Laban in the Theatre
Laban's contribution to theatre dance was much more ambiguous than Eckstein's, partly because of his own uncertainty regarding his aims in appropriating the theatre. His perception of group dynamics was shaped by his work with lay movement choirs, which offered all sorts of opportunities to introduce convoluted rhythmic patterns and bodily entanglements. Moreover, movement choirs, with their partially gymnastic foundation, seemed to function best when they appropriated almost any space except the theatre. Laban was more at home in meadows and groves than on the stage. Nevertheless, serious validation of his grandiose ambitions depended on his success in gaining a critical audience among established theatre circles. He therefore devoted much energy to the production of large-scale dance dramas for conventional theatres. In these works he sought to affirm the credibility of his "runic" ideas about bodily movement and to present the movement choir aesthetic as an alternative to ballet in forming a modern concept of group dynamics in dance. Laban's work for the theatre hardly lacked ambition, but its impact on both dance and theatre remained obscure, and it is difficult to find insightful documentation for any of his
dance dramas. During the 1920s, his group choreographies for conventional theatres in Stuttgart, Mannheim, and Hamburg were largely staged by a student unit, Tanzbühne Laban; productions included Himmel und Erde (1921), Die Geblendete (1921), Faust II (1922), Der schwingende Tempel (1923), Gaukelei (1923), Agamemnons Tod (1924), Dämmernde Rhythmen (1924), Don Juan (1925), Terpsichore (1925), Narrenspiegel (1926), Die gebrochene Linie (1927), Ritterballett (1927), and Titan (1928). These works, originated not in the theatre but in the school, and Laban took them to various venues, such as, in Hamburg, the Conventgarten, the Deutsches Schauspielhaus, the Circus Busch, and the Schiller Opera. As ballet director in Hamburg (1923–1925), he blurred the distinction between theatre and school, but the blurring in itself suggested considerable ambivalence about grounding a dance aesthetic within the theatre.
As a choreographer, Laban apparently was innovative without being especially imaginative, guided more by theory than artistic insight. He conducted daring experiments but was reluctant to follow up on them with any tenacity. In Ritterballet (music: Beethoven), for example, he put a large number of dancers in vaguely medieval costumes with intricate, emblematic black-and-white motifs; when the dancers moved they created a strange kinetic mosaic or jigsaw puzzle, an extravagantly abstract design that nevertheless retained an archaic aura. In Die Nacht (1927, music: Kahn), the men wore fezzes, tuxedos, and tights, the women fezzes, eccentric tutus, or skirts with aprons. Movement appeared calculated to produce striking effects through different combinations of costume motifs; design did not evolve in response to an independent movement scheme. But this approach actually resulted in highly complicated movement patterns that subordinated narrative clarity to abstract relations between body, time, and space. In Drachentöterei (1924), the dancers wore costumes faintly reminiscent of fairy-tale Orientalism, but the movements, judging from still photos, were extravagantly, expressionistically angular. For Laban, modernity did not imply an image of contemporary society, even if the movements he employed sprang completely from the time in which he lived; rather, he sought an image of modernity that was ahistorical or, as in his Gothic projects, polyhistorical in the decorative context for bodily movement, with costumes and scenes in which signs of different historical eras intersected.
Yet Laban's choreography often lacked narrative or dramatic drive. In reviews (on deposit in the Leipzig dance archive) of Laban's work as ballet director for the Berlin State Opera (1930–1934), Fritz Böhme observed that Laban's choreography lacked "musicality" and expressive power. Laban apparently had difficulty shaping his material and building emotional structures for his pieces, and his productions suffered from prolixity, from a sense of squandered energy that set up grandiose expectations the work could not sustain. Don Juan (1925, music: Glück), with Laban himself as the
seductive hero, was three hours long, contained numerous intriguing tableaux, and enjoyed performances in numerous cities; however, the piece failed to move audiences with near the efficiency of innumerable smaller works produced by dancers who had access to far fewer resources. Indeed, the discourse provoked by Don Juan seemed almost entirely focused on its scale. In spite of his difficulty in telling a story, Laban believed that a dance theatre built around Ausdruckstanz depended on devising original scenarios. However, those of his students who accepted theatre appointments found themselves charged with maintaining a repertoire defined and associated with ballet.