Feature: Dr Marion North, obituary
Marion North OBE, CBE, PhD, DArts, DLit, dance educator, movement researcher and arts leader, born 2 November 1925, died 3 May 2012
Obituary: Ian Bramley
Dr Marion North, who has died at the age of 86, was one of the key figures in British contemporary dance of the last century. Marion led the renowned and influential dance training institution, the Laban Centre (under a number of variations on the name) for 30 years and in that time reshaped professional dance training in the UK and increased the wider understanding of the importance of dance in a variety of contexts. By the time Marion retired in 2003, she had developed the Laban Centre from an institution focusing on Rudolf Laban’s work and teacher training in Addlestone in Surrey to an international centre for dance training, investigation and research housed in a state-of-the-art building in London. She had created an organisation that supported dance in its fullest sense with an international reputation for high quality and rigour. Noting her rare qualities, her friend and colleague Valerie Preston-Dunlop, has said:
‘She was woman of vision who also had the capacity to put her vision in place.’ The result of that vision, plus her considerable skills as a leader, manager and administrator, has resulted in a lasting legacy for the whole of the dance community.
Marion was born and grew up in Hull, attending grammar school there. As a young woman, during the Second World War, she acted as a bicycle messenger for the Red Cross during air raids on the city, demonstrating the first signs of the indomitable spirit she would display throughout her career.
Marion studied at Homerton Teacher Training College, before undertaking postgraduate study at the Art of Movement Studio in Manchester in the 1950s. The Studio had been set up in 1946 by Rudolf Laban (1879-1958), a charismatic dance practitioner, researcher and theoretician, and his partner Lisa Ullmann. Laban had come to England from Germany as a refugee in the Second World War, having created a system for analysing movement from which he developed his theories of eukinetics (effort) and choreutics (space), and a movement notation system – Labanotation. At different times his work encompassed expressionist dance theatre, movement choirs, creating movement pieces for community groups, dance in education, movement observation, and time and motion studies within industry. Rudolf Laban’s ideas would provide the inspiration and framework for Marion’s subsequent work.
After completing her studies, Marion joined the Studio’s faculty, where she specialised in the detailed observation of human behavioural movement. She became apprenticed to Laban, developing a test for assessment of personality through the analysis of physical behaviour and pioneering creative movement in the workplace as recreational activity for industrial workers.
In 1973, Marion gained her PhD from the University of London, the topic of which was an investigation of the ‘purposiveness’ of movement patterns in babies. Further research included a longitudinal study of movement characteristics of children from babies to adolescence, and her book, Personality Assessment through Movement first published in 1972, remained in print for decades. Throughout her life, Marion continued to promote, develop and disseminate Rudolf Laban’s work, most notably at universities in the USA.
Marion took up the position of Head of Dance at Sidney Webb College, London, in 1962, a post she held for 10 years before leaving to become Head of the Dance Department at Goldsmiths College. In 1973, on Lisa Ullmann’s retirement, Marion concurrently became Principal of the Art of Movement Studio, renaming the institution the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance and relocating it to New Cross in South East London. She moved the Centre from its then home in Addlestone as she felt that a metropolitan context was a better place than the leafy suburbs to develop contemporary artists. For the next 30 years, Marion would dedicate her life to the development of the Laban Centre, including extending the New Cross premises to provide additional studios, offices and eventually a studio theatre.
Under Marion’s directorship, the Laban Centre developed to become a world leader in the education and training of dance artists and scholars; Marion took her direct experience of Rudolf Laban’s heritage and refreshed and re-defined it to ensure its survival and relevance in the current dance environment.
As her friend and colleague Walli Meier noted:
‘Marion North dedicated her life to the acknowledgement and furtherance of the work of Rudolf Laban with whom she had worked intimately for many years. She had the vision, dedication and strength to see her aspirations and intentions through, in spite of all the obstacles in her way, and there were many.’
At this point in the 1970s, contemporary dance was only just beginning to establish itself in the UK and the Laban Centre, alongside the London School of Contemporary Dance, became a key instigator of the art form. Marion refocused the Centre’s work from teacher training to a core programme of training professional dancers and choreographers. Movement studies based on the theories of Rudolf Laban, together with academic and related studies, promoted debate and discourse, establishing dialogue and creativity as a central feature of contemporary dance education and training.
In 1974 Marion invited Bonnie Bird, a former dancer with the Martha Graham Company and a passionate and innovative dance educator, to join her in reshaping the Laban Centre. Together, Bonnie and Marion established the Centre’s programmes to support the development of creative, contemporary dance artists.
Under Marion’s leadership, the Laban Centre became a pioneering institution that considerably raised the status and range of dance study in the UK. The Centre’s history reads as a list of ‘firsts’: Laban established Britain’s first BA (Hons) Dance Theatre in 1977, the first MA in Dance Studies and first PhD progamme in dance in 1980, the first MA in Dance Movement Therapy (in collaboration with Hahnemann University, Philadelphia, USA) in 1985, the first MA Scenography [Dance] in1999, and the first MSc in Dance Science in 2001. These achievements sit alongside such innovations as: Dance Theatre Journal, founded in 1982; Transitions Dance Company, which has been bringing together exceptionally talented young dancers with some of the world’s most exciting choreographers for 30 years; and the establishment of a programme for training community dance practitioners. Many outstanding dance artists, practitioners and academics put in place the foundations for their success within the Laban Centre’s programmes and it is no exaggeration to say that the Centre and Marion North’s direction have played a major role nationally and internationally in shaping the dance landscape.
