Dance and the Written Word

Dance is a nonverbal art. Yet, as practitioners of an evanescent art, writing is often quite important to dancers. Nijinsky kept a diary. Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Agnes DeMille, and Paul Taylor produced autobiographies. Isadora Duncan wrote essays on the dance, as did Merce Cunningham and Murray Louis. Doris Humphrey and Twyla Tharp have addressed creative issues in dance. Katherine Dunham, whose career spans anthropology and performance, has written profusely.

Dance-Written-Word

 

The list goes on and on. Dance may be a nonverbal art, but dancers are hardly silent on this subject. And the written traces of their lives and work matter.

 

Written traces not only include published works but the much larger body of correspondence, notes, sketches, diaries, photographs, even invoices. From these scattered sources a fuller picture of the individual artist emerges – their friends and family, their private thoughts, their challenges as well as their successes.

 

For example, the dance scholar Juana de Laban’s archive is housed at the Dallas Public Library. Dr. de Laban, my undergraduate dance history teacher at Southern Methodist University, was the eldest daughter of Rudolf Laban’s second marriage. Her correspondence with her father, dating from after World War II, paints a much different picture of Laban’s family relations than what is usually recounted in other sources.  

 

For this reason, the opening of the Irmgard Bartenieff Archive in the Performing Arts Library at the University of Maryland, College Park, is cause for celebration. More about this miracle in the next blog.

Laban Prevails

At the recent Bartenieff Symposium, Martha Davis lamented the loss of seminal works in nonverbal communication research.  During the 1960s, there was lots of money for research. While she assisted Irmgard Bartenieff at Albert Einstein Day Hospital, other researchers such as Ray Birdwhistell, Albert Scheflen, and William Condon would drop by for informal discussions of what they were doing.Today, no one reads their work; current students are advised not to read research it wasn’t done in the last five years.

Laban Prevails

 

But Laban prevails. Through thick and thin, organizations such as the Laban Guild, the Dance Notation Bureau, the Laban/Bartenieff Institute, and the Language of Dance Centres, along with other groups such as Eurolab, ICKL, and Motus Humanus, have provided basic and advanced training and opportunities for collegial exchange.

 

The Laban communities have produced a rich literature that is still read. The Laban community has continuity.

 

Movement study has always been interdisciplinary, and perhaps that is what keeps us going. In her Statement to the Press, when Bartenieff was being added to Laban Institute moniker, Irmgard noted:

 

“We need a place where the related disciplines which deal with human expression and physical function can enrich their knowledge – a center for comparison, analysis, and cross-fertilization of ideas from the whole field of movement study. It is my hope that here we will, in a true sense, strengthen the thinking which we begin to call holistic in science and in the arts.”

On Irmgard Bartenieff

In the summer of 1975, I left the Nikolai-Louis Studio, walked across Union Square to the Dance Notation Bureau, and declared I was interested in the Effort/Shape Program.

Irmgard Bartenieff

I was ushered in to see Irmgard Bartenieff, a delicate elderly German lady who had worked directly with Rudolf Laban. She was guiding spirit of the Effort/Shape program. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but Irmgard was open and encouraging. I became her student, then her assistant, and eventually a fellow faculty member.

After her death, when I left New York  and found myself on my own with no Laban colleagues handy, I really missed Irmgard. Then I began to appreciate fully the scope of her knowledge and the positive impact of who she was and her whole way of being in the world.

Consequently, I am delighted that Irmgard Bartenieff’s archives have a home now at the University of Maryland library. I am looking forward to the upcoming Symposium on November 10th, when those influenced by Bartenieff will share their reminiscences. This event, organized by archivist Susan L. Wiesner, launches an exhibit in the Performing Arts Library gallery that follows Irmgard’s path through her professional life. And what a career – dancer, Laban student, Labanotator, physical therapist, dance therapist, Effort/Shape guru, teach, author, and dance ethnographer. She was a living example of the many ways movement study can be applied. Thus the title of my Symposium talk – “Irmgard Bartenieff – Icon of Possibility.”

The Mysterious Mobius

The mobius strip, also known as a lemniscate, is a unique shape having only one side and one edge.  The shape was invented almost simultaneously by two German mathematicians in 1858.  It became popular as a prop for magical parlor tricks in the late 19th century, and perhaps this is how Laban encountered it.

