WH: I’m joined today by Alison Curtis-Jones who is an expert in choreological practice and creative dance pedagogy and she is a member of staff at Trinity Laban‘s Faculty of Dance. She is artistic director of the award-winning Summit Dance Theatre Company and a leading expert in researching and re-imagining Rudolf Laban‘s lost choreographic works.
Hello, Alison. Thank you for joining us today on the podcast.
ACJ: Thank you, William. Nice to be here.
WH: Perhaps you could start off by telling us who Rudolf Laban was?
ACJ: Rudolf Laban was a thinker, an artist, an innovator and fundamental in the rise of Central European modern dance. He was born in 1879 and died in 1958. He’s really well-known for his dance notation system which was a way of recording movement using symbols. So, much the same that you would see a music score and be able to translate that and play the sounds that you read, you can actually see this symbol system and embody the movement that he recorded.
But he’s less well-known for his dance theatre works and this is the area that I’ve been developing over the last fifteen years. I’ve been looking back to some of his lost choreographic works. Really not very many of his works were actually notated so it’s interesting that Laban devised this system to record dance but then didn’t use it to record his own choreographic works. And the works I’m looking at more recently are works from 1913 so there is very little evidence of these works.
WH: I believe Laban had other artistic interests outside of dance as well.
ACJ: Well, Laban started as an architect. His original career was designing and creating space – that’s what architecture is, fundamentally. And, of course, this was really relevant in his work as a choreographer – so how you might place bodies in space and how movement manifests spatially. And in fact he refers to movement as ‘living architecture’.
WH: As part of the BA2 Dance Legends Historical Project, students at our Faculty of Dance will be staging a re-imagining of Laban‘s 1913 piece, The Dancing Drumstick. The re-imagining is titled simply Drumstick. And that’s going to be happening on THU 20 & FRI 21 JUN in the Laban Theatre.
HT: Hello. My name is Hannah (Thomas).
MK: Hi. My name is Maria (Kypreos).
GP: Hello. My name is George (Perez).
HT: We are second year Undergraduate students performing Drumstick.
WH: What would you say are some of the challenges of working on this piece?
HT: Most definitely the physical intensity and trying to meet the demands of what Ali is asking us to do.
MK: Part of the ‘Effort‘ that Alison talks about is just as important as the movement itself. That is almost its stylistic being. When you’re running it, it’s always full-out.
GP: It’s very technical as well. There’s lots of small details and placement that can sometimes be lost within the energy, so you have to really work to keep all the detail there.
WH: I imagine you’re probably used to performing pieces to a metronome, whether that’s hearing music or an internal rhythm. But this piece contains passages that are not to a particular rhythm. Is it difficult to perform those kinds of movements in unison?
GP: Yeah. It’s been a very different experience because we have to work with not counting and acting as a group to know when you’re going to move. Also, not working with the music but sometimes juxtaposing it and working against it can be very challenging.
HT: It’s a lot to do with sensing each other, creating a consensus of the right time to do things.
ACJ: And when it comes to repetition too, sometimes they might say, “oh, is it three of this or four of this?” and I say, “well, I don’t want you to count it. I want you to get the – (vocalises rhythmically).” And that’s what’s really important, is to get the sensation of the rhythm, rather than putting it into a structured time signature.
HT: A lot of the time we’re working with the musicians in the sense that we lead them, as opposed to their rhythms leading our rhythms. So that’s something we’re not used to.
WH: Was Laban also interested in music?
ACJ: Well, he had an interesting relationship with music. I’m proposing that Laban was working as a choreographic philosopher; so he was using this work as a way to experiment with ‘the rhythmic body’. He wanted to move away from the constraints of music; to free the body from moving to music score. He would encourage improvisation; he would encourage dancers to move freely and find their own rhythmic structures. And he would respond to that by using drumming or percussion-type instruments rather than a metric score.
And my research has revealed that The Dancing Drumstick from 1913 was perhaps a rebellion against the Dalcroze method of music-visualisation. Now, Emile Jacques-Dalcroze was working around that time and he devised a system which was about training musicians to understand the dynamic phrasing of music through movement and this became a well-known method of training. And I believe that Laban actually was rebelling against this particular system; that he wanted to find the way of the body moving in its own rhythmic capacity without being inspired by sound.