Marion did not achieve her successes in isolation. Despite her fierce independence of vision, she worked through close collaborations with other dance professionals, sometimes providing a home for maverick thinkers. Her professional relationships included the influential dance educationalist Dr Peter Brinson, dance practitioner/researcher and a fellow pupil and associate of Rudolf Laban, Dr Valerie Preston-Dunlop, and the dance writer and strategist Chris de Marigny.
In 1985, with Bonnie Bird, Marion established the Bonnie Bird Choreography Fund to encourage innovative choreographers in Britain, Europe and America, using donations from friends and colleagues on the occasion of Bonnie’s 70th birthday. From its inception, the Fund supported awards, now known as the Bonnie Bird New Choreography Awards, to help the development of emerging choreographers, recognising the need for artists at an early stage in their career to have time and resources to develop their own creative practice and artist research. Over time the range of awards supported by the Fund expanded to incorporate the Chris de Marigny Dance Writers Award and the Marion North Mentoring Award, which the Fund established in her name when she contributed money to the fund to specifically recognise how younger dance artists can gain from the experience and expertise of established dance artists. The Mentoring Award will continue as part of Marion’s legacy to the dance world. One major component in the continuing survival of the Fund was how Marion yoked together her passion for the development of new dance talent with her business and financial acumen. A strong presence on the board of trustees, she continually ensured a secure financial base for the awards and an adherence to the principles on which the Fund was founded.
Maggie Morris, a student, friend and colleague of Marion’s and Chair of the Bonnie Bird Choreography Fund, said:
’Marion had a keen and brilliant mind and a focus for detail and high standards that threaded through everything that she undertook. As her students, we were always pushed to question and investigate every part of our training, and she continued to support and nurture students’ careers long past the time they had completed their studies. As founder and life trustee of the Bonnie Bird Choreography Awards she worked passionately and rigorously to further her aim that the fund should support choreographers at all stages of their careers and not be slow to respond artists’ needs.’
Marion’s influence extended well beyond the walls of the Laban Centre. In the 1980s and 1990s she was a key figure in the development of the Council for Dance Education and Training (CDET), the body representing professional dance training and related educational interests in Britain, informing the Government and other agencies working in dance. When the discretionary award scheme that had provided financial support for students to train in dance was discontinued in the mid-1990s, Marion was the driving force behind securing government funding for undergraduate students wanting to study dance at professional level, providing a bridge to the current more stable funding structure.
At the end of the twentieth-century, Marion’s focus was on securing a new home for the Laban Centre where dance education, training and research could expand to encompass innovative contemporary developments. The Centre’s buildings in New Cross were no longer adequate and had never been fully accessible. An application for National Lottery Funding through Arts Council England in 1999 was successful and renowned architects Herzog & de Meuron were brought on board, fresh from their work on Tate Modern. The resulting award-winning building, which opened in 2003, remains a landmark in its Deptford location and a continuing testament to Marion’s persistence, determination and powers of persuasion.
As perhaps the most famous of the Laban Centre’s alumni, choreographer and artistic director of New Adventures, Matthew Bourne commented:
‘We have so much to thank Marion for, not least for the legacy of the beautiful building that she fought so hard for. She was a powerful force in her day. A great lady, who has made a difference to thousands of lives. What better legacy can anyone have?’
In her later years, Marion developed Parkinson’s. Typically, Marion found a way to utilise her understanding of movement and dance to help others with the condition. Marion was a co-founder of Kentish Town Dance which provided specially designed dance classes for people with Parkinson’s to enable them to enjoy expressive movement to live musical accompaniment. Later, she acted as a movement consultant to Musical Moving, the organisation that emerged from this original class.
Marion’s dedication to dance, Rudolf Laban’s heritage and the Centre that bears his name did not preclude a rich and rewarding personal life. She enjoyed a happy marriage with banker Francis ‘Mac’ McNamara from 1980 until his death in 1998 – a loss which left her devastated –and relished her role as stepmother to Mac’s two children. She looked after her own invalid mother for a number of years and will be remembered by many as a faithful and generous friend with a wicked sense of humour.
Anthony Bowne, who took over as Principal of the Laban Centre from Marion and led it into a new phase of its history as Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, summarised Marion’s legacy as follows:
‘Marion’s vision, persuasiveness and sheer determination have made an enormous contribution to developing the profile of contemporary dance education and training in this country. Her belief that creative work should be at the heart of every dance student’s experience continues to be a guiding principle in the development of all our dance courses and activities, and her conviction that Rudolf Laban’s work should form a significant dimension of studies here has secured us a unique place in the dance profession. Marion leaves us with a wonderful legacy, including our stunning building – her ultimate vision realized. We are now the guardians of this legacy, charged with responsibility to look always for innovative ways forward and creative solutions to the challenges facing us. Her absence will be an enormous loss.’
Marion North was presented with several honorary degrees in recognition of her contribution to the performing arts and to the cultural life of the country, including Doctor of Music, Honoris Causa, from City University London. She received an OBE in 2000 for her services to dance and was awarded CBE in 2004 as former Principal and Chief Executive of the Laban Centre.
Marion North is survived by her stepchildren, Bryony White and Thomas McNamara.
Photo: Dr Marion North at the Laban Centre – by Mark Whitfield
Ian Bramley was Editor of Dance Theatre Journal, 1998 – 2003.