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Rudolf Laban

No figure of the German dance culture enjoyed a greater reputation for treating dance as an abstract system than Rudolf Laban (1879–1958), and no figure left more abundant documentation of his ambitions. In the 1920s no one wrote more on dance, no one had more students, no one had more schools devoted to his teachings, and no one seemed to have such a huge slate of enterprises devoted to dance than Laban. His life teemed with so much activity and he left behind such a vast archive of documentation in several countries that no one, least of all himself, has yet been able to construct a coherent, comprehensive biography. His memoirs, Ein Leben für den Tanz (1935), gave a remarkably reticent and unengaging account of a life that was apparently too complicated for the author to examine with sufficient patience. Laban fabricated a powerful mystique, and his disciples have perpetuated an aura of mystery surrounding him with a rhetoric that is sometimes even murkier than his own. But once one penetrates the cloud of reverence enshrouding him, one sees that Laban began far more projects than he could possibly complete and that productivity does not necessarily equal concrete achievement. Like Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, Laban was neither a great artist nor a great theorist; he was a great teacher who possessed a powerful gift for motivating people to exceed their own expectations of themselves and to pursue ideals that are not easily understood.

Laban came from the Hungarian nobility, and after studying art in Paris he decided to pursue a career in dance, against the wishes of his family. He received ballet training in Paris, performed with different companies in North Africa, Germany, and Vienna from 1906 to 1910, then started his own school in Munich. When war broke out, he migrated to Zurich and then to Ascona, where he established an experimental school that integrated dance into a larger, countercultural lifestyle that included nudism, sexual adventurism, and nature worship. A great deal of legend surrounds the Ascona period, perhaps the least adequately documented phase of Laban's life. It was during this period that he perfected his strategy of insuring the legacy of his pedagogic ideas by cultivating powerful erotic-physical relations with his female students. He formed a kind of harem of devoted women, demonstrating that Ausdruckstanz involved the construction of a mysterious personality with an almost hypnotic control over the dynamic, liberated body. From then on, Laban's relations with women were so complicated that one must conclude he had a rare gift of making them feel


utterly unique without allowing himself to feel possessed by them (although he does seem to have needed, in the erotic sense, numerous women to sustain his sense of purpose).

After the war he returned to Germany, where he established institutes in Nuremburg, Stuttgart, Mannheim, Hamburg, and Würzburg. By 1926 he had schools dedicated to his teachings in all these cities, plus Leipzig, Basel, Munich, Salzburg, Tübingen, Berlin, Budapest, Vienna, and Nordhausen. All were run by women except the schools in Jena (Martin Gleisner) and Hamburg (Albrecht Knust). In 1928, at the Essen Dance Congress, he introduced his method for notating dances, subsequently known as Labanotation, which has since become the most widely used system of dance notation. The same year he helped launch the journal Schrifttanz (1928–1932), published by Universal Edition of Vienna, with Alfred Schlee as editor and Laban's perspective as an editorial principle. Between 1930 and 1934 he directed the ballet of the Berlin State Opera, and in 1936 he coordinated the dance productions for the Berlin Olympics. Because of the Nazis' "hostility toward dance as an art and cultural language," Laban decided that the Third Reich lacked sufficient opportunities for him, and in 1938 he migrated to England, where he spent the rest of his life, much of which he devoted to the study of bodily movement in industrial production, asserting that the most aesthetic movements were also the most efficient.

During the 1920s, Laban produced numerous public dance performances, including Die Geblendeten, Himmel und Erde, Tannhäuser Bacchanal (Mannheim, 1921), Der schwingende Tempel, Lichtwende, Prometheus, Gaukelei, Komödie (Hamburg, 1923), Agamemnons Tod, Dämmernde Rhythmen (Hamburg, 1924), Narrenspiegel and Die gebrochene Linie (Berlin, 1927). His most ambitious choreographic project was the enormous three-hour ballet Don Juan , produced in Berlin in 1926. But in spite of his obsession with documenting dance accurately through his notation system, information about his dance productions is astonishingly meager, and none was intensely successful either commercially or critically. In an article for the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (9 February 1925), Fritz Böhme, commenting on Laban's experiments with "musicless" dances, remarked that Laban's sense of bodily movement was "more choreographic than musical," by which he meant that Laban devised movements without paying much attention to musical motivation—without, in effect, listening to rhythms or harmonies in dialogue with bodies. But Laban's idea of dance was too complex to achieve its strongest or most lucid expression through dances. He saw dance as a mode of action that transcended the borders of institutions and conventional distinctions between nature and civilization.

