from "sustained"--an indulging in or drawing out of time--to "sudden" or "quick"--an urgent crystallization of time. Effort flow ranges from "free"--an ongoingness of movement--to "bound," a controlled, stoppable attitude toward the flow of energy. A movement is rarely animated by just one effort quality; most actions combine two or more of the factors in the various permutations that are possible. For example, one could perform a plié by sinking with a sustained, bound quality and rising with a light, free, indirect quality. The signs for the effort elements are concise and can be easily linked together in combinations; they can also be written in sequences to reveal phrasing.

     By describing the movement in terms of what the body does with energy and what it creates spatially, the ambiguity of descriptive adjectives is diminished, and the action can be performed and seen according to its movement intent. To describe a movement in adjectives such as "graceful" or in metaphoric terms such as "snakelike" can be evocative but says little about specific movement content. There may be a shared basis for everyone's interpretation of "graceful"--perhaps "lightness" is a common feature. Yet the term may encompass other references as well--for example, a light, sustained quality, or light, indirect, free-flowing movement, or light curvilinearity. Using the Effort/Shape terminology is a way of describing movement in movement terms. Although ordinary adjectives are used to describe these qualities, the use of the signs rather than the words helps to limit or fix their use according to their technical definitions.

     Shape refers to the ways in which the body changes its form--how it adapts to or creates space. There are three different kinds of shape possibilities; each can be succinctly specified in the form of a question. Does the movement relate only to changes in the body shape, that is, to alterations in the relationship of body parts to each other--folding and unfolding, for example, or growing and shrinking--and not to interactions with the environment? Such body shape changes are called shape flow. Alternatively, does the movement relate to the surrounding space in a goal-directed manner, a shaping quality known as spokelike or arclike directional shaping, as when one reaches out for something? Finally, does the body actively sculpt space or adapt to the environment in two or three dimensions, as in shaping or carving movements? The concept of shape does not refer to the form or the design that is produced, but rather to the manner of creating a spatial form or bodily configuration.

Choreutics, or Space Harmony

This is the study of the relationship between the body and its spatial environment. Spatial harmonics are the proportionate relationships between paths of movement. This subsystem of Laban's work deals with such concepts as spatial designs, the relationship between the limbs and torso in moving, and movement scales built on linear dimensions, planes, or three-dimensional forms. Laban wrote: "Every trace-form [pathways creating shapes in space] has hidden dynamic connections which are followed intuitively by the moving person. To unveil these hidden relations is one of the aims of the study of choreutics and the art of movement" (Laban 1974: 35). Studying the relationship between spatial pathways and what later came to be called effort, and the manner in which they combine to form an expressive statement, was at the core of Laban's work. It is interesting to note that, after Laban fled Germany and settled in England, the book that he began to write to introduce his ideas to the English-speaking world was on Choreutics. The manuscript, begun in 1939, was not published until after his death.10

Bartenieff Fundamentals

Laban included anatomical and kinesiological principles in formulating his ideas about movement and notation (see Laban 1926a, 1966). His student Irmgard Bartenieff applied concepts derived from the eukinetic and choreutic material to her work as a physical therapist. She then incorporated insights from her experience into the Laban system in the form of what is now known as Bartenieff Fundamentals. Some of the themes that are explored in this facet of Laban-derived work include the study of the principles of weight shift, initiation of movement, breath support, sequencing of movement, and interaction of body parts, especially between the upper and lower units of the body. The goal of Fundamentals is to promote integrated and efficient movement patterning and to reveal the interrelationship between body, effort, shape, and spatial relationships. The question of how the body supports movement in space and facilitates the expression of dynamics is the primary analytic question that ties this body-level work directly to the Laban system. Since Labanotating involves the analysis of what the moving body does, the Fundamentals perspective relates to Labanotation as well (see Bartenieff and Lewis 1980).