Mysterious-Mobius

 

You can make one yourself by twisting a strip of paper and joining the ends.  A normal band (think of a rubber band or a simple bracelet) has an inner surface and an outer surface and two edges.  But the mobius strip has only one surface and one edge. That is, if you start tracing a line on the outer surface, your pencil will move to the inner surface and return to the outer surface without ever lifting the pen.  Similarly, if you start running a finger along one edge and circuit the strip twice, you travel along both edges without interruption.

 

In other words, the outer becomes the inner and the inner becomes the outer.

 

Laban writes about lemniscates in Choreutics and even maps a couple in the kinesphere using direction symbols.  Does Laban mean for this to be taken literally, as a spatial trace-form?  Of is this a symbolic form?  Find out more in the forthcoming MoveScape Center course, “Decoding Choreutics.”

Advancing Laban’s Work in Germany

I will be teaching master workshops for Eurolab in Berlin in mid-October. The workshop theme is “Laban as Pattern Maker – Material That Never Gets Taught in the Certificate Program.”

Advancing-Laban’s-Work-Germany

Across three days, we will be exploring patterns in space and effort patterns. In terms of space, I aim to start with concepts that underlie Laban’s Choreutic forms, such as “rhythmic circles,” symmetry operations, and spatial intervals. Practical work will focus on embodying the Primary Scale, along with mixed 7-rings (one of the Choreutic forms that is seldom taught).

We will also explore how Laban applied symmetry and asymmetry in developing effort sequences and patterns. These little known aspects of Laban’s thinking are critical to phrasing effort changes organically and meaningfully.

During the last day of the workshop, we return to spatial themes, learning and working creatively with peripheral and transverse 5-rings, tilted planes, and an open form that Laban’s intriguingly referred to as “snakes!”

Eurolab (European Association for Laban/Bartenieff Movement Studies) has been running Certificate Programs in northern Europe since the late 1980s. By now, there is a healthy community of European Laban Movement Analysts doing very interesting work. I taught and helped run some of the early programs, so I’m very excited to be returning, to reconnect with familiar faces and meet new ones.

Advancing Laban’s Ideas in the Movement Studio

During the recent MoveScape Center workshop, “Expanding the Dynamosphere,” in New York City, we all had an “ah ha” moment about Laban’s effort theory. Here is how this insight unfolded.

Laban identified four effort drives. Of these, the Action Drive is the best known, for it deals with practical movements involved in working with tangible objects. The other three drives – Vision, Passion, and Spell – are called “transformation drives.” These are more subtle and complex effort combinations that have less to do with physical actions and more to do with mental activities such as thinking, feeling, and willing.

Advancing-Labans-Movement

For Laban, mental activities also involve moving. I’m sure he would agree with Mabel Ellsworth Todd, who wrote “For every thought supported by feeling, there is a muscle change.” Laban obviously characterized the combination of space, time, and flow factors as the outward embodiment of visionary states of mind – those mental acts of following a line of thought, steadily concentrating, soaring on the wings of imagination, catching a sudden insight, coming to a gradual realization, and so on.

Yet, when workshop participants were asked to identify associations with the various combinations of Vision Drive, they kept coming up with practical actions, like throwing darts and quenching fires. They reverted to physical actions that were not visionary in the least.  

This made us all realize that while we movement folk complain about the mind/body split, we tend to privilege the body over the mind. This sometimes leads us to think about effort in strictly physical terms.  

Laban was way ahead. He realized that movement is a psychophysical phenomenon. And he stuck to this view, finding effort in thinking, feeling, and willing as well as in acting.

Body or Soma?

Laban Movement Analysis allows one to approach the body both objectively and subjectively. Labanotation and motif writing provide means to analyze body actions objectively, while the somatic practice of Bartenieff Fundamentals is focused more on internal self-awareness.

body-or-soma

Both bodily perspectives are presented in Meaning in Motion. The first section provides a terse illustration of how bodily actions are analyzed and recorded. The second section places the work of Laban and Bartenieff in the broader context of the somatics movement. A third section discusses principles and exercises of Bartenieff Fundamentals. The chapter closes with a compilation of body level concepts.

By incorporating both perspectives, instructors can tailor the “body” component of an LMA course to their specific needs. For some courses, a more basic and objective approach may be appropriate. What are the parts of my body? What are the types of actions I can do? How can I make simple sequences of actions? Studio activities around these questions can lead on to experience with simple notation or pave the way for another course in Labanotation.

