L is for Labanotation

13 Apr

a-to-z-letters-l… or a version thereof.

If you’re a ballet dancer you’ll know exactly what Labanotation is. It was created by Rudolph Laban to physically document human movement, based on the belief that you can physically record every single human emotion. In its simplest form, Laban created musical notes for dancers – and it’s complex and complicated.

I never studied Labanotation but I did study Movement Psychology when I was in drama school. This was the brainchild of two men – Yat Malmgren and William Carpenter – who basically took Laban’s techniques and adapted them to apply specifically to actors. At my drama school, the class was simply called “Yat” – an homage to Malmgren.

So our Yat (Movement Psychology) classes were extremely complex. They were both physical exercise classes as well as psychological classes, that required a lot of lessons written into our “Yat” books. The physical classes strip you of all individuality. You lie on the ground (and when your spine is strong enough you advance to standing Yat classes  – NOTHING was worse than an early morning Yat standing class. You’d feel like you’d been dragged through a mill after 90 minutes). Everything focused on the spine and the notion that all emotion emanated from the spine. If you had a strong spine you could withstand the toughest of acting exercises. Hence both the physical classes followed by the psychological classes. Yat classes made Method classes (which we also studied) seem like a walk in the park!

It’s kind of hard to explain Yat classes, which is why Malmgren never published his work. He believed it was too open to misinterpretation. It’s also why we were told (no idea if it’s true) that other drama schools would “kill” to get their hands on our books, with their six “inner attitudes” and cube drawings and weird gobbledygook that we carefully wrote in each week until we had compiled our own Movement Psychology book.  It’s passed down to those lucky students who studied under Yat himself at The Drama Centre in London. I went to drama school in Australia – called The Drama Studio – and ALL the teachers were graduates of The Drama Centre and devoted Yat students.

Yat Malmgren

Yat Malmgren

So, given that daily Yat classes and years of studying still made it difficult to wrap our heads around this technique, I don’t expect to be able to explain Yat in any comprehensible form, here. BUT, I still have my Yat book and I still know that I unlocked the key to many characters I played via these classes. I’ll never forget the day when a student went ‘Wow, how did Shakespeare know Yat (technique?).’

Only at The Drama Studio could we run around saying that a character was one of these six inner attitudes: Near, Mobile, Awake, Stable Adream or Remote. (And of course like all students we’d often take the piss out of the whole thing, creating our own attitudes; “Asleep” was one of our favourites).  But on a serious note, if  you could unlock that key and discover which inner attitude (and sometimes there were fusions – even more complex) your character was you could start breaking down which “factors” they possessed: motion, mental, inner participations, inner quests, elements and characteristics.

Yes, it sounds complicated. And on some level it was. But when you could connect the physical classes with the psychological classes, when it all melded together, when you understood each inner attitude clearly, when your body no longer felt it had been stretched on a torture rack, you were finally allowed to create an entire character based on these inner attitudes. They were some of the most powerful creations to walk a drama studio stage and are what led many graduating students to land an agent based on their “Yat” character creations alone. I will never forget the exhilaration of creating my Awake character – a character that is not bound by time or space (sounds crazy I know). Unlocking the psychology of what makes a person tick through this combined method of physical movement and psychological motivation  was truly an incredible learning experience.

Hats off to Rudolph Laban and to Yat Malmgren, who took an 18-year-old drama school student and turned her into a true practitioner of the genuine human experience. Stuck in a a large, empty room, flat on the floor in a black leotard, black tights, white socks and black ballet flats (standard school issue Yat class uniform), strips you both physically and psychologically bare. When you can perform certain Yat exercises without the fear that our teacher warned us of  – ‘Do this incorrectly and you’ll land up paralyzed’ – when the central five discs of your spine hit the floor without having to force them there, and you can FINALLY understand after months and months what it really means to “see without watching” and to “hear without listening” you can start to scratch the surface of the extraordinary work that you can produce with Yat’s technique.

Some of the greatest British actors of our time are graduates of the Drama Centre in London including Simon Callow, Anthony Hopkins and Colin Firth. Trust me, they have been through the wringer and are better actors for their Movement Psychology classes, taught by the great Yat Malmgren himself.  I think Firth summed up Yat best in this interview when he said:

Yat took Laban’s notation into acting. We studied movement psychology and its notation. We didn’t use the notation particularly, but the notation is based on principles of putting psychological concepts into space, into action, into the physical world. It all sounds terribly alienating and full of shit, really, to people who don’t subscribe to it,” he continued. “I found that after a couple of years of it, it started to make an enormous amount of sense; it came as close as anything anybody really can to teaching acting. I think it’s very hard to teach acting. You certainly can’t teach talent. It made sense to me, and I still use it.

Kind of nice to know that Colin and I studied the same technique. Wonder how much Yat he used in his walk out of the lake scene in Pride and Prejudice?

I still have my Yat book – handwritten, with its crazy notes and utter gobbledygook to anyone who has not studied the technique. Malmgren passed away in 2002, never having published a book on his techniques. I wonder how much my book would be worth to a desperate drama student? I could sell it on eBay possibly. But you know what? I don’t think I would ever sell it. Not for anything. It’s quite an extraordinary work and it’s only now that I’ve come to realise how lucky I am to possess this.

Still, if you ARE a drama student desperate to get their hands on his work, show me you can get your central five flat on the floor without sucking your stomach in; prove that you can hear without listening; and then  tell me what the motion factors are for the Adream state. Maybe we can strike a deal.


8 Responses to “L is for Labanotation”

  1. Rebecca Klempner April 14, 2013 at +00:00SunUTC #

    I’ve never taken any acting lessons, nor have I acted on stage, so this is a totally new world for me. But this is so interesting and really connects to writing characters, as well.

  2. Elan September 24, 2013 at +00:00TueUTC #

    Hey, I would love a copy of your handwritten notes. Or, what about that book The Knowing Body. Would you recommend it? We were introduced to Laban in my voice class at Graduate school, and the director of my program was a little obsessed about inner attitudes, and effort cubes. Would love to get some more information on it.

    • Kelly January 8, 2014 at +00:00WedUTC #

      We were told to NEVER share our notes on pain of death, dismemberment or both. I don’t know The Knowing Body. Sorry. Yes, it’s easy to get obsessed with inner attitudes and effort cubes! I feel your director’s pain.

      • Paul February 20, 2014 at +00:00ThuUTC #

        The Knowing Body written by Janys Hays, who was taught by Yat and teaches his approach as well as Vladimir Mirodan’s, thesis on Yat are available online. You just have to look for it. Vladimir teaches at Drama Centre, the school Yat started. Both thesis’ contain Yat’s class notes as provided by Drama Centre.

      • Kelly February 20, 2014 at +00:00ThuUTC #

        wow! Thanks for this. I had no idea.

  3. dtulaine April 26, 2014 at +00:00SatUTC #

    I was there. Group 16. I remember the shock of a Stable scenario on my system. He said I should feel slightly sick. “knocked off my center.” I did. It is fascinating to watch Tom Hardy use the training.

  4. Jeff Gonek October 24, 2014 at +00:00FriUTC #

    I am very interested in learning more about this, especially the 6 inner attitudes. Could you provide me with some details or point me in the right direction? I recently graduated from film school and want to continue my actor studies. Thanks.

    • Kelly March 12, 2015 at +00:00ThuUTC #

      Sorry about the delayed response. I’m not an expert in this field and I think someone said there is a book you can get somewhere about it, but I’m honestly not sure where. Sorry I have no good leads.

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