     It is important to note that most of the applications of Effort/Shape and Choreutics in the United States frequently do not use the actual notation signs but rather develop the movement principles on which the notation is based.11 The notation signs are an adjunct to the system. The relationship is analogous to that between music theory and music notation. Dance critic Marcia Siegel, for instance, has emphasized the use of Effort/Shape as a movement vocabulary. She has written, "The widespread adoption of Effort-Shape analysis by critics could provide the objective verbal context which dance has always lacked" (Siegel 1967: 440). It is significant, however, that the system does have a written symbology, for, as in music and mathematics, graphic signs facilitate the articulation, growth, and communication of ideas.

The Laban System: Its History and Underlying Principles

Laban considered all aspects of his work to be interdependent. To think of Laban Movement Analysis as simply a recording device is to miss the richness of Laban's contributions. This system provides a way of perceiving, describing, and analyzing movement, as well as a way of notating it.12 The same could be said of all movement notation systems,13 though to a lesser extent, because the developments of the other systems were not guided by theoretical goals beyond those engendered in the pragmatic desire to devise a means of recording movement in a clear and concise way.

     Laban's original idea, in fact, was not only the practical one of inventing a system for the documentation of dances for posterity or for establishing the identity of a choreographic work. He was searching for a way of symbolizing what he felt to be the nature of movement. He wished to capture in graphic signs the totality of movement--its structural and expressive content. He proclaimed that "the ultimate goal of kinetography is not the Dance Script [Tanzschrift], but the Script Dance [Schrifttanz]" (Laban in Sonner 1930).14 Laban felt that "the form of the notation signs must grow from the knowledge about the innermost nature of the things to which we refer in order to denote for the instructed reader what is intended" (Laban 1920: 187, in Lange 1976: 19). This dream was to give way to the practical exigencies of recording dances. Two separate notation systems developed. Labanotation (then called Schrifttanz) was first presented in a form similar to its current state in 1928; Effort/Shape did not find notational expression until the 1940s and 1950s.

     Historically, Laban's search for the principles underlying movement and for a sign system to express them developed together and concurrently with his creative work as a choreographer. The kernel of most of his theoretical work was formulated during the period from about 1910 until World War II, an era coinciding with the growth of central European modern dance. Mary Wigman and Kurt Jooss, two of the foremost choreographers of the time, were originally his pupils.15 Many of the concepts of movement that Laban was exploring took form in their choreography. Jooss's The Green Table is the best known of these works.16 Laban's theoretical as well as his artistic work evolved in the context of expressionism. The subsequent development of his ideas has freed them from this historical context so that his principles of movement and notation system can be applied universally.

     Laban's ideas and their applications did not develop linearly. He approached the same problems from different angles and attempted to synthesize concepts from diverse fields. The results of his searchings reinforced each other. Some of his ideas are now dated, unverifiable, or disproved. His writings are often convoluted; sometimes the ideas are presented in a very abstract fashion, sometimes they sound almost mystical. Yet the core of his work remains as a rich conceptual framework for further exploration. Since all of his ideas did interrelate so closely, it is very difficult to explain sections of his work taken out of context. The following discussion illustrates some of the interconnections that exist or have existed between his notation and the wider conceptual problems with which he was concerned. As noted earlier, notation was only a small part of his work, and the description here does not pretend to cover all aspects relevant even to this subject.

     Laban believed that "motion and emotion, form and content, body and mind, are inseparably united" (Laban 1974: viii). He felt that "every emotional state coincides with a very definite body tension" (Laban 1920: 54, in Bartenieff 1970: 10). He sought to discover what this relationship is and how it is produced. He explained what he meant by body tension as follows:

The elements of each gesture are bodily tensions combined with intellectual and feeling excitations. The body tension we determined according to directions in space towards which they are executed; furthermore according to the application of force with which they are led into definite widths of space and with larger or smaller time-duration within which they follow each other. (Laban 1920: 23, in Bartenieff 1970: 5)

The "direction in space" to which he refers took on a greater significance to him when it was seen as part of a larger system of spatial orientation. Starting with the three dimensions of the upright human body--the up/down vertical axis, the side/side horizontal axis, and the forward/backward sagittal axis--Laban outlined some of the basic possibilities of moving in space. One can move linearly along these axes, or in cycles within two-dimensional planes, or in three dimensions, with constant change within the three spatial tendencies, as in spiralling and twisting. Another basic spatial relationship is the diagonal cross, the four diagonal lines that run through the center of the body.

