Movement theory Notation and Movement Analysis in Contemporary Dance Training

Since its foundation in 1927, dance training at Folkwang University of the Arts has been closely associated with the tradition of the theory of movement analysis which was influenced by Rudolf von Laban and Kurt Jooss. The insights first formulated by Laban had a decisive influence on modern dance within and outside Germany. They are still actively taught in Essen in the Jooss-Leeder technique and in the movement notation named after Laban (Kinetography Laban/Labanotation) and they are being further developed in a forward looking way.

Notationinstructions at Folkwang University of the Arts; photo: Heike Kandalowski Notationinstructions at Folkwang University of the Arts | photo: Heike Kandalowski

Laban’s movement theory and the Jooss-Leeder technique

In the era of German expressive dance, the comprehensive theoretical work of Rudolf von Labans (1879 – 1958) created systematic structures for the first time. The aim was to enable young modern dance to be communicated consistently, thus strengthening and positioning it vis-à-vis the tradition of classical ballet. Central elements of Laban’s movement analysis systems are eukinetics, which describes the dynamic aspects of movement using the parameters of space, time, energy and movement flows, and choreutics, which observes the moving body in relation to geometric structures surrounding it, such as a cube or an icosahedron.

Kurt Jooss (1901 – 1979) and Sigurd Leeder (1902 – 1981) integrated Laban’s analytical methods into professional dance instruction, forming the dance technique that is named after them. The Jooss-Leeder technique does not comprise a clearly-defined canon of movement sequences or exercises. Instead, Laban’s principles serve as a starting point to configure different movement exercises and phases, with a great diversity of movements and variability of phrasing being achieved by changing the underlying spatial, dynamic and qualitative parameters. Thus, this technique can still develop new forms and means of expression in keeping with today’s zeitgeist.

Laban’s Kinetography / Labanotation

Such a finely differentiated technique not only demands that trainee dancers perform and reproduce movements in the course of their learning processes, but that they also acquire a deeper understanding of the theoretical background. It was therefore important to Jooss that all dance students received instruction in dance notation. Thus, this notation not only serves to document movement processes and choreographies, but also provides a well-founded theoretical basis for movement analysis.

The notation represents in abstract form the body’s movements in space and time. A system of lines running from the bottom to the top of the paper symbolises the passage of time. The columns of this system of lines are allocated to the moving parts of the body. Movement symbols in the system of lines indicate that a part of a body changes its position in relation to the surrounding space. In their totality, the individual pieces of information on sequences of movement and simultaneous movements provide sufficient indications to be able to reconstruct the structure of a movement process from the notation alone. With its ability to include other details of movements, such as the quality of a movement or its choreographic arrangement, this notation system developed during the twentieth century to become a comprehensive tool for dance documentation. Although dance notation has not yet achieved an equally essential status to musical notation, a multitude of important choreographic works have been notated over the years and may be accessed in archives and libraries.

As well as this traditional documentary field of application for notation, a productive approach allows notation to be used to research movement possibilities and to embellish them artistically and compositionally. With its terminology for describing movement, notation is an ideal tool to become more aware of the structure of movements and it thus plays a key role in dealing creatively and compositionally with movement. The abstract form of notation highlights otherwise untapped possibilities for shaping movement and provides ideas for combining movement components in varied and previously unknown ways.

Forward-looking developments

The tradition unique to Folkwang of integrating notation in dance training continues unbroken to this day and is being extended by additional study opportunities. The M.A. Dance Composition programme includes a course in Movement Notation/Movement Analysis. This is an opportunity unique in Europe for students to extend and deepen their knowledge of all aspects of notation, enabling them to do independent work in the area of documentation and reconstruction as well as in the area of creative analysis, and also to explore other significant notation systems, such as the Eshkol-Wachman Movement Notation.

The traditional methods of notation are currently facing challenges from the new possibilities for the visual and digital representation of movement. In recent years, contemporary choreographers (e.g. William Forsythe) have been increasingly working on multimedia documentations, which are often accessible via the internet. This could enable the analytical and creative potential of technology-supported visualisation techniques to develop even further by integrating them with the traditional movement analysis of dance notation. The reconstruction and visualisation tool developed in the research project “Visualizing (the Derra de Moroda) Dance Archives“ at the University of Salzburg unites the direct three-dimensional visualisation of movements with the analytical precision of dance notation. It is already being tested in notation classes in Essen. Thus, significant impetus is being given to promoting and actively pursuing the further development of these new technologies.