Beginning in the 1940s, a New York City organization called the Dance Notation Bureau promised to bring a new kind of expertise to the moving world. Its leaders—all women with backgrounds in dance performance—had dedicated themselves to perfecting a technique for recording dance on paper, known as Labanotation. First developed by the choreographer Rudolf Laban in the ferment of Weimar Germany, Labanotation employed a complex series of markings on an eleven-columned staff to permanently capture dance’s ephemeral movements.1

After its initial publication in 1928, Labanotation was hailed for its seemingly unique capacity to preserve dance for the future, creating an indelible record of an art form whose works were often lost to time. But the Bureau’s leaders, including its president, Ann Hutchinson Guest, also saw Labanotation’s widespread use as a crucial step in “modernizing” and professionalizing the field of dance, long relegated to low status because of its association with the fleeting, the feminine, and the bodily. In publicity materials, the Bureau emphasized Labanotation’s ability to store, compare, and analyze dance with the “objective” eye of the scientist, a characterization others quickly echoed.2 Choreographer George Balanchine compared Labanotation to Euclidian geometry, while New York Times critic John Martin praised the “systematic mentality” of the Bureau’s “free association of laboratory workers,” highlighting their “genius for science and invention, for efficiency and mechanical creativity.”3

Within a few decades, Labanotation had made major inroads in the U.S. dance community. Students of notation flooded the Bureau offices in Union Square, and by 1965, the Bureau had notated and archived more than forty major works. As the new technology’s most skilled users, Hutchinson Guest and the other female Bureau leaders also managed to carve out a new kind of elite space for themselves in a dance world that—though many of its most famous performers were women—was still largely dominated by men.

The triumph of the Labanotators, however, was both accompanied and enabled by the displacement of other forms of expertise, a shift that becomes clear when one considers that Labanotation was merely one method of recording among many. Film, in particular, was an obvious alternative to the laborious work of notation (even highly trained notators might require as many as a thousand hours to conserve just 20 to 30 minutes of choreography). So why did notation flourish?

Some choreographers argued that they preferred notation because of the technical limitations of film, particularly the ways in which a single camera might not capture the entire stage or distort spatial relationships. Others, however, believed that Labanotation’s true advantage was its capacity to record movements precisely as the choreographer had conceived them, rather than the performance of any particular dancer on a particular day. As Martin put it, a written script did away with the messy interference of the performer, capturing only the Platonic ideal of the composition “impersonally and in all [its] purity.”4 It was, in effect, a shockingly new vision of dance: a dance bereft of dancers. Some objected to this strangely disembodied conceptualization, one that suggested dancers were merely an impressionable medium for the choreographer’s mind rather than skilled co-creators of the work of art. In copyright law and elsewhere, however, Labanotation became the preferred method of recording, and the view of choreographer as sole creator was solidified.5

What broader lessons about expertise might we glean from this story? The most salient may be methodological: that we can learn a great deal about where expertise on a given subject is understood to lie by closely examining our technologies of information gathering. As much recent scholarship in the history of science and technology has suggested, even ostensibly neutral tools of data collection make assertions about who gets to claim knowledge or skill, often with far-reaching consequences.6

Indeed, Labanotation’s increasing diffusion had effects far beyond the world of dance proper. Beginning in the 1980s, notation began to go “digital,” playing a key role in a number of efforts to assess and mimic human movement on computer screens and program the movements of robots.7 In fact, the choreographer behind Boston Dynamics’ recent viral video of four of its robots (two humanoid Atlases, the dog-like Spot, and, Handle, a wheeled robot designed to move boxes) “dancing” to the Contours’ 1962 hit “Do You Love Me” noted that her own Laban training was an invaluable aid in thinking about movement beyond the human body.8

In some ways, these dancing robots are one natural conclusion of the transfer of expertise over movement from dancers to choreographers to notators, programmers, and others tasked with managing movement rather than performing it. Boston Dynamics’ new specialists have little knowledge of dance, seeking to create not art, but “a form of highly accelerated lifecycle testing for the hardware”—the ultimate uses of which will be determined by DARPA, the NYPD, and the Army.9 It is telling that Monica Thomas, the choreographer of the “Do You Love Me” piece, was initially publicly uncredited for her work.

The removal of the human from human movement may produce stunning spectacles, but it is already being employed to create technologies to imitate and replace human creativity and judgment, with potentially troubling consequences. Once reduced to a data set, reproduced mechanically, and denuded of human agency and artistic purpose, movement becomes a fungible commodity to be bought and sold, and used as easily to destroy as to build. Experts have a role to play in both creating these data sets and conditioning their use, and scholars and the public at large must play close attention not just to what these new masters of movement can do but to what they value.

1.

Originally known as “Kinetography,” the system was first widely disseminated in a new journal, Schrifttanz (Written Dance). Rudolf Laban, “Grundprinzipien der Bewegungsschrift,” Schrifttanz 1, no. 1 (1928): 4–5.

2.

See, for example, Selma Jeanne Cohen, “Dance Notation Conversation: Facts on the Universal System of Recording Human Movement—Labanotation” (1955), courtesy Dance Notation Bureau.

3.

George Balanchine, “Recording the Ballet,” Dance Observer 17, no. 9 (1950): 132; John Martin, “The Dance Is Attuned to the Machine,” New York Times, 24 Feb 1929.

4.

John Martin, “They Score a Dance as Others Do Music,” New York Times, 2 Jul 1950.

5.

For a more detailed history of the Dance Notation Bureau’s efforts and the effects of their work on ideas about copyright, preservation, authorship, and dance itself, see Whitney E. Laemmli, “Paper Dancers: Art as Information in Twentieth-Century America,” Information and Culture 52, no. 1 (2017): 1–30.

6.

See, for example, Elena Aronova, Christine von Oertzen, and David Sepkoski, eds., “Data Histories,” Osiris 32, no. 1 (2017); Boris Jardine and Matthew Drage, eds., “The Total Archive: Data, Subjectivity, Universality,” History of the Human Sciences 31, no. 5 (2018): 3–22.

7.

See, for example, Maxine Brown and Stephen W. Smoliar, “A Graphics Editor for Laban-notation,” Computer Graphics 10, no. 2 (1976): 60–65; Norman I. Balder, Cary B. Phillips, and Bonnie L. Webber, Simulating Humans: Computer Graphics, Animation, and Control (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Toru Nakata, Taketoshi Mori, and Tomomasa Sato, “Quantitative Analysis of Impression of Robot Bodily Expression Based on Laban Movement Theory,” Journal of the Robotics Society of Japan 19, no. 2 (2001): 252–59; Liwen Huang and Paul Hudak, “Dance: A Declarative Language for the Control of Humanoid Robots,” Research Report YALEU/DCS/RR-1253 (2003).

8.

Sydney Skybetter, “Meet the Choreographer behind Those Dancing Robots,” Dance Magazine (26 Mar 2021). www.dancemagazine.com/boston-dynamics-dancing-robots-2651193214.html

9.

Calvin Hennick, “All Together Now,” Boston Dynamics blog (29 Jun 2021). http://blog.bostondynamics.com/all-together-now