Rudolf Laban

By Kail, Amy | Dance Teacher, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Rudolf Laban


Kail, Amy, Dance Teacher


Groundbreaking movement theorist

Rudolf Laban (1879-1958) was a choreographer, architect, dance teacher and movement theorist whose work continues to play a vital role in dance and other fields. Beyond the performing arts, Laban's theories are currently used in cross-cultural studies, communications, animation, leadership development, somatic therapies and more.

Though best known for creating Laban Movement Analysis-a system that offers a map for experiencing, understanding and analyzing movement-and Labanotation-a method that represents movement through symbolic language-Laban himself was especially interested in finding ways to help people rediscover dancing as a fundamental life experience. Through community projects such as his "movement choirs," as well as through the many schools he opened throughout Europe, Laban worked to democratize dance. Simultaneously, his creation of a form of dance literacy helped establish the artform as a serious form of scholarship, thereby earning it more acceptance among the cultural elite.

Born in Bratislava, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to a well-off military family, Laban was exposed in his formative years to theater, art and opera, as well as to the then brand-new science of psychology and the practice of psychoanalysis. After a brief stint in military school, he found his true passion in the arts, and at age 21, decided to attend the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.

Laban remained in Paris from 1900 to 1907. There, he pursued various courses of study, including architecture, stage design, drama and dance. During this time, he performed under the stage name Atila de Varalja with a troupe at the Moulin Rouge, and also began experimenting with the symbol system that would later develop into Kinetography Laban, or Labanotation.

In 1909, at age 30, Laban moved to Munich, where he endeavored to revolutionize "Bewegungskunst," the movement arts. The following year, he founded what he called a "dance farm" at Lago Maggiore in Switzerland, where "the whole community, after work, produced dances based on their occupational experiences," according to Sam Thornton's biography, A Movement Perspective on Rudolf Laban.

This was the beginning of Laban's search for a form of dance that did not use the formal techniques of mime or classical ballet. Abandoning the constraints of traditional steps, he sought to free dancers so they could find their own rhythms and create their own steps, a process he termed Der Freier Tanz. Laban's "Art of Movement" involved becoming aware of the body in relationship to space, others and the changing nature of time and dynamics, and provided underlying movement concepts and language.

For the understanding of movement, Laban created four categories-Body, Effort, Shape and Space. Within the Effort category, which analyzes dynamics, he classified the basic vocabulary of expressive movement according to four motion factors: time (in gradations between quick and sustained), weight (between strong and light), space (between direct and indirect) and flow (between bound and free).

Within the Body category (what moves and in what sequence), one can observe breath support, initiation, body parts and ultimately, body connectivity and change. This category was further developed by Irmgard Bartenieff through the Bartenieff Fundamentals, a body re-education method based on human developmental stages. In Shape, one analyzes the process of changing forms while moving, and in the Space category one observes where the movement travels and what spatial tensions are present. This integrated knowledge came to be known as Laban System or Laban Movement Analysis.

During the First World War, Laban moved to Zurich, where he began to do more dance notation. In 1919, he was called to the National Theatre in Mannheim to create and present his own dance productions. This was the beginning of a major career as a choreographer and cultural leader in Germany. …

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