Trinity Laban pays tribute to an inspirational educator
Dr Valerie Preston Dunlop is a leading specialist on the life and work of legendary dance practitioner Rudolf Laban. Since her initial training with the expressionist dance guru, she has had an immeasurable impact on both Trinity Laban and the world of dance.
In celebration of her 90th birthday, we take a look back over Valerie’s incredible career.
At the age of sixteen, Valerie began her training with Rudolf Laban at the Art of Movement Studio in Manchester: the predecessor of the Laban Centre and, later, Trinity Laban. Joining the year that the school first opened its doors to students, she studied alongside dance artists from all over the world –
“With ten other men and women aged 16 to 40, from seven countries, I sweated, learnt, created, notated, rehearsed and performed, from 9am until dark and we could go on no longer.”
Valerie dancing with fellow students. Copyright Valerie Preston Dunlop 2017.
Immediately inspired by Laban’s subversive approach to dance teaching, Valerie recalls –
“The curriculum was haphazard, new, modern, creative and exciting. We were socialist pioneers – everything that a traditional ballet training, with its vocabulary and star system, was not.”
Valerie’s meeting at such an early age with the formidable Rudolf Laban was the catalyst for her lifelong dedication to developing and interrogating his expressionist dance practice –
“I experienced his extraordinary presence, his intense stillness, his acute observing of us, not as dancers but as possible apprentices to serve his quest, to understand and promote expressive human movement in all its manifestations. Despite surviving as a refugee from Nazi Germany, owning nothing, his aristocratic bearing exuded an integrity that made you pay attention.”
Rudlof Laban, when he and Valerie first met. Copyright Valerie Preston Dunlop 2017.
Completing her studies in Manchester, Valerie received a Laban Diploma, and went on to study at the School of Russian Ballet in London and at the Folkwangschule in Germany. Here she met Laban’s former student Albrecht Knust, leading exponent on movement representation system Labanotation – a study in which Valerie’s aptitude had impressed Laban.
Valerie’s notation of the movement of two workers in a tile factory, 1948. Copyright Valerie Preston Dunlop 2017.
Valerie’s study at the Folkwangschule also led to her meeting renowned choreographer Kurt Jooss. She describes rehearsing Jooss’ powerful anti-war piece The Green Table in destroyed and war-torn Essen as one of the most influential experiences of her career.
Sought-after as both an educator and performer, Valerie has enjoyed a dynamic career working with artists all over the world, including fellow Art of Movement Studio alum Hettie Loman at the British Dance Theatre between 1949 and 1951.
Beginning in 1953, Valerie trained students in modern educational dance – a creative practice devised by Laban in which people of all ages could participate.
Passing on her expansive knowledge to others has always been a key element of Valerie’s career –
My one aim is to empower the next generation, with knowledge and curiosity and the will to keep progressing.”
Following over a decade spent honing her teaching skills and expertise and the publication of her internationally-selling Handbook for Educational Dance (1963), Valerie opened Beechmont Movement Study Centre in 1967, which delivered courses in dance and dance notation. Then, after deciding to take some time to devote to her son and daughter in their younger years, Valerie threw herself headlong into study again at the Laban Centre (now Trinity Laban), obtaining the first PhD in dance to include practical elements.
Valerie’s expertise has been in demand all over the world. Between 1981 and 1997 she was a regular adjudicator for the Federation Internationale de Danse, judging choreographic competitions in France and the Netherlands. She has also been a guest artist and lecturer at universities across Europe, Australia, Asia and North and South America and spent time as a choreographic mentor in the Netherlands and Belgium.
Valerie has written several instructional and research books over the course of her scholarly career, including Looking at Dances (1998) and Dance and the Performative (2002). Valerie describes her work as striving to illustrate and emphasise the inextricable link between dance practice and dance scholarship –
“The world tends to separate practice and theory but Laban did not and neither have I, writing books, giving workshops, watching performances and making dances.”
In 1998, Valerie won the De la Torre Bueno Prize for Rudolf Laban, An Extraordinary Life and has more recently published her autobiography Moving with the Times (2017).
Focused on moving forward and looking to the future, in 2008 Valerie helped to create an interactive web-based method of recording the creative process of award-winning American choreographer William Forsythe’s work The Loss of Small Detail (1991).
Valerie’s more recent writings interrogate Laban’s highly significant and ground-breaking Kammertanz works of the 1920s. Drawing from archive material and her intimate knowledge of Laban’s choreographic process, Valerie re-moulded the material in response to the ever-evolving dance theatre landscape and culture of today, directing performances of the works for Trinity Laban students.
This adaptive and progressive attitude defines Valerie’s artistic outlook –
My one direction is ONWARDS, find the new, pay attention to culture and opportunity and respond.”
In another project utilising the talents of Trinity Laban students, Valerie directed the dance film In Memoriam (2014), marking the WWI centenary remembrance. Created in collaboration with filmmaker and Trinity Laban alum Roswitha Chesher, the film depicts a performance in the Laban Building’s amphitheatre space by a movement choir of 100 dancers and musicians between the ages of nine and eighty. Recognising the importance of this experience, Valerie explains –
“The range of participants at Trinity Laban made it possible: undergraduates, teenagers, children and over sixties all together, highlighting the inevitable fact that war affects everyone and that together we can build a future.”
Alison Gee, a Trinity Laban alum and now Head of Community and Professional Development (Dance Programmes), comments –
“It was through Valerie that I found the love of dance analysis. She made complex theories seem easy and lectures were never dull. I had the pleasure of working with her again much later in my career on the dance production of In Memoriam. What an inspiring woman she is.”
Both Valerie’s commitment to dance and her vibrant personality have been immensely influential to generations of students and scholars. Alysoun Tomkins, former Trinity Laban faculty staff and one of Valerie’s students at the Laban Centre, describes her as “an inspirational woman and teacher” and recalls meeting with her again at a recent reunion –
“It was not an academic presentation on the value of Laban’s work today that she gave, but more a saucy divulgence of life with Rudolf back in the day. And that is Valerie: fun, mischievous, knowledgeable, driven and with the energy and enthusiasm of the first-years.”
Yu-ling Chao, who studied with Valerie while working on her PhD at Trinity Laban, also has high praise for her –
“I am very grateful for Valerie’s guidance – she is my model and I owe my success to my education at the Laban Centre. I am inspired by her cool humorous teaching style and commentaries. Following in her footsteps, I am working on the interdisciplinary application of Choreological Studies in Taiwanese Higher Education and Performing Arts. Thank you my teacher!”
We applaud Valerie for her inspirational dedication to the art of dance, thank her for her continual support of Trinity Laban over the years and, finally, wish her many happy returns for her 90th birthday.