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From Laban’s Effort Graph into an ecology of curiosities 

Tuulia Soininen 
COMMA – Master of Choreography, Codarts & Fontys 

I am currently on a journey of exploring and expanding into a new territory for myself: the unclear, blurry, unknown, complex and hard-to-define. As a maker I like things that are clear, defined, that can be put neatly into boxes. It gives me clarity as a person and a sense of comfort. As an artist, I usually start with a rich and playful process that branches out into curious directions. But often, I feel the urge early on in the process to start narrowing it down, to know where I am going, to put definitions on things. That sometimes leads to the end result being more one-sided than what my process actually was.  

As a person I believe in a world that is not about strict definitions or boxes. I believe in a fluid, queer world full of complex relations that is constantly changing and living. I do not believe the world is black and white. I do not believe something is either this or that, it most likely is both of them to some extent. Or it can be a whole other thing that we are not able to see because we defined it must be either this or that. I believe in a living, breathing spectrum of colours.  And here my worldview clashes sometimes with my art. How could the final products of my art reflect more the rich process I went through and how I actually see the world? 

My artistic process is often sparked by something in the society that clashes with my values. Something I would like to change, something that I feel is unjust. I need to feel like what I am doing has greater meaning behind it. My process of exploring and embracing the blurriness for me creates a parallel between what I feel would be needed in the current political climate. We live in a world where conflicts, wars and segregation are everyday life. In the last election Finland received its first far-right government, a trend that has been happening all over Europe. Dividing people politically in different ways, for example: me-other, parasite (actual word used in Finnish Parliament)-hardworking, good-bad, has already had destructive effects on Finnish society, especially with racism (Ihmisoikeusliitto, 2023; Kinnunen, 2023; Laajapuro, 2023; Yle news, 2024).  So, with my art, could I enhance an approach which is not about segregation, polarisation and division but about embracing multidimensional complex discussions. And that to me means going into the uncomfortable territory of the blurry and unclear. 

I decided to focus on how I create movement. I work a lot with improvisation, and I create material together with the dancers. I tend to gravitate towards distinct movement material that is easy to grasp and define. When choosing or refining movement an important tool for me is Laban’s Effort Graph. I am not a Laban based practitioner and I do not use the Effort Graph linked with other Laban Movement Analysis’ concepts. Rather the Graph for me is a source of inspiration and clarity. 

I interpret Laban’s Effort Graph mainly through polarities. I do not believe in simplistic divisions in my everyday life but here I am as artist using a tool in a way which is built exactly on that. So, how does this affect my movement material? What kind of blind spots has it created for me? How could I use it in a different way? Is there movement outside or beyond the graph or perhaps hidden inside it? Could I broaden my movement language through exploring this? 















Figure 1: Laban Effort Graph. From Assessing the reliability of the Laban Movement Analysis system. Bernardet, U., Fdili Alaoui, S., Studd, K., Bradley, K., Pasquier, P., & Schiphorst, T., 2019, PLOS. 

First studio session 14.3.2024 
For the first studio session I had two things I wanted to explore. The first was a broader topic of exploring non-dualistic thinking in the division of me-other and subject-object. This research was inspired by the idea of transaction from pragmatic philosophy. Transaction “designates a process of mutual constitution that entails mutual transformation” (Sullivan, 2001, p. 1). It is “an active co-constitutive relationship between things” (Sullivan, 2001, p. 17). Things are their own entities, but they are in constant transaction with each other. To see where something begins and the other ends, is nearly impossible. We are in constant transaction with our environment. We affect the environment, but the environment also affects us. (Sullivan, 2001). The second thing I wanted to explore was if I could find new kind movement using the Laban Effort Graph in a new way for myself.  

I decided to have my first session with juggler and circus artist Merri Heikkilä. We worked with improvisation tasks. I had chosen six pairs of polarities try out and we tried each in a sketch-like manner. This session was more about gaining information and seeing which direction I want to take next. Merri worked with one or several juggling clubs and movement. 

