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A memoir from one of Laban’s earliest UK students

Tue 3 March 2020

Rudolf Laban’s Art of Movement Studio remembered by one of its very first students

Margaret Stephens Smith (1929-2019) was among the very first students to train at dance artist, choreographer and theorist Rudolf Laban’s legendary Art of Movement Studio in Manchester.

Austro-Hungarian Laban (1879-1958) is widely considered to be one of the founders of European Modern Dance and is responsible for raising the status of dance as an art form. His explorations into the theory and practice of dance and movement transformed the nature of dance scholarship. The studio he founded was renamed the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance in 1975 before merging with Trinity College of Music in 2005 to become Trinity Laban.

In a memoir passed on to Trinity Laban by her granddaughter, Margaret fondly remembered her early years as a dance artist and her time training with the founding father of expressionist dance in the late 1940s.

After originally aspiring for a career in botany, Margaret joined Bradford’s Civic Theatre School in 1946.

Remembering her initial training, Margaret reflected –

“Both literally and figuratively my life changed dramatically when I left home to start training… The years at Bradford burnished my basic theatre skills. Throughout, general classes for all students included all aspects of vocal work, song, ballet, fencing, teaching”.

Drawing from her multifaceted theatrical training, Margaret and members of the Civic Theatre School performed plays for schools, including The Merchant of Venice and Julius Caesar with actor Alec Guinness visiting to play the lead roles. Margaret felt that bringing the arts into schools at that time was “greatly appreciated by so many children after the sombre years of war”.

It was during her training in Bradford that Margaret was first introduced to Rudolf Laban and German-British dance practitioner Lisa Ullmann, co-founders of the Laban Art of Movement Studio –

“This movement filled me with enthusiasm. I loved it!”

Unfavoured by the Nazi regime, Laban’s name and work were destroyed at the height of his career by the Government Propaganda Ministry, resulting in Laban fleeing to Britain in the late thirties. By the end of World War II, older, more experienced European artistes such as Laban were coming to Britain from all avenues of the creative arts and beginning to set up training centres wherever available. “Their aim was to establish their particular metiers, ready to start with new students”, Margaret explained.

Despite being approached by a prestigious private school for the post of Speech and Drama Teacher at the end of her studies, Margaret declined the offer, keen to continue studying under Laban and Ullman.

“I got on with the teachers very well as we’d known each other for a long time… my heart was set on spending another full year continuing with the Art of Movement, which I really loved.”

And so it was that Margaret began a year of training at Laban’s newly founded Art of Movement Studio at 101, Oxford Road, Manchester, studying Laban’s theories of Space, Weight and Time.

She remembers the programme broadening her frame of mind and discovering “the absolute freedom of the human body within its own globe and the directions we could travel into… and the points of the compass.”

Margaret was also introduced to Labanotation, Laban’s original system of describing movement based on spatial models. In its infancy at the time, it is now used by dance artists around the world.

“I understood, but this concept of movement recordance was very new to us. Maybe Labanotation was in its infancy, but we tried and noted it down.”

Recalling the sense of routine in the programme, with exercises done in the mornings and a cool down at the end of the day, Margaret looked back on the experience fondly –

“Winding down with Rudolf was a rite. “ARMS UP – BREATHE IN”, then he’d growl “RELAX! RELAX! – BREATHE IN and BLOW!” I still do it and always have done.”

Having taught and directed drama and movement since her studies in Bradford until her retirement in 2017, Margaret enjoyed seventy years in a varied and extensive career. Before Margaret passed away last September at the age of ninety, she remarked –

“My career has led to many very positive developments in many venues. They have all given me a great sense of personal fulfilment.”

We thank Margaret’s family for sharing Margaret’s account of her rich and inspiring career and unique experience of training with Rudolf Laban.