Addressing Motif

What Motif is and What Motif is not

by K. Studd
(updated 2020)

From a quick internet search to define the term “motif” – I find the following:

“… In a literary piece, a motif is a recurrent image, idea, or symbol that develops or explains a theme, while a theme is a central idea or message.

In a literary work, a motif can be seen as an image, sound, action, or other figure that has a symbolic significance, and contributes toward the development of a theme.”

In this definition I have bolded several words that I find particularly relevant in connecting to the concept of motif in a literary sense to the LBMS usage of the term Motif. I will return to this quote in a bit.

In the Laban/Bartenieff Movement System Motif is a visual pictorial representation of movement essence. Essence is NOT the same as highlights or details although these can be meaningful and significant both as parts as well as in relation to the whole! Recording movement’s essence and/or revealing movement’s patterns is not the same as recording the specificity of actions. This is an extremely important distinction relating to the intent of Motif as distinct from the intent of Labanotation, and this critical distinction is too often lost particularly in light of many who claim to be using Motif but are actually using a modified, amended or truncated version of Labanotation. Let us return to the literary for a moment in the example of a story– The story of a vacation I take. And on this vacation:

  • It rains everyday
  • The hotel where I am staying is undergoing renovation and so is noisy and dusty
  • I loose my purse that contains all my documents including money, credit cards and my ID.
  • I get word that my house (back home) has had storm damage that will need fixing upon my return.
  • I catch a cold and am feeling sick for the majority of this vacation
  • Then the night before I leave to return home, I accidentally run into someone I haven’t seen in years and we have an amazing dinner at a delightful restaurant and “catch-up”

So the pattern of this trip (as recorded in the above list of parts of the event) is not the same as the highlight of the trip. Clearly the pattern is one of bad luck and misfortune but there is a highlight moment when I unexpectedly connect with a friend.

In LBMS Motif is used to find or express or experience movement pattern – not transcribe a sequence of a series of actions. Recording movement can be much better done through technology such as video, motion capture etc. or using Labanotation in some contexts.

Repetition is necessary for pattern to emerge. Look back at the definition at the start of this missive – recurrent was a word I bolded. Through the motif (pattern) a theme or themes are developed. In the LBMS sense this would link directly to the Duality Themes we address – such as Mobility/Stability etc – So a pattern of actions (another bolded word)create the “motif” both in the literary and movement (LBMS) sense of this term.

Motif should not be a de facto branch of Labanotation or a shorthand version of Labanotation. Although they overlap, Labanotation has a different historical development and different intent than Motif. Nor should Motif be linked specifically to another symbolic rendering of movement, the application of “Language of Dance” (LOD) as dance is only one of countless examples of the phenomenon of human movement and is much like Labanotation in its execution.

Why Motif?

The nature of Motif, by its design, shares aspects of both the verbal and non-verbal articulation we value in movement analysis training, thus it can be a valuable tool in the process.

Motif can be a bridge between movement expression/experience and the analytical process of describing/identifying movement patterns. This allows Motif to be a bridge between the analysis and synthesis ends of the Laban/Bartenieff Movement System (LBMS).

When Motif works well it is used to support the movement analysis process. It can assist with finding essence, describing essence and coming to consensus in this process. Motif can both reveal and represent movement patterns. It can also be useful in challenging patterns (the process of re-patterning or expanding range).

Like the phenomenon of movement itself, Motif is gestalt-like in its ability to capture the whole of action. Thus, for example, the spatial symbol for Right/Forward/High is not seen as 3 parts (- as the 3 words needed to express this direction are), but as the whole that is this Diagonal spatial directional pull. Likewise, the Effort symbol for Passion Drive captures the fusion of the 3 Effort Factors (Weight, Flow, Time) creating a whole rather than the accumulation of 3 discrete pieces as separate parts. This is fundamentally different than the sequential (i.e. accumulating over time) rather than simultaneous (all at one moment) and discrete nature of the language of words which require a – one word after another in a specific order to work. Yet at the same time Motif is a symbolic representation of movement and not the movement itself. Motif depicts only the essence of the whole rather than all the intricate parts (details).

Motif is a tool of the LBMS which is used to:

  • Visually capture and represent movement patterns and sequences
  • Reveal essential essence of movement patterns and sequences
  • Illustrate contextual relationship – specifically, foreground/background  (i.e. what is essential and what is a modifier)
  • Depict “choice” – both of the mover as well as of the Motif-er of the movement
  • Retain the essential patterns of movement by creating a tangible, concrete artifact of the ephemeral fleeting movement phenomenon

Motif is also used to:

  • Assist with coming to consensus in the process of observation
  • In re-patterning – through finding or creating alternative options
  • Becoming aware of or finding patterns through an emergent process (what is revealed in analyzing the motif rather than the movement itself)
  • Capturing and retaining essence in recording movement
  • Connecting macro and micro patterns

Types of Motifs: Constellations, Vertical and Horizontal Motifs

In the LBMS we use Vertical, Horizontal, and Constellation Motifs.

Vertical Motifs are primarily used to indicate when relative duration (i.e. the length of time an action requires) is an essential component, as well as to add modifiers to the main action. Thus, Vertical Motif is generally more layered and specified in its capacity to visually/symbolically capture the essentials of movement patterns. Vertical Motifs are read from the bottom to the top of the page.

Horizontal Motif represents the sequence of a pattern but does not include relative duration and generally does not include modifiers (at least in how Motif is currently conceptualized and practiced – although there is discussion about having Horizontal Motifs be able to represent modifiers to main action). Horizontal Motifs are read from left to right.

Constellations contain the essential parts that make up the whole of the movement event. In Constellations the movement content is held within 4 dots : : Constellations do not show sequence, duration or relationships between and among the parts. Constellations are a Macro approach to the overall patterns of a movement event that create the meaning and expression of the event. Constellations are a way to discern (to observe or to experience) the ingredients of the movement event but not necessarily the recipe!