notations – waves of thinking

One of the key, and repeated, activities for workshop participants centred on notation.

After composing their own short dance piece each person produced a written record of the sequence of moves. They could use images, words, diagrammes, anything they thought would capture the actions that they had designed.


This set of instructions was then given to a partner to physically interpret. As might be expected, there were differences between the original moves and what people ‘read’ from their ‘instruction’ sheet.

Finally, both people – the choreographer and the interpreter – danced the piece together so that the rest of the group could compare the original with its ‘reading’.


This activity offered numerous potential meaning making opportunities. For me, these happened at the time, and then somewhat later and then even later on.

At the time:

The most obvious though that came to me was about difficulties – the difficulty of recording live action and the difficulty of interpreting someone else’s records. All of the participants had difficulty in not only developing notations that would encapsulate the movement, but also in recording the pacing and timing of various movements. This raised the issue of the needs for a notation system to encompass multiple aspects of an activity – no mean task.

I then thought about how ‘dance’ as a practice/discipline has evolved a standard set of notations to create a common movement language. Yet perhaps, I wondered, the point of some contemporary movement is precisely to exceed not only what counts as dance, but also these conventional notation systems.

My next thought was about the notation activity itself as a lens onto the problem of representation – a symbolic system is not the actual physical thing that it purports to be, but rather is a text open to various interpretations. This activity made it obvious that some ‘realist’ symbols – such as stick figures – seem to be easier to interpret than those that are more abstract. I began to think about the different pedagogies that might be used to ‘teach’ about representation: this was a particularly effective one.

 Somewhat later:

As I reflected on the exercise a few weeks after the workshop, two other thoughts also pushed their way into my consciousness.

My first reflection was related more generally to the difficulty of recording live art. This is clearly an issue for contemporary art museums that seek to preserve art works. What should a record consist of – a description? Instructions that allow the work to be re interpreted and performed? A video? All of these things do happen, as well as some works not being recorded at all, but living on only in the memories and bodies of those who were involved. And then… when people simply see a record of a live art work what do they make of it? If they don’t re-enact it to experience what it was like – as we had done with an excerpt of Trio A, how much of it can they understand?

My second thought was a memory of Derrida’s lecture Archive Fever (1995). He noted that making something into an archive is the point at which something ceases to be private and personal, but becomes simultaneously public, codified, historicized and sanctified. At the same time the archive also becomes potentially destructible and forgettable. However the technology of producing the archive is also important – “archiving produces as much as it records an event” (p. 17). Following Derrida, it would be a mistake then for me to see notation as simply a recording exercise; instead it could be understood as a memorization apparatus that anticipates a future. And that’s paradoxical… “With the irreplaceable singularity of a document to interpret, to repeat, to reproduce, but each time in its original uniqueness, an archive ought to be idiomatic, and thus at once offered and unavailable for translation, open to and shielded from technical iteration and reproduction” (p. 57).  And so on…  and I went on a little Derridean flight of fancy for a while.

Much later and just prior to writing this post:

I’ve been pondering about whether some cultural activities are seen as valuable precisely because they afford waves of thinking. These are experiences which prompt particular trains of thought at different times and it is this very density of meaning-making that makes them memorable – they stick in the mind to be thought over. Of course, not all cultural activities are like this. I don’t want to privilege the cerebral over any other form of knowing. But it may be the case for some activities. I wonder.

Derrida, J (1995) Archive fever: A Freudian impression. Diacritics 25(2) 9-63


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