December 12th, 2012

Tonight: The Languages of Dance / Performance: The Art of Notation

Tonight, Performa Founding Director and Curator RoseLee Goldberg is in conversation with Simon Dove about the languages of dance at the Jewish Museum in New York as part of their Dialogue and Discourse series. 

In preparation for tonight's discussion, we are sharing her seminal essay "Performance: The Art of Notation", first published in Studio International magazine, Issue 192, July/August 1976.

More information about the event is available here


Performance: The Art of Notation
RoseLee Goldberg

Reading about dance, writing on dance movements, is complex and contradictory. Through words or abstract printed signs, physical images must be constructed, layers of real space juxtaposed and time changes indicated. Preparing a performance presents similar problems for the artist.

Throughout the history of dance, choreographers and performers have made notes and diagrams during the formulation or after the execution of their work. This material has rarely been published or discussed in relation to the performances. Only recently have several dancers put together in book form the residual material of the ephemeral events—notes, sketches and photographs. [1] Yet the distance between the printed material and the experience of the performance remained. If we look closely at the ‘live’ work, we recognise certain movement phrases which accumulate to form a specific ‘body language’ with its own signs and connotations. This body language can be ‘read’ both in real space and, through, diagrams, on paper. It can be understood as part of a contemporary dance theory which has refuted the narrative, stylised movement and atmospheric environments of earlier dance. This theory provides a key to experiencing the live performance. It reveals the working method of many dancers who make little distinction between the notes and diagrams, research and rehearsal, and the public performance.

The following text looks at notation as a method of planning for the dancer and as a means of ‘reading’ dance for the reader. The selected examples describe both the work of dancers whose backgrounds may have been in classical dance but who work predominantly in an art-context, and the work of performer-artists who use a ‘performance space’ to execute their ideas. Despite their different attitudes, both use diagrams as a means of translating their three-dimensional work into a two-dimensional format.

A Purely Functional Art
From late 19th-century Romanticism to Modernism, from Minimalism to Conceptual art, modern art theory has been marked by two poles both characterised by a certain moral conviction: functionalism and non-functionalism. Although the terms have been variously defined, gratuitous pursuits and utilitarian ones have opposed each other in the history of modern arts, whether ‘Surrealism versus Purism’ or ‘Bauhaus Craft Workshop versus Bauhaus Theatre’. 

In Conceptual art, this distinction has been blurred by questioning the role of art objects as contributions to the art market. If the function of the art object was to be an economic one, then the ‘conceptual’ work (initially designed to oppose that market) could have no such use. In these terms, performance has been considered an extension of the non-utilitarian ethic: on the one hand, it is intangible and leaves no traces to be consumed by commercialism; on the other, it reduces the alienation between producer and consumer since both audience and performer experience the piece simultaneously. From Happenings to the Grand Union [2] the spontaneous elements that were often used defied commercialisation, unlike ‘conceptual art instructions’ and their potential saleability.

Yet the evolution of performances, their increased sophistication, required analytical methods of preparation which would allow for quite different manners and structures. Notation is one such method. It is essentially a ‘thinking tool’ for the performer, a means to generate and express abstract ideas, a set of instructions, and a language for discussing those ideas with others. Far from being a saleable commodity that could become art by the mere fact of being exhibited in a gallery context, notation serves the performers only. It is a means to an end and nothing else.

A conceptual tool, notation reflects the changes in performance over the past two decades. From its early beginnings with John Cage to the transitional works in the mid-sixties of dancers like Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton and Lucinda Childs, performance moved away from expressionistic and technical-virtuoso concerns to preoccupations with ‘duration’, ‘space’, and ‘the body as a functional mechanism’. Movement evolved from kinaesthetic research rather than from attempts at ‘visual composition’, ‘plot’, or ‘character portrayal’. Moreover, movement was no longer tied to musical phrasing. Along with costume and narrative gesture, music was considered a distraction from the ‘essence’ of movement. Rather, the body itself determined the nature of the work and the time taken to move that ‘mechanism’ became the underlying pulse of the work.

