Few things can make or break a performance as much as movement. But how do actors discern which movement-oriented creative impulses lead to captivating performances, and which should remain just that—impulses? For many, Laban Movement Analysis provides a vocabulary and framework to better understand how to use the body to express emotion through movement. Keep reading to learn more about Laban Movement Analysis and how it can help you become a better actor.
Laban Movement Analysis (LMA) is a means of conceptualizing, describing, and assessing the ways that humans move their bodies. Although it is most often used by dancers, choreographers, and dance theorists, LMA is also used by actors and acting coaches to help performers understand expressive choices and embody their characters. LMA has been used for more than half a century in actor training. Practitioners such as Jean Newlove, Yat Malmgren, Geraldine Stephenson, Brigid Panet, and Joshua Luckens have used LMA to teach actor movement classes.
LMA is largely taken from Rudolf Laban’s “The Mastery of Movement,” first published in 1950. A choreographer and dance theorist hailing from Austria-Hungary, Laban was a pioneer of modern dance as we know it today. He is one of the founding fathers of expressionist dance, a form that communicates feelings through the art of movement. Laban not only danced himself, taught others to dance, and advocated for dance literacy, he also created intricate taxonomies for understanding human movement, such as Labanotation, a theory of dance notation and analysis.
With partner Lisa Ullmann, Laban founded the Laban Art of Movement Guild and the Art of Movement Studio in England in the mid-1940s after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1937. (While there is some controversy about his alleged attachment to Nazi ideology before leaving Germany, it is believed that this was survivalist in nature.) London’s Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance carries on his legacy.
Laban’s notable students and associates include:
- Irmgard Bartenieff
- Hilde Holger
- Suzanne Perrottet
- Mary Wigman
Laban categorized movements using Eukinetics, or Efforts, and Choreutics, or Space Harmony. His work was carried on, particularly by Bartenieff and Ullmann, and situated into these categories: Body, Effort, Shape, and Space. These categories are often referred to using the acronym BESS.
This refers to what the physical form itself is doing—such as movement independence or interconnectivity—and how movement transfers from one part of the body to the next.
Laban named eight different types of ways that movement creates sensation or feeling. These Efforts are broken down into the motion factors of space, time, weight, and flow: essentially, the ways that your body moves through the world. He further developed two elements for each Effort to describe their qualities: space (or direction) is either direct or indirect; time (or speed) is either quick or sustained; weight is either heavy or light; and flow is either bound or free. The eight Efforts acting techniques are:
- Dab: direct, quick, light, bound
- Float: indirect, sustained, light, free
- Press: direct, sustained, heavy, bound
- Wring: indirect, sustained, heavy, bound
- Glide: direct, sustained, light, free
- Punch: direct, quick, heavy, bound
- Slash: indirect, quick, heavy, free
- Flick: indirect, quick, light, free
Laban asserted that each Effort conveys a special emotive quality. For example, floating might indicate that someone feels on top of the world, like Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) freely dancing post-romantic encounter to “You Make My Dreams Come True” in “500 Days of Summer.” Alternatively, slashing implies a feeling of upset, even anger, like the Phantom (Gerard Butler) in “The Phantom of the Opera” swearing violence and revenge with “Down Once More”—before Christine saves everyone with the power of a kiss, that is.
This covers how your body alters its form and why. The subcategories include:
- Shape forms: your body’s stationary shapes
- Modes of shape change: how your body interacts with its environment. Modes include “shape flow,” or your body’s connection to itself; “directional,” or your body’s direction within its environment; and “carving,” or your body’s interaction with the size of the environment
- Shape flow support: how your core or torso changes shape to support the rest of your body
This explains the way your body fills the space around it, particularly in a way that is harmonious. Aspects include:
- Kinesphere: the physical space around your body and how you respond to it
- Spatial intention: the ways that you, the mover, use different directions
LMA provides a useful way for actors to incorporate observation, movement, body language, and characterization into their performances.
