Biography of Rudolf Laban

September 1, 2008

Rudolf Laban (1879-1958) is widely recognized as the most important movement theorist of this century. As an Austro-Hungarian choreographer, dancer, teacher, philosopher, and writer, he worked alone and in collaboration with such great figures of European modern dance as Mary Wigman and Kurt Jooss. He developed an internationally used movement notation (Labanotation), while uncovering the basic principles of movement structure and purpose.

Rudolf Laban was born on December 15th, 1879, in Bratislava, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, an officer in the army, had hoped that his son would follow the same career. However, after a short time spent in a military school, Rudolf Laban decided that his real interest was art and, from 1900 to 1907, he studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. While there, he became concerned with stage design, drama and dancing. He appeared with a troupe in Montmartre, at the Moulin Rouge, under the stage name of “Attila de Varalja,” taken from his full name – “Varaljai vereknyei esliget falvi Laban Rezso Keresztelo Szent Jano Attila.”

Between 1905 and 1910, Laban carried out research into ancient dances, rituals, and movement habits. As a youth, he had traveled in North Africa as well as the Near East – wherever his father was stationed as governor – and he was thus acquainted with oriental and slavic civilizations. His observations of various cultures, dances and work patterns provided a basis for his future work. Laban’s first experiments with dance script also date back to these early years in Paris. He also worked on theatre architecture, decor and costumes. Twenty year later, in an international competition, he received a gold medal for his model design of a dance theatre.

For three years preceding the war, Laban was director of the Lago Maggiore summer festivals at Ascona, Switzerland, where he headed a self-sustaining art colony. Here he conceived the ideas of natural dance for all people and started the idea of movement choirs. He sought dance drama in contrast to the formal mime and technique of classical ballet. Here also he began his investigations into space patterns and harmonies.

The open air theatre which Laban started to build was interrupted by the war. He left Ascona and also Munich, where he had been producer of the winter Art Festivals, and sought refuge in Zurich where he lived from 1915 to 1918 and where he established his own school and put on many productions. During these years, his research stressed more and more the nature of rhythms and space harmonies.

Between 1919 and 1923, Laban founded schools in Basel, Stuttgart, Hamburg, Prague, Budapest, Zagreb, Rome, Vienna, Paris, and other European centers. Each was called a Laban School and was placed under the direction of a former Laban master pupil. In subsequent years, he established many movement choirs in addition to those that were branches of the already existing Laban schools. He experimented with speech choirs and put on such productions as Faust and Prometheus. His works ranged from compositions for “Kammer Tanz” (small chamber groups) to works for huge movement choirs: from lay works to theatre and concert dance.

In 1926, Laban’s Choreographic Institute moved from Wurzburg to Berlin. At the end of this year he traveled through the United States and Mexico, lecturing in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. During this visit, he started Irma-Betz on the study of script. As the first student in America she paved the way for the future development of notation in this country.

In 1927, Laban founded an organization for dancers who, up to that time, had had no individual standing. He achieved for them an independent union through which he provided a center where standards could be set and where artistic and educational matters could be discussed. He also concerned himself with questions of copyright for dances.

Late 1928 saw the publication of Laban’s book Schrifttanz which presented his recently crystallized system of movement notation, Kinetography Laban. The notation was publicly recognized at the Dance Congress at Essen and soon after the Society for Script Dance was formed. Its magazine, Schrifttanz, was published by Universal Editions in Vienna for about four years. Laban’s idea for Schrifttanz was not a script for dance, but written dance, dance that could be reconstructed from the written form.

In 1929 Laban directed a tremendous pageant of Crafts and Guilds in Vienna, using 10,000 performers, 2,500 of whom were dancers. At this time he also produced a movement choir of 500 for the Mannheim Festival and made the first experiments with sound tracks for dance films. He now united his central school with the Folkwangschule in Essen and became its director, having Kurt Jooss, one of his former pupils, in charge. In 1930 Laban moved to Berlin to become director of movement for the Allied State Theatres.

Following Hitler’s rise to power, Laban’s teachings fell into disfavor as being too universal and not purely nationalistic. In 1936, an open-air production was prepared for 1,000 performers, the parts being notated and sent to the sixty participating choirs in different cities to be rehearsed ahead of time. The dress rehearsal was attended by Goebbels who said: “In Germany there is room for only one movement, the Nazi Movement.” As a result, the performance was cancelled, and Laban’s work in Germany came to an end. He went to Paris and remained inactive for a while, due partly to illness. He did, however, lecture at the Sorbonne and at the International Congress on Aesthetics.

Early in 1938 Laban went to the Jooss-Leeder Dance School at Dartington Hall in England. There he recuperated and worked quietly on his research which, at that time, was centered on the psychological effects of movement. He lectured on the art of movement and on the history of dance. At the outbreak of the Second World Ware, he retired to Wales to continue his research. However, in 1942 he was called on to work in a new capacity. Up to this time films had been used for movement analysis in industry, but now that films were unobtainable, industrialists were interest to learn whether Laban’s system could be used for their purposes. Thus he moved to Manchester to work with F.C. Lawrence, one of England’s leading industrialists. As a result of their work together, they jointly wrote Effort, a presentation of their findings.

During the years 1942-1955, Laban continued his work in Manchester, applying his theories and analysis of movement in terms of effort to various fields. After the war, his interest turned to educational dance. In 1946, Lisa Ullman, who had been his close associate during these years, opened her Art of Movement Studio in Manchester. It became the training center in England for educational dance, the curriculum being based on Laban’s space harmonies and his theories of exploration of expressive movement through effort patterns. Laban lectured at the Art of Movement Studio at Leeds University, and also produced plays for the Children’s Theatre at the Bradford Civic Playhouse under the direction of Esme Church.

In 1946 the Laban Art of Movement Guild was founded to perpetuate his work, to form an organization through which it might become more widely known, and to provide a center for all those working in the Laban methods.

In 1953 Laban moved to Addlestone, Surrey, to an estate in the Thames valley where there were facilities for housing not only his own work and archives but also the Art of Movement Studio. Since then, the Laban Art of Movement Trust, created with the sole aim of giving a permanent home to Laban’s work, was set up. For this purpose, the premises at Addlestone were given to the Trust, and the Art of Movement Studio was incorporated. Laban put his collection of materials at the disposal of the Trust, making accessible to the public, the wealth of charts, manuscripts, and models which were the result of years of research. With the wide facilities at Addlestone, he extended his investigations and their practical applications to the many fields of human activity in which movement plays an important part. Laban died on July 1, 1958. He is buried in Weybridge, England.

From, used with permission.

Books about Laban:

  • Rudolf Laban: An Introduction to His Work and Influence, by John Hodgson and Valerie Preston-Dunlop, Northcoat House Publishers, Ltd.,1990,
  • Body Space Expression: The Development of Rudolf Laban’s Movement and Dance Concepts, by Vera Maletic, Mouton de Gruyter, 1987
  • Rudolf Laban: An Extraordinary Life, by Valerie Preston-Dunlop, Dance Books, 1998