michael j. morris

Integrated Repertory, Composition, and Notation

As part of the Labanotation Teacher Certification Course (TCC) that I am taking right now, we have been asked to design and teach an “integrated” class, in which we find ways of introducing, exploring, or utilizing Labanotation in the context of another course. Examples we were given by our faculty included an integrated repertory experience in which we used notation floor plans as a learning tool for learning a section of Anna Sokolow’s Steps of Silence (taught by Valerie Williams), and modern technique class incorporating the introduction and exploration of the Labanotation movement concept “space holding” (taught by Julie Brodie), and an composition class utilizing Laban’s Motif description as a creative/generative opportunity (taught by John Giffin).

Already we have had excellent examples presented by my classmates, including integrating Labanotation into a Modern dance class for non-majors, a study of embodied dance history looking at Helen Tamiris, a musical theater (or dance for actors) class, and a elementary notation class looking at hula dance. All have been richly informative and inspirational.

I am teaching again tomorrow, and although I have my lesson plan, I am still fleshing out the underlying philosophy of what it is that I am doing. I am planning an integrated Repertory, Composition, and Notation class in which students learn historical choreography from a Labanotation score (for tomorrow’s class, they will be reading a piece of my own choreography from 2007 entitled “Endless Reach”), then create their own compositions from a Motif score of the same dance. I am interested in using this opportunity to question and investigate the nature of choreography and choreographic information. As I am writing this, I can’t stop thinking about the Synchronous Objects project and Bill Forsythe’s essay on “Choreographic Objects.” In his essay, Forsythe question the nature of choreography, its potential to exist in forms other than the dancing body (which he coins as “choreographic objects,” distinct primarily due to their persistence through time); “Synchronous Objects” was a lengthy exploration or demonstration of that contemplation. It examined one dance, one piece of choreography, in which the “essence” of the material was counterpoint, in movement material, alignments, and cueing. This was the “essence” of this particular exploration of this choreography. I remember during the Synchronous Objects Symposium, Bill was fairly explicit that this project was not for the purpose of preserving the dance for re-staging purposes, but for exploring its potential to generate new forms of expressing the choreographic information within the dance. While I am interested in this course providing an opportunity for embodied history, the preservation of dance works by their “re-staging” in contemporary bodies, I am also interested in investigating the nature of choreographic preservation and dissemination. I suppose this entire investigation stems from a question of what is the nature of choreography. More and more I am convinced that it is not “the steps” or specific movements/actions of the dance; historically, choreographers have changes the specific movements of their dances time and time again. In some cases, they have completely recreated entire sections of dances, added or taken away dancers, rearranged sections, edited the music, etc., and yet the piece of choreography itself has been retained. What then is essential to the choreography? And in that question there is another: what must be passed on in order for the choreography to “survive” or continue to live? 

For those reading who are unfamiliar with the difference between Labanotation and Laban’s Motif Description, the former is a more specific notation describing specific movements, positions, timing, etc. Motif, by contrast, is far more open to interpretation. It describes general actions such as “moving on a circular,” “turning,” “jumping,” “standing still,” “gesturing in an arching motion,” etc. capturing the important elements or motifs. The Dance Notation Bureau’s website has an excellent explanation of both Motif and Labanotation. Of Motif, they offer:

“Motif Description is a method of recording movement that is closely related to Labanotation. In fact, many notators consider them subgroups of the same system. They use most of the same symbols and terminology, have a similar format, and both record fundamental components, such as direction, action, dynamics, and timing, that are found in all styles and forms of movement.

The main difference between the two scripts is the type of information they communicate. Structured Labanotation gives a literal, all-inclusive, detailed description of movement, so it can be reproduced exactly as it was performed or conceived. In contrast, Motif Description depicts just core elements and leitmotifs; it highlights what stands out, is most important, or is most impressive. A motif score might convey the overall structure of a dance improvisation, what one should focus on when learning how to swing a golf club, the primary movement features of a character in a play, or the intent of a person’s movement in a therapy session.

An example of Motif Description is shown below (see the example by follow the link to the DNB above and clicking “Motif Description Basics”). The notation indicates the salient components of a dance sequence; other aspects of the movement are left to the discretion of the performer. For instance, the notation states that the first part of the sequence is about turning. The manner of turning is open to interpretation. It might be done on one foot or while sitting on the floor, using a free or controlled quality, finishing with the body facing the front or the back of the room, or with some other variable. All of these interpretations would be valid, as long as turning is the movement’s focus.

The notation is written going up the page, i.e., first there is turning, then flexing, then extending, and so forth. The length of the symbols indicates the timing of the movement; longer indications have a greater time value than shorter indications.”