In order to break away from conventional dance, performers experimented with numerous procedures. In 1951, Merce Cunningham created 16 Dances by chance, tossing coins to determine the sequence of movements. Yvonne Rainer wrote of her work in 1965 that she felt it was ‘necessary to find a different way to move’. She wished to arrive at ‘undynamic movement’, she explained, ‘no rhythm, no emphasis, no tension, no relaxation’. During the same period, Robert Dunn’s composition classes at the Cunningham studios concentrated on chance scores of John Cage, as well as the structures of Satie’s work. Separating ‘composition’ from choreography or technique, he encouraged the dancers to arrange the material through chance procedures. Lucinda Childs took chance one step further: in Street Dance of 1964 she instructed the audience in a loft to watch the street below where she and another dancer performed a dance ‘based entirely on its found surroundings’.

Anne Halprin, equally influential on dancers who began working in the late fifties, used improvisation ‘to find out what our bodies could do, not learning somebody else’s pattern or technique’. She invented new movement possibilities by ‘putting everything on charts, where every possible anatomical combination of movement was put to paper and given numbers’. Written texts, like the improvised piece Simone Forti presented at a Dunn class (where she ‘brought a dance which was a poem about an onion’), ‘instructions’ (to draw a line, which lasted a whole evening), diagrams, mathematical calculations, number theories, cubes, triangles, rectangles, all became part of the exploratory process.

Such interest in ‘written dance’ was not entirely new. Indeed, considering that notation is an essential complement to dance theory and practice, it is even more surprising that no comprehensive history of its development exists. Reconstructing that history, we see that notation reflects the various changes in sensibility and attitudes of dance forms. We find the ancient beginnings of movement notation in Egyptian hieroglyphs depicting processions and ritual dance; in Roman documents on the variations of salutatory gestures; in the 5th century bas-reliefs of central Indian temples from which the classical dance practised today has been reconstructed. We find the origins of Western dance notation in manuscripts prepared in Spain in the 15th century, followed by texts composed by French Ballet masters based on the existing music scores. But music scores were insufficient to indicate movement patterns, the various body ‘compartments’ or the delineation of the space covered by the movement. French 19th-century scores were accompanied by studies on gesture and explanations of their symbolic meaning, but it was not until the 1920s that a complex key was drawn up intended for all movement analysis.


This key was formulated by Rudolph Laban, a choreographer and theorist who worked closely with European dance, music and art personalities of the time, like Mary Wigman and Sophie Teuber. Beginning with the premise that ‘dance can be best explained by dancing’ Laban proposed to ‘treat dance as a science, at least as a discipline.’ Given that there ‘exists no generally accepted grammar of dance which could be the rational basis for the discussion of dance’ he analysed the body as an instrument, ‘nothing else than a complicated system of cranes and levers of various extensions’ [3].

Verbal explanation and study of the source and purpose of a movement might, he added, be considered as a way of perfecting the conception and the meaning of it. It would become possible to understand different movement combinations ‘if these were recorded in an appropriate notation’. Laban insisted that dance movements could be recognised as ‘entities of their own’ and in this way his work provides an important tool for understanding similar preoccupations in contemporary dance.

Laban’s theories were reflected in the work of his contemporaries, particularly that of Oskar Schlemmer, working as a painter and director of the Bauhaus Theatre in Weimar.


Laban wrote that no name existed for the ‘tracks written in the air by the dance movement’, but Oskar Schlemmer soon provided both a name and a theory: the sterometry of space. Schlemmer explained that ‘if one were to imagine space filled with a soft, pliable substance in which the figures of the sequence of the dancer’s movement were to harden as a negative form, this would demonstrate the relationship of the geometry to the plane to the stereometry of the space’. Schlemmer was preoccupied with the different manifestations of space: its two dimensional rendering as illustrated in his painting, and the three dimensional alterations which occurred as the body moved through space: painting and the ‘graphic representation of the dancers’ paths’ were for him the theory of space, while performance in real space provided the ‘practice’ to that theory.

