My time at the Dance Notation Bureau has come to an end, but before I head to the next adventure of this fellowship and year, I’d love to tell you about the two collections I’ve been working on over the last few weeks. Today I will focus on a small collection I processed on my own, and tomorrow I’ll tell you about the second one I processed with Mary, the CLIR fellow at the DNB. I hope to follow that up with a post about my thoughts on working in archives and some creative conservation techniques I’ve used recently.
So, first things first. Rudolf von Laban. Born in 1879 in what was once the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Laban is one of the most important figures in dance history and theory. He laid the foundations for Laban Movement Analysis and dance notation, having developed an interest in the relationship between the human body and the space that surrounds it during his time studying painting, dancing, and acting in Paris, Germany, and North Africa. By 1910, he founded his first school in Munich and taught throughout Europe until the mid-1930s. Notable pupils of Laban during this period included Mary Wigman and Kurt Jooss, both pioneers of modern, expressionist dance in Germany.
One of Laban’s greatest contributions came in 1928 when he published Kinetographie in the first issue of Schrifftanz. The system is known today as “Kinetography Laban” or “Labanotaion,” which is at the heart of the work conducted at the Dance Notation Bureau. Also in the 1930s, Laban developed and staged large scale movement choirs and major festivals of dance under the funding of Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda ministry. Having fled to England in 1937, Laban remained there until his death in 1958, continuing his work on movement analysis and notation with his pupils. Various people, including Albrecht Knust in Germany and Ann Hutchinson Guest and Helen Priest Rogers in the United States, continued to develop Laban’s system of dance notation and movement analysis.
The DNB has a lovely collection of materials sent to and received by staff and colleagues from Laban. Much of this is correspondence between Ann Hutchinson Guest and Laban on technical points about notation for Guest’s book. Other correspondence includes the Labanotation certificates earned by Eve Gentry and Helen Priest Rogers. The original copy of Eve Gentry’s certificate, pictured below, was gifted to the DNB in 1995. These certificates include signatures from Laban and Lisa Ullman.
Other items concern the celebrations of Laban’s birthdays – notably his 70th and 75th birthdays. For his 70th, Laban sent notes to staff and students thanking them for their kind birthday wishes – and offering continued information about notation! For his 75th birthday, the staff of the DNB compiled and sent him a scrapbook that included biographies and photographs of his students and other devotees to Labanotation, illustrating the influence and inspiration of his life’s work.
Two of the most interesting items in the Laban collection – and certainly my favorite – are publications from Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. The first is Wir Tanzen, a 1936 pamphlet featuring photographs of Laban and his dancers in his work “Vom Tanwind und der Neven Freude” for a pre-Olympic festival. A couple things stand out to me about this booklet. First, that it was published in Berlin during the Nazi Regime, not long before Laban fled. The forward was even written by the propaganda ministry and ends with a Heil Hitler.
To see and handle such primary sources is both special and haunting, as are the images of Laban’s work performed a month before the 1936 Olympics. It is not possible to separate this work from the political environment in which is was created. The appropriation of movement choirs and a community of German dance by the state cannot be denied, nor should it. I admit that I don’t know as much about Laban’s cooperation with the Nazi government as I would like, but it is a fascinating episode in the history of modern dance that I would love to delve into further. If any of you are also interested in this intersection of modern dance and politics, here is a book I plan on reading in the near future.
Another aspect of this pamphlet that intrigues me comes in its final pages. The essay “Wir Tanzen” (“We Dance”) discusses the joy, expression, harmony, and unity of dance – as well as the creation of modern community-dancing in Germany because so many people not only desire to see dance performed, but wish to dance themselves. Dance is presented as a unifying German activity that cuts across all social classess to create deeper meanings and freer, stronger, and happier bodies. A remarkable piece of writing read in the its historical context, what is more astounding about its publication here is its reproduction in multiple languages – German, English, French, and Italian. Below are the two pages of the English version (with German preceeding and French following):
The other notable publication from the Laban collection is the 1926 book Choreographie. Bound in faded blue paper, this 107 page volume contains many roots of Labanotation.
While the appearance of this book in the archive is quite important – especially in such good physical condition – the more extraordinary aspect of this item is the title page. When I first opened the book, delicately turning the 86-year-old pages, I gasped when I saw that under the title is Laban’s signature, dated Berlin summer 1928. There is something quite wonderful in finding authors’ signatures in books; I never tire of it. It’s a physical link to someone else’s life and work – one that is often found in archives. I love to ponder the handwriting – the same as with handwritten letters – and contemplate the journey that this one copy of a book has made since 1926. How did it come to end up in the middle of New York City? Such questions and thoughts intrigue me in archives – and I’ll discuss these and other fascinations with archival work later this week! Stay tuned!
So, there’s a short introduction to the Laban collection at the Dance Notation Bureau. As always, if you’re interested in learning more about the collection or the DNB, here is the link to their website. Tomorrow, photographs from the DNB’s collection!
*All photographs taken by Maureen Maryanski with the permission of the Dance Notation Bureau