In 1922 in Hamburg, he began his most serious experiments with the notion of "movement choirs." In these exercises, conducted both indoors


and outdoors, large groups combined and recombined in numerous variations to dramatize the power of dance to accommodate difference within the struggle for communal unity. Although the movement choirs appeared in theatrical productions such as Faust II (1922), their expressive value was much more evident in improvised or appropriated contexts (Figure 27). Throughout the 1920s, the exercises for movement choirs attained an ever greater complexity and intricacy that was specific to the moment and too difficult to duplicate or rehearse for the purposes of theatrical dance performance. However, the movement choirs were merely one element in a grandiose ambition to liberate the value of dance from its dependence on dances. Laban's true medium was not the theatre but the school, and his most congenial form was not the dance nor even choreographic activity but the lesson, the lecture, the demonstration, the act of instructing. Laban hoped to release dance from its institutionalized confinement within the theatre and the business of touring, which he hated, as is evident from his correspondence in the Leipzig Tanzarchiv regarding the ill-fated tour of Poland in February 1928. His plan was to construct a large network of schools throughout Europe as an alternative production and performance system operating independently of conventional, tradition-bound theatre culture.

To achieve this objective, Laban had to detach a cosmic notion of dance from its material manifestation in performances; he had to establish a powerful, alluring value for dance more through writing about dance than through performance. But a potent aura of mysticism pervaded his writings on dance. He rarely, if ever, analyzed actual dances or bodies but constantly introduced hypothetical models and examples of movements. This antiempirical attitude almost suffocated his most theoretical and popular book, Die Welt des Tänzers (1920), which was more a meandering collection of notes than a cogently argued theory of bodily expressivity. He did not analyze dances or dancers, nor did he refer to any other thinkers on dance; rather, he presented a vast constellation of categories of analysis. The world of the dancer consisted of this seemingly endless labyrinth of categories: "Dance as Gesture" (13), "Tonality as Gesture" (14), "Thought as Gesture" (15), "Harmony of Gestures" (20), "Body Sense and Sense of Tension" (25), "Symmetry and Asymmmetry of Gestures" (32), "Becoming Conscious—a Symbolic Action" (34), "Appearance of Duality" (38). "Appearance of Triality" (38), "Desiring, Feeling, Knowing" (40), "Movement, Stupefaction, Instruction" (44), "Dance of Inorganic Nature" (59), "The Self as Source of Recognition" (66), "Language of the Hand" (94), "Activity and Passivity of the Spectator" (169), "Periodicity" (233), and so on. Laban introduced several hundred theoretical categories, none of which he defined for more than a few paragraphs before moving on to the


next category. His writing style was majestically aphoristic and even a little oracular:

Like the ecstasies of terror and hate, the ecstasies of joy and love will indicate the same contradictory signs. Whispering and calling, high and deep tones interact. With broken voice, turbulent motives, in which stammering and poetic soaring become reconciled, the movements of surrender and the gestures of the pressing toward the thing in itself [An-sich-Pressen] are performed (179).

The solo dance is a duet between dancer and environment or dancer and inner world. In the first case subjectively real, in the second case subjectively ideal. More concrete is the group or mixed movement in which rhythms of fleeing and following or inclination and repudiation enter simultaneously and with greater potency. . . . The battle dance, the fertility dance, and the temple dance are the most pervasive kinds of art dance (208).

Rites are symblic actions. Their educational value and their aim is the inner vision and outer expressive capacity in the sense of a demanding and testing of plastic experience. The context of ritual is the festival. . . . Every ritual arises out of dance, tonality, and word. Definite movements, gestures, steps are bound to audible rhythms, imagined and spoken words (54).