     Using these spatial axes as frameworks, one can visualize polyhedral or crystalline structures or scaffoldings surrounding the body, creating various action spaces. The most basic of these forms are the cube (formed by connecting the end points of the diagonal cross); the octahedron (formed by connecting the end points of the three axes); and the icosahedron (formed by connecting the corners of the planes, outlining a form that approximates a sphere). These spatial structures are seen as "kinespheres," or personal "bubbles" surrounding the body, defining not only the range of movement but also the underlying structural possibilities of movement sequences.17

     It was the goal of Laban's work, especially in Choreutics, to discover the interrelationship of spatial pathways and dynamic stresses or emotional moods and to create a sign system to reveal this unity. He explained:

One of the basic experiences of the dynamics of movement is that its different spatial nuances always show clearly distinguishable mental and emotional attitudes. It is possible to relate the moving person's feeling for dynamics to the spatial harmonics within trace-forms and to the zones through which the paths of the trace-forms lead. (Laban 1974: 27)

Laban found "certain correlations of dynamic nuances with spatial directions" (Laban 1974: 31). In addition, he proclaimed, "It is one of the most striking discoveries in the domain of choreutics that an oddness and an affinity exist between action-moods [expressive actions], and that this relationship can be expressed by space symbols" (Laban 1974: 55). These quotations demonstrate the close interconnection that Laban felt existed between dynamics and space and their expression in his sign system. In most of his writings Laban outlines clear correlations (known as "affinities") between movements in specific directions and specific effort qualities. The central European style of modern dance, which he helped to foster, seemed to support and to develop these relationships. Other styles of dance, different movement activities, and cultural variations, however, have challenged these correlations. Since one cannot assume a dynamic quality from a notation for a spatial direction, the degree to which the idea of inherent correlations is valid and can be applied to notation remains a point of controversy and a subject of research within the Laban system. Yet in an effort to understand the complexities of the form/content or movement/expression relationship, we can look beyond one-to-one correlations. For instance, we can conceive of these choreutic forms as spatial structures that limit certain movement possibilities and promote others, producing different expressive qualities. For example, moving along the vertical axis makes a statement about the body's relationship to gravity, that range of expressive potential that involves the possibility of being pulled toward the ground or rising toward the sky. Leaving the stability of the vertical axis by tilting or spiralling promotes lability, each in a different way. Tracing a path from a high point to a low point expresses a different quality from moving in the opposite direction. In addition, his theories alert us to the ways in which the body, effort, and spatial directions interact. Laban observed, for instance, that

when a movement is accompanied by a secondary one in another part of the body in an opposite spatial direction, it can easily be understood that the secondary movement might inhibit or disturb the main movement; it might diminish its speed, decrease its dynamic power and deviate its direction. Sometimes in this way dynamic nuances can be explained by the spatial influence of secondary movements and tensions. (Laban 1974: 27)

One of the more general characteristics of movement that Laban wished to elucidate is the distinction between stable and labile movement. "The two contrasting fundamentals on which all choreutic harmony is based," he wrote, "are the dimensional and the diagonal tension" (Laban 1974: 44). He explained the significance of this discovery as follows:

[D]imensional directions [along one of the three axes] are the carriers of stability while the diagonals guarantee the labile flow. The degree of diagonal tendency therefore will determine its light intensity; influenced by dimensional secondary tendencies, the natural urgency to change is missing. (Laban 1926a: 75, in Bartenieff 1970: 19)

Thus, a sign for diagonal direction in Labanotation carries with it the connotation of lability. The movements that precede, accompany, and follow the diagonal movement and the effort quality of those movements may increase or decrease its dynamic impact. One can read spatial relationships from Labanotation symbols; for instance, one can detect whether labile, diagonal "cubic" choreutic forms or more stable, dimensional "octahedral" forms predominate in a dance, or how these spatial tensions interact with each other within a dance.