ACJ: Yes, that’s right. The Insiders/Outsiders Festival – it’s a year-long, nationwide arts festival celebrating refugees from Nazi Europe and their contribution to British culture – because, of course, Laban arrived in the UK as a refugee in 1938. So it’s very important that we’re acknowledging that he then went on to make an enormous contribution to British culture by bringing dance into, for example, our education curriculum. And also dance as a community arts practice so it wasn’t this elitist art form; it was something that actually can include and involve everybody.
WH: You also mentioned Jack Bullen.
ACJ: Jack Bullen is an artist who uses Laban‘s symbols as a way of inspiring his arts practice. His artwork has clear references to the symbols that you’ll find in Laban‘s notation system.
JB: My name is Jack Bullen. I am an artist. I’ve been studying Laban for close to ten years now and I’m trying to transcribe his ideas of ‘effort quality’ into 2D image – into paint. So I’m sitting on rehearsals at the moment and I’m just jotting down rough compositions and so on, and then I’ll work away in the studio.
Previous artists like the futurists have all looked at trying to portray movement. But I’m trying to show how they move. So weight might be shown with thick, gloopy paint; it might involve watering stuff down. And the way I paint, the actual movement of my brush or my pen is trying to show the flow. So I’ll produce a series of work based on what I see tonight and throughout the week, and this will hopefully sit alongside the work. So when people see the performance, my work will be on the walls outside. So it’s a sort of starting point for what we hope to build up in the future.
WH: And you will be able to see some of Jack Bullen‘s work if you look on the podcast blog, which is at TL-Life.com .
So Alison, how did you become interested in Laban?
ACJ: Well, I started my own dance training at (The) Laban (Centre for Movement and Dance at Laurie Grove) in New Cross. So it was before the merger with Trinity (College of Music) and I learnt about Laban in my training.
WH: What do you mean by choreological practice?
ACJ: Choreological practice is taking Rudolf Laban‘s principles of ‘Effort‘ in 1947 and ‘Choreutics‘ ([posthumously published in] 1966), which is space-harmony. Those principles are essentially to do with how we move dynamically and how that movement appears or manifests in space. I’m teaching those principles as a way of making it relevant for contemporary practice.
So it’s looking at, for example, the logic of movement – how we relate to gravity. Because our body is intrinsically structured, therefore movement is intrinsically structured. So we need to look at what might be organic for the body and how that relates to our emotions and our intention in movement.
So I’ve developed those principles as a means of training, and it has real rigour, you know; this way of working means that dancers have to really understand why they move and how they move in performance and just in life – how we behave, why we behave as we do and how that’s visible to the outside eye.
WH: How has it been to work with Alison?
MK: Intense. Super-intense. She’s incredible. We’re all learning a lot; we’re being pushed a lot physically – mentally as well. She makes us very, very motivated. Everyone’s getting a lot stronger, progressing really, really fast – which is super-exciting.
HT: Yeah. She demands a lot of us, which makes us demand a lot of ourselves and of each other, and we just keep climbing this ladder together.
GP: Most definitely. It’s been – what? – four days, and I feel like it’s made such a change. I’m giving it a hundred per cent in every rehearsal and I’m completely exhausted by the end. I think it’s great and it’s really inspiring to watch the other group because it’s double-casted.
WH: Alison, your re-imaginings of Laban‘s lost works have been performed at events and conferences across Europe and in Canada. Why do you refer to these works as ‘re-imaginings’ rather than ‘re-creations’?
ACJ: I think that’s a really interesting question and it’s one I’m asked a lot, actually. It can’t be a reconstruction because there is no evidence of a notated score or film footage; there are no photographs. It did exist, of course. We know that because there’s evidence of Laban‘s writings about it. But I have no evidence of how that work might look so I’m saying ‘re-imagining’ because I have to go to find whatever material remains I can.
