Notation of movement and effort - dance and percussion

I’ve been enjoying reading into effort from a choreographic perspective. Here’s dance instructor Tehya Malone explaining the four dimensions of space/focus, time, weight and flow, and how they combine to create eight kinds of movement:

These can be differentiated just with the three Weight, Space, Time dimensions:

  • Slashing - Strong, flexible, quick
  • Gliding - Light, direct, sustained
  • Pressing - Strong, direct, sustained
  • Flicking - Light, flexible, quick
  • Wringing - Strong, flexible, sustained
  • Dabbing - Light, direct, quick
  • Punching - Strong, direct, quick
  • Floating - Light, flexible, sustained

Accentuating one of the three elements creates derivative movements:

  • Punching: shoving (W), thrusting (S), poking/piercing (T)
  • Pressing: crushing (W), cutting (S), squeezing (T)
  • Slashing: beating (W), throwing (S), whipping (T)
  • Wringing: pulling (W), plucking (S), stretching (T)
  • Dabbing: patting (W), tapping (S), shaking (T)
  • Gliding: smoothing (W), smearing (S), smudging (T)
  • Flicking: flipping (W), flapping (S), jerking (T)
  • Floating: strewing (scattering, W), stirring (S), stroking (T)

Exaggerating one dimension can create problems:

  • Strength - crampedness
  • Lightness - sloppiness
  • Directness - obstinacy
  • Flexibility - fussiness
  • Sustainment - laziness
  • Quickness - hastiness
  • Free flow - flightiness
  • Bound flow - stickiness

I find this fascinating, how by notating physical properties, the notation adopts physical constraints. This leads to creative possibilities but also political ramifications…

1 Like

I thought exploring the political ramifications of dance notation deserved a separate post in this thread. The above has a fascinating internal logic, that (to my naive eyes) plays out in Malone’s instruction above and suddenly I feel the world of dance is much more accessible to me as I can start to understand what might be going on in choreography from at least this one perspective.

The issue is though that this theory was introduced by Nazi-era choreographer Rudolph Laban, and management consultant F. C. Lawrence in their 1947 book Effort. In other words, you could say that the theory arose from a background of racism, fascism and Fordism. It’s true that Laban left Nazi Germany, but as far as I can tell, this was very much a case of Hitler rejecting him, rather than vice-versa. Although he wasn’t a member of the Nazi party, Laban only taught people confirming to the Nazi view of Aryanism, had an interest in racial stereotyping, and continued working for the regime for a year after his large scale dance work was famously rejected from the Olympics in 1936.

I don’t know nearly enough about the topic to appraise to what extent Laban redeemed himself as a refugee from the Nazi regime. Certainly his accomplishments in founding Dance institutions and movements in England in the 1940s are well appreciated. Against the shock of finding this political history behind what seems such an elegant theory, the collaboration with a management consultant is interesting too. This theory of effort is introduced in a book that’s as much about efficiency in production lines as it is about choreography.

I think this gives valuable perspective on ‘algorithmic pattern’ - that any aim to produce algorithmic formalisations of art and craft can’t hope to be politically neutral. These issues around fascism and Fordism are also joined with issues around cultural appropriation and probably much more.

I wonder if a good way forward for this is to have less respect for the contemporary obsession with authorship. This seems like the opposite to good scholarship, where sources should be well referenced and respected. But then, obsession with authors can hold things back, as it means techniques are tied to individuals and are less able to develop as collectively owned, cultural phenomena. Indeed there is no possibility that Laban invented punching pressing, slashing etc, and it seems extremely unlikely that he was the first to notice the relationship between them. Again from a naive perspective, surely this would have been collectively owned, tacit knowledge before Laban and Lawrence wrote it down as their own? Likewise, I wonder if ‘Labanotation’ would be more successful if it wasn’t named after an individual, and therefore robbed of its capacity to become collectively own and develop as part of wider cultural practice.

(Then again, maybe I’m on dangerous territory myself, as the cited reason for Laban being rejected by Hitler and Goebbels was the presence of individual spirit in Laban’s work)

Anyway this post is probably long enough already, but I’m very interested to hear what others think about the ethics of all this.

Thanks for this Alex. I’m reading and now writing from a dance studio where I just finished ballet class, so feels like kismet.

It’s interesting because when I first learned about labanotation, it was distanced from the context of its author and introduced as part of the broader context of varied systems for dance notation. To some degree it felt like it was post-ownership and post-authorship. I only learned about Laban the man later, at the same time learning about other Nazi-era choreographers and dancers who managed to more or less escape their reputations post-war, like Mary Wigman and Gret Palucca. Learning about Laban’s complicity certainly changed my relationship to him and his work, but didn’t stop me from still trying to find value in the way his notation system evolved and propagated. I still have a Labanotation manual on my shelf.