     In addition to encompassing what could be seen--that is, both structural and dynamic qualities--and expressing their interrelationship in one sign, the ideal notation system that Laban wished to develop would symbolize also the structure, source, or motivation that produced the movement. In the following analogy he clarified what he wished his notation to symbolize:

The representation of the wheel by a circle gives its outer form as it is seen from the outside, so to speak. The representation of the wheel by the spokes shows us the inner tension forces which keep the wheel spokes apart. The wheel is seen from within here. (Laban 1920: 31, in Bartenieff 1970: 24)

Laban wanted his notation to show the "spokes" of movement, not the external form, but what one did with one's body to create that form. In Labanotation as it exists today, to take a step, for instance, is symbolized as a shifting of the center of weight in a certain direction, over a certain time duration, at a certain level. One is not given a picture of the final pose; instead one has to move or conceptualize the moving in order to discover the final outcome; one has to participate actively.

     Knowledge of Laban's research into the complexities of movement--into body tension, spatial directions, dynamics, emotional mood, stable and labile movement, and so on, all in conjunction with a notational system--is important for two reasons. Goodman remarks that "the development of Laban's language offers us an elaborate and intriguing example of the process that has come to be called 'concept formation'" (Goodman 1976: 214). Some of the conceptual stages that the notational ideas went through can be traced in several of Laban's books, starting with his 1926 Choreographie. The second reason for valuing the research is that fundamental ideas resurface and are retained in the system, making the notation of interest from a theoretical point of view. Specifically,

  1. Both Labanotation and Effort/Shape notation record the process of moving, not the resulting positions. This perspective focuses attention on action and conceptualization, rather than on architectonics. One experiences empathy with the mover rather than only observing shapes and patterns from the outside.

  2. Each of these systems in itself provides a choice of ways of describing and recording movement that makes it possible to capture subtle distinctions; in this way, the notation can be consistent with the particular conceptualization of the movement. Together, the quantitative perspective of Labanotation and the qualitative perspective of Effort/Shape enrich our understanding of the movement.

  3. Finally, the systems deal with notating movement quality and kinesthetic motivation, especially through the use of Effort/Shape notation.

The following section illustrates these points by presenting examples of the kinds of distinctions that are made in scoring a choreographic work.

Using the Laban System

To exemplify the three characteristics of the Laban system mentioned above, let us analyze the simple action of raising the leg with bent knee from a standing position. Notice first that by describing the movement as "raising," rather than "with a raised leg," the focus is on human action and not on the result of an implied action. In this particular instance, what is the intent of the movement? Is the aim of the movement of the leg to create a distinct shape, or to travel a definite path, or merely to flex at the hip, the resulting shape and path being incidental? Is the movement traveling away from something or toward something? Is the intent to create a specific angle at the hip, at the knee, at both, or are the angles of no significance? Is the movement initiated by leading with the knee, or pushing with the thigh? Is the goal to create a specific relationship between the two legs, or is the aim to maintain balance or to experiment with the dynamics of movement? These are the kinds of distinctions that can be made using Labanotation.

     Labanotation, however, cannot reveal all the qualitative nuances with which the movement was performed. This is where Effort and Shape notation are uniquely valuable: the attitude of the mover to his or her own weight, space, time, and flow qualities can be indicated. The manner in which the mover shapes his or her body in the environment also can be notated. For instance, was the raising of the leg a folding, body-oriented shape flow action, or was it a directional, spatially aware movement from the hip, describing a clear arc in space? Was there careful attention to the path in which the knee traveled--that is, was there bound flow and direct space effort? Or was there, for instance, a quick, strong impulse into the floor followed by a light, indulging in time as the leg rises? These few questions do not begin to exhaust the possibilities for describing the very simple action of "raising the leg with bent knee from a standing position." It should be noted also how ambiguous the description of this movement is in English words; for instance, is the knee bent before it is raised, or does it bend while the leg is rising? Through the use of Labanotation and Effort/Shape notation, this kind of confusion can be avoided.