The Triadic Ballet first performed in 1923 was considered by Schlemmer to be the merging of these opposites since in that work ‘the plane geometry of the dance surface and the solid geometry of the moving bodies, produce a sense of spatial dimension which necessarily results from tracing such basic forms as the straight line, the diagonal, the circle, the ellipse and their combinations. Thus the dance, which is Dionysian and wholly emotional in origin, becomes strict and Apollonian in its final form, a symbol of the balancing of opposites’. [4]

Personal Notation Systems
But the opposition of visual plane and spatial depth remained a complex problem if a truly accurate notation system was to be used. Such opposing elements were only partly solved by Labanotation and the later Benesh notation. [5] Both systems resembled what in music is called ‘tablature’—that is they indicated where to place limbs (in music, as in ‘teach yourself’ books, where to place fingers on a particular instrument), rather than quality of movement (or quality of sound, in music). In addition, Labanotation tied dance phrasing to musical counts, making it obsolete for much recent work which often takes place independently of musical accompaniment, or without it. For instance, in many of Cunningham’s works the dance phrases are quite separate from the accompanying John Cage music score. Or another example, Trisha Brown’s Planes performed in 1968, was backed by a ‘duet for a vacuum cleaner and voice’, also scored separately from the dance. Above all, the scores were cumbersome and complicated for a dancer to follow while moving in space. So the extensive notation archives in London and New York are used mostly by notation experts and translated verbally for performers, rather than by the dancers themselves.


Contemporary performers find these systems outdated and inadequate for expressing current preoccupations. Rather each dancer, performer and choreographer has developed a private notation method. Merce Cunningham has recalled many earlier pieces in verbal transcripts, using stick-figures where necessary. Since the easy accessibility of video however, he has recorded more recent work on tape, taken from two angles, frontal and from the side, with a back view reflected in a mirror. New members of the company learn dances through a mixture of video, notes and his own demonstration. Cunningham predicts that a more complete system will one day be developed, incorporating video and screen diagrams which will provide a more accurate description of the choreography-in-the-round, and which will be large enough (using video screen projections) for the dancer to work from directly.

Trisha Brown rarely used notation or diagrams for her earlier ‘equipment dances’ such as Walking down the side of a building (1969) or Walking on the wall (1971).  But Locus, first performed in 1975, she committed entirely to a drawing and worked simultaneously with three methods of notation. Firstly, she drew a cube, numbered it and made a sequence of numbers based on biographical information. She studied the numbers, then matched them with the drawing, then returned to the number score and back to the drawing. ‘I went through the score four times making different sequences each time—by then I was quite literal’, she explained. Following this procedure she invented movements which would allow her to move from one number to the next. ‘It was like working out an extremely difficult puzzle. It was gruelling finding something satisfying for dance because after all the score doesn’t make beautiful dance at all—it is just a score’.

Part two was for the four dancers involved. She expanded the initial drawing with explanatory notes. Sometimes she added stick figures, ‘but the drawings were always a reminder for the work, they were not a representation’, Brown said. Pursuing the idea of notation she developed part three of her system. Taking a section of the original dance, she wrote it out, gave the written text to a dancer who was not familiar with that piece, but who had a general idea of the style of her work. In this way, she wished to arrive at ‘natural variations—the erosion of the piece, something that impinges on the original and causes it to change’. Titled Rinses—‘like when you dye something, each time you wash it, it gets lighter’ this third adaptation of notation altered each time it was ‘rinsed’.

The first rinse showed the difficulty in conveying nuances of movement through the words and the insufficiency of diagrams alone to indicate movement. However, from the first score to the series of rinses, the dance evolved entirely from the cube and the notation was followed exactly. The scores only indicate potential movement, ‘they tell nothing about the flesh of the piece’.

Lucinda Childs began using scores in 1973 after many attempts to record performances on video tape. She had not found it necessary to write down her earlier pieces, which were mostly solos. It was only when she began choreographing group pieces with their complex patterns for several performers, that a recording and teaching device became essential. The scores were a time-saver for new dancers learning the work. “Like a musical score’, she explained, ‘they eliminated the cumbersome trial and error which was always part of choreographing new pieces’. Admittedly the dancers find it impossible to work directly from the scores. Rather the scores are read to the dancers and directions given by an outsider. However, notation as a way of thinking out a piece and of presenting those abstract ideas to other performers, has now become indispensible to her working method.

The first piece notated, Calico Mingling (1973), was scored after the work was performed. Subsequent pieces have been devised directly in score form. Her scores are ‘diagramatic studies of movements in space and time’, and numbers, arcs, mathematically worked out diagrams, are for her the most precise means to measure time and space. Particularly they allow her to direct the movements of several dancers simultaneously, in intricately woven patterns. ‘In this way the actual pieces work out more precisely, dancers are less likely to bump into each other or break the overall design.’