I don’t think dance is unique in this respect, music, film, fashion, and literature have all had their troubles dealing to whatever degree with the sins of those who produced work in concert with the regime during the Nazi-era. To give a hilarious example relevant to computation, IBM’s website to this very day has a quite conspicuous gap on their timelines from the 1930s-1950s. (and I’m not saying I have the perfect framework of how to assess it all, I myself am a Jew who likes a couple Wagner pieces after all).

But I do wonder if dance has an odd place in culture which makes it easier to escape serious criticism and analysis. The amount of racism and orientalism still present in your everyday production of The Nutcracker is hard for me to imagine going unchallenged in other mediums. Ballet is only just now barely even reckoning with the total havoc and brutality it wreaks on young bodies, its rigid gender norms and exclusionary practices.

However I do think movement and dance makes it easy to repurpose work, technique, and system away from single authorship. Even the most traditional classical ballets have dozens of iterations from different choreographers, can be warped and reused. Choreography and movement lend themselves to reclamation.

To quote Alicia Graf Mack, the relatively new head of dance at Julliard-
“Dance, for me, is not about steps or positions or making pretty poses. It’s about being able to move into a space and shift the atmosphere. It’s really about the transference of energy from one person to another. I love to think of dance as a technology, almost like scales and chords—building blocks that you can use to create other things. The history of classical ballet is fraught with discrimination, racism, and institutionalized challenges. But I want people to be able to step into their training and not feel that they have to fit into a certain box.”

1 Like

Thanks @mncmncmnc for this ‘post-authorship’ take, which is the right way forward I think. I guess a feature of ‘heritage’ technologies like textiles like weaving and braiding is that there isn’t a single author, until you get to the industrial era and people like Jacquard. Now his name comes up all the time, even though he didn’t invent any weaving structures that I know of, and was far from the first to automate weaving using binary data storage. His identify only obfuscates understanding of the far longer computational history of weaving.

I think the Jacquard mechanism is a great example of how automation obfuscates understanding of craft in general. Back to the topic, notation of movement and effort can be used for controlling machines, or treating bodies like machines, with the aim of efficiency and automation in mind.

But notation can also be used to explore movement in a generative way. That is, not to constrain movement in terms of control, but constrain it in terms of creativity. . Setting parameters or rules as constraints, that mark out otherwise unknown territory for exploration.

I know next to nothing about dance notation, but have been quite obsessed with William Forsythe for quite some time.

This is from the DVD Improvisation Technologies, there’s an essay in the booklet that I’m still yet to read:

Synchronous Objects:

1 Like

The E-T method by Jaki Liebezeit (drummer in the German experimental rock band Can) is another system for notating movement based on constraints of the body, this time for percussion rather than dance. ‘E-T’ refers to the dot and dash (or short and long) of morse code, which Liebezeit used to notate his rhythms. Central to the system are four simple rules:

Rule 1
DOT means a stroke with one hand.
DASH means two strokes with one hand, with the duration of
two dots.

Rule 2
Dots and dashes are always played by alternate hands.

Rule 3
The second hit in a dash is always quieter than the first, even to the point of silence. It can be almost as loud as the first hit but never as loud or louder.

Rule 4
Accents are only possible after a dash.

These rules are based on the physical constraints of playing, e.g. it takes longer to play an accent because the hand has to move further to achieve higher velocity. Because a dash consists of two hits with one hand, that gives time for the other hand to play an accent. Rule 4 therefore follow from the other rules, within the constraints of the body.

The system is explained and explored in the book on his life and work “Jaki Liebezeit: The Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer”. For example on rule three: "Liebezeit often cited the example of a falling ball: if a ball is dropped to the ground, the fall height of any successive impact is less than the previous impact. Transferring this natural dynamic to drums and sticks, in a dash, i.e. a double stroke, the second stroke also ‘falls’ from a lesser height onto the drum. A lesser height, by nature, means a quieter stroke. "

The rules are really simple, but complexity comes from e.g. halving and doubling within these constraints, and more than one person playing together, creating wild polyrhythms.

I really like this afterword from the second chapter of the book where the E-T method is explained, in the context of ‘post-authorship’:

That’s a lot and yet almost nothing said. All these dots and dashes only become meaningful when someone translates them into acoustic signals. And that, as stated, takes time, patience, perseverance and, above all, other people to play alongside. Together it is possible to evolve such an apparently closed system.
Jaki Liebezeit was very impressed by the fact that drum construction has not really changed for millennia. Whether a skin is stretched with strings or with screws over the shell, whether it is a natural or a plastic skin – the principle remains the same: a cavity is enclosed. Without the cavity there would be no sound (imagine a drum filled with clay). This cavity is the deciding factor. The drum is built around nothing. And so it is also with the music. Whenever we try to nail it down, it keeps wriggling out and disappearing. In this respect, this attempt to translate Jaki’s drum art and theory into sign language is a fundamental paradox. It cannot be held captive. Jaki would have liked that.

