Rudolf (Jean-Baptiste Attila) Laban, also known as Rudolf Von Laban (December 15, 1879, – July 1, 1958) was a notable central European dance artist and theorist, whose work laid the foundations for Laban Movement Analysis, and other developments in the art of dance.
One of the founders of European Modern Dance, Laban raised the status of dance as an art form and elevated the reputation of dance scholarship through his inquiry into the theory and practice of dance and movement.
He established choreology, the research into the art of movement, and invented a system of dance notation, now known as Labanotation or Kinetography Laban. A credit to the dance world, Laban was the first person to develop community dance and was adamant about dance education reformation. His legacy was rooted in the philosophy that dance should be made available to everyone.
Laban's parents were Austro-Hungarian, but his father's family came from France, and his mother's family was from England. His father was a field marshal who served as governor of the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Much of his youth was spent time in the towns of Sarajevo and Mostar, the court circle in Vienna and the theater life of Bratislava. Taught to be bi-cultural from a tender age, Laban would later apply his education in both western and eastern cultures to his movement perspective.
Laban attended a military school but, after only a short stay, made the difficult decision to reject his father's plan for his life. At 21, he forsook the military and became an artist. He went to study architecture at the Ècoles des Beaux Arts in Paris and began observing the moving form and the space surrounding it. At age 30, he moved to Munich, the art center of Germany. Spending the summer months at his arts school on Monte Verita, he focused on dramatically impacting Bewegungskunst, the movement arts.
In 1910, he founded what he called a 'dance farm', at which the whole community, after work, produced dances based on their occupational experiences. The 'dance farm' idea sprang from Laban's desire to lead people back to a life in which art grew from their experiences. This would be the springboard for Laban's dance communities where the expression was supremely democratic.
For the three years before the First World War, Laban, as well as directing the Lago Maggiore summer festivals at Ascona in Switzerland, directed the movement experience at a self-sustaining art colony there. At these festivals, spectators enjoyed the performance by observing and—often times—dancing themselves in the end. These festivals built on Laban's ideology that there was a dance form which was natural for all people; it subsequently led to his movement choir. He was also in search of a dance drama that did not use the formal techniques of mime and classical ballet.
The outbreak of World War I halted work on the building of an open-air theater that Laban had begun. He went to live in Zürich from 1915 to 1918, abandoning the festivals at Ascona and Munich. During this time, Laban established his own dance school in Zurich called the Choreographic Institute. And, over the next ten years he created 25 Laban schools and dance choirs for the education of children, novice and professional dancers in Latvia, Budapest, Paris and Hamburg. Each Laban school had a 'movement choir' and 'movement laboratory,' integral parts of the school. Each of these schools were named after Laban and was directed by a former Laban master pupil. In his 'choir', the dancers were divided into three main groups in the following way: those having crisp erectness and elevation were called high dancers, those having a swinging heaviness were called middle dancers, those with an impulsive heaviness were called deep dancers. Laban himself was a deep dancer, as were Mary Wigman and Kurt Jooss, two of his most eminent pupils.
His research during these years, more and more stressed the nature and rhythms of space harmonies while he actively worked on a system for dance notation and on 'choreology'. One of his greatest contributions to dance was his 1928 publication of Kinetographie Laban, a dance notation system that became known as Labanotation and is still used as one of the primary movement notation systems in dance.
In 1926, Laban's Choreographic Institute was moved to Berlin. He also founded a union for dancers, who at that time had no protection of this sort. A center where standards could be set and where educational and artistic matters could be discussed was a direct outcome of the union. At this time, he also became concerned with questions of copyright for dancers.
He was appointed director of movement and choreographer to the Prussian State Theatres in Berlin in 1930. In 1934, in Nazi Germany, he was appointed director of the Deutsche Tanzbühne. He directed major festivals of dance under the funding of Joseph Goebbels' propaganda ministry from 1934-1936. It is alleged that as early as July 1933 Laban began removing all non-Aryan pupils from the children's course he was running as a ballet director.
However, Laban fell out with the Nazi regime in 1936 with Goebbel's banning of Vom Tauwind und der Neuen Freude (Of the Spring Wind and the New Joy) for not furthering the Nazi agenda.
