Rudolf Laban's movement choirs and its relationship to the German society in the 20th century.
Rudolf Laban (1879-1958) was born in Austro-Hungary and travelled with his family to different countries spending most of his life in Germany. Laban decided to quit his military training and, instead, he became a dancer, a choreographer, and a movement theoretician. As one of the founders of European Modern Dance, his work was broadened by his most acclaimed collaborators such as Mary Wigman, Sigurd Leeder and Kurt Jooss.
He considered movement as a two-way language process, where the human body communicates by sending and receiving information. Laban believed in the connection of mind, body and spirit as one. Additionally, he thought that acknowledging this undervalued subject would lead into better means of the understanding of people (Newlove, 1993).
The Bewengungschöre or 'movement choirs' in the 1920s and 1930s were a significant and spectacular element of the national culture in Germany. A system of amateur clubs ran by Laban's students, the choirs were modern and functioning in cities against the scenery of the German industrialisation. Most of these dancers came from an educated middle class background concerned with the culture's developments and its protection.
Their amateur status was crucial once their work was to have no audience. Albeit, they rapidly got involved in performances by engaging in festivals and community celebrations, they never gave away the main essence of their practice which was sought as "an end in themselves, an experience for those taking part" (Counsell, 2004).
The pieces were mainly large group performances and usually composed by fifty to fifteen hundred members. The works were also abstract, without characters or literal narratives attached, that explored a different perspective on the meaning and appearance of dance. As most of the movers did not have prior dance training, the movements had to be relatively unchallenging and, therefore, Laban incorporated pedestrian movement into the work.
Seeking alternatives to the relationship between stage and auditorium, Laban also refuted the model of spectatorship which denied the identification of the participants and the materialistic self. With everyone involved and committed to the same task, there was no division between being observed to observing, individual from community, the employer and the results of one's labour (Counsell, 2004).
This time, spectators would have more freedom and a greater interpretive power. One could see a main communal action, where the dancers would individually move and also operate as an arranged collective. They moved, gesturing and embracing body shapes together to build intricate, shifting, and geometrical patterns in space. The choirs' essential quality of movement is that they in fact moved, by not presenting static images but creating evolving scenes that would change over time. For those participating, they would have to constantly readjust their bodies in space to find the next shape, the next moment, in a constant fluid scene.
This, as a result, had considerable consequences for those watching, as they were challenged to keep tracing the movement and continuously find the group's successful re-affirmation. Aesthetically, this success would be measured by their unisson and coordination when executing the movements. Therefore, to be an audience member of the Bewengunschöre work, it takes a constant search to find the threatened communitas in the group (Consell, 2004).
The appropriation of the mass concept in performance has a deep reverberation in the Western culture, as a consequence of the industrialisation. By portraying these bodies in their anonymity and expressing a modern alienation, while having the dancers still being themselves, Rudolf Laban is considered to have broadened dance parameters and broken boundaries in the German society's consciousness.
At this point in time, Germany was facing a drastic social change. The forced and quickly imposed industrialisation without check promoted a failure in providing healthy communal forms of living and kinship between people as humans and not as mere mechanical workers. The movement choirs took an activist role by embracing a holistic way of fighting this poor situation and awakening this matter, in order to find communities that would value and opt for the idea of group membership instead of self interests (Tönnes, 1887). When the spirit of community was lacking, the choirs offered a corresponding experience to its modern loss, so that this loss could eventually be overcome.
As Colin Counsell considers, the Bewengunschöre are the somatic expression of a particular society's consciousness, which is a counter movement to the circumstances that generated it (2004).
In 1929, as part of a festival Laban was directing in Vienna, there were speech choirs that would frame and introduce the movement plays. The following epigrams were vocalised and written by Martin Gleisner, an actor who worked with Laban.
We ask for
Later in 1936, a group piece that Laban was creating for the Olympic Games in Berlin was banned by Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda for the Nazi Regime. Laban's thought-provoking and innovative work led him to be interviewed by the police and also remained under an unofficial house arrest for over a year. After this, he 'officially' quit his position as the Director of Meister-werkstattin für Tanz in Berlin and the Nazis banned not only his books but also his notations, keeping his name away from schools in Germany. In 1938, he took refuge in Britain where he continued to develop work and, in parallel, most of his followers emigrated to the United States.
In conclusion, via his work, Laban heightened the status of dance as an art form, refuting oppression and exalting the human feelings. His explorations into the theory and practice of movement transformed the identity of dance culture and education (Preston-Dunlop, 1998).
Counsell, C., (2004) ‘Dancing to Utopia: Modernity, Community and the Movement Choir’, Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research, Vol. 22, No. 2, pp 154-167. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4147310?seq=2#page_scan_tab_contents, (3/01/2017)
Eryn Blair, (2012) Laban Movement Choir, [Youtube] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QDRXWCa0r2w, date accessed: 03/01/2017
Harris, J., (2011), Tönnies: Community and Civil Society, Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge
Laban, R., (1975) A Life for Dance: Reminiscences, Translated from (German) by Ullmann, L., London, UK: Macdonald & Evans LTD
Maletic, V., (1987) Body - Space - Expression, Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter, ProQuest Ebook Central, Available at: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/roehampton-ebooks/reader.action?docID=934658, (03/01/2017).
Newlove, J., (1993) Laban for Actors and Dancers, London, UK: Nick Hern Books
Newlove, K. and John, D. (2004) Laban for all, London, UK: Nick Hern Books
Preston-Dunlop, V. (1969) Practical Kinetography Laban, London, UK: Macdonald & Evans LTD