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The Dance Notation Bureau

by Odette Blum

 "Since it was founded in 1940, the Dance Notation Bureau has been at the forefront of dance preservation, and has one of the most important collections of dance scores in the nation," Erika Kinetz wrote in The New York Times in 2005.  As of 2011, the DNB library housed more than 780 scores of theatrical dances by more than 270 choreographers, and it continues to add 4-6 scores annually. (The scores are listed in the DNB's Notated Theatrical Dances catalog). In addition to the scores there are over 10,000 pieces of supplementary materials: music scores, production information such as light plots and costume sketches, photographs, old programs and  films, videos and  DVDs of performances.           

Of all the performing arts, dance is the only one without a recorded history other than eye witness accounts, paintings and other iconographic materials and, more recently, films and videos. The mission of the Dance Notation Bureau (DNB), since its founding by Ann Hutchinson (b. 1918), Eve Gentry (born Henrietta Greenhood, 1910-1994),  Janey Price, and Helen Priest Rogers (1914-1999),  has been, and remains, to contribute to a history of dance by notating  dances  in the Labanotation  system, to continue to expand and  maintain one of the most extensive libraries of dance scores, with supporting audio and visual  materials, and to maintain the quality of teachers and notators through certification programs. And, in this process, to show that dance need be no more "ephemeral" than music or theatre, which also exist in the moment of performance.

Scores are recorded in a system that is called Labanotation in the United States and Kinetography Laban in Europe. This system was originated by Rudolf Laban (1879-1958) and first published in Germany in1928, with further development by Albrecht Knust (1896-1978), Ann Hutchinson Guest, Maria Szentpal (1919-1995), the International Council of Kinetography  Laban (ICKL), and others. It was the first system of movement notation to solve the problem of the detailed indication of timing. It is akin to a language in that there are several different ways of writing a movement depending on context and motivation. These choices provide for subtle differences in performance. (See examples in Blum, The Value of Recording Dance, pp. 40-43)

Some of the finest choreographers of the 20th century have had their works notated. Following is a sampling of choreographers, mostly American (since the work of the DNB has been mainly in this country), with their comments on the notation of their works.

Doris Humphrey (1895-1958) was pleased to see the scores of her works and remarked that they would "no longer be legend, they are history" (confirmed in a conversation with Ann Hutchinson Guest in August 2011).

George Balanchine (1904-1983) wrote in the preface to the 1954 edition of Labanotation by Ann Hutchinson   . . . I became . . . aware of a need for an accurate and workable method for notating my works. To me the prime requisite of such a notation system would be its ability to correlate faithfully the time values in the dance with the music, because my choreography either closely follows the line of the music or contrasts directly with it. When I heard of Laban's  system of notation it seemed the most completely developed method  evolved to meet this need.

After studying the system and watching Ann Hutchinson, America's leading notator and teacher, at work, I realized this was indeed the answer and I decided to embark immediately on the long-range project of having my ballets recorded. Symphony in C, Orpheus, Theme and Variations, Symphony Concertante, and  Bourree Fantasque,  are among those already completed. Thanks to these scores I am now assured that these ballets will be accurately performed in the future…. Labanotation records the structure of a dance, revealing with perfect clarity each of the specific movements of each performer. Through Labanotaton we can actually sit down and compare or analyze different styles of dance. Even the complicated techniques and studies take up little space and are easy to reconstruct intellectually through the notated patterns. There is no longer any need to wade through pages of verbal descriptions, which eventually become unintelligible."

Twenty two of Balanchine's dances were notated in his lifetime and twenty two more have been notated since his death.

Anthony Tudor (1908-1987) had 30 of his dances notated, including Dark Elegies and Lilac Garden. In his will he specified that if a ballet had been notated, future performances were to be based on the score. In a 1976 testimonial letter in support of the DNB he wrote:

"This is to reaffirm my belief in the benefits that the dance, in general, and choreographers in particular, are deriving from the activities of the Dance Notation Bureau. The three small dance works that I made on Juilliard dancers several years ago with a grant from the National Endowment, which included a proviso that such works would be made accessible to any small company of sufficient technical capacity, have now been reproduced many times. . . It is a good thought that the works of José Limón and Doris Humphrey, two of the most famous American choreographers, can survive because the Bureau is making it possible"(DNB Library Newsletter vol. 2, no.2).