In Congeries on Edges for 20 Obliques (1975) five dancers travel on sets of diagonals crossing the space. Throughout the dance various combinations of grouping are explored. ‘Thus by adhering to a system which can be applied and re-applied to repetitions of the same sets of movement sequences, the material is continually removed from its original mode of presentation. These dances exist in the time it takes to exhaust the given variables that can be used, without forcing the material outside of its inherent structure in time and space’.

Viewing the live performances one begins to recognise the accumulation of movement phrases. They form visual layers in space as the piece unfolds. Accumulation, also an aspect of Brown’s work, is central to many of Child’s performances. The notion of accumulation could be illustrated by the rhyme, ‘The House that Jack Built’: each verse begins with the house, and no matter how many are added, we always return to the first, second, third verses, and so on. So with the movement phrases.

Accumulation takes another form in the work of Laura Dean. Having collaborated for several years with musician/composer Steve Reich, she indirectly absorbed the ‘phasing’ patterns so particular to his work. But she disregards the notions of accumulation or phrasing, explaining that the work is rather based on ‘mathematical cycles’, a system in which the stamp or step remains the same, but the structure changes. The cycles of movement increase in intensity (when voices are added to the movements, for instance), decrease and increase again. All the work is calculated in score form: ‘everything is worked out beforehand’, she explained, ‘and there is no improvisation. The only ‘improvised’ qualities come from the personalities of the dancers themselves, but in fact they follow the scores exactly’.


Nice Style, The World’s First Pose Band, whose work during the early seventies provided a funny and elaborate theory on pose, only recently revealed the drawings and notation which were the scores for the live performances. Unknown to their audience, each movement was noted and followed according to plan. They arrived at their notation system after intensive research into the various notation forms, particularly Labanotation. Although these models proved to be too rigid for their purposes, the notation they use is similarly detailed.

The group has now disbanded but two founding members, Paul Richards and Bruce McLean, continue to work independently along similar lines. Over the past year Richards/McLean have collaborated on a new work, so far only in score form. The diagrams function on three levels, approximately equivalent to ‘head’, ‘upper torso’, and ‘lower torso/legs’. The charts are coloured according to the three layers and drawn on to a plan of the proposed ‘performance space’. The space and body parts are carefully aligned so that the shape of the room interacts with the style of each pose as well as the movement from one pose to the next. The chart ‘key’ explains the various types of passages through the space that the performer takes, the timing and the accompanying music.

The need for notation
The work described above is only a small sample of some of the contemporary notation forms used. Although most performers working in the early sixties had not at that time devised their own scores, many turned later to some form of notation as part of their working method. The diagrams are as varied as the performers and the performances themselves. In no way do the drawings pretend to any aesthetic qualification nor are they considered as art objects. This may explain why they get so little exposure (compared with drawings of artists such as Vito Acconci, Bob Morris, Dan Graham, Dennis Oppenheim and Bruce Nauman for example, who all use some form of working plan to script their movements in space). In each instance, notation is a system for planning as well as recording pieces for others to perform. Notation also provides a method for documenting movements in space.


However, one particular characteristic distinguishes notation from conceptual art instructions, which rely on general conventions for the representation of ideas. Notation as yet has no general system to express contemporary attitudes. Rather it is made up of a series of personal systems, which limits their readability to the performers themselves. Many performers feel that the development of a general system is essential. Without such a ‘thinking tool’, a ‘descriptive tool’ and even a ‘conversational tool’ the difficulty in using words to describe music, dance and live performance remains.


Yvonne Rainer Work 1961–1973. The Press of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax. 1974. Ed. Kasper Koenig. Simone Forti. Handbook in Motion. The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax. 1974 Ed. Kasper Koenig.

The Grand Union was formed in the fall of 1970. Founding members of this ‘anarchic democratic theatre collective’ were Becky Arnold, Trisha Brown, Dong, Douglas Dunn, David Gordon, Nancy Green, Barbara Lloyd, Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer.

‘Dance as Discipline’ published in Rudolph Laban Speaks about Movement and Dance. Laban Art of Movement Centre, Ed. Lisa Ulmann, page 22.

The Letters and Diaries of Oskar Schlemmer page 127. Wesleyan University Press. 1972. Ed. Tut Schlemmer.

‘Choreology’, a stick-figure based notation system, published in 1956 by Joan and Rudolph Benesh.


End of article

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