Book reviews – dance notation

For the last year or so, I’ve been exploring slant form and “matsuri” / “bon” taiko. I have been searching for a way to notate my new movements and have been reading about dance notation. I’ll do a separate post on taiko movement notation once I’ve figured out a workable system. In the meantime, here are quick reviews of the books I’ve read thus far, including one fantastic work by Ann Hutchinson Guest with historical and philosophical perspective on dance notation.


Title: Laban for Actors and Dancers
Author: Jean Newlove
Source: Los Angeles Public Library
Interest: 2 stars

Although the writing and drawings of Laban for Actors and Dancers are not particularly clear, the precision and economy of the Laban system of notation comes through. Laban uses simple lines and shapes to encode a movement’s mechanics, as well as its intent. Laban is intended to cover the full range of possible human movement, perhaps unnecessary for Matsuri movement where the range of movements and the intentions are so limited. After reading this book, I appreciate Laban more but thought a system designed specifically for Matsuri might be more efficient.


Title: Alphabet of Movements of the Human Body
Author: Vladimir Ivanovitch Stepanov
Source: LAPL
Applicability/Interest: 2.5 stars

Though only about 40 pages, Alphabet of Movements is a surprisingly thorough explanation of Stepanov’s system. Written in 1892, the language is quaint and charming but I wish the translation were not quite so faithful to the layout of the original book; specifically the image plates. In the 19th century, many books placed multiple figures on a single page, rather than intersperced with the text. While it simplified printing, it forces the reader to flip back and forth between text and image on separate pages. Perhaps it is historical translation heresay to say so, but I think the book would benefit tremendously from removing the 19th-century printing limitations and mixing the images and text.

Stepanov’s notation system is based on musical notation, using the original note shapes to symbolize duration and adding ornamentation and position on the staff to indicate body parts. It’s a clever and good-looking system but I won’t likely pursue something based on western notation. To me, tempo and duration are more naturally indicated by horizontal space as opposed to note shape.


Title: On the Count of One
Author: Elizabeth Sherbon
Source: LAPL
Applicability/Interest: 1.5 stars

On the Count of One deals more generally with the teaching of dance but includes beautifully drawn examples of poses with corresponding Labanotation. While Laban’s system is arguably the most advanced and I find it beautiful to look at, I’m not sure an abstract-symbol (versus stick-figure) system is usable for my current task of making taiko movements accessible to general taiko players.

Title: Dance Notation – The Process of Recording Movement on Paper
Author: Ann Hutchinson Guest
Source: LAPL
Applicability/Interest: 4.5 stars!

With chapter titles like “Why is dance notation needed?” “How is movement described?” “Degree of specification in movement description” and “Evaluating a [notation] system”, Dance Notation is a fabulous book and the best I’ve found on the subject! It is the perfect resource for exploring the variety of notation systems available. Guest is a master notator in the Laban style but her more general appreciation of all forms of notation shines through in unbiased, inquisitive language.

Dance Notation led me to the realization of why I seek a notation system for taiko form, rather than simply recording video. Guest compares dance notation to that of music, “The second reason that records and tapes are not used in rehearsing a [musical] work is that these do not represent the work itself but a performance of that work… Each performer and conductor wants to be able to go back to the work itself recorded in the notation and to bring the music to life in an individual, personal way.” She goes on to explain experiments where dancers learn from video and from notation. The notation students perform better, presumably because the notation provides direct access to the intent and concept of the movements. With my goal of sharing taiko movements and form, I am attracted to the “essential” quality of good notation, and the promise of improved understanding of my own movement biases.

I gleaned a number of notes for myself to remember over the coarse of developing or finding a system.

  • A useful notation system can indicate exaggeration of timing, isolated movement, variation in spatial pattern, and quality of movement.
  • “A sophisticated, versatile approach to timing had to wait for the twentieth century, when the idea of length on paper to indicate length of time (duration) was established… This device frees movement notation from its bondage to music notation…”
  • Labanotation combines four factors into one symbol: “direction of the action (shown by the shape of the symbol), level (shown by the shading), timing (shown by the length of the symbol), and the part of the body moving (shown by its placement on the staff).”
  • “Laban always advised: ‘Write more than seems necessary; better to have too much detail than not enough… In direct contrast… Benesh preached redundancy avoidance: ‘Eliminate everything you possibly can.'”
  • “The Language of Dance approach to movement study… features movement notation because it provides a means through which to explore the nature of dance.”
  • “Writing errors were more common than reading errors, indicating that the perception and cognition of movement itself is more difficult than the reading and performance from notation.”