The polarities were: 
Touch - be touched 
React – give impulse 

Free – bound 
Sustained- sudden 
Light- strong 
Direct - indirect 

I gave very simple, open-ended tasks. The tasks were: 
1. Explore each end of the polarity individually, for example free movement and then bound 
2. Explore so that both of them are present at the same time 
3. Explore so that neither one is present 

The second task was complex, and it completely was up to Merri how he decided to execute it. The third task is impossible on purpose. The question was to find out if there is movement outside the graph. If neither one of these is present, is there any movement at all?  

Key findings 
Overall, what became clear was that as a spectator it was helpful to first see the polarities separately. That made it possible to dismantle them or to create something outside them. The same also applied with the performer. It was useful to crystallize the elements separately before putting them together. 

I was most interested by the task of both polarities being present at once or neither one of them. This brought out interesting solutions. Sometimes it made the neutral or middle point of the line visible and other times it blurred the lines. Or it resulted in the extremities of the binary creating something new that was more than the sum of its parts. Finding things outside the simple definitions and labels is what interests me.  

But all in all, this session proved to me that I can use pre-existing definitions (in this case polarities from the Effort Graph) to tap into the zone of the undefined, unclear, complex and blurry. I do not have to let go off definitions all together. The definitions were created for a reason, and they have use. To me the world of movement that escapes easy definitions is a new and interesting one. I want to learn how to visit and spend time there more often.  

Thinking of performance context this brought me the question of how understandable was this hard-to-define movement material for an audience? My aesthetic is a lot about finding clear movement qualities and contrasts. It demanded more effort from me as a spectator not being able to define and grasp the movement immediately. Perhaps this is asking for a different mode of spectating and/ or creating?  

The exploration that was starting to take shape was about me challenging and expanding how I create and refine movement. What would start to emerge when I use the Effort Graph in a new way? With Merri I received glimpses of it; something delicate, complex, blurry, unclear that is not immediately easy to grasp and define. Something that challenged my movement aesthetic.  


Diving more into The Effort Graph 
I wanted to understand more about The Effort Graph because it was such a central tool for me. Why was it created? What for? What was its aim? Was there something in the Graph itself that was affecting the way I gravitate towards movement? Was the Graph intended to be looked through polarities? 

First, to put some context on Laban he was one of the first ones to combine and create theory for modern dance. Rudloph Von Laban was born in 1879 and died in 1958. He built much of the foundation for new dance in Europe throughout his career. Much of European modern dance is built on Laban. (Maletic, 1987; Newlove & Dalby, 2004).  

“The intent of Laban’s initial writing was, on one hand, to restore the validity of the dance experience itself, and on the other, to develop a descriptive vocabulary for the phenomenon of movement for the purpose of mastering its techne” (Maletic, 1987, p. 51) 

So, Laban was one of the first ones to create a vocabulary for modern dance. One of the original reasons behind it being to master dance technique (Maletic, 1987). This already illuminated the initial perspective for me: he didn’t start to create the vocabulary for example in order to create choreography or understand movement. Of course, throughout his career and posthumously his writings did end up reaching much further than only technique. Also, some of his terms changed; in the 20’s it was more about classifications and later in his career went into the direction of “hermetic technical terminology” (Maletic, 1987, p.109).  

Laban saw movement fundamentally “as a dynamic process on a continuum between polarities and that of the unity of all movement components” (Maletic, 1987, p.52). Laban saw that dividing movement into space, time and force was only apparent and that in reality they are inseparable (Maletic, 1987).  

Laban did not consider dance only through formal structures but also through the lived experience of the dancer as well (Carr, 2010). His writings contemplate movement and meaning which Carr considers to be influenced by expressionism. On the other hand: 

“in developing his actual means of conveying the spatial, temporal and dynamic content of bodily actions he ironically seems to be more aligned with the structuralist; there are hardly clearer examples of a system of binary opposites than in Laban’s choreutics (e.g. left forward low: right back high) and effort analysis (e.g. bound:free, sudden:sustained)” (Carr, 2010, p.2) 

Laban saw four Motion Factors in all human movement: weight, time, space and flow. He identified that weight consists of firm and fine, time of sustained and sudden, space of flexible and direct and flow of free and bound (Maletic, 1987; Newlove & Dalby, 2004). See Figure 2 for an illustration of this theory. 





