Longstaff, J. S. (2003). What makes Laban so angry? A conversation with Warren Lamb about
space harmony, file folders, and violent outbursts. Action Recording (Surrey; Labanotation
Institute), 91/92 (Feb.), 7-11.
WHAT MAKES LABAN SO ANGRY?
A conversation with Warren Lamb about space harmony, file folders, and violent outbursts
2003 Jeffrey Scott Longstaff
In casual conversation I had heard Warren Lamb describe an event in which Laban
reacted angrily when someone presented space harmony scales as points. This seemed
significant since spatial scales are represented in Choreutics (Laban, R. 1966 , London:
MacDonald & Evans) as series of points whereas in the German work Choreographie (Laban, R.
1926, Jena: Eugen Diederichs) scales are represented as series of deflecting inclinations.
Warren agreed to describe the event in more detail and on 8th August 2001 we got together in
Old Isleworth, England. What occurred was a discussion of Labans feelings on choreutics but
also a look at the types of events which tended to arouse Laban into such a violent outburst.
What follows are excerpts of our conversation:
Warren Lamb - The story is illustrative of the extent to which Laban could really become
tyrannical and very very denunciatory. I just do not know to what extent this happened during
his time in Europe. I suspect that with Mary Wigman for example there was an occasion when
he became very very critical and denounced what she was doing and that she didnt understand
one-half of what he was developing, and she seemed to weather that particular storm and to
retain her respect for him. [see: Wigman, M., 1954, My teacher Laban, LAMG Magazine,
13 (Dec.), 5-12.]
I remember an occasion at the Art of Movement Studio [in Manchester] . . . around about
1947 or 48 when there was . . . a student . . . she was having to take a class in front of Laban on
a space harmony study. So she assembled the students and started by saying, I want you to
start at the icosahedron point 2 and went to what she regarded as point 2. And Laban fumed
and said This is not a point! This 2 is a movement and not a point, what we are doing here is
movement, you dont understand and he really attacked her so fiercely, that she left.
Jeffrey Longstaff - Right then?
WL - A few days later. Well, she retired for the rest of the day after that class and just left
and went back to New York. . . . . . Other people have withstood that sort of attack from Laban
and carried on. I experienced it myself. So, I wouldnt like to put the story in any respect
undermining of Laban.
. . . There may have been some justification for it. He had a bit of a dubious sort of
attitude to Americans anyway. When he made his visit to America in, when was it? 1926,
which was supposed to have been not very successful, he came back probably upset that he had
not been recognised as much as he felt he should have been. It seemed to me that he carried
that on a bit to somewhat generalise a negative attitude toward Americans.
. . . I think it is illustrative of Labans tendency to have occasional bursts of furry,
which he recognised because he discussed with me once that for most of the time that he was
fairly calm and relaxed and sympathetic, but that he just had to burst out from time to time.
JL - It was normal that Laban might have been present?
WL - Oh very much so. It was expected that he would be there almost every day. And then
there were occasions, you know Laban had periods of depression. I remember there was one
period of 3 months when we did not see him at all.
JL - So he was living in Manchester at the time, . . .
WL - He was living there. . . . because of the friendship that grew between Laban and F. C.
Lawrence, Laban came to Manchester in 1946. And he and Lisa Ullmann set up the Art of
Movement Studio . . .
It was typical, we would do eukinetic studies, effort studies, we would also do choreutic
studies, which were basically space harmony studies. So we would have homework to do, to
prepare a study on a 3-ring, or on the axis-scale or something of that sort. Then Laban would
come to see the results and sit looking very regal and aristocratic, and powerful, in the front
row with Lisa Ullmann sitting next to him all bubbly and very ready to jump up. . . So a
number of students were all showing homework or study that day.
JL - And, was this the very first thing in her session?
WL - This was the very first thing.
JL - Oh, I see that would be very difficult then. So what did she do after Laban did his thing?
