A ‘free space vector’ approach to Laban’s choreutics

(2001) Jeffrey Scott Longstaff

HTML version of J. S. Longstaff (2001). A ‘free space vector’ approach to Laban’s choreutics. Movement and Dance Magazine of the Laban Guild, 20 (2, Summer), 10-11.

In his early German work Choreographie (1926), Rudolf Laban presents various experiments in movement ‘writing’ used during the early development of what would eventually become modern-day Labanotation or Kinetography Laban. Examining the methods in this workbook of symbol systems reveals not only possibilities for movement-writing formats, but also reveals underlying mental conceptions of body movement which form the bases for how movements are viewed, implicit within any symbol system.

One collection of symbols is used to write several movement sequences (Fig. 1) (Laban 1926, 20-21, 35, 44–45, 47, 50–53, 72). A translation of these early symbols into equivalent Labanotation direction symbols reveals how they represent orientations of body motion without reference to particular points or positions, hence they might be considered to be spatial ‘vectors’ (Longstaff, 1996; 2001). On the one hand, Labanotation direction symbols represent limb motion implicitly, as a transition from one limb ‘direction’ (starting position) to another direction (ending position) (Fig. 2) (Hutchinson 1970, pp. 29, 118-121), and this point-to-point conception of movement is also prevalent in modern-day choreutics. In contrast to this, the early vector symbols represent movement explicitly as an orientation of a line-of-motion without any indication of what the limb positions or ‘points’ might be (Fig. 3). Differences in these two conceptions of ‘direction’ can be highlighted by referring to a compass. Movement in directions north and south will converge toward a point (as in Labanotation), however motion in west or east directions do not converge but remain parallel (vector-type symbols).

Figure 1. Combined scales from primary directions, dimensions and volute-links (Laban, 1926, p. 53)

Figure 2. Modern day Labanotation represents limb motions as a transition from position to the next.

Figure 3. Vector method represents movement explicitly as an orientation of a line - of - motion without reference to points or positions.

Other vector-type notations are rarely used. ‘Direction of progression’ is symbolised by modifying Labanotation symbols with a small arrow, thus indicating a motion rather than a position (Hutchinson Guest 1983, p. 261). Laban also briefly returned to motion writing in Choreutics (1966 [1939], pp. 125–130) which he describes as ‘an old dream in this field of research’ but which is left for the ‘future development of kinetography’. Here, a ‘free notation’ is used to represent ‘free space lines’ by modifying Labanotation diagonal symbols with a dimension, thus indicating a ‘deflection’. This highlights another crucial distinction. On one hand, vector symbols consist primarily of deflecting ‘inclinations’ (notice there are no symbols for 2-dimensional planar diagonals - ‘diameters’, and also no symbol for ‘centre’) (Fig. 4). In contrast, Labanotation has no symbols for inclinations but must derive these by constructing symbols together.

In addition to 1D dimensions, 2D diameters (planar diagonals), and 3D diagonals, the ‘inclinations’ can be considered as a fourth type of directional orientation which appear to be unique to choreutics. However, they are elusive. While a pure 3D diagonal contains equal degrees of vertical, sagittal, and lateral components, an inclination is considered to be ‘deflected’ from a diagonal and so is also oriented in 3D, but has irregular degrees of vertical, sagittal, and laterality. Each of 8 diagonal directions is deflected by 3 dimensions, either lateral (‘flat’), vertical (‘steep’) or sagittal (‘suspended’), producing 24 inclinations. While inclinations are the core material of the early vector-type symbolic conception, they are more obscure in point-to-point notation methods.

Rationale for choreutic deflection theory is described in many places (Laban 1966, pp. 88-90, 101; Ullmann 1966, pp. 141-145; 1971, p. 17; Bartenieff & Lewis 1980, pp. 33, 89-91) and develops partly from the fundamental dual-concept of stability & mobility. Dimensional orientations are conceived as prototypes of pure stability, diagonals as pure spatial mobility, while actual body movements occur as deflections or mixtures between these two:

“Since every movement is a composite of stabilising and mobilising tendencies, and since neither pure stability nor pure mobility exist, it will be the deflected or mixed inclinations which are the more apt to reflect trace-forms of living matter.”
(Laban 1966, p. 90)

Figure 4. Entire group of 38 Vector Symbols used in Choreographie (Laban, 1926), including symbols for dimensions, diagonals, and deflecting inclinations.

It might be speculated why this early method of motion writing was abandoned in favor of the positional-method of modern-day Labanotation. One reason may be the conceptual difficulty of inclinational orientations as compared to the simple regularity of pure dimensionals and diagonals. My personal experience has been that, while concepts of inclinations are initially unusual, with practice they actually simplify aspects of ‘space harmony’ and solve certain ‘problems’ in choreutic observation and embodiment. For example, human movements often do not pass through the ‘points’ of the choreutic scaffolding (cube, icosahedron, etc.) but freely deviate into every conceivable direction and size. Rather than observing (or embodying) ‘points in space’, free spatial vectors allow orientations of movement to be observed immediately. The ‘deflection’ is identified by seeing the closest diagonal orientation of the motion (not the position!) together with the largest dimensional component. In embodiment, motion of any centre-of-gravity (of part, or of the whole body) is perceived immediately as a deflecting free space line, rather than ‘reaching to the points’. That is, instead of performing a series of points or positions (so often typical of choreutic practice), what is performed are the orientations of motions.

Deflecting inclinations also can be used to re-envisage traditional dance techniques. This was Laban’s (1926, pp. 6-19, 64) method where deflecting content of ballet motions (between the more static ballet poses) are identified as inclinations and used as the core material for a ‘new dance’ technique which oriented its training method in diagonals rather than dimensions (Bodmer & Huxley 1982). The collection of vector symbols or free space lines, offers a structure through which this method of deflecting inclinations can be encompassed in choreutic practice.


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