Europe in the the early 20th century was a world changing. Victorian ideals were in decline, and in their place new liberalism and experimentation emerged. The militarism leading up to World War I, and its aftermath, saw the dissolution of empires and new social orders begin. New technologies like radio and cinema, new music like jazz, and art movements like cubism were rewriting the rules on art and entertainment. The rise of Freud’s influence coincided with the thawing of traditional constraints against showing feeling, which led to a freeing of the body and mind. In the early twentieth century the foundations were being laid for the freedoms of thought, politics and movement we have today.  

Dance was not to be left out of this transformation. At this time Rudolf von Laban, a dance artist and theorist, was working in a movement called Bewegunskunst: German Expressionist Dance. In expressionist dance artists seek to express meaning or emotional experience rather than physical reality. These explorations in dance and movement led to the creation of movement choirs, in which large numbers of people move together in a choreographed manner, but with room for personal expression within the movements. Laban created 25 schools of dance for children, amateurs, and professionals to further the idea that expressive dance can benefit anyone.

With Laban as with other modern dance pioneers, men and women danced barefoot in unrestrictive clothing – this in an era when men still wore suits every day and women’s corsets were only slowly on their way out of style. The individuals choice as a dancer, their self-initiated movements, was as important as the choreographers’ – revolutionary when compared to the dominance of the choreographer in classical ballet. To Laban, the movement arts could be free of its reliance on music, the body could find its own rhythms, and traditional steps could be abandoned. The body could simply explore the medium of space without direction or constraint.

In addition to creating and teaching dance, Laban wrote extensively, working on his studies of the human body, its movement through space and its relationship to space. His experiments led him to identify the basic vocabulary of expressive movement.  The culmination of his studies came in 1928 with the publication of Kinetographie Laban. This book describes the system of putting symbols on paper that represents body parts moving through space and time dynamically, which we now call Labanotation.

Laban’s drive to devise a notation system for dance came from a desire to lift dance as an art form. He believed this was only possible through literacy: being able to write about dance coherently and in a clear language.  With Labanotation, as with the standardised symbols of music or literature, modern dance could for the first time be ‘captured’. Works can now be recorded then accurately recreated without the need for the original choreographer and without relying on fallible memory. Students of dance at opposite ends of the world can study and recreate works working only from a score much like a music sheet. Dance works now live on beyond the choreographer, to be analysed and studied as any other artwork is. Laban’s dedication and pioneering work succeeded in establishing dance as equal among the arts.