Figure 2: The Effort Graph. From Body, space, expression: The development of Rudolf Laban's movement and dance concepts (p. 108), by Vera Maletic, 1987, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. Originally from The Mastery of Movement (p.81), by Rudolph Laban, 1960 ed, London: Macdonald and Evans.  

Carr (2010) suggests that Laban’s theories around effort can be seen as a response to rationalism with its need to prioritize reason and measurability. Laban provided a new way to analyse movement through effort and effort combinations. Nevertheless, Carr identifies:  

“That an analysis of effort relies on the assumption that the bodily attitudes of others can be perceived objectively may raise issues of cultural factors that affect perception” (Carr, 2010, p.4) 


The Effort Graph was based on the idea of resisting/ fighting and yielding/ indulging. Direct, sudden and firm fight against their Motion Factors and flexible, sustained and fine indulge in their Motion Factors (Maletic, 1987; Newlove & Dalby, 2004). Longstaff (2004) simply headlines the Graph as “Fighting & Indulging polarities”. 

To me Laban’s theories open up as complex discussions and a spectrum with the unity of all movement and creating a way to analyse and define it. His theory has been debated as “profoundly dualistic” (Sutil, 2013, p.6) but also revised through Laban’s proposal of non-dualism (Scialom, 2015). His theories encompass the experience and meaning of movement and can be interpreted through a holistic point of view (Andrade, 2010). But there are also dimensions which have elements of structuralism, dualism, binaries and polarities. The Effort Graph falls more under the latter end of the spectrum.  

I had only ever seen the newer version of the Effort Graph (Figure 1) and not the version with the four Motion Factors (Figure 2). I have never used the Graph in a way that for example the Element “free” would only extend to Flow, I see it including all the Motion Factors at once. I see that “free” includes and is a discussion with all four Motion Factors: weight, time, space and flow. Interpreting the Graph this way diminishes the division of fighting or indulging Motion Factors since they all are already enclosed within each Element.  
















Figure 3: My effort Graph 

So, this to revealed to me that in fact I am working with the Graph from my own unique perspective. Could I embrace this perspective even more?  

Queer theory and feminism has had a huge impact on how I see the world. Feminism for me is about seeing the world through fluid and complex relations and power structures. For example, in feminism gender isn’t seen as a narrow box you have to squeeze into.  

“Feminist researchers start with the assumption that the content and dividing lines for genders, sexes and sexualities are fluid and intertwined with other major social statuses; thus there are no ‘opposites’. ” (Lorber, 2022, p.36) 

I believe definitions and boxes to be fluid, interconnected and ever changing. Things cannot be disconnected from things happening around them. For me, this does not only apply to gender or sexuality but to my worldview overall. And now I am looking at creating and refining movement material through this lens. I am looking at Laban’s Effort Graph through complex ecologies of relationships. And my view of the Graph (Figure 3) is more in the form of an ecology. 


Studio sessions 11.4.2024 & 12.4.2024 
Because I decided to only work with the Effort Graph and leave the other explorations behind me, I decided to solely focus on working with a dancer and creating and refining movement.  

I worked with dancer Sanni “Sunny” Laine. She is a dancer who originally comes from a background of popping, locking and house but later on has started also broadening into contemporary dance.  Her movement language is an oasis of unusual movement qualities for me. Sanni had never worked before with the Effort Graph, so it was a blank slate with her. 

I worked in a similar way as with Merri. Sanni’s task was to first explore both ends of the polarity individually, then so that both were present and neither. I enjoyed working with the impossible tasks again. I was curious to see how Sanni would solve them.  

This was really challenging me in my movement creation. How could I stay longer with unclear and undefined qualities and to have the patience to stick with them to see what they could be or what could be found? If I say no to them too early on, I narrow myself and do not myself a chance to dive into the unknown.  I found myself being drawn in by these new and unfamiliar movement qualities. The qualities rose out of the same tasks as with Merri: when both or neither are present. 