So I went to different archives, for example, our own archive at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire. I went to archives at the University of Surrey National Resource Centre for Dance. I also went to the Kunsthaus in Zürich to try and trace some of the letters that Laban was writing around 1913. And a lot of those letters were to Suzanne Perrottet. She herself was a Dalcroze dancer. She had experienced working with Dalcroze for some time and was moving away from the Dalcroze method because she felt she couldn’t move for a very long time, having been indoctrinated into this idea of moving purely to music. So she wanted to find other means of allowing movement to manifest so she found Laban‘s experiments quite interesting.
So all these archive materials were leading me to understand what Laban was trying to intend through his works, and so for me I call it ‘filling archival gaps’. And I think it’s important to say that I use Laban‘s principles to devise the works, but I’m using those principles retrospectively to look back to 1913. So, of course, he devised those principles later on in his career, but I’m taking those principles and then looking back to his works from 1913 with the knowledge that he discovered later on, if you like. So it’s been a really interesting process for me.
It’s not about exhuming a relic; it’s not about trying to restore something as it was. It is about re-imagining it with today’s dancers that makes a reference to his ideas. It’s more of a resurrection of ideas, I think.
WH: And you’ve also used the term ‘living archive’ before in your writings. Could you explain what you mean by that?
ACJ: Yes. When I go to work with dancers, they themselves are already living archives of their own training practices. And so when I go to work with dancers, I work with them very much in the same way that I would when I go into an archive. So I see it as a process of interpretation; of creative exchange. I train them to work choreutically and eukinetically and I use those experiences with them to then generate the re-imagined works.
WH: In some ways, you’re very much a part of the history of this piece.
GP: Yeah, I really appreciate to have been part of this.
MK: It’s interesting how Alison‘s visions have come into practice through previous people doing the piece. So we have her knowledge as well as the archive knowledge.
GP: We’ve had Jack Parry come in to teach us from the previous year. We’ve had musicians that have been part of the last two works and loads of the people that have been in the previous performances and it’s given us the information that we need to really feel a part of the work.
WH: Have you notated your re-imagined choreographies using Laban‘s notation?
ACJ: Well, that’s an interesting question. No I haven’t, but I do have a colleague who is very interested in doing that, so hopefully at some point we might get a notated score.
But the interesting thing is, for me, it’s not about fixing it in some kind of form because, true to Laban‘s ideas and experiments with improvisation, the dancers actually improvise live during the performance. I would like to say that every time I re-stage my re-imagined works, that it is constantly evolving because I’m working with the dancers I have in front of me. It is about generating something new each time, so I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with it being notated.
WH: Could you give us an idea of what we can expect to see and hear?
ACJ: This is about the rhythm of the body made audible. So you’ll hear a series of sounds from the body. You’ll hear breath; the rhythm of the feet. In fact, in one of the documents I read, Laban was referring to the body as ‘Morse code apparatus’.
And there will be silence … Because I think it’s really important to be able to distinguish between stillness – which is also a dynamic state, – silence and movement.
WH: If you could ask any question of Rudolf Laban what would you ask him?
HT: I would like to know to what extent did he see it as performance. Having talked about what we think it was and seen photos, it kind of seems like a bunch of people exploring something together in the outdoors.
WH: Maybe it wasn’t so much a performance for an audience but it was a practice for its own sake – to learn something about dance and about your own bodies.
WH: Thank you very much for your time, everyone.
MK, GP & HT: Thank you.
Hidden Gem Listening Recommendation
WH: Finally, Alison, could you please give us a Hidden Gem Listening Recommendation. This would be a piece of music that you love but you think most people won’t have come across.
ACJ: I think my Hidden Gem would have to be The Deep Listening Band. It was founded in 1988 by Pauline Oliveros, amongst others. Perhaps refer listeners to the album The Ready Made Boomerang. I love this band because they do some really extraordinary things. They go into deep caverns and they create sound and what you get is this incredible resonance of sound as it travels and the sensation of depth and scale of space.
WH: Excellent! Thank you very much Alison.
ACJ: You’re welcome.
WH: And I can’t wait to see Drumstick on THU 20 & FRI 21 JUN in the Laban Theatre. See you there…