Irmgard Bartenieff Archive – A Miracle

For years after Bartenieff’s death in 1981, the Laban Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies carefully stored her papers but lacked the funds for full preservation and cataloging. The papers remained, untouched and unseen, in a warehouse in Brooklyn. And then there was a fire in the warehouse.

Irmgard Barenieff-Archive-Miracle

 

A cry for help went out to the Laban community, and through crowdfunding, enough money was raised to allow Vincent Novarra, Curator of Special Collections from the University of Maryland Performing Arts Library, to rent a truck, drive to Brooklyn, and see if Bartenieff’s papers had survived. They had!

 

He brought the boxes, along with the Laban Institute papers, back to Maryland. And then the second miracle occurred. The library found funds to hire Dr. Susan Wiesner, digital humanist, to catalog the collection.  

 

None of this would have happened if Professor Karen Bradley had not laid the groundwork for housing these archives in Maryland. Three years later, the Archive is now available for public access.  

 

This means that in the future it will be possible to construct a much fuller portrait of the remarkable woman who has so profoundly influenced Laban training in the U.S.

Dance and the Written Word

Dance is a nonverbal art. Yet, as practitioners of an evanescent art, writing is often quite important to dancers. Nijinsky kept a diary. Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Agnes DeMille, and Paul Taylor produced autobiographies. Isadora Duncan wrote essays on the dance, as did Merce Cunningham and Murray Louis. Doris Humphrey and Twyla Tharp have addressed creative issues in dance. Katherine Dunham, whose career spans anthropology and performance, has written profusely.

Dance-Written-Word

 

The list goes on and on. Dance may be a nonverbal art, but dancers are hardly silent on this subject. And the written traces of their lives and work matter.

 

Written traces not only include published works but the much larger body of correspondence, notes, sketches, diaries, photographs, even invoices. From these scattered sources a fuller picture of the individual artist emerges – their friends and family, their private thoughts, their challenges as well as their successes.

 

For example, the dance scholar Juana de Laban’s archive is housed at the Dallas Public Library. Dr. de Laban, my undergraduate dance history teacher at Southern Methodist University, was the eldest daughter of Rudolf Laban’s second marriage. Her correspondence with her father, dating from after World War II, paints a much different picture of Laban’s family relations than what is usually recounted in other sources.  

 

For this reason, the opening of the Irmgard Bartenieff Archive in the Performing Arts Library at the University of Maryland, College Park, is cause for celebration. More about this miracle in the next blog.

Laban Prevails

At the recent Bartenieff Symposium, Martha Davis lamented the loss of seminal works in nonverbal communication research.  During the 1960s, there was lots of money for research. While she assisted Irmgard Bartenieff at Albert Einstein Day Hospital, other researchers such as Ray Birdwhistell, Albert Scheflen, and William Condon would drop by for informal discussions of what they were doing.Today, no one reads their work; current students are advised not to read research it wasn’t done in the last five years.

Laban Prevails

 

But Laban prevails. Through thick and thin, organizations such as the Laban Guild, the Dance Notation Bureau, the Laban/Bartenieff Institute, and the Language of Dance Centres, along with other groups such as Eurolab, ICKL, and Motus Humanus, have provided basic and advanced training and opportunities for collegial exchange.

 

The Laban communities have produced a rich literature that is still read. The Laban community has continuity.

 

Movement study has always been interdisciplinary, and perhaps that is what keeps us going. In her Statement to the Press, when Bartenieff was being added to Laban Institute moniker, Irmgard noted:

 

“We need a place where the related disciplines which deal with human expression and physical function can enrich their knowledge – a center for comparison, analysis, and cross-fertilization of ideas from the whole field of movement study. It is my hope that here we will, in a true sense, strengthen the thinking which we begin to call holistic in science and in the arts.”

On Irmgard Bartenieff

In the summer of 1975, I left the Nikolai-Louis Studio, walked across Union Square to the Dance Notation Bureau, and declared I was interested in the Effort/Shape Program.

Irmgard Bartenieff

I was ushered in to see Irmgard Bartenieff, a delicate elderly German lady who had worked directly with Rudolf Laban. She was guiding spirit of the Effort/Shape program. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but Irmgard was open and encouraging. I became her student, then her assistant, and eventually a fellow faculty member.

After her death, when I left New York  and found myself on my own with no Laban colleagues handy, I really missed Irmgard. Then I began to appreciate fully the scope of her knowledge and the positive impact of who she was and her whole way of being in the world.

Consequently, I am delighted that Irmgard Bartenieff’s archives have a home now at the University of Maryland library. I am looking forward to the upcoming Symposium on November 10th, when those influenced by Bartenieff will share their reminiscences. This event, organized by archivist Susan L. Wiesner, launches an exhibit in the Performing Arts Library gallery that follows Irmgard’s path through her professional life. And what a career – dancer, Laban student, Labanotator, physical therapist, dance therapist, Effort/Shape guru, teach, author, and dance ethnographer. She was a living example of the many ways movement study can be applied. Thus the title of my Symposium talk – “Irmgard Bartenieff – Icon of Possibility.”

Choreutics in Berlin

During a recent master class in Berlin, I introduced the “mixed seven-rings.” These Laban scales are analogous to the major diatonic scales in music. Participants were instructed to use the seven “signal points” of the scale as if they were musical notes and to compose a “spatial melody” in four measures. Choreutics in Berlin

Students could use the signal points in any order and make them any duration. Individuals could embody the specified directions in any way they chose. Yet, interestingly, when we watched these solos, the freely constructed spatial melodies retained the fundamental qualities that Laban highlights in his unpublished writings on the mixed seven-rings. That is, these choreutic forms combine arabesque-like shapes that penetrate space with attitude-like shapes that encompass space.

