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.

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.



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.

Comments on “Decoding Choreutics”

I created the correspondence course, “Decoding Laban’s Choreutics” last year for two reasons: 1) I wanted to push myself to study this seminal book deeply, and 2) now that it is back in print, I wanted to encourage other movement analysts to read it, too.


I’ve read Choreutics more than once, and it has always been my favorite of Laban’s books. I learned a lot by organizing the reading assignments, and re-reading along with fellow movement analysts. Here is what some of them had to say:

“The course provided me with a most satisfying and fulfilling re-engagement with the world of LMA.”

“I gained the chance to digest/redigest this material 30+ years hence my original training – which allowed me to bring MY experience into the mix.”

“The pace was just right. The work load was enough to be engaging but not so much as to be overwhelming.”

“The commentaries are very interesting; they add more information and insight to the writings of Laban.”

“I’m inspired to rethink how I engage my students in the Space Harmony material.”

“Decoding Laban’s Masterpiece Choreutics” starts again in October.  Register now.

Advancing Laban’s Ideas in Virtual Space

Moving oneself and observing others move are the best ways to learn about movement, but not the only ways. Recently I’ve been experimenting (successfully!) with correspondence courses.


It may seem counterintuitive that something as “old school” as a correspondence course can advance Laban’s work. But I, and nearly 40 readers on five continents, have been finding that this a great way to approach two of Laban’s most seminal books, Choreutics  (aka The Language of Movement) and Mastery of Movement.  

Choreutics primarily focuses on the space and shape aspects of movement, while Mastery deals more with body and effort. I subdivide each book into six assignments, with orienting questions, movement activities, and observation tasks. Students and I correspond via email regarding these assignments. In addition, I provide written commentaries on each chapter of the respective book.

Beginning in late October, MoveScape Center is offering the course “Decoding Rudolf Laban’s Masterpiece, Choreutics.” The course will end before Christmas, with an extra week off in the middle for Thanksgiving. Find out more.  

Advancing Laban’s Ideas in the Movement Studio

During the recent MoveScape Center workshop, “Expanding the Dynamosphere,” in New York City, we all had an “ah ha” moment about Laban’s effort theory. Here is how this insight unfolded.

Laban identified four effort drives. Of these, the Action Drive is the best known, for it deals with practical movements involved in working with tangible objects. The other three drives – Vision, Passion, and Spell – are called “transformation drives.” These are more subtle and complex effort combinations that have less to do with physical actions and more to do with mental activities such as thinking, feeling, and willing.


For Laban, mental activities also involve moving. I’m sure he would agree with Mabel Ellsworth Todd, who wrote “For every thought supported by feeling, there is a muscle change.” Laban obviously characterized the combination of space, time, and flow factors as the outward embodiment of visionary states of mind – those mental acts of following a line of thought, steadily concentrating, soaring on the wings of imagination, catching a sudden insight, coming to a gradual realization, and so on.

Yet, when workshop participants were asked to identify associations with the various combinations of Vision Drive, they kept coming up with practical actions, like throwing darts and quenching fires. They reverted to physical actions that were not visionary in the least.  

This made us all realize that while we movement folk complain about the mind/body split, we tend to privilege the body over the mind. This sometimes leads us to think about effort in strictly physical terms.  

Laban was way ahead. He realized that movement is a psychophysical phenomenon. And he stuck to this view, finding effort in thinking, feeling, and willing as well as in acting.

Body or Soma?

Laban Movement Analysis allows one to approach the body both objectively and subjectively. Labanotation and motif writing provide means to analyze body actions objectively, while the somatic practice of Bartenieff Fundamentals is focused more on internal self-awareness.


Both bodily perspectives are presented in Meaning in Motion. The first section provides a terse illustration of how bodily actions are analyzed and recorded. The second section places the work of Laban and Bartenieff in the broader context of the somatics movement. A third section discusses principles and exercises of Bartenieff Fundamentals. The chapter closes with a compilation of body level concepts.

By incorporating both perspectives, instructors can tailor the “body” component of an LMA course to their specific needs. For some courses, a more basic and objective approach may be appropriate. What are the parts of my body? What are the types of actions I can do? How can I make simple sequences of actions? Studio activities around these questions can lead on to experience with simple notation or pave the way for another course in Labanotation.

Other instructors may prefer to focus on somatic dimensions. Some students relish this, others may resist. In the context of this, I have found that the key is to link the seemingly simple Bartenieff Fundamentals exercises to more dynamic and demanding movement sequences so that students experience links between body, effort, and space.

Shape as Laban Conceived It

Choreutics (space) and Eukinetics (effort) are the two broad categorical headings under which Laban grouped elements of movement. He did not single out shape as a separate category. Initially, shape was a Gestalt concept for Laban, a combination of the lines traced by the body in space and the dynamic qualities observable in these three-dimensional sequences.