Title: Dance Writing Shorthand for Modern and Jazz Dance
Author: Valerie Sutton
Source: LAPL
Applicability/Interest: 3 stars

Though this book has little of the grace and efficiency of writing seen in Guest’s Dance Notation, the Sutton system of notation might well prove the most useful for my purposes. In particular, it is based on stick-figures, with additional symbols for indicating the third dimension. Though this book only covers the shorthand notation and does not provide an introduction to the system, Dance Writing Shorthand provides exciting hints of a notation that strikes a balance between the pictorial and the symbolic.


Title: Principles of Dance and Movement Notation
Author: Rudolf Laban
Source: LAPL
Applicability/Interest: 2.5 stars

Laban was a fascinating man and this book provides a wonderful view into his concept of movement. Examples of his notation system are given with verbal descriptions of the movements, providing a decent, if not completely comprehensive, introduction to Labanotation. For the purposes of taiko notation, it feels more and more like utilizing Labanotation would require the input and training of a teacher. Unfortunately, the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies in New York tells me there is only one notator in Los Angeles, and she deals exclusively with western classical dance.

When there is a combination of two or more of these movements, the whole chord of several movements will mean each time something entirely different. In most of these cases, the nodding will be divested of its conventional significance, i.e. assent, and will become part of a movement expression which cannot be transoated immediately into simple words. For the language of movement consist only to a very small extent of conventional signs, replacing, as it were, words and phrases. The main bulk of movement and dance expression consists of motor elements, which can be freely combined to reveal something about the inner state of the moving person. Whether a person uses the language of movement for self-expression, liberation or enjoyment, or for the purpose of communicating with other people, is irrelevant to the present argument.

After all, dance as an art cannot be based on spontaneous improvisations only. Movement compositions, as well as poetry and music, have to be carefully constructed and built up according to the general rules of artistic composition. The profound mistake of considering the charming movements of a handsome body as an indication of the artistic value of a dance creation is entirely obsolete today. The development of a movement idea through different logical stages is nowadays the only try criterion of the worth of a dance. Intelligent and tasteful presentation is a factor to be clearly distinguished from creative invention.


Title: Movement Study and Benesh Movement Notation
Author: Julia McGuinness-Scott
Source: LAPL
Applicability/Interest: 4 stars

This was a very enjoyable read and a good introduction to Benesh Movement Notation (BMN), the system utilized by the Royal Academy of Dance. Based on a five-line staff representing the body, it is more visual in nature than the Labanotation, and for me, a bit easier to try out. I was able to notate basic taiko positions relatively quickly (though I’m not sure how accurate I am). A taiko notation based on Benesh probably represents the most symbolic a system could be and still be adopted by lay taiko players.


Title: Labanotation
Author: Ann Hutchinson
Source: LAPL
Applicability/Interest: 4 stars

This is a dense, well-written, 500-page tome on Labanotation. Hutchinson possesses an incredibly thorough understanding of movement notation and Labanotation in particular. The depth and breadth of Labanotation is inspiring. Though the book is technical and unadorned, somehow the system’s flexibility and precision, along with Hutchinson’s deep knowledge, suggests a respect for the choreographer and a true curiousity for movement. Although I don’t see Labanotation being adopted by the taiko world, there is a chance it will find use in my own work.


Title: Your Move
Author: Ann Hutchinson Guest and Tina Curran
Source: Los Angeles Public Library
Interest: 3.5 stars

After having read Dance Notation and Labanotation, I’m enamored with Ann Hutchinson Guest. I was extremely excited about Your Move, in which Guest explains the “Language of Dance approach to the study of movement and dance.” The notation is a slightly simplified version of Labanotation, taught piece by piece along with movement exercises. Unfortunately, I found myself less inspired than expected, both by the writing, which feels a bit hand-holdy, and the aesthetics of the notation which doesn’t start to look beautiful until the later chapters. With regards to the Laban system and taiko, however, Your Move has been the most immediately applicable, and this will be a go-to book if I return to Laban for more in-depth exploration. There were a number of good quotes.

If you focus on leaving the situation where you were, rather than on moving to a predetermined new spatial placement, the action is more likely to reflect true motion performed for the sake of moving, of enjoying the process, rather than of achieving a particular “picture”.

The lateral symmetry of the body makes it easy for us to gesture with arms and legs into the open side directions; the crossed side directions are not as comfortable and require practice. In the case of one-sided crossing, the range can be augmented by including some degree of accompanying turn in the shoulders or hips; however, other parts of the body must hold the original front so that the sense of lateral direction is not lost.

In dealing with space, there are infinite points toward which we can move, or through which we can pass… However, the human eye is limited in discerning minute differences in spatial location… Other than very small vibrating movements… it has been found that a 15 degree difference in arrival at a destinational point is the smallest degree with which we need be concerned.

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