Dr Marion North was one of the key figures in British contemporary dance of the last century. Marion led Laban (under a number of variations on the name) for 30 years and in that time reshaped professional dance training in the UK and increased the wider understanding of the importance of dance in a variety of contexts. By the time Marion retired in 2003, she had developed Laban from an institution focusing on Rudolf Laban’s work to an international centre for dance training, investigation and research housed in a state-of-the-art building in London. The result of her vision, plus her considerable skills as a leader, manager and administrator, has resulted in a lasting legacy for the whole of the dance community.
Marion was born and grew up in Hull, and later studied at Homerton Teacher Training College, before undertaking postgraduate study at the Art of Movement Studio in Manchester in the 1950s under Rudolf Laban. After completing her studies, Marion joined the Studio’s faculty, where she specialised in the detailed observation of human behavioural movement. She became apprenticed to Laban, developing a test for assessment of personality through the analysis of physical behaviour and pioneering creative movement in the workplace as recreational activity for industrial workers. Throughout her life, Marion continued to promote, develop and disseminate Rudolf Laban’s work, most notably at universities in the USA.
Marion took up the position of Head of Dance at Sidney Webb College, London, in 1962, a post she held for 10 years before leaving to become Head of the Dance Department at Goldsmiths College. In 1973, on Lisa Ullmann’s retirement, Marion concurrently became Principal of the Art of Movement Studio, renaming the institution the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance and relocating it to New Cross in South East London. She moved the Centre from its then home in Addlestone as she felt that a metropolitan context was a better place than the leafy suburbs to develop contemporary artists.
Under Marion’s directorship, the Laban Centre developed to become a world leader in the education and training of dance artists and scholars; Marion took her direct experience of Rudolf Laban’s heritage and refreshed and re-defined it to ensure its survival and relevance in the current dance environment. In 1974 Marion invited Bonnie Bird, a former dancer with the Martha Graham Company and a passionate and innovative dance educator, to join her in reshaping the Laban Centre. Together, Bonnie and Marion established the Centre’s programmes to support the development of creative, contemporary dance artists. In addition to their work at Laban, North and Bird jointly established the Bonnie Bird Choreography Fund, which, from its inception, supported awards to help the development of emerging choreographers, recognising the need for artists at an early stage in their career to have time and resources to develop their own creative practice and artist research.
Marion was a key figure in the development of the Council for Dance Education and Training (CDET), the body representing professional dance training and related educational interests in Britain, and was the driving force behind securing government funding for undergraduate students wanting to study dance at professional level, when the discretionary award scheme for dance training was discontinued in the mid-1990s.
Anthony Bowne, who took over as Principal of the Laban Centre from Marion and led it into a new phase of its history as Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, summarised her legacy as follows:
‘Marion’s vision, persuasiveness and sheer determination have made an enormous contribution to developing the profile of contemporary dance education and training in this country. Her belief that creative work should be at the heart of every dance student’s experience continues to be a guiding principle in the development of all our dance courses and activities, and her conviction that Rudolf Laban’s work should form a significant dimension of studies here has secured us a unique place in the dance profession. Marion leaves us with a wonderful legacy, including our stunning building – her ultimate vision realized. We are now the guardians of this legacy, charged with responsibility to look always for innovative ways forward and creative solutions to the challenges facing us.’