LMA gives performers a framework for continuing their acting education through the simple act of observation. Jean Newlove, the author of “Laban for Actors and Dancers,” says that observing how other people walk—considering weight placement and how that begins the bodily narrative through movement—is a useful place to begin. Notice, for example, if the person leads with their chest or their knees when walking, or if they’re heavy- or light-footed; decide what that means for the “character” this person is. By applying an LMA lens to other people’s body movements, actors learn and grow, even when not in the classroom or on set.
Learning movement theory is a necessary part of any actor’s training. “Just as the voice must be able to convey character or emotion, so must the movement of the body, from a large gesture to the merest flick of the finger,” Newlove told Backstage. However, many actors hold back from conveying character and emotion through body movements because they’re afraid of overacting. “The body language will appear unnatural, small movements will expose inner tensions, and the actor’s use of the surrounding space will be inhibited,” Newlove said. “Gestures will tend to be empty and whilst the actor may make more expansive movements in space, they will still lack meaning.”
LMA helps actors get past the fear of movement by breaking it down into discernible patterns. Fittingly, it’s analogous to learning a new dance. While learning how to Shuffle may initially seem so complex as to be impossible, breaking the dance down into digestible components helps. Knowing just when to turn your feet inward and how to step; the direction, speed, weight, and flow (or Effort) of each movement; the shapes your body should take; and the way you fill the space around you makes learning the dance an easier prospect.
Similarly, discovering the taxonomy of ways that movement represents emotion helps actors become more comfortable making movements. For example, you might not be sure how best to convey a feeling of delicate buoyancy, but you know that LMA correlates it with the “float” Effort. With this knowledge, you can watch videos of floating and read instructions on how to perform it to demystify the movement. Try picking out key terms used in the script and cross-referencing them with Laban Efforts to see if particular movements feel right for the scene.
Many actors struggle with taking on a character’s body language. But just as each character has their own way of speaking (word choices, dialect, cadence, emotion behind the words), so too do they have their own way of moving (body, effort, shape, space—if you will). “How we move is an expression of our inner consciousness,” Newlove said. LMA helps performers access and express this deep-seated character inner consciousness.
For example, a character who just found out they lost their child, like She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in the film “Antichrist,” expresses an impossible, immense pain through their body. They’re not gliding or floating (graceful and playful); they’re punching and wringing (volatile and tormented).
Actors can use an LMA framework to observe other actors and performances, apply the methodology to scripts, or try and categorize characters in terms of the Effort they most commonly align with. For example, Bryan Cranston as a meth kingpin on “Breaking Bad” might be a punch or press Effort: dangerous, decisive, and unyielding. Alternatively, Bryan Cranston as inept but loving family man in “Malcolm in the Middle” leans more dab or flick Effort: placating, cheerful, and silly. Conceptualizing characters and their movements through an LMA lens provides fruitful modes of analysis and new ways of thinking about how to translate roles from text to lived experience.
These questions, taken from Laban practitioner Peggy Hackney’s “Making Connections,” can help performers better understand the power of movement on expressionism:
- What body parts move?
- Where does the movement initiate?
- How does movement spread through the body?
- What is the dynamic quality, the feeling-tone, the texture?
- What is the inner attitude toward using energy?
- What forms does the body make?
- Is the shape changing in relation to self or in relation to the environment?
- What is the quality of the changing shape?
- How large is my space?
- Where is the movement going?
- What are the active “spatial pulls”?
- Read: Books including Newlove’s “Laban for Actors and Dancers” and “Laban for All” (with John Dalby), Hackney’s “Making Connections”, Barbara Adrian’s “Actor Training the Laban Way,” or the Theatre Arts Workbook “The Laban Workbook for Actors.”
- Attend: Institutes like the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies, the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, any number of local Laban-based movement studios, or events such as those put on by the Laban Guild International.
- Study: Laban acting courses such as those offered by Udemy, The New School, and the National Institute of Dramatic Art.