Both with Merri and Sanni we worked in Finnish. The translation of some of the words from English to Finnish was not always easy. Especially the words sustained and bound don’t directly translate into Finnish, so we ended up using multiple words such as “pitkäjänteinen, pidättyväinen” or “kahlittu, sidottu” to try and find the best corresponding terms. Laban wrote in German and English and some of his terms also changed depending on what language he used (Maletic, 1987). When working with such simplistic tasks, the exact words I use to give the task have significance because it is the only source of information for the dancer. 

We used the second day to explore deeper and to layer tasks in new ways. I also introduced the opportunity to have sound or music. Some of the materials started taking a life of their own which was not so much about the Graph anymore. When we filmed it was up to Sanni to improvise a 2–3-minute sample and start and finish when she felt like it. I treat the videos as a way to showcase where we were with the process at that point. I realized these qualities were something that need a lot of time to cook. 

This, to me is a luxury I very seldom can afford. The funding in Finland usually means pieces have to be created in a very short amount of time and the process becomes more about finishing the piece rather than the exploration and the actual process. Sure, I am able to create this “fast-choreography”, but it results in the fact than things cannot be dug into deep and will be presented as shallow first-findings. I am only now realizing how much the production structure has affected my way of creating. This new, more slow-paced territory is a welcome one. I actually enjoy it. I also do hate it because I am not constantly in control of the movement and the process by knowing. But I love it because it allows me to really dive deep into creating. 


Vignette 1 “The void”  

This vignette came out working with strong and light. Sanni’s way of doing the task with neither of the qualities sparked my interest. In her own words, “I was outside the words light and strong, I was outside the line. I was in a void. It was a black hole and emptiness”. This resulted in interesting movement that was difficult to quickly pin down what it was. There was a sense of weightlessness and spacelessnes but there were also interesting accents and changes in speed. For me it was different than Merri’s way of solving this task. For me Merri found a “neutral”, somewhere in the middle of the line and Sanni’s solution was somewhere not on the line at all.  

We dived into Sanni’s sensations of “the void, black hole, space, no definitions” that came out of this. This was enhanced by making the space darker and with under-water sounds. What I am interest in this quality is how hard to define it is for me. I am interested to find out more. What is interesting is the sense of space or spacelessness that Sanni creates. There is an essence of sensing and delicateness that is not so typical for me. 

Vignette 2 “Pedestrian play” 

We worked with free and bound. These tasks Sanni treated in an interesting way. For her it was more about the state of mind. How could she be free emotionally and allow the body to do what it wants. With the bound I have to note the translation: “kahlittu” in Finnish directly translates into “in chains” and “sidottu” tied down. So, for her those acted as metaphors mentally. I thought this was an interesting approach to the Graph. And for me, this is treating the Graph as your own colouring book to draw inspiration from and use it in a way that helps you.  

Treating the Effort Graph through mental states is not very far-fetched. “[Laban effort training] involves the bodily performance connected with the mental assimilation of the underlying rules of Effort” (Maletic, 1987, p. 100). Laban did not see his training methods as only physical but saw that expression and mentality were intertwined in it. He did not believe in the Cartesian body-mind dualism. (Maletic, 1987; Newlove, 2003). 

For the Vignette we developed the task of doing free and bound simultaneously. When Sanni did these qualities it resulted in a complex play between in her words “easy, known everyday movements and bound, learned movements”. There was a sense of an interesting discussion and play with free and bound states.  

Sanni wanted to emphasize her experience by adding street traffic sounds. For her it was about the play with pedestrian, learned, habitual and other movement. Out of everything we did I was most inspired by this material! I loved the sense of play there was. The movement for me was surprising. There were familiar elements and pedestrian gestures but also awkward and “what even is this” moments. There was something very human about it to me. I felt like I would like the spend much more time with this to develop it further into a whole scene. 


