Rudolf Laban (1879-1958) was a creative genius whose career defies easy categorization. Early in his life he showed a natural talent for visual art, which led to academic studies in Munich and Paris and his first career as a painter. Laban, however, was drawn to the performing arts. Around 1913, while living in the free-thinking art colony of Ascona, Switzerland, he began to experiment with dance. Coming from the visual arts, with their rich history and theories, Laban saw that dance was considered a minor art form because it was ephemeral and lacked a visual history and theoretical base. He set out to change these conditions.
Over the next two decades (1919 – 1938), Laban became a dominant figure in European modern dance. He performed, he choreographed, he wrote, he organized conferences and a dancers’ union. At the same time, he worked relentlessly to develop a symbolic movement notation, analogous to music notation, that would allow choreographies to be recorded and reproduced from a written score. In 1928, he published his new system of kinetography.
Personal and political events in Germany brought Laban’s dance career to an end. In 1938 he immigrated to England. Here his interests moved beyond dance, to the consideration of human movement in other contexts. He studied manual labor in factories, advised on stage movement for the theatre, pioneered the introduction of dance in state schools, and examined the therapeutic effect of dance and movement in the treatment of the mentally ill. Through these varied activities, he continued to define the basic elements of human movement and to write about the importance and meaning of movement in human life.
Today Laban is best known for two creations that bear his name: the dance notation system, known as Labanotation, and the comprehensive taxonomy of human movement known as Laban Movement Analysis. Yet Laban’s legacy goes beyond this, because his work has touched and inspired a number of gifted students and colleagues. Two of the most important are Irmgard Bartenieff and Warren Lamb.