Sydney Skybetter (b. 1982), a choreographer about to have a dance notated for the first time, commented on the process in a conversation with the author in September 2011.

Having recently had his first tour of the DNB archives, his reaction was that there are few archives so astonishingly complete and none better organized. The score is both the dance itself and a means of accessing that dance for study and performance. He is particularly interested in how the aesthetics of movement change over time and these archives provide a prime resource for that study. He was surprised and delighted to find notations of some of Tudor's barre work, since the way Tudor structured his barre is an indirect indication of what he was looking for in a dancer, and thus in dances.

Despite the work being done with filming in 3D and its benefits, Mr. Skybetter believes dance notation can capture a choreographer's intent because of the many possible ways of writing the same action, whereas in a performance, it is the performer's ideas and intent that are evident.

While he makes use of materials available on YouTube and other online media, he noted that   there is no context or accountability for these materials. Notation has its own lexicon dealing with locomotion and other movement categories, which are much more sophisticated than anything found on YouTube.

As a proponent of "open  source" and "creative commons" licensing, Mr. Skybetter said he  would feel honored if anything he created were helpful to others, and he wants to make it possible for them to  explore his work  to its limits while creating  their own dances.

With Mr. Skybetter's innovative ideas, the score will be seen not only as the documentation of a dance and a source for comparative studies, but as a catalyst for choreography by others and as the means for the study of changing aesthetics over time.

Peter Quantz, (b.1979) a Canadian choreographer, having had a work notated recently, wrote in an e-mail to the author: "Much has been written about Labanotation's precision in fixing and preserving choreographic text. Every detail from minute movements of the fingers to the choreographer's intent at creation can be recorded. The challenge with trying to maintain works of the past is not merely to hold on to information, but to also find a way to allow dancers of the present to feel at home in the choreography. This requires not only clarity, but flexibility."

"In the process of having Kaleidoscope notated, Mira Kim demonstrated how different variations on each moment of choreography could be compiled to allow future stagers the choice to tailor the choreographic text to new artists. I feel that as a living art form a dance will change from performance to performance and from cast to cast. That Labanotation is able to maintain a choreographer's intent while simultaneously leaving space for new discovery is extraordinary. This flexibility keeps notation a vital part of our history as we keep it relevant for the future."

In addition to the Balanchine and Tudor  works mentioned, other notated 20th century masterpieces include Alvin Ailey's Revelations, Doris Humphrey's Day on Earth, Martha Graham's Appalachian Spring, Kurt Jooss' The Green Table, José Limón's The Moor's Pavane, Anna Sokolow's Rooms,  Helen Tamiris'  Negro Spirituals.  (Go to http://dancenotation.org/catalog//  for the entire catalog).

Notated dance scores have been copyrighted in the choreographer's name since the acceptance of the first dance score for copyright in 1950. This was the score of Hanya Holm's dances for the Broadway musical Kiss me Kate.

The importance of scores to a choreographer's legacy can be illustrated by the following circumstance. Two of Balanchine's works mentioned in his comments above, Symphony

Concertante and Bourree Fantasque, disappeared from the repertoire after the early 1950s.  In the 1980s  there was a desire to re-stage both but no one who remembered them. Ballet Master Michael Lland knew that scores had been made several decades previously. They were retrieved

from the DNB archives and the dances restaged from them. Without the scores they would have lived only in people's memories, reviews, one silent film and a few photographs.

The DNB library also has over 1300 scores of  non-Western theatrical dance: folk, traditional, classical, religious, and recreational dances of many cultures that have been notated by professionals in these areas.

The originals of the DNB collection from 1940-1968 reside in the Library at The Ohio State University and later scores are there on microfilm. Microfilms of all the major scores are also housed in the Dance Division of the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center.