WL - She continued in a very very belated way, and then just felt she could not continue
anymore, and walked out.
JL - You mean walked out of the room.
WL - Yes. . . . . .
JL - So you were obviously observing, or were you one of the students?
WL - I was a fairly early student in those days.
JL - So you were one of the students presenting your study as well?
WL - Oh yes, yes, Oh I was.
JL - What did Laban say to your study? . . .
WL - These outbursts were very limited in time. He would have an outburst and then he
didnt carry it on. I mean he didnt remain in an angry attacking state for hours. It was just
JL - Did he actually stand up when he was saying this?
WL - Yes.
JL - Oh, he stood up, and talking really loud?
WL - Yes.
JL - Would you say yelling? . . . . . .
WL - . . . certainly talking loudly with great emphasis and power. . .
. . . In an attempt to understand Labans character, there is quite a lot of that sort of thing.
JL - Did you observe Laban to have this same kind of reaction in other times? Because you
said he only rarely lost his temper like this.
WL - Yes, there was an occasion when [a colleague] and I both went to Labans house, and we
complained. I think Laban had been having one of his periods of depression and just hadnt
turned up and we complained that there was no guidance being given at the studio. The mere
fact that Laban did not address the issues at all, he just attacked us and said we did not
understand, that we didnt know what was going on, that we did not have any comprehension . . .
JL - Do you think in that case he was defending Lisa Ullmann? Was that part of it?
WL - Oh no, not at all. I think something in his character that he felt he was above
criticism. There was another occasion, . . . There was a group of students [who formed the
British Dance Theatre], . . . and we gave a performance . . . at the Library theatre in
Manchester. There was quite a major review by the critic of the Guardian and in that review,
he gave quite a favourable review of the choreography, of the dance performance itself. But he
made some critical comments of Laban himself . . . of his work, just what he stood for in
Germany and the character of his work and so on. And Laban was outraged by this. But I think
most people, particularly people in the theatre would expect criticism Im sure. Laban must
have had criticism during his years of the 20s and 30s. On the other hand . . . Laban was
revered to a very great extent, and probably didnt have to cope with criticism very much.
JL - In Europe.
WL - Thats right. And if there was criticism, he just could dismiss it and ignore it.
JL - Did you ever see any other times when he responded in this way? . . .
WL - He was very very authoritative, I remember I had a script of a book which I was trying
to get published in 1955. And Laban insisted that He was the only one who would publish
books and demanded that I withdrew it. Of course that only stimulated me all the more to try
to get it published. . . . It was the forerunner [of Posture and Gesture]. I still have the script,
it was called Movement Observation. . .
JL - I was wondering if you ever saw him raise objections . . . in ways saying you are
misrepresenting my work. . . .
WL - He had a very very strong feeling, against any misrepresentation on the one hand. On
the other hand, He would encourage people, and encourage very humble people in thinking that
they did have a good understanding of his work and they would say Oh Laban has given me so
much and their impression was that Laban believed them to be very sensitive perceptive
understanding people. Whereas I knew of quite a number of cases where Laban would talk to
me of these very same people in the most derogatory terms.
JL - Oh, No! He sounds like a real scoundrel.
WL - Oh, in many respects you could say that. It happened to many many people in touch
with him, they felt and there is a case, a basis for saying, truly so, that he had a genuine
appreciation and concern to encourage them in their own movement awareness and in dance and
I believe that was genuine. In Germany he did try to cultivate a folk dance, a contemporary
folk dance. He loved to get people, humble people together to dance and do big movement
choirs and it gave him a thrill to be responsible for getting people to do more than they
believed themselves capable of. So, He did that. But as soon as any of those people began to get
a little bit, as it were, even a little bit sort of over-confident and beginning to present any sort
of rivalry or to get to the point where they might even criticise something that he had done,
then, he would be very down on them. So it is one extreme to the other. . .