     When the context or the motivation for a movement varies, there will be differences in how the movement looks. Although often subtle nuances, they are discernible and, in many respects, notable characteristics. Often it is these kinds of distinctions that may make all the difference in discriminating among styles or establishing choreographic identity. The Laban notator has a range of options in choosing a form of writing that can best capture the intent of the movement. Other movement notation systems can also deal with many of these distinctions, some with more accuracy and flexibility than others.

     Because Labanotation and Effort/Shape evolved somewhat independently of each other, there are difficulties in reuniting the two systems for use in a score. This is one of the areas in which there is ongoing experimentation. The decision as to how much of the dynamic content of a choreographic work is to be left to interpretation should not rest with the notator. The crucial issue seems to be how to differentiate between those aspects that can or should be left to individual interpretation and so should not be scored and those that are basic to the characterization or style of the dance.

      For instance, in Swan Lake, Odette and Odile are differentiated from each other not just by costume color, steps, and quantifiable traits like speed, but by a constellation of dynamic qualities. Many of these aspects of the choreography cannot be captured by a notation of "spatial vocabulary" alone. Although we cannot know today the original intent of the deceased choreographers, it is possible to score the results of tradition in the form of individual interpretations. If there were common denominators in the dancing of a role, they would emerge from the notations. Hypothetically, we might find that Odile tends to initiate phrases with quickness (not fast in terms of tempo, but rather as a crystallization of time), or that she rises with strength, whereas Odette may rise with lightness. This type of subtle manifestation of kinesthetic motivation can make a crucial difference in preserving the identity of a choreographic work. This is the level where Effort/Shape notation can prove itself.

     By taking José Limón's The Moor's Pavane, an example given by Armelagos and Sirridge (1978), we can easily see how notational authority could prevent the interpolation of ballet steps into a modern dance work. It is less obvious how notation could prevent a dancer from performing the movement in a balletic manner. For instance, ballet emphasizes line, the architecture of movement and positions; Limón technique, among other traits, emphasizes breath as a motivating force. While a snapshot that captures a pose may possibly look the same in both techniques, the intent of the moving is different. Thus, a leg extension to the side, for instance, might be done in ballet with the goal of reaching as high a point as possible, whereas for the Limón dancer the intent would be for the leg to travel only as far as the forceful impulse of the breath would send it. Without knowledge of this stylistic characteristic, someone who read a notation indicating a pose or specifying a point in space for the leg gesture to reach would be misled as to the proper motivation for the movement. Labanotation and Effort/Shape in complementary use can make these kinds of fine distinctions.

     It remains for the human being who is writing the movement to be able to ask the right questions, to see the myriad possibilities, and to select the best way to notate the particular instance. Most of the biases in the systems are in the humans using them, and are not inherent in the symbologies themselves. If the context is known, then one can take certain things for granted as clues to the motivation. For instance, the example given above of raising the leg with a bent knee might be written differently if it occurred in a Balkan folk dance, in a military march, in ballet, in Limón technique, in climbing a stair, or in rebounding from stepping on hot coals. When the style and genre of the choreography is known, then the completeness and proper choices in notating rely on the notator's skill and sensitivity and are not, for the most part, a function of inherent limitations in the notation. When the style is not known, say in notating a foreign dance form, knowledge of cultural conceptualizations would be needed as well.


Dance notation is more than [a] heuristic device or a pragmatic tool. The current state of notation and its potentials have been underestimated; the various applications of notation beyond documentation have gone unrecognized; and the intrinsic interest of notation systems as conceptual frameworks has remained unappreciated.

