Rudolf Laban (1879-1958) was born in Austro-Hungary. Laban was a dancer, a choreographer and a dance / movement theoretician. One of the founders of European Modern Dance, his work was extended through his most celebrated collaborators, Mary Wigman, Kurt Jooss and Sigurd Leeder. Through his work, Laban raised the status of dance as an art form, and his explorations into the theory and practice of dance and movement transformed the nature of dance scholarship.
He established choreology, the discipline of dance analysis, and
invented a system of dance notation, now known as Labanotation or
Kinetography Laban. Laban was the first person to develop community
dance and he has set out to reform the role of dance education,
emphasising his belief that dance should be made available to
In 1948 Laban began its life as the Art of Movement Studio in
Manchester, and moved to Addlestone in Surrey due to expansion in
1953. Five years later Rudolf Laban died. In 1973, on the
retirement of Lisa Ullman, Marion North became Head of School
(Principal and Director), followed by Bonnie Bird, Artistic
Director, who joined the Art of Movement Studio in 1974. The Art of
Movement Studio was renamed Laban Centre for Movement and Dance in
1975, and moved to new premises in New Cross, South East
Rudolf Laban (1879-1958) was the son of a high ranking military
figure in the Austro-Hungarian empire. He spent much of his time in
Bosnia and Herzigovina, in the towns of Sarajevo and Mostar as well
as the court circle in Vienna and the theatre life of Bratislava.
He was educated in both western and eastern cultures.
Rejecting the military career planned for him, he became an
artist. Through his studies of architecture at the Ècoles des Beaux
Arts in Paris he observed the moving body and its spaces.
Aged thirty, he moved to Munich, the art centre of Germany.
There he focused on revolutionising Bewegungskunst, the movement
arts, spending the summer months at his Arts School on Monte
In 1919 his major career in Germany began. Rudolf Laban ran a
dance theatre company, a chamber dance theatre company and opened a
main school, a movement choir for amateurs, wrote articles and
books, performed, and created dance works.
Over the next ten years he created 25 Laban schools and choirs
for the education of children, amateurs including men, and
professional dancers in Latvia, Zagreb, Paris and Germany, always
retaining a 'movement laboratory' for his own research.
In 1927, he moved to Berlin, opening the Choreographisches
Institut. By 1929, his 50th birthday celebrations show that he was
at the height of an influential career, not only as a leader of the
Ausdrucktanz movement, but as a recognised intellectual in the
field of dance theatre and movement study.
He was appointed director of movement and choreographer to the
Prussian State Theatres in Berlin in 1930. In 1934, in a Nazi
Germany, he was appointed director of the Deutsche Tanzbühne.
Falling foul of Nazism in 1936 while at the height of his career,
his name and work was destroyed by the Government Propaganda
Ministry. Many of his followers emigrated, especially to the United
States, and in 1938 he took refuge in Britain.
At the age of sixty, supported by Lisa Ullmann, he started a new
phase in his career. He worked in industry, introducing work study
methods to increase production through humane means, and greatly
influenced the movement education culture in Britain opening,
through Lisa Ullmann, The Art of Movement Studio in Manchester in
In 1953 the studios moved to a donated country estate in
Addlestone. In his last years he concentrated on movement as
behaviour, studying the behavioural needs of industrial workers and
psychiatric patients. This enabled him to lay the technical basis
for what is now the profession of movement and dance therapy, and a
basis for the expressive movement training of actors.
He died in his late seventies in 1958. But his work lives on in
astounding abundance. Many people are unaware that what they do is
influenced by the vision, energy and creative boldness of
Rudolf Laban was in poor health most of his life suffering from
what we would now call spasmodic manic depression, which appeared
during and after excessive creative endeavour and after what he
perceived as rejection of his ideas. He was poor throughout his
career, and never owned a home or possessions beyond his working
papers. He married twice and fathered nine children, although his
family life ceased when his career took off in 1919. He developed
and relied on a series of apprentices to follow through his ideas,
Mary Wigman being the first, Marion North being the last.
