Project (2014)

Moving Bodies on Paper: The Choreography of Twentieth Century Life

Labanotation was a system developed by the German choreographer and amateur physiologist Rudolf Laban to preserve dance on paper. By melding scientific ideas about space and physiology with a complex vocabulary of triangles, arrows, and boxes, Laban believed he could infinitely replicate and preserve a dance’s subtle artistic core. His aims, however, were more than merely aesthetic: Labanotation was also used to coordinate mass movement spectacles and eventually became entangled with the National Socialist bureaucracy. Moreover, though largely ignored, Labanotation was everywhere in the postwar Anglo-American world. It was crucial to efforts to copyright movement in the 1950s United States and underpinned massive changes in staffing at mid-century corporate behemoths like IBM, Monsanto, and BP. Each chapter of this dissertation project explored a new episode in this technology’s history and examines the corresponding changes in its social and political meaning. In creating a notation system capable of turning any movement into easily analyzable data, Laban’s work not only served to preserve a fading past, but opened up new possibilities for the literal choreographing of modern life.