In Laban's footsteps

Rudolf Laban
April 9, 1999

The subtitle of this book, "An Extraordinary Life", is amply justified for a man who started life as the son of a field marshal in the Austro-Hungarian imperial army and governor of Turkish Bosnia and Herzegovina and became the generally acknowledged "father of European modern dance", whose name is associated with an internationally recognised system of dance notation and one of the leading dance schools in Britain, and who as a management consultant helped women to do the job of men in Britain's wartime factories and was to have a profound influence on British education.

Laban abandoned his army cadetship to become a student of art and architecture, first in Munich and then in Paris. He was to discover the direction in which his creative talents lay when running a series of summer sessions at Monte Verita in Swiss Ticino, a "centre for experimental living", his students dancing out of doors on the mountain pastures, some of them in the nude.

His personality and ideas attracted many talented, young dancers and musicians, among them Suzanne Perrottet who was working with Emile-Jacques Dalcroze, and his gifted student, Mary Wigman, whose eventual international success as a performer helped to establish Laban as the great dance teacher of his time. He survived the first world war as a penurious exile in Zurich, and returned to Germany to set up teaching and performing situations wherever he could; there he published his first major book, Die Welt der Tanzers , and eventually formed his own travelling group of professional dancers. Meanwhile, he set up the Choreograophisches Institut in Berlin for the theoretical study of dance and used his early experience as a director of carnivals to form "movement choirs" among the employed, in which hundreds of young people found emotional and physical release and the talented found a first step towards professional dance training.

For the cultural historian, Laban's life is a fascinating journey. Here is an aristocrat brought up in a part of Europe where forms of Sufism are practised, who becomes involved in Rosicrucianism in Paris, encounters anthroposophy through Madame Blavatsky and Mari Steiner's Eurythmie in Munich, as well as Kandinsky's Concerning the Spiritual in Art and Schoenberg's music, and later attends Oskar Schlemmer's classes at the Bauhaus. His theoretical and practical work both take place within that emotional maelstrom of the Weimar Republic with its dire inflation and political instability. He even finds his services sought after by the Nazis in the organisation of the 1936 Olympic Games, because of his spectacular success with the young - a situation he extracts himself from with difficulty, by escaping to Paris. Eventually, he arrives almost destitute at Dartington in Devon as a guest of his former student, Kurt Jooss, and of the founders, Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst.

For those interested in the use of dance in education, this book is invaluable. Valerie Preston Dunlop guides us skilfully through the development of Laban's experience. Starting as an observer of the human being moving within a given architectural framework, she describes how Laban found within himself a source of inner energy that, if divined and concentrated upon, could provide the motive power, shape and rhythm by which he could express bodily his own feelings and spiritual intent. This led him to discard ballet as an art form as well as Dalcroze's Eurythmie which, though freer in its movement, was still dictated to by the music. The urgency to expound this intuitive discovery to the wider world was what propelled Laban to create a notation that would allow dance to become a literate art form in its own right.

His close association with Lisa Ullmann began only with his arrival in England. Dunlop describes movingly how their work on introducing teachers to dance education developed against all odds, first in mid-Wales, then in Manchester and finally at Addlestone in Surrey. It is an extraordinary story of dedication and determination that survived thanks to a handful of individuals - among them members of the Elmhirst family, several HMIs, Sir Alec Clegg, Diana Jordan and Joan Goodrich, and two of Laban's former German colleagues, Sylvia Bodmer and Adda Heynssen.

This excellent book about a great artist and educator is extensively researched, surprisingly informative and pleasantly written, making it accessible to laymen and cognoscenti of dance alike.

Peter Cox was founder-principal, Dartington College of Arts.

Rudolf Laban: An Extraordinary Life

Author - Valerie Preston-Dunlop
ISBN - 1 853 060 9
Publisher - Dance Books
Price - £20.00
Pages - 306

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