     The preceding discussion has shown that the analysis of a notation score can generate questions and provide answers for many kinds of studies. In the field of aesthetics, these center on the concept of style and the relationship between notation and performance. Notating is not a mechanical process; it requires knowledge about style and an understanding of the different ways in which a movement can be conceptualized. The notator, reconstructor of notation,18 and the performer, on the one hand, and the aesthetician, critic, and historian, on the other hand, should be intimately aware of each other's work. Notation scores can be resources for aesthetic inquiry; philosophical writings about dance can provide insight for the notation of scores. Both processes can benefit from a closer interrelationship. Notation scores are dances presented in another medium, a medium that makes it possible to go back and in some way reexperience or at least reanalyze the dance form and style. The notator often has had "privileged" information through his or her close contact with the choreographic or teaching process connected with the piece being notated. Patterns or characteristics that might not be apparent otherwise emerge from the notation, even some that may not have been chosen consciously by the choreographer or notator. On the other hand, insights into the source and essence of expression, style, and aesthetic criteria provided by philosophical inquiry can be incorporated into the choice of graphic representation of the movement.

     Notations are embodiments of perceptions of movement. A notation that is guided by an awareness of the ways in which movement can be conceptualized can be a source of enlightenment to anyone interested in the phenomenon of movement. The perceptual and cognitive processes involved in notating and in translating notation back into movement are unusual manifestations of the human ability to symbolize. The clues to style, aesthetic criteria, and movement intent that can be discovered in a dance notation score or through the use of notation systems as frameworks for movement analysis make the understanding of the principles behind notation a valuable resource for the artist, humanist, and scientist.19 Notation can be an adjunct to the experience and understanding of dance and has wide implications of both a practical and theoretical nature. It is a work in progress.


1 This paper originated as a response to Joseph Margolis's paper "The Autographic Nature of the Dance" as it was presented at the conference "Illuminating Dance: Philosophical Inquiry and Aesthetic Criticism," co-sponsored by CORD and Temple University and held at Temple University, Philadelphia, May 5, 1979 [also included in this issue]. My presentation of the Laban system derives from the understanding of it that I gained from my training under Irmgard Bartenieff and others in Laban Movement Analysis (Effort/Shape), from my reading of Laban's writings and those of his colleagues and students, and from my research and teaching experiences with Effort/Shape. Although I have studied Labanotation, I am not a Laban notator.

2 For a history of dance notation, see Hutchinson-Guest (1982) and [1985] Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed. "Choreography and Dance Notation."

3 Principal sources on Labanotation are Hutchinson (1970); Knust (1979); Preston-Dunlop (1969); Laban (1975a); Nahumck, (1978). For information on Effort, Shape, and Space theory, see Dell (1970); Bartenieff and Lewis (1980); Laban (1971, 1974, 1975b); Laban and Lawrence (1974); Preston-Dunlop (1963); North (1970); Bartenieff, Davis and Paulay (1970). For Benesh, see Benesh and Benesh (1969, 1977). For Eshkol-Wachman, the main source is Eshkol and Wachman (1958).

4 For comparative articles, see Kleinman (1975) and Turnbaugh (1970); responses to Turnbaugh's article and his reply are in Turnbaugh et al. (1970).

5 See Davis (1973) for a comparative study of the literature of nonverbal communication research; she discovered that there was a correlation between the choice of movement parameters observed and the conclusions that were drawn about the relationship of movement to social and psychological factors.

6 The distinction between a prescriptive and a descriptive use of notation is that "between a blue-print . . . and a report of . . . a specific performance" (Seeger 1958). All discussion of notational capabilities in this paper refers only to the movement aspects of dance, not to the costumes, lighting, props, and other often essential aspects of the work. Such information is always included in a score, but in verbal or pictographic form.

7 For instance, the International Council of Kinetography Laban (ICKL) meets once every two years to discuss changes in the Laban system. For examples of studies that have necessitated the search for notational solutions, see Reber (1976) and Van Zile (1981-82).

8 Laban's untranslated writings include Die Welt des Tänzers (Stuttgart: Walter Seifert, 1920); Des Kindes Gymnastik und Tanz (Oldenburg: Stalling, 1926); Gymnastik und Tanz (Oldenburg: Stalling, 1926); Choreographie (Jena: Eugen Diederichs, 1926). For translations of sections of these, see Bartenieff (1970).