Other instructors may prefer to focus on somatic dimensions. Some students relish this, others may resist. In the context of this, I have found that the key is to link the seemingly simple Bartenieff Fundamentals exercises to more dynamic and demanding movement sequences so that students experience links between body, effort, and space.

Laban’s Alphabet of Human Movement

In the early 20th century, before there were video cameras and smartphones, Laban recognized that dance, like music, needed a notation system to allow choreographies to be recorded.  Developing a movement notation system necessitated two steps. First, the elements that make up the “alphabet of human movement” had to be identified. Secondly, symbols to represent these elements and their combinations and sequences had to be invented.

alphabet-of-human-movement

Like all good theoreticians, Laban wanted to control the number of elements so as to make his notation system as economical as possible.  He had observed that “the dancer moves, not only from place to place but also from mood to mood.”  This observation provided two broad categories for delineating elements of movement: “Choreutics” – where the parts of the body move in the space around the body, and “Eukinetics” –  how energy is deployed as the dancer moves through space.

In delineating Choreutic and Eukinetic elements of movement, Laban’s analytic system becomes more detailed and complex.  Nevertheless, Laban’s alphabet of movement requires the observer to recognize essential similarities among actions that appear rather different.  As I write in Meaning in Motion, the effort quality of lightness “occurs in the tender stroking of a loved one’s cheek and in dusting crumbs off a table top – actions that seem to have little in common.”  Yet they share an essential effort quality.   

It can be a challenge to help college students recognize, as Laban did, that “whether the purpose of movement is work or art does not matter, for the elements are invariably the same.”  But this recognition leads on to the realization that movement is a common denominator of human action.  As life becomes ever more complex, isn’t it worthwhile to know this?

Effort Relationships

At its best, human movement flows smoothly and gracefully in organic sequences.  The proportion of our limbs and the structure of our joints determine the way movement sequences unfold in the kinesphere.  As Laban notes, “a movement makes sense only if it progresses organically and this means that phases which follow each other in a natural succession must be chosen.”

effort-relationships

Laban was also concerned with the natural succession of effort moods in the dynamosphere.  Exertion obviously requires effort; Laban found that recovery also involves effort.  Moreover, he discovered that the patterning of this basic shift is far from simple.  As Irmgard Bartenieff explained, “the complexity of phrasing is increased as the Effort factors of the actions include more variations.”

This led Laban to propose a “law of proximity” for effort changes, based on the similarity or dissimilarity of their component effort qualities.  He observed that “in ordinary circumstances, no sane person will ever jump from one quality to its complete contrast because of the great mental and nervous strain involved in so radical a change.”

Laban went on to map organic effort patterns.  These “modulated” phrases are wonderfully fun to embody.  Find out more in the upcoming workshop, “Expanding the Dynamosphere,” July 29-30, in New York City.

Psychological Dimensions of Effort 2

In relation to the psychological aspects of effort, Laban also drew upon C.J. Jung’s theory of personality types. Jung posits four “Functions of Consciousness”  – sensing, thinking, feeling, and intuiting. Sensing tells you that something exists.  Thinking tells you what it is.  Feeling tells you whether it is agreeable or not.  Intuiting tells you whence it comes and where it is going.

psychological-dimensions-of-effort

Laban hypothesized that these psychological functions are embodied through each of the four motion factors. The motion factor of Weight relates to sensing; Space, to thinking; Flow, to feeling; and Time, to intuiting. These correlations start to make sense when related to the effort Drives.

In each of these Drives, three motion factors combine, while one factor is latent. By extension, when embodying each of these different drives, the mover suspends one of the four psychological functions.  

For example, in the Action Drive (Space, Weight, Time), the mover suspends the psychological function of feeling, which Laban relates to the motion factor of Flow.  Action Drive tends to be employed in practical working tasks, where the focus is on getting the job done, regardless of how one feels about it.

In contrast, in the Passion Drive (Weight, Time, Flow), the mover suspends the psychological function of thinking, which Laban relates to the motion factor of Space. When someone is in a highly emotional state, they often lose focus and become disoriented.

The links that Laban proposes between effort and functions of consciousness offer additional inroads to embodying and comprehending the links between body and mind. Find out more in the forthcoming workshop, “Expanding the Dynamosphere.”