. . . I think you have to look at the compulsive . . . in Labans case. I remember once I was
working with him and he wanted a particular sort of folder which seemed to be so urgent to him
that I went out to a local shop to get this folder and I came back and it was not the type of
folder that Laban wanted. This was really very trivial, it was not the type of folder that Laban
had in mind. And he just exploded, and roared.
. . . It really was very very ridiculous for the [occasion], I could have gone out and said
Oh, well, Ill take it back and get the right one. So, that sort of vehemence was quite
inappropriate to the cause and so was obviously some sort of compulsive sort of reaction that
Laban had. It just came up from time to time. He could have been intimidating, it really was
powerful, vehement, attacking. . .
JL - To me the story has to do with space harmony, . . . it is about the whole movement or
position thing, isnt it? Thats why the story is interesting to me. Im not really interested so
much in Labans character. Just the fact that he was so upset about this, it was unusual in that
he didnt do it all the time. This was a part of his work and a theory topic that he took a point
to get upset at. But, on the other hand he got so upset about a trivial matter, this notebook, so
maybe His being upset is really not an indicator of the importance of the matter.
WL - No [agreeing]
JL - Because this folder was not very important, and he got so upset about that. Maybe it
was just a mood he was in that day or something. . . .
WL - . . . Well, I suppose that could be a factor, but I think it was anything which had an
indication of threatening or undermining the distinctive special nature of his contribution to
the world, the work that he was doing, I think that would spark him off, any criticism which
related to his lifes work
JL - So how does the wrong folder issue fit into that?
WL - Well, that is quite true, that didnt have anything to do with his lifes work
. . . Well, maybe indirectly.
JL - . . . Maybe you weren't being somehow respectful or something.
WL - Probably he had been feeling a bit fed-up with me at the time.
JL - And here comes Warren back with the wrong folder!
WL - Here I am spending all my time with this blockheaded student who is never going to
get anywhere, and then he goes and gets the wrong folder!
JL - It is that story about the wrong folder, which makes me feel like he might get upset
about anything. It makes it hard to judge if it really is such an important matter or not. . . .
Because he got so upset about the wrong folder, and that wasnt very important, maybe this
[space harmony] thing . . . was not very important either.
WL - He may have felt it was a fundamental misunderstanding that she is really talking
about fixed positions as though thats movement. In that case, I think, he felt a threat to his
basic principles and philosophy. . . It could have happened, when he would have responded in a
calmer way. . . . Somebody might have said I want you to start at point 2 and He might have
said, No my child, point 2 is not a point, it is a movement and so on, and he would treat it
good-humouredly. He very often did have good humour.
DISCUSSION - On reconsidering this conversation I am struck by how there seems to be no
clear pattern for where and when a violent outburst might occur. The randomness would
indicate that such an outburst is not a reliable measure of the importance of the matter.
Nevertheless, to have Laban standing and yelling at you would probably give an impression
that the matter was very important indeed. It must be assumed that several factors would come
together in just the right way to send Laban over the top. In the case described here the
choreutic points may have been the straw that broke the camels back, a nagging little
irritation, like wrong file folders.
Aside from the intensity of the reaction, what is the question of points? Textbooks
commonly present choreutic scales as series of points and use direction symbols for limb
movement. These methods firmly root choreutic practice in a position-based conception and
action even though an emphasis is commonly made to find movement between the points in a
connect-the-dots sort of fashion. Of course visualising space as network of fixed points is an
essential spatial ability, however an entirely contrasting method for choreutics is given in
Labans German work Choreographie (1926). Here an early symbol system is used to notate
spatial scales as deflecting inclinations (motions), without any reference to points
whatsoever. This is different than movement towards a point, instead in this case the
fundamental perceptual unit is an orientation of a line-of-motion. Points or locations are left
entirely unspecified. This essential difference of conception may also lead to a basic practical
difference where choreutic scales are interpreted in what Laban (1966, p. 125) described as a
free space when he briefly returned to this same subject later in Choreutics, and where he
identified this motion conception again as an old dream in this field of research.