Laban's writing hardly ever became more precise or analytical than in these passages from Die Welt des Tänzers , yet his language stirred a great many people. By introducing such a multitude of theoretical categories, none of which he actually applied to any concrete manifestation of dance, Laban implied that dance itself defined the limits of analytical rationality by usurping and dissolving all stable distinctions between forms. For Laban, dance was a transcendent, cosmic force that imbued everything with erotic rhythm and tension: "[I]ndeed, in all life, in all being is dance: dance of the constellations, dance of natural forces, dance of human actions and feelings, dance of cultures, dance of the arts" (156). One could even observe the power of dance in stones, for "the crystallization process is excitement and movement" (59). The uncaptioned photographs in the book, most of which showed himself and his lover, Dussia Bereska, were merely decorative illustrations with no direct relation to anything in the text. They depicted the two dancers in uncontextualized studio poses, with Bereska consistently wearing bizarre, rather mythical costumes. The photos created the impression that dance inhabited its own strange world, an immense, bewildering system of phenomenal relations detached even from the language that tried to explain it.

In Gymnastik und Tanz (1926), Laban's rhetoric was less awe-inspiring but also less overtly theoretical. Here he did not associate dance so much with a transcendent, cosmic rhythmic principle; instead, he presented it as the superior sign of a modern expression of communal unity and social transformation—dance appeared as a historically unique force of liberation


within European civilization. Whereas gymnastics focused on purely quantitative evaluations of bodily strength and health, dance made the body a field of expressivity possessing emotional qualities that eluded quantitative measurement. As in Die Welt des Tänzers , Laban's analysis of the body paid no attention to typologies or physiognomic categories, even between the sexes: he presented both the body and its movements as hypothetical constructs, reinforcing the perception of dance as a unifying phenomenon capable of accommodating manifold differences. He examined numerous parts of the body, from head to toe, in relation to their movement potential, although even here he was not altogether precise about what movement signified as opposed to what the body part in itself signified. Dualism permeated Laban's thinking about dance. Every movement entailed a countermovement; thus, breathing was the complement of the pause, symmetry the complement of asymmetry. Bending unfolded against arching, the swing against the turn, the flight against the fall, the spiral against the lateral profile, stamping against tiptoeing, stretching against coiling, advancing against retreating, the ring against the line, the left hand against the right, the head against the torso. The tension between symmetrical and asymmetrical movements led to further complexities: both arms could move symmetrically while the legs moved asymmetrically; the heads and legs of six bodies could move symmetrically while their legs moved asymmetrically, pulling them in different directions; all bodies could adopt a swinging motion, but some bodies might arch while others spiraled; the left leg could tiptoe while the right stamped, the outstretched arms trembled symmetrically, the head tick-tocked, and the torso arched, then bent, then swung. The major effect of this recursive dualism was to release dance from popular identification with steps , with formulaic phrases, with a focus on lower-body activity. Laban showed that any part of the body could dance and that all were essential to a modern idea of dance. The expressivity of modern dance depended on tensions between body parts and movements, between symmetrical and asymmetrical significations. This concept of bodily "harmony" was alien to ballet, in which the ideal body moved ideally because it was free of contradictory tensions.

However, Laban's discussion of rhythm and temporality was, as usual, exasperatingly vague. He said nothing insightful about the relation between bodily rhythm and musical rhythm; having so little understanding of the power of music to control emotional responses to movement, he tried to present bodily movement as an autonomous expressive field whose meanings remained stable regardless of the total sensory context. Nor did he think it worthwhile to explain the impact of costume, masks, lighting, or scenography on perception of bodily movement. The main point was to free the expressive body from overcontextualization and excessive institutionalization so that it could inhabit or appropriate completely new contexts. The


abundant photo illustrations helped support this task considerably, for they showed many male and female dancers, some perfectly nude, from Laban schools throughout Germany, performing indoors and outdoors, in forests and in stadiums, as if all belonged to a pulsating, universally triumphant community or social movement.