Vignette 3 “Direct-indirect “ 

Sanni found also direct and indirect through mental states. For her, direct was aggressive, threatening, taking space and indirect careful, apologetic and introverted. She found it rather easy to combine these or to switch between these two because for her it was like having a conversation: “do I dare say this, will I, won’t I, now it’s my turn, now I say, you go ahead, now I take space, now I give space”.   

I experienced the qualities when both and neither were present were very close to each other. So, I was interested to see what would happen if I gave Sanni the task of combining “both are present” with “neither is present”. Again, the task is impossible, but Sanni did solve it. For her it was about flashes of the qualities, them taking turns and being layered. With this the body’s rhythm was essential so we did not use any other sounds. I was intrigued by the complexity of the movement. Of not being quite able say what it was.  I would be interested in developing this further and contrasting it with other, easier to define material. I noticed that at some point it does become quite heavy as spectator to watch only hard-to-define material. 

Vignette 4 “Neither into sudden”  

We worked with sudden and sustained. In the video Sanni goes from neither is present into a sudden quality. The sustained quality resulted in “patience” and “the sense of having time” and sudden brought up the question of what happens before the suddenness. Is there suddenness without suspension? When neither were present, “things just were, it was timelessness, effortless”. This was a similar quality to the other neithers: something delicate, understated and multidimensional. 

The “neither” tasks with Sanni interestingly resulted in a lot of movement. None of them brought about stillness or doing nothing. So, having had the same experience with Merri and Sanni, that it does not lead to a dead-end, I believe this is a tool I can use for movement creation in the future as well. The idea of using impossible tasks intrigues me. 

We explored different options of mixing and pairing different materials and from different polarities. Some of them became too blurry or started bleeding into each other in a way that was not helpful. I guess it was partially because we had spent so little time with each of them, that they were not clearly in Sanni’s body individually. We ended up with choosing neither sudden nor sustained going to only sudden. Sounds of birds singing helped Sanni to get into the quality. What was interesting to me was going from a hard-to-define quality into an easily readable one. For me, these both emphasized each other. This could be one way I could introduce more of this blurry, undefined material into my practice; contrasting and bringing it in and out throughout the piece. This is definitely something I am interested in looking at more in the future. 

Going forward 
Laban’s theories continue to be used and researched today globally. Scialom argues that “21st century disciplines are even able to update Laban praxis and make it a contemporary discourse” (2015, p.259). Carr argues that Laban’s approach to dance continues to be relevant in 21st century Western theatre dance, even when considering the cultural framework of his work (Carr, 2010). 

Laban has been criticized for his early career and work under the employ of the Nazi party and combability with Nazi ideals (Dickson, 2016). Laban’s Effort/ Shape Analysis has been criticised not to be seen as a universal tool but rather “a Eurocentric perspective on how to see, conceptualize, and describe movement” and that is especially derives from a white and patriarchal perspective (Carter, S., Davis, C., Koff, S., 2021).  

The assumption of objectivity of perception and the elements of polarities and binaries, especially in Laban’s theories around Effort give me an impulse as a feminist artist to question, rebel and partially rebuild them. And especially the historical framework of Nazism and Eurocentric patriarchy make me want to look deeper into the origins of his theories in the future in order to better understand how these ideals might be portrayed in his theories. And how they might have an effect on my own practice. 

Using the graph in my own way did help me to start expanding my movement material creation. I started paying attention to what kind of questions I make. I started shifting away from questions such as “what was there”, “what was this” and instead asking “what was it like” or “how was your experience”. With these questions, I aimed not to know and define something as fast as possible but to create more verbal knowledge about it. It became more about the “how” and not about the “what”.  A lot of the movement qualities that rose from this research are difficult to verbalize, at least immediately. By stepping into the unknown I ended up creating material, which is more layered, complex, multidimensional and I will gladly continue with it in the future. Out of this work sprouted my own Ecology of Curiosities (Figure 4). My ecology is about asking and acknowledging what is in between and beyond and letting your curiosity grow into new directions. I will curiously follow where it may lead me in the future! 
















Figure 4: Ecology of curiosities 



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