Legacy of a dancer from danger

In Just Order Move
March 20, 1998

This is an odd and rather offputting title for a well-researched and valuable piece of work. It tells the story of Rudolph Laban's arrival at Dartington Hall in 1938 as a refugee from Nazi Germany to work with the dancer Kurt Jooss and then of his collaboration during and after the war with Lisa Ullman, first in Wales, then Manchester and finally Addlestone in Surrey, where a trust was established to run both the Movement Research Centre, to develop Laban's theoretical work, and the Art of Movement Studio, to train dancers and teachers.

Willson makes no attempt to describe Laban's philosophy or the extraordinary impact that his and Ullman's teaching had on all those who took part in it. The book describes how these two remarkable and lonely people courageously set out to establish themselves through adult education classes, short courses for teachers and summer schools, and how in Manchester they established a studio with a former colleague, Sylvia Bodmer, and attracted a nucleus of full-time students, some primarily interested in dance, some in teaching and a few in Laban's work in industry, which he was developing with F. C. Lawrence, an industrial consultant.

Some of these first students were highly gifted and created a network of protagonists around whom the whole Laban movement developed. Gaining official recognition for their work was a long, tortuous and uphill struggle and Willson makes clear that, as pioneers working outside mainstream education, they would have got nowhere but for the continuous support from members of the Elmhirst family at Dartington, F. C. Lawrence and a number of distinguished educationists, among them, Alec Clegg and Her Majesty's Inspectors Myfanwy Dewey, Ruth Foster and Christian Schiller, who argued their case at the Department of Education and Science. The last third of this book is concerned with the difficult situation that arose after Laban's death, the partnership with Trent Park and Whitelands Colleges, the severe administrative problems of running a small isolated institution in the country and Ullman's limited but understandable interpretation of the Laban legacy, which seems to have led to so much frustration within the trust. The transfer to the Goldsmiths site, the ins and outs of that association, and the eventual emergence of the Laban Centre at New Cross as an independent institution with an international reputation are told interestingly, some of it from first-hand experience. In doing so, Willson reveals so many of the problems that small and large educational institutions have experienced over the past 20 years, underlining the particular issues facing dance and drama institutions over student grants, the invaluable help that the Council for National Academic Awards gave to creative institutions to work at degree level and the debt so many of us owe to the late Peter Brinson and to American universities and colleges, which have long accepted dance and theatre as liberal arts and provided England with the necessary expertise. He also emphasises the dependence of all pioneering institutions on the integrity, resilience and stamina of those responsible for their development.

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

In Just Order Move: The Progress of the Laban Centre For Movement and Dance 1946-1996

Author - F. M. G. Willson
ISBN - 0 485 11518 2
Publisher - Athlone
Price - £19.95
Pages - 242

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