Laban was so uncertain of the appropriate context for modern dance that he became obsessively preoccupied with the relation between movement and spatiality. Theoretically, at least, he regarded space as being as dynamic as movement. In a little dialogue published in Die Tat (14/9, December 1922), Laban had a dance lover ask, "But how should one present the form and content of the dance artwork?" to which a dancer replies, "An empty space organized through manifold gestures of solo dancers and great and small dance groups. . . . A world bound and structured by the discharge of those powers which reveal themselves only through human gestures and of which word and sound know only silence" (679). In an article for Die Schönheit (22/2, 1926), he announced that dance required its own distinct performance spaces and that the configuration most favorable to dance was the amphitheatre. In this setting spectators could watch the dance from all sides and from different perspectives, as "every dance composition builds itself as much through depth as through breadth." Dance performance should occur before great tapestries or curtains, not behind them, because "dance is not an art of illusion" but "such a strong stylization of natural movement that an illusionary stage environment only has a corrupting effect." In northern lands, open-air theatre was not feasible year-round, so he suggested the construction of cupolas over the amphitheatre in the belief that great cathedrals offered the best models for the new "dance temples." He also insisted that lighting should illuminate the "plasticity of movement" and not distract through "complicated color-effects." Every dance temple should have different-sized performance spaces for monumentally or intimately scaled occasions.

In another article for Die Tat (19/8, November 1928), he reiterated that "dance can serve the opera, the theatre, the festival, the celebration, and many other situations," but "today the dancework still has no venue in which it can be effectively presented to the spectator. Perhaps in the circus. In any case, not on the proscenium stage. . . . Dance theatre is first of all: a space; secondly: a suitably modelled ensemble which can technically and spiritually realize the composition of the dance poet; more remotely: the audience with a cultivated sense of form and movement." (591). That Laban regarded space (not music) as the dominant source of energy for dance became evident from his thousands of drawings of moving bodies and then of movement alone in its most abstract images. The Leipzig Tanzarchiv contains several hundred of these drawings, but they are so cryptic that it is probably impossible to figure out what they mean. It is clear, how-


ever, that he sought to represent movement as an abstract, geometrical force struggling with or against space, emptiness, as he emphasized in a lecture at Berlin University on 16 April 1928, when he finally concluded that movement is "not natural, but abstract."

Laban created drawings on all kinds of paper, in different colored inks and crayons, as if color or shading revealed the emotional quality of the movements, but in the vast majority of the sketches he put some sort of geometric frame—a circle, a square, a triangle, a hexagon, a star, intersecting trapezoids, "the crystal"—around the often fantastically arabesque movement, often giving the impression that the frame controlled or determined the limits of the movements (Figure 28). From these drawings emerged Laban's curious notion of the ikoseheder , a transparent cubospherical contraption that supposedly would reveal different zones of energy associated with different parts of the body and different movements, depending on the direction of the movement within a section of the ikoseheder . He made photographs of dancers moving in the ikoseheder , and he explained his space-body theory in almost pedantic (though not lucid) detail in Choreographie (1926), but the impression nevertheless remained that he had imagined a cage that contained the moving body rather than a serious map for exploring dynamic relations between body and space.

Moreover, in spite of his demand for a dance performance space that allowed audiences to see the body from different perspectives, all of his images of movement viewed the dancing body from the front in a proscenium frame. All of the dance photographs of himself and of his students were taken from the front at eye level. Unlike Isenfels, the Bauhaus photographers, Schertel, Villany, Drtikol, or Rolf Herrlich, Laban never saw photography as a way to portray dance from an unusual angle or distorted distance. His visual sense was actually much stronger in the use of bizarre or fantastic costumes than in the exploitation of space, a fact that is especially clear from photographs of his simultaneously abstract and medieval "dance tragedy" Gaukelei (1923). In his choreography, Laban tended to press bodies close to each other in complicated rhythms, so that the spectator perceived a dense mass of activity without shifting focus or turning the head. He did not see movement as an extension of space, nor did he see space as an opening for movement, as indicated by his remark in an unpublished paper on "Das chorische Kunstwerk" that large public spaces give no joy when occupied by only one or two dancers (MS 88).

Although Laban avoided any sort of empirical discourse on dance and certainly on dances, he nevertheless was responsible for introducing the most successful method of recording dances, Labanotation, which he unveiled at the Essen Dance Congress of 1928. No notation system was so comprehensive in its capacity to accommodate the numerous variables of dance performance: part(s) of the body that moved; direction, weight,


duration, force, rhythm, and tempo of the movement; rhythm of the music; relations between two or more moving bodies; number of movements; multiple rhythms within a movement or body; spatial relations. Laban devised a complex code system for marking each performance variable, with the result that a sheet of Labanotation looks as abstract as a sheet of a score for large orchestra, except that Labanotation is actually more difficult to read.