In 1937, he left Germany for England. He joined the Jooss-Leeder Dance School at Dartington Hall in the county of Devon where innovative dance was already being taught by other refugees from Germany. During these years, he was assisted in his dance instruction by his close associate Lisa Ullmann. Their collaboration led to the founding of the Laban Art of Movement Guild (now known as The Laban Guild of Movement and Dance) in 1945 and the Art of Movement Studio in Manchester in 1946.
At the age of 60, supported by Ullmann, Laban set out to explore the movement habits of industry workers. He introduced work study methods to increase production through humane means, and greatly influenced the onset of movement education culture in Britain. Studying patterns of movement, he observed the time taken to perform tasks in the workplace and the energy used. He tried to provide methods intended to help workers eliminate superfluous "shadow movements" (which he believed wasted energy and time) and to focus instead on constructive movements necessary to the job at hand. After the war, he published a book related to this research entitled Effort (1947).
In his final years, Laban focused on movement as behavior, studying the behavioral needs of industrial workers and psychiatric patients. This research moved him to lay the technical foundation for what is now the field of movement and dance therapy as well as a basis for the expressive movement training of actors.
Laban was in poor health most of his life suffering from what would probably be diagnosed today as bi-polar disorder. He was destitute throughout his career, and never owned a home or possessions beyond his working papers. He married twice and fathered nine children, but his family life was virtually non-existent when his career took off in 1919. He developed and relied on a series of apprentices to follow through on his ideas, among them Mary Wigman, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and Marion North.
He continued to teach and do research, exploring the relations between body and spatial tensions until his death in his late 70s in 1958.
Laban's ideas were heavily influenced by the social and cultural changes of the time and the contexts that he worked in. There were certain traditional constraints in the dance world against showing feeling in movement. He challenged this way of thinking and paved the way for a freeing of the "feeling body." Laban believed the best way to advocate this freedom was by applying it to his own artistic movement. Freud’s theory of the psyche had also opened a door that had been previously closed because of the controversy associated with it. According to Freud, the body’s natural sexuality need no longer be hidden. Dance was thought to be an ideal medium to express this new freedom, with men and women dancing barefoot and in little or sheer clothing.
In Paris and Munich (1900-1914), Laban acquired his spiritual posture—one that placed value on an individual's own choice of movement. Consequently, he abandoned the limitations of classical movements. The body was thus freed to find its own rhythms, dream up its own steps, and delight in the medium of its own space. Laban searched continually for the basic vocabulary of expressive movement. His intense research in movement analysis yielded four main categories: body, effort, shape and space. In exploring effort or movement dynamics—the most important category—the basic factors comprised flow, weight, time and space.
Laban created dance works that exhibited celebratory and participatory elements which often displayed abstract concepts and propagated a social and spiritual agenda to educate both the socially aware and unaware.
Committed to his ideology of "dance is universal," he removed the hierarchical system of ballet companies and replaced it with the more democratic ensemble. Together with his pupil Kurt Jooss, he made dance into a social force. His association, under the Hitler regime notwithstanding, created political anti-war ballets and anti-poverty ballets in the 1930s, ultimately leaving Germany once the tensions between his artistic values and those of the Nazi regime reached the breaking point.
Laban's theories of choreography and movement served as one of the central foundations of modern European dance. Today, Laban's theories are applied in diverse fields, such as cultural studies, leadership development, non-verbal communication, and others. In addition to the work on the analysis of movement and his dance experimentations, he was also a proponent of dance for the masses. Toward this end, Laban developed the art of the movement choir, wherein large numbers of people move together in some choreographed manner, which includes personal expression.
This aspect of his work was closely related to his personal spiritual beliefs, based on a combination of Victorian Theosophy, Sufism, and popular Hermeticism. By 1914, he had joined the Ordo Templi Orientis and attended their 'non-national' conference in Monte Verita, Ascona in 1917, where he also set up workshops popularizing his ideas.
Currently, major dance training courses offer Laban work in their curricula. However, Laban maintained that he had no "method" and had no wish to be presented as having one. His notation system, however, is still the primary movement notation system in dance.
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