A Student’s Tribute
In May of last year, Dr. Marion North, the former Principal of The Laban Centre sadly passed away. There were a few obituaries at the time, a couple of which I have linked to below, that do a much better job than I ever could of describing her work and listing her many considerable achievements in the dance world. The spectacular ‘new’ Laban Centre on Creekside is a truly fitting legacy that she leaves behind. This post is written from the personal perspective of a thankful former student who remembers her fondly.
Like she was with many students, Marion was very generous to me whilst I was studying at what was then, The Laban Centre for Movement & Dance. Pretty much the entire trajectory of my life changed when I met her in an interview whilst auditioning for a place at the school in 1994. She looked at me over her glasses that day and said, ‘You’re not quite as ferocious in the flesh as you are in this photograph, are you? [I had a shaved head on my application form photo]’. A few minutes later I think she had pretty much decided that she was going to give me a scholarship, which was absolutely crucial at the time as the Conservative government in the mid-90s would not provide any funding, at all, for students who gained places at reputable dance or drama schools.
Over the next couple of years we often met whilst passing in the long and winding corridors of the old Laban Centre in Laurie Grove and I, along with others, sometimes got called in to her office to talk about how things were going.
As a third year student things got difficult for me. My father died and I was evicted from the family home I had lived in for most of my life. In the last term of the third year my overdraft ran dry and with no parental support (my mother had died a few years before) and very little chance of finding other work (a typical Laban weekday in the third year is 8:45am-9pm with rehearsals for graduate pieces at weekends), I was in a pretty perilous position.
I went to see Marion in her office, she picked up her phone and summoned the caretaker and the buildings manager (Charlie & Lewis) and informed them the building was looking shabby and that they could do with an extra pair of hands. She basically put me on the payroll; and for the final 12 weeks or so until graduation I did the early morning caretaker rounds and other general odd jobs. She really saved my bacon that day and I know for a fact that I wasn’t the only one that she helped like that, often out of her own pocket.
One such job, she also gave me was a ‘furniture moving job’ at her home just off Tottenham Court Road. I went round one Sunday and she asked me to move a chair from her living room to her kitchen. After I had done so, she told me to sit down, gave me £60 and poured us both a dram of whisky. We had a lovely chat about what Rudolph Laban was like – “A proper Austro-Hungarian gentleman”, her background, “I’m a Yorkshire lass you know” and Riverdance, “Ghastly. But it just shows you how much people like patterns”. Her husband, Mac, then turned up and he started reciting W.H Auden poems from memory – All in all it was quite a memorable day!
After our third year graduation shows I found out that I had been shortlisted for the Student Choreography Award, which I was pretty chuffed about. Marion called me into her office to talk about it, “Adam, I know the choreography staff like it, but I’m telling you, your piece is boring! You must stop doing all of this improvisation stuff and start crafting dance properly!’.
Marion was infamously direct, but I didn’t mind her ‘firm kind of nurturing’ as it was coming from the heart and she really cared.
After graduating we still kept in touch and I think the last time we met was around 2008 when I went to visit her. She had started to become affected by Parkinson’s disease, which must have been devastating for someone who has spent their entire working life analysing movement. As we were talking she moved her arm and there was a tiny tremor. “Did you see it?!”. I told her it was barely noticeable, which was the truth. But to her it was massive and I think upsetting. After meeting her that time I’ve heard since that she and Marina Benini, who she was very fond of, set up Musical Moving, a dance group for people with Parkinson’s at various locations in London.
I know Marion’s work was incredibly important to her, which is perhaps why she pushed so many people around her to go further and deeper into the fields of performance, dance education, choreological studies, dance movement therapy, Ph.D. research, etc. On reflection I think she might have been knowingly trying to do her part to build a community that would ensure the continued health of the discipline she was such a pioneer in.
Now that the baton has been passed on, I hope those of us who were influenced by her or directly touched by her life might continue to be advocates for movement and dance.
* Thank you to Mark Whitfield for permission to use the photograph