A law of 19 June 1901 declared that dance works enjoyed copyright protection as long as they existed in a written form, as a text. In theory, Labanotation would thus protect choreographers from pervasive plagiarization; it would also offer choreographers the capacity to create dances on paper the way composers write music, and it would ensure that dances did not die with their makers but survived as historical artifacts. As it turned out, however, Labanotation fell far short of achieving any of these objectives. Labanotation was an expensive, time-consuming process that attracted very few students and that even fewer dancers could afford to subsidize, and it was not until Laban had long established himself in England that serious training in the method finally began. In Germany he lectured vigorously on the subject with slide shows, and around 1929 he even contemplated making a Schrifttanz (written dance) film of his method, but he never applied Labanotation to any of his own dances. The main task, he decided, was to construct a comprehensive set of symbols for recording all possible movements of the human body. Albrecht Knust (1896–1978) coordinated this unexpectedly gigantic project, which he completed only in the 1970s, when the entire 200-volume Kinetographie Laban was deposited in only ten dance libraries around the world. Despite its arcaneness and typically Labanesque obscurities, Labanotation was significant for two reasons: 1) it revealed that the overwhelming majority of dances confined themselves to a tiny range of the total movement possibilities of the human body, that choreographic imagination was incredibly blind to a huge, unexploited expressive potential; and 2) it showed that the dancing body produced such complex disturbances of perception that empirical analysis of dance was much more difficult than almost everyone realized. It was not at all easy to describe accurately bodily movements, let alone their meanings. Labanotation was like an immense dictionary; it provided the letters and words to describe discrete movements, but it was powerless to explain the meaning of the movements it described, nor could it relate variations in movement sequences to semantic variations. By 1930 the meaning of dance seemed in desperate need of a more lucid, persuasive articulation than Laban had supplied.

It was in 1930, as economic conditions for dance culture deteriorated rapidly, that Laban became ballet master for the Berlin State Opera. He hoped an official position might consolidate his influence within government circles responsible for subsidies of the arts. Although he had many


well-trained and gifted dancers at his disposal, his productions achieved only modest success, partly because of ballet politics and partly because his choreography seemed indifferent to musical value. His great love was the movement choir, performed by passionate amateurs. For the 150th anniversary of the Mannheim National Theatre in 1929, he staged, in the municipal stadium, a huge piece for movement choirs and speech choirs consisting of 500 men and women; the same year, in Vienna, he produced an even larger spectacle, with 10,000 performers. But the Nazis distrusted his complex, highly contrapuntal sense of rhythm and his close association with a left socialist motive for the movement choir, as exemplified in the work of his former student, Martin Gleisner. The 1930s were a glorious period in the history of mass movement spectacles, with fascists even more than the Soviets displaying considerable imagination in this form; but after 1933 the movement choir as Laban envisioned it blossomed most congenially outside of Germany, in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Czechoslovakia, especially among the Catholic-socialist organizations.

Laban obviously possessed titanic ambition. If his achievements seem less than one expects of titans, it is probably because he could never resolve a great conflict within himself between theory and practice. He saw that creating a higher value for dance depended on treating it as a huge, abstract system that functioned independently of dances and even bodies, just as language operates independently of speakers and texts. Indeed, he spoke of dance as a language and choreography as writing in movement (Tanzschrift ); Labanotation (Schrifttanz ) was a monumental effort to find a way to write down movement. Yet he associated language not with lucid systematic communication but with mystical crypticity. His rhetoric inspired plans rather than executed them. But by building an abstract system out of cryptic language and esoteric symbolism, he also demonstrated the completely contradictory power of dance to produce the unique, mysterious personality that appealed equally to his many students. Perhaps he best summarized his ambiguous conception of dance as an enigmatic language in a lecture on the subject given with Ruth Loezer at the Volksbühne in Berlin on 8 February 1925, when he claimed that dance was a form of runic inscription: "If we want to understand dance, we must learn to understand the law of the rune. . . . The whole history of dance is simultaneously the history of the encirclement of dance as writing [Tanzschrift]" ("Tanzsprache" program).

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