Rudolf Laban's ideas were influenced by the social and cultural
changes of the time and the contexts that he worked in. The
traditional constraints against showing feeling were being
questioned, opening the way for a freeing of the feeling body.
Rudolf Laban believed the best way to advocate this freedom was
by mirroring it in dance and the movement arts. Freud's discovery
of the psyche, opened a previously closed door and the body's
sexuality need no longer be hidden. The movement arts were thought
to be a great medium to express this new freedom, by men and women
dancing barefoot and in little clothing.
In Paris and Munich (1900 - 1914) Rudolf Laban acquired his
spiritual attitude and unique value regardless of gender, social
status or educational standing. He interpreted this as valuing
individuals own choice of movement , and self initiated
Rudolf Laban witnessed the response to cultural changes by
visual artists such as Klimt, Kockoshka, Shiele, Cezanne, Matisse,
Picasso and Kandinsky.
He asked himself what was the equivalent of the visual arts
revolution for the movement arts? He abandoned the constraints of
traditional steps, the reliance on music to inspire and structure
dance, the need to mime a story to reveal a body, freed to find its
own rhythms, create its own steps and revel in the medium of space.
Der Freier Tanz was born.
His search for the basic vocabulary of expressive movement
identified the basic factors of movement flow, with weight,
embodying time and space.
Rudolf Laban wrote articles and books and formed dance choirs of
young male and female performers in his endeavour to introduce a
contemporary mass dance culture for urban populations. He created
dance works of a celebratory and participatory nature which often
dealt in abstract terms with a social and spiritual agenda to
educate socially aware dancers.
The First World War put an end to social positioning and this
was reflected in theatre art by discarding the traditional
positioning of actors. He removed the hierarchical system of ballet
companies and replaced it with the democratic ensemble.
Rudolf Laban created and toured works for his large and
impoverished company. His works explored social themes just as his
drama counterparts did (e.g. Brecht), as constructivist visual
artists did (e.g. Malevitch) and as caricaturists did (e.g.
Rudolf Laban and his pupil Kurt Jooss made dance into a social
force, creating political anti-war ballets and anti-poverty ballets
in the 1930's.
Dance in Opera
The public were confounded, either elated by the rule breaking
defiance of a dance that showed 'freed, enlarged, strengthened
dancing' or infuriated at the defiance of tradition. Critics were
either rapturously pro or aggressively anti, and Opera dance could
never be the same again.
Rudolf Laban fundamentally excelled as an experimenter with
choreographic processes and was not a successful choreographer of
products. He needed others to polish his works once he had
completed the first experiments.
What sets Laban apart from other early dance pioneers in this
century? He was both a creative artist and a creative theorist at
home, in the studio and the laboratory, equally able to express
himself through movement and writing.
His legacy is not in outstanding theatre works of dance but in
studio practices and theoretical methods driven by movement
Rudolf Laban's passion was to establish dance as an art of equal
standing to its sister arts, a place it had never held. It had to
establish a medium through its own literacy, hence in his burning
desire to find a notation for dance. Without literacy dance would
never be taken seriously by the cultural elite.
Rudolf Laban spent twenty years understanding movement
sufficiently to create signs on paper that could represent body
parts moving in space and time dynamically. Today, as Labanotation,
his system caters for the needs of the modern dance world. Just as
musical notation has to adapt to the changing needs of composers.
So Labanotation has to grow to cope with modern needs and
What aspects of his work still provide a basis for development
in the 21st Century?
The multi-faceted and continually developing nature of Laban's
output forms both a challenge and a difficulty for students of his
work. No-one can encompass it all.
Major dance training courses offer Laban work on their
curriculum, but these are not necessarily his prime legacy. He
maintained that he had no method and had no wish to be presented as
having one. Rather a spirit of enquiry is the main legacy that
unites the scattered and diverse body of people who use his
Last updated on Fri 14 Oct 2011 17.04h