Then from the following chapter 3 by John Payne:

“… the E-T rhythm system tells us in no uncertain terms what to play and, with explicit instructions for how to approach dynamics and timing, how to play it. The system presents the players with a beautiful scenario within which to make a sound – within certain sonic boundaries. Hence the idea that freedom through restriction makes for real freedom, as for one thing it eliminates for the player unnecessary distractions that often contribute to a feeling that what they’re playing is not quite to the point, as if missing that central issue that any piece of music of any kind wants to address.
That ‘freedom through restriction’ rulebook, which Herr Liebezeit demanded that by real necessity must be strictly adhered to, presents the opportunity to compose a rhythmic pattern or entire rhythm-based piece, an d /or the only seemingly differing experience of witnessing a piece of rhythm-based music compose itself.”

I think this gets to the heart of it - paradoxically we explore self-imposed restriction, in order to create the possibility to feel freedom, where the music we’re making begins to make itself.

I have to quote one more bit, that brings up the topic of algorithms:

Jono Podmore likens the system’s rules to an algorithm, which provokes the interesting thought that whoever created the algorithm could be considered the primary composer – but then so conceivably could the other ensemble players performing the algorithm’s possibilities for variation and individual interpretation.
Tsangaris prefers to think of the individual ‘algorithm’ creator as the primary composer of a musical piece in which the other players make their views heard in complement. He likens E-T to language: ‘Whether German, English or a mid-European “average language”, the grammar of the language is very much a part of what I actually say. The system in which we communicate and operate is of course essential, as it is part of what can be and is said. Jaki was quite radical in his research into the roots, the basic conditions of composition.’

So maybe for freedom through constraints we have to be in control of our own algorithms… But also acknowledge that by notating these algorithms, we don’t ‘own’ them, we are just exploring shared, basic conditions.

(By the way if anyone knows in what way E-T stands for ‘dot’ and ‘dash’ I’m very curious to know!)

Hi all,

I think that there are two things to take into consideration here when speaking about dance, movement, notation, pattern and algorithm.

To follow the discussion on Laban’s notation and his connection with the Nazi regime, as well as his association with a manager to write a book on “Effort”, it is to recall that the discourse on media “specificity” it has been since XVIII century a battle for aesthetic “efficiency”. See in this sense the debate between Gotthold Lessing and Charles Batteux. It is to question also the learned gestures in several crafts. Sometimes the transmission of the knowledge, and what some people still consider as “tacit knowledge” it comes from the same “trained gestures” that have to be learned and transmitted from . There is a certain “automatism”, I am allow myself to say, even thou I am certain that many will contradict me.

We might also look into Janis Xenakis and his notations experiments. It is not about the whole body movement, but it is about using the movement of the hand to invent new notations.

I might have already point to one of my papers on Patented Patterns, It is very interesting to me to see how the law addresses the aspects of gestures and notation, and what exactly can be patented per se: (PDF) PATENTED PATTERNS: On the art and science of patterns. A critical inquiry. | Tincuta Heinzel -



Thanks @Tinca, very interesting to take this in the direction of ownership and the law. I found a copy of your paper online that didn’t require an login: Patented patterns: On the art and science of patterns. A critical inquiry.

I’m looking forward to reading it, perhaps we could continue discussion about this on the Legal issues around patterns thread.

1 Like

Thanks these are great! @sicchio pointed me at Forsythe’s black flags:

I am really enjoying this thread. Just here to lend my appreciation for the discussion on the ethics and political of notations and post-authorship :slight_smile:

Some thoughts that crossed my mind as I read this thread: What if rule-breaking is treated as a part of the transmission of knowledge or training? After all, law wouldn’t need to exist if there weren’t any rule-breakers, so there must be self-imposed wiggle room for plural forms of freedom or expression from the preconceived algorithm.

1 Like

There is also actual co-authorship in Laban’s work (beyond the idea of passing of tacit knowledge) by women who are often let out of the history. Lisa Ullmann is the big one. She published most of Laban’s books after his death. Bartenieff created her own work based upon Laban’s. Her name is more known for sure.


There are some other case figures of neglected co -authors. It is also the case of Élisabeth Rohmer, who supported Abraham Moles for several of his books, including „Theories of Acts“, which might be interesting in this context, as it is about the psychology of actions. Good question how to acknowledge the role someone had in supporting putting ideas together.

I have tried a co authorship experiment in my project „Attemps, Failures, Trials and Errors.“
It would be interesting to hear more about similar projects. Good question how this thread can become a paper or a chapter.


1 Like

On notation of movement, I like this ‘easing functions cheat sheet’:

They each have their own kind of feel, reminding me of Laban’s different ‘efforts’… and nice to think about patterns in terms of the analog quality movement between points, as well as the discrete points themselves.

1 Like