The DNB, however, is the only source for companies, dance departments, schools and individuals wishing to gain permission to stage dances from the score. The choreographer stipulates how the score may be used, who may perform it, and the conditions and costs (license and royalty fees) for their staging. Dances are staged in this country and abroad.

Since dance notation is not yet a universal language, as music has become over the centuries, choreographers need specialists to notate their works. The dance is notated when taught to a company for the first time by the choreographer, or designated representative, so that the choreographer's phrasing, dynamics and imagery may be recorded along with the structure.

Ideally the next step in the notation process is for the dance to be staged by someone unfamiliar with it, except perhaps as an audience member, thus allowing the choreographer to see what the score produces, and providing an opportunity to make changes.

The DNB, despite financial constraints, continues because of the dedication and passion of its staff, board members and supporters who believe that dance must have a recorded history of scores that exemplify the vision of the choreographers, rather than relying only on the vision  of  stagers, directors and performers. This will ensure that future generations can be confident in the knowledge that dances are preserved as the choreographers created them. Thus, dance will take its rightful place among the arts.


Quotations from Sydney Skybetter and Peter Quanz are drawn from email and phone interviews conducted by Odette Blum: Peter Quanz. E-mail document received 10/1/11, in response to telephone query from Odette Blum, sent 9/26/11. Sydney Skybetter. Interview conducted by Odette Blum, 9/27/11. 

Odette Blum is Professor Emerita, Department of Dance, The Ohio State University and was formerly Director of the Dance Notation Bureau Extension at OSU. A professional notator, director and teacher of Labanotation, she has directed dances from the score including works by Horton, Humphrey, Jooss, Lampert, Maslow, Sokolow, and Tamiris. Scores she has notated include Massine’s Le Tricorne, Humphrey's Water Study;  publications include:  Dance Perspectives # 56 Dance in Ghana, a  DVD, Motif Description: Introducing the Elements of Dance, Margaret Morris Movement in Labanotation (2009), the first modern dancer in the U.K.  She is the former chair of the International Council of Kinetography Laban and is currently a free-lance teacher, director, and editor of dance scores.


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Balanchine, George. Preface in Hutchinson, Labanotation. N.Y. Theatre Arts, 1954, 2nd Edition 1970, 3rd Edition 1977.

Blum, Odette "The Value of Recording Dance," in:  Dance: The study of dance and the place of dance in society, pp. 37-43. Proceedings of the VIII Commonwealth and International Conference on Sport, Physical Education, Dance, Recreation and Health. London, New York: E. & F. N. Spon, 1986.

Hutchinson, Ann. Labanotation. New York: Theatre Arts, 1954,   Revised 4th  edition, New York and London: Routledge, 2005.              

Kinetz, Erika. "Dance Preservation Organization, in Financial Turmoil, Lays off Most of Staff."

The New York Times, Monday November 7, 2005.

"How ABT Discovered a Balanchine Gem." On Point.  A Publication for the Friends of American Ballet Theatre. Vol. 9 No. 2. Spring 1983.

Tudor, Anthony.  1976 testimonial letter.  Reprint: N.Y: DNB Library Newsletter, vol.2, no. 2, 2008.

Online Resources

DNB Notated Theatrical Dances. http://www.dancenotation.org/catalog/ LabanLab.

An online Labanotation tutorial. Dept. of Dance, OSU. http://www.dance.osu.edu/5_resources/labanlab/index.html

LabanWriter. A MAC computer program for Labanotaton. Dept. of Dance, OSU. http://www.dance.osu.edu

[NOTE: Click on "quick links" on right and below the dancers, then click on "labanwriter" for the free download.]


Other Labanotation Centers and Major Collections

Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris, France.

Dance Notation Bureau Extension for Education and Research  at The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA.

Language of Dance Centre, London, U.K.

Médiathèque du Centre National de Danse. Paris, France.

MTA Zenetudomayi Intezet, Budapest, Hungary.

The Ohio State University Library.  Jerome Laurence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute:  DNB Collection. Columbus, Ohio, USA.


China  Labanotation Society

The Korea Society for Dance Documentation (all types of documentation including notation.)