Laban’s first career as a visual artist and his familiarity with Art Nouveau and abstract Expressionist theories influenced his initial description of shape as an element of dance and movement. In Meaning in Motion, I explain that Laban’s notion of the mover’s space has two aspects: one descriptive and one prescriptive. Now it is time to explore Laban’s “Language of Space”: example, Laban studied with the Swiss botanist and artist Hermann Obrist. Obrist admonished his students to understand natural objects as images “full of expressive forces, full of linear, plastic, constructive movements.”

Laban applied this notion to dance. In his first book, he noted that “the dancer observes the form of things and the movement of living creatures as to their directional tendencies.” Then the dancer translates these into gestures laden with “psychic tension.”

Consequently, the shape chapter in Meaning in Motion opens with a movement exploration based upon the shapes of natural objects, such as rocks, shells, pine cones, branches, etc. The chapter moves on to discuss a more precise definition of movement shapes, focusing on modes of shape change and shape qualities. The chapter closes with working definitions of the elements of shape.

Laban’s “Language of Space”

In Meaning in Motion, I explain that Laban’s notion of the mover’s space has two aspects: one descriptive and one prescriptive.

To better describe movement, Laban created several “geographies” of space. These give definition to the bubble of territory adjacent to the mover’s body, which Laban called the “kinesphere.” Such geographies created landmarks in the kinesphere and make the systematic description of motion in three dimensions possible.


In addition, Laban designed highly symmetrical sequences of directional change that circle through different areas of the kinesphere. These prescribed sequences of directional change provide a way to explore the kinesphere, to test balance, and to expand the range of motion.

Because Laban’s language of space relies upon geometrical models that must be imagined as surrounding the mover’s body, the spatial aspects of Laban Movement Analysis challenges many students. Consequently, in Meaning in Motion I have incorporated many creative explorations. These address the kinesphere; the Dimensional Scale; the planes; oblique mobility and the Diagonal Scale; and central, peripheral, and transverse movement. More advanced spatial sequences are notated in the appendix.

There is a lot of material in this chapter so that instructors can pick and choose what they want to emphasize in a given course. If the language of space speaks to a student, he or she will also be able to see that there is more movement material to be explored.

Teaching Laban’s Effort Theory

Laban’s theory of the dynamics of human movement (effort) is deceptively simple. There are only four motion factors (Weight, Time, Space, and Flow) and eight effort qualities. But the theory becomes much richer because different combinations and sequences of effort qualities express very different states of mind.  


It is difficult to convey this richness in a semester-long course.  And I think that is okay. Students should not believe they have mastered all there is to know about  Laban in only a few weeks.  The key is to spark curiosity and a desire to continue to learn about movement expression.

Consequently, while Meaning in Motion is meant to be an introductory text, there is more material than can be covered in one semester.  For example, the chapter on Effort not only introduces the four motion factors and eight effort qualities.  It also covers all the states and drives, providing suggestions for creative explorations of these more complex dynamic expressions.

In explaining effort as expression, I discuss the psychological correlations that Laban drew with the motion factors and the basic phrasing pattern of preparation, exertion, and recuperation.  These notions are also linked to a reflective movement exploration.

Increasingly I have come to feel that it is important for students to understand relationships between states and drives – how states build to a drive or provide recuperation from a drive.  This is obviously more advanced material, but the adequate explanation is incorporated in the chapter on effort as well as in appendix material to help students begin to “think in terms of effort.”  

This was always Laban’s admonition.  Thinking in terms of effort requires a conceptual shift from focusing on what is done to appreciating how the movement is done.

Teaching LMA at The College Level

Laban Movement Analysis (LMA) requires thinking as well as moving. Whether one is working with performing arts majors or a more mixed population, most students have never thought about movement and its component parts.  In this month’s series of blogs, I explore how to deal with some of the challenges of teaching LMA at the college level.

Besides providing rich movement experiences that highlight key features of movement (Body, Effort, Space, and Shape), it is vital to help students connect these experiences with meaning.  One way is to start with general principles of the Laban system. I identify the following as key notions in Meaning in Motion: Introducing Laban Movement Analysis.


Movement is a process of change. Movement is not a position or even a series of positions.  Movement is an uninterrupted flux.

The change is patterned and orderly. Body movement is dynamic and ephemeral.  Nevertheless, laws of spatial sequencing and effort phrasing, along with the rhythms of stability/mobility and exertion/recuperation prevent human movement from being chaotic.

Human movement is intentional. Laban observed that human beings move to satisfy needs, both tangible and intangible.  Movement reveals motivation.

The basic elements of human motion may be articulated and studied. Laban identified an “alphabet of the language of movement” that makes it possible to observe and analyze this psychophysical phenomenon.

Movement must be approached at multiple levels if it is to be properly understood. Movement is a dynamic process involving simultaneous changes in spatial positioning, bodily activation, and kinetic energy.  Moreover, movement can be perceived from a variety of perspectives.  It can simply be appreciated through immersion in the physical experience itself.  It can be studied objectively, or it may be approached intellectually.

Find out more in the next blog.