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.