9 Albrecht Knust and Ann Hutchinson Guest deserve the most credit for the transformation of Labanotation into the detailed and workable system that it is today. Many others have contributed to its development and to the growth of Effort, Shape, and Space studies. Principal centers for the continuation of Laban's work are, in the United States, Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies (New York) and the Dance Notation Bureau (New York and Ohio State University); in the United Kingdom, Laban Centre for Movement and Dance (University of London, Goldsmith's College), Language of Dance Centre (London), and the Centre for Dance Studies (Jersey, Channel Islands). There are also centers in Germany, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere in the world.

10 The Language of Movement: A Guidebook to Choreutics (1974), originally published as Choreutics (Laban 1966).

11 Laban Movement Analysis has been used in research, and practical applications have been made in situations as diverse as movement itself. For an overview of research in the behavioral and social sciences, see Davis (1979).

12 For examples of the use of Labanotation or Laban Movement Analysis in applications other than documentation, see the following studies in Woodruff ed. (1978): Pforsich (1978); Kagan (1978); Youngerman (1978); Gellerman (1978). See also Jordan (1981-82); Davis and Schmais (1968); various articles in Dance Studies (ed. R. Lange), especially vol. 1 (1976); International Folk Music Council Study Group for Folk Dance Terminology, "Foundations for the Analysis of the Structure and Form of Folk Dance: A Syllabus," in 1974 Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council 6 (1975): 115-35; Kaeppler (1972); Williams (1977, 1979): see Van Zile (1981) for comments on this article and Williams's reply [1981]; and Williams (1974-75).

13 On Benesh, see Street (1977) and Roth (1974).

14 See also the journal published by Laban beginning 1928, Schrifttanz (Vienna: Universal-Edition). The journal was later published also in English and French as Schrifttanz/La Danse Ecrite/Script Dancing (Vienna: Universal-Edition, 1930).

15 For information on Wigman's relationship with Laban, see Sorell (1977). On Laban's influence on Jooss, see Markard (1982).

16 See Siegel (1972). The Green Table is used as an example in Sirridge and Armelagos (1977) and in Margolis's paper [this issue]. The former authors remarked that this work is based on a "movement code" that is derived from "the use of Laban's projection scheme for correlating emotional values to particular movements." They continue, "There is not much evidence that dancers themselves feel the correlation, and it remains a code of rather an odd kind" (23-24, n.7). Margolis then cites their opinion as evidence of the shortcomings of notation, calling the correlation "awkward and unconvincing" (1981 and this issue). Jooss actually used Laban's eukinetic principles in this choreographic piece to create archetypal characters, using a limited but crystallized constellation of effort and space qualities for each characterization. It is not a "code," but rather a dramatic device; the differentiation of protagonists according to their dynamic qualities is apparent to anyone who sees the work performed according to these principles. The critical acclaim this masterpiece has received from its premiere (winning first prize at the choreographic competition sponsored by Les Archives Internationales de la Danse in Paris in 1932) until the present day (as a key work in the repertory of the Joffrey Ballet and as frequently restaged by companies around the world) makes the labelling of its expressive foundation as "odd" odd in itself. In fact, in contrast to the statement made by Sirridge and Armelagos concerning the dancers' motivations, consider the following remarks by Robert Joffrey: "Marjorie Mussman, who played the Old Mother in our first performances, feels that it may be even more affecting to dance The Green Table than to experience its impact from the audience. Before and after the ballet there is a kind of hush backstage" (Joffrey 1979: 29). The impact of The Green Table supports rather than challenges the usefulness of Laban movement principles. See Siegel (1972).

17 For more explanation and applications of space harmony, see Laban (1974); Preston-Dunlop (1979); North (1974); Bodmer (1981); Redfern (1976).

18 For information on the process of reconstruction, see Cook (1977), available through the Dance Notation Bureau.

19 For another point of view on the theory and application of notation, see Salter (1978).

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