The creator of dance notation
Rudolf Laban was many things—a choreographer, dance teacher, movement theorist, architect and performer—but he is best remembered for creating two systems to understand movement, both of which are still taught in college dance programs worldwide: Laban Movement Analysis and Labanotation. LMA is a map for clarifying and analyzing movement within the categories of body, effort, shape and space; Labanotation records movement in symbols, much like sheet music for musicians. The development of these two systems helped establish dance as a serious artform, earning it more acceptance in scholastic circles.
Rudolf Jean Baptiste Attila Laban (1879–1958) was born in Bratislava, Slovakia, to a well-off family. Although he initially attempted to follow in his father’s footsteps, attending military school for a brief time, he eventually enrolled at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris at age 21. After studying architecture, stage design and drama, he became fascinated by dance, seeking to understand movement in a new way, without the confines of classical ballet technique. Laban termed his categorization of movement “choreutics”; today it is known as Laban Movement Analysis.
In 1913, he set up a “dance farm” in Switzerland, where participants grew their own vegetables, wove their own cloth and danced nude on the hillside (a precursor to Ted Shawn’s retreat for his male dancers, Jacob’s Pillow). By 1923, Laban had gained a following of students large enough to help him establish dance schools all over Europe. Recognized as a leading force in the European dance world, he was invited to choreograph the opening of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. After sending a notated dance to all his schools in Germany for them to learn, employing his own vertically staffed dance score, Laban’s 1,000-dancer spectacle was canceled at the dress rehearsal: The Nazi government found it too focused on individual freedoms and not the state.
Laban found later success by applying his movement analysis to industrial processes, like assembly lines, in England, where it was necessary to quickly train women to do men’s jobs during World War II. Meanwhile, former student Lisa Ullmann established a school in Manchester, using a Laban-based curriculum. Today, this school is known as the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. DT
Laban Movement Analysis, or what Laban called “choreutics,” was created in order to clarify and understand movement in a new way.
Labanotation is set up much like musical notation, except that it reads vertically instead of horizontally. Direction, levels and each part of the body are represented by shapes and symbols. Each section of the central staff delineates from left to right which part of the body (and which side) is being addressed.
- Laban was quite the ladies’ man. He married twice and fathered nine children; at one point, he lived with two women at once.
- During World War II, when Mars Bars were mass-produced for soldiers, Laban was called in to increase productivity on the assembly line. After identifying the main problems as “tiredness, cramp and boredom,” he devised a system of exercises for the conveyor-belt workers to ease their joint strain and improved the candy bar–wrapping technique so that it no longer caused neck, shoulder and back pain.
The Legacy Lives On:
Although Labanotation never caught on the way sheet music did for musicians, this method of creating a historical record of a dance is still taught in college dance programs, as is Laban Movement Analysis. Laban’s Art of Movement Studio merged with Trinity College of Music in 2005 to form the UK’s first conservatory of music and dance. Many of Laban’s students went on to become leading figures in modern dance, including Mary Wigman, Kurt Jooss and Irmgard Bartenieff.
“Rudolf Laban: Groundbreaking Movement Theorist,” by Amy Kail, Dance Teacher, December 2007.
Beyond Dance: Laban’s Legacy of Movement Analysis, by Eden Davies, Brechin Books Ltd., 2001.
Rudolf Laban: An Extraordinary Life, by Valerie Preston-Dunlop, Dance Books Ltd., 1998.
Top photo by Edith Stephen; both courtesy of Dance Magazine archives