Section: Features

Dance Labanotation: freezing movement in time

Dance Labanotation: freezing movement in time

by Rachel Dragos

On principle, it would seem as though the creative expression of dance would have little in common with mathematical formulas and equations. Such an assumption would be incorrect. See: Labanotation. The language of dance written in symbols, figures and numerical notations.

Kenyon is one of only approximately a dozen schools in the country that continues to offer Labanotation as part of its dance curriculum. “Labanotation is the way that we write movement in symbols,” Associate Professor of Dance Julie Brodie, who teaches the “Dance Labanotation” class, said. “It’s analogous to musical notation, except it is more complicated because movement takes place three-dimensionally in both time and space … it’s our language of dance.”

Rudolf Laban, one of the pioneers of modern dance in Europe, developed Labanotation in the 1920s as a method of recording movement. Since then, many others have expanded and shaped the method, most notably Ann Hutchinson Guest, who co-founded the Dance Notation Bureau, a nonprofit located in New York that performs notations and houses archived scores of over 800 dances.

By reading a single symbol off of a Labanotation score, one can immediately tell the body part doing the movement as well as its direction, level and length of time. Everything can be notated, from the simple movement of the finger to the positioning of the eyes.

“One of the beautiful things about notation,” Brodie said, “is that it can be used for any kind of movement; it doesn’t have to be just dance. It’s been used by physical therapists, it’s been used by kinesiologists, anthropologists, psychologists — anybody who is interested in capturing, preserving, recording movement of any sort.”

As technology has developed, Labanotation has remained a crucial, unbiased record of movement. Videotaping, for example, is often used in conjunction with a score, but cannot replace it. “The downside to just using video,” Brodie said, “would be like trying to capture classic musical masterpieces through recording — you may not hear everything. Also, every time it is performed by a different person, that musician is endowing the music with their musical interpretation … if you are using that as the baseline, then each replication of it is going to come further and further away from the original.”

Dance Labanotation is generally offered every other year, and throughout the course students learn “the basics of reading and writing,” Brodie said. “They are able to read and write quite a bit of the basic vocabulary — supports, jumps, turns, gestures.” Occasionally students elect to continue beyond the beginning level by working in an independent study with Brodie.

Brianne Presley ’16 took the class this past semester and enjoyed it so much that she is considering pursuing her studies further by attending the Labanotation Teacher’s Certification Course, which is offered every other summer at The Ohio State University. “I really loved the course,” Presley said. “I thought it was interesting that I was able to learn something that a lot of people don’t get the chance to take.”

Presley’s enjoyment of the class reflected Brodie’s larger ideas of how the class “fits into a liberal arts education.” “I like it because I like math and it seems very mathematical to me,” Presley said. “It can draw in people who aren’t necessarily in love with dance and dance history, but people who are interested in movement.”

Brodie and Professor of Dance Balinda Craig-Quijada were largely responsible for keeping Labanotation as part of the curriculum, especially when so many other schools chose to drop it. “We both believe in the value of notation,” Brodie said. “We both feel like it is … very important. … Even if you never go beyond the elementary level, you are breaking movement down and saying, ‘This is exactly what is happening,’ which is going to make you a more clear dancer, a more articulate teacher and better able to understand choreography.”

Last semester, Brodie recreated Charles Weidman’s 1936 piece “Lynchtown” from a Labanotation score for the Fall Dance Concert. The piece highlights the mob mentality and utter horror of a lynching, informed by Weidman’s experience as a child watching a lynching take place.

She received the score from the Dance Notation Bureau in a process similar to the way a script is obtained for a play. “I was originally drawn to that piece because it is historically considered to be a masterpiece,” she said. “I was always blown away by the dramatic power of the piece.” Brodie prefers to do recreations for the dance concerts while she is teaching the class, so that she has the opportunity to cast students who may be studying notation in the piece.

“Lynchtown” will be performed at the American College Dance Festival in March at Ohio University in Athens. Brodie says her decision to bring “Lynchtown” to the festival is in part to raise awareness of the importance of reconstructions. “I want other schools to see that reconstructions can and are still being done and that they aren’t dry, these are masterpieces we have access to and that we should be accessing and not just moving on from,” she said.

Among the small pool of schools that have chosen to keep Labanotation as a part of their undergraduate dance curriculum is Goucher College in Baltimore, Md. Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies Professor of Dance Amanda Woodson commented on the college’s decision to do so: “As a liberal arts school, we believe in cross-disciplinary work and we really advocate for the academic as well as technical competency in our students. … We strongly feel that it develops skills that other things do not necessarily develop, but also crossties a lot of opportunities and experiences for the dancer.”

Beyond this, Woodson said it offers a different pedagogical approach for her students that can lead to deeper insight as dancers. “Not everybody learns the same way. This is another opportunity for students who maybe learn differently.”

But why have so many schools dropped Labanotation from their curriculae.

Lynne Weber, executive director of the Dance Notation Bureau, offered a brief history of the role of Labanotation in dance curricula and her own hypothesis on why this has changed.

“[Originally], notation was part of the curricula,” Weber said, “because it showed there was a literature of dance and that it deserved to be in an academic setting. It was a way people justified the question, ‘Why should this be in a college?’”

Weber believes that the changing role of Labanotation in dance academe is due to a unique circumstance — that many of the original teachers reached the age of retirement around the time of the recession of 2008. “Endowments were hit,” Weber said. “We found that a lot of dance departments where there was notation, where there were people who were regularly staging work, those people retired and the dance department didn’t replace them … the departments were having trouble replacing even technique teachers, and how can you even have a dance department without technique teachers?”

One school that has chosen to cut back on Labanotation is Florida State University. Co-Chair and Professor of Dance Patty Phillips described in an email her department’s decision to offer a “short unit” on Labanotation as a part of a more broad movement analysis class. “We feel that the dynamic analysis,” Philips wrote, “has more relevance professionally for students now, with the advances in technology and other aids to dance documentation.”

Professor and Chair of the Department of Dance at the University of Southern Mississippi Stacy Reishman Fletcher stated, in an email, that her department has not only found Labanotation beneficial but also practical. “As long as our program has been around,”  Fletcher wrote, “[Labanotation] has been part of what we offer. A main reason is it has always been an area that we can instruct because we have trained Labanotation teachers. … Practical points aside, we feel strongly that it benefits our students.”

The Dance Notation Bureau has made some recent developments to promote Labanotation, including an iPad app, online courses and guest sessions at various colleges. They continue notating four to six projects a year, and demand for the notations has not decreased. “We have more things that we would like to notate,” Weber said, “than we could possibly notate, than we have funding for.”

Brodie believes that Labanotation will remain a part of the Kenyon curriculum for years to come. “Being in academe, it provides a level of objectivity to dance,” she said. “Dance is an art, obviously, but it is an ephemeral art, and to be able to preserve it, share it and analyze it in this way is important both artistically and academically.”

“What better way to learn about our history than to dance it?”


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