By drawing from a Motif description of historical dance works, including my own choreography, the choreography itself provides information that shapes the generative process of new work. I suppose another lingering question of mine is “To what degree is this ‘new work’ a dissemination or continuation or preservation of the ‘original’ choreography? To what degree might it be the ‘original’ choreography? To what degree is it something altogether new?” In all restaging situations, there is interpretation, and interpretation is a creative act. There is a sense in which it is both a reproduction of the “original” but also something new “after the original.” The work created tomorrow by my students become “new choreographies after Endless Reach by Michael J. Morris.” And there is a sense in which the choreography’s life has been continued.

More questions than answers, but maybe that’s the way effective, subject-centered teaching happens best, especially when one is “teaching” something like composition or a creative process.

So that’s something that I’m thinking right now.

Upcoming events

Just a reminder for my (local) readership:


 I am premiering a new piece this week entitled “About.” It is being included the the OSU Dance Winter Concert. Here are the details:

Thursday, 12 March-Saturday, 14 March
Sullivant Theater
Tickets are $10 general admission, $5 for senior citizens, students, and anyone with a Buck ID

This concert is a presentation of student work, ranging from undergrad to grad, coming out of the OSU Department of Dance.

This new piece of mine is for seven dancers and includes sounds by Pauline Oliveros and Steven Halpern.



Also coming up this week is an LGBT film festival at the Wexner. It is the same nights of the Winter Concert, so I will not be able to attend, but if you come to the concert one night and have one or two more evenings free next weekend, I highly recommend this event. I see this sort of programming as an important step in developing a broader awareness of and respect for the LGBT community. By supporting these events, we communicate that sense of value to the Wexner. During a time in our country in which equality is still a question waiting to be answered, it seems increasingly relevant when highly respected, public institutions such as the Wexner issue statements regarding LGBT individuals, couples, artists, and rights in this country.

You can find out the details here.


from Love Songs being shown Friday, 13 February


Other events in which I will be involved a bit farther off are also at the Wexner and revolve around the work of William Forsythe. I have not discussed very much here, but this quarter I am participating in a workshop exploring the studio techniques, ideas, and technologies of William Forsythe, partially through the instruction of Nik Haffner, a former dancer with Forsythe’s company, and an important collaborator on Forsythe’s “Improvisational Technologies.” (“Improvisational Technologies” is a CD-ROM that was developed to illustrate Forsythes methods for improvisation, movement generation, and choreographic devices being employed in his company. Originally for use within the company as a way of educating new company members, the CD-ROM was published in the 1990s and now has become a public resource for informing improvisational and choreographic processes) This workshop, offered through the OSU Department of Dance, is culminating with these Wexner events.

The first is the performance of Monster Partitur delivered by dancer Alessio Silverstrin. Our role in this piece is the construction of sculptural objects and drawings that then serve as the “score” for the piece. You can read more about the piece and details for the performances here. This piece originated from Forsythe’s experience of the illness and death of his wife. In a meeting yesterday, even just hearing the story of how the piece came about became an overwhelming emotional experience. The piece is accompanied by an installation which includes a text written by Forsythe himself describing his wife’s illness. He spoke of her bleeding and of her becoming more and more bent, to the point at which she could no longer dance, set in painful contrast to her remarkable abilities before her illness. This loss of ability,loss of who she once was, and eventually the loss of her entirely, became the source of this piece. After her death, he unwrapped a Christmas present that had been given to her. It was a life-size cardboard skeleton kit. It is from kits such as those that we will create bent, irregular sculptures. It is the shadows of these sculptures that we will trace onto panels. And it will be these traces that will become the “score” for the piece.


from Monster Partitur. In the image you can see a version of the sort of sculptural objects we will be creating.

This performance is part of a larger exhibition entitled “William Forsythe: Transfigurations” that will be on display at the Wexner. Without writing a paper on Forsythian methodologies, I will offer that much of Forsythe’s research has been in the area of the “choreographic object,” (this article is written by Forsythe and offers a brief explanation of how he thinks of “choreographic objects”) and how the intrinsic information/knowledge in choreography might be explored or translated into other forms (apart from but not excluding the dancing body). This exhibition brings a collection of these “objects” into the gallery spaces of the Wexner. It is the first presentation of this significant body of work in the United States. You can read more about the exhibition here.

Finally, on April 1, in conjunction with both of these components relating to Forsythe’s work, the Wexner is holding a symposium entitled, “William Forsythe Symposium: Choreographic Objects.” This symposium is also coordinated with the launch of a long-term collaborative research project between Forsythe, the OSU Department of Dance, and ACCAD at OSU entitled “Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced.” This research is going live online on April 1, and is the demonstration and explication work exploring this concept of “choreographic objects” and how they open new access points into the knowledge/information of choreography. More about the Wexner Symposium can be found here


Many things coming up. I wish I could offer more critical or analytical analyses of each of these events, but for the moment, simply offering the information is all that time allows. Mark your calendars, and I hope to see you there.