As one participant commented to me later, this creative assignment made space harmony relevant. Rather than “received wisdom,” that is, spatial sequences taught and repeated by rote, Choreutics came alive. It became a design source for dance!

Laban International

I’ve just returned from teaching master classes in Berlin for Eurolab, the European Association for Laban Bartenieff Movement Studies. With advanced students from Germany, Czech Republic, Croatia, England, the U.S, and the Netherlands, it is exciting to see how Laban’s ideas are again spreading internationally. Laban International

Before the First World War, artistic innovations and new ideas circulated freely in Europe. Two world wars and the Cold War changed all that. When I first taught for Eurolab in the early 1990s, the Berlin Wall had just come down. The scar left by the Wall was still visible, and the city itself felt isolated.

Fast forward 25 years, and, thanks to the EU, inter-continental travel across borders is much easier. Moreover, a common European currency encourages people from different countries to gather around subjects of mutual interest.  This was very much the spirit in my classes in Berlin. Despite some language differences, we shared the language of movement – and that is very encouraging.

Creating a Language For Movement

Around 1913, Rudolf Laban contemplated a career change from visual art to dance. But he recognized that unless a means could be found to record movement, dance was condemned to remain an ephemeral and consequently trivial art.

Creating-Language-Movement

 

In developing a language and symbol system for dance and movement, Laban thought visually. The theoretical models he developed are geometrical, not linguistic. This is both the beauty and the challenge of Laban Movement Analysis.

 

In recognizing that human movement is a psychophysical phenomenon, Laban saw that his language of movement had to capture two domains – the physical actions that unfold in the space of the outer environment and the movement of thought and feeling as these evolve in the inner world, coloring physical actions and making them expressive.

 

For analytic purposes, these two domains had to be separately conceived. Hence, Laban created two geometrical models – one for the outer world of visible movement in space (the kinesphere) and one for the inner world of thought and feeling (the dynamosphere).

 

And here is Laban’s genius.  Because inner and outer are always connected in volitional action, Laban’s two geometrical models can be related. The dynamosphere can be nested within the kinesphere.  

 

Find out more about the brilliance of Laban’s geometrical language of movement in the forthcoming course, Decoding Choreutics.

The Mysterious Mobius

The mobius strip, also known as a lemniscate, is a unique shape having only one side and one edge.  The shape was invented almost simultaneously by two German mathematicians in 1858.  It became popular as a prop for magical parlor tricks in the late 19th century, and perhaps this is how Laban encountered it.

Mysterious-Mobius

 

You can make one yourself by twisting a strip of paper and joining the ends.  A normal band (think of a rubber band or a simple bracelet) has an inner surface and an outer surface and two edges.  But the mobius strip has only one surface and one edge. That is, if you start tracing a line on the outer surface, your pencil will move to the inner surface and return to the outer surface without ever lifting the pen.  Similarly, if you start running a finger along one edge and circuit the strip twice, you travel along both edges without interruption.

 

In other words, the outer becomes the inner and the inner becomes the outer.

 

Laban writes about lemniscates in Choreutics and even maps a couple in the kinesphere using direction symbols.  Does Laban mean for this to be taken literally, as a spatial trace-form?  Of is this a symbolic form?  Find out more in the forthcoming MoveScape Center course, “Decoding Choreutics.”

Living Fully in Three Dimensions

As bipeds with mobile shoulder and hip joints, human beings have a wide range of motion available.  Yet physical challenges, such as the force of gravity and our heavy heads, limit the extent to which we actively tap fully three-dimensional movement. And mental habits can also limit our access to space.

 

Rudolf Laban succinctly identified two cognitive maps of space. The first is the dimensional cross and the cardinal directions of up and down, right and left, forward and backward. Laban relates these movement directions with stability.

Living-Fully-3-Dimensions

 

In contrast, Laban also identified four diagonal lines of motion. Think of these as radiating lines that connect the opposite corners of a cube or rectilinear room. Laban relates these sharply tilted lines with mobility.

 

Then Laban makes an interesting observation. Since most movements are neither completely stable or totally mobile, “the trace-forms of living matter” follow trajectories that lie between the dimensions and diagonals.

 

Laban went on to develop lengthy sequences of movement that follow these deflected pathways. These lines of motion, which are more subtle than normal cognitive maps of space, are mentally challenging.  Moreover, they physically test balance and range of motion.

 

Nevertheless, Laban’s choreutic models encourage living fully in three dimensions.  Find out more in the forthcoming MoveScape Center correspondence course.

Science Catches Up With Laban

The ancient Greeks knew that there were only five three dimensional symmetrical shapes – the tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, and icosahedron. The first four shapes occur in nature, in various inorganic crystals. But the icosahedron appeared to exist only in mathematicians’ imaginations.

 

Science-Catches-Up-Laban

 

However, as Dr. Eugenia Cheng noted in a recent Wall Street Journal article, once electron microscopes were invented [circa 1930], “we discovered that many viruses, in fact, have icosahedron structures.” Since the latter discovery around 1950, Cheng adds, modern uses for the icosahedral shape have been found, such as geodesic domes and soccer balls.

 

Laban began using the icosahedron as a 3-D longitude and latitude for the human kinesphere in the 1920s. This crystalline shape seems to belong uniquely to the morphology of living organisms. Was Laban prescient?  Why did the icosahedron become his favorite shape for mapping human movement? Find out more in the upcoming correspondence course, “Decoding Choreutics.”