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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Article: Yat Malmgren: The Way of Transformation


Yat Malmgren

  • The Guardian
When, in the early autumn of 1963, a new theatre school, Drama Centre London, opened behind the decaying but still handsome facade of a Victorian Methodist church in Chalk Farm, north London, the occasion passed without notice. Yet it represented one of the few completely successful student-and-teacher revolutions of that decade, led by joint principals of unquestioned brilliance - John Blatchley (obituary, July 22 1994) and Yat Malmgren, who has died at the age of 86.
The students - who included Ian Hogg, David Leland, Oliver Cotton, Jack Shepherd and Celia Bannerman - were largely penniless, and the school would never have survived but for the immediate support of a council chaired by Lord Harewood, and including George Devine, Glen Byam Shaw, "Binkie" Beaumont, Peter Hall, Peter Brook and Kenneth Tynan.
These leading figures knew that the repertory of the recently opened National Theatre, stretching from Aeschylus to Brecht, made increased demands on training. They saw the approach of the new school, closely associated with developments in Russia, the United States, France and Germany, as offering a possible long-term solution.
Thus the school prospered. Courses were devised for directors, and for instructors from overseas. Lively associations were created with the state drama schools in Stockholm and, above all, in Gothenburg; and subsequently with the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco.
In most instances the initiative came from Malmgren, a former recital dancer, who had been greatly influenced by the work of the Hungarian Rudolf Laban. Laban's exploration of movement closely related to everyday experience (as opposed to conventional theatrical dance) characterised Drama Centre London's approach, and its eventual honours degree course. Formal recognition of Malmgren's work came through an honorary doctorate from the University of Gothenburg in 2000; he was still at the centre as associate director until last August.
Malmgren was born in Gavle, north of Stockholm. As a boy, he wanted to become a priest, to the dismay of his father, one of Sweden's finest shots: many of his later compositions had their origins in the Bible. A greater influence was the gallery of vivid characters contained in the popular novels of Selma Lagerlof, particularly Gosta Berling's Saga, the story of a young priest.
In 1935, Malmgren went to Stockholm to train as an actor under Julia Hakanson, creator of roles for August Strindberg, but it soon became obvious that Malmgren possessed an exceptional talent for movement and dance, and in 1938 he moved to the Berlin of the Third Reich to further his studies in this direction. Solo recitals of his own compositions in Paris, Stockholm, Berlin and Warsaw led to the award of the gold medal at the Concours International de la Danse in Brussels in 1939.
With war on the horizon, Malmgren was summoned to London by Kurt Jooss, whose company had been provided with a refuge at Dartington Hall, in Devon, where Malmgren first encountered Laban. A recital at the Old Vic Theatre brought an offer to join the company, and its tours of Britain, the US, Canada and South America.
But in 1940, Malmgren, who knew himself to be essentially a soloist, decided to leave the company and to chance his luck in Rio de Janeiro. Despite hardship bordering on starvation, he established a school and appeared as a solo artist. He created a tetralogy devoted to the war in Europe, an impressionist cycle based on the preludes of Debussy and Negro spirituals, and a series of studies from the lives of the young mulatto dancers of Rio's streets, which delighted and astounded the Brazilian press for their unexpected empathy.
Malmgren was appointed choreographer to the Casino Copacabana, which led to a series of recitals with two outstanding soloists from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Tatiana Leskova and Nini Theilade. At last, acclaim led to genuine opportunity.
In 1947, Malmgren returned to Europe with Theilade to appear at the Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, before embarking on a long tour of Sweden and Finland which reached a triumphant climax at the Concert House in Stockholm and included an appearance in his home town, from which his father pointedly absented himself.
In 1948, Malmgren was awarded a scholarship by Mona Inglesby, prima balle rina of the International Ballet, to study in London and Paris. Eventually he joined the company as Miss Inglesby's partner, distinguishing himself in particular as The Baron in Gaité Parisienne under the direction of Massine before, in 1954, sustaining the injury that ended his stage career.
A casual encounter on a bank holiday evening led to him being introduced to Harold Lang, a maverick advocate of the work of Stanislavski. Lang coerced almost everyone he knew into attending Malmgren's movement classes - students were to include Sean Connery, Diane Cilento, Natasha Parry, Patricia Neal, Gillian Lynne, Anthony Hopkins, Brain Bedford, Elizabeth Fielding and the directors Peter Brook, Tony Richardson, Bill Gaskill, Michael Blakemore, Seth Holt and Alexander Mackendrick.
Later in 1954, Malmgren was invited by Devine to work at the Royal Court and by Rudolf Laban to join the staff of the Art of Movement Studio in Addlestone, Surrey. The next year he assisted Brook and Gielgud on The Tempest.
In 1960, Lang's influence once again proved decisive. Invited to join the staff of the Central School of Speech and Drama by John Blatchley, Lang made his acceptance of the offer dependent on the appointment of Malmgren as director of movement. Here at last the doors to European theatre were thrown wide.
Fascinated by rumours reaching them from students on the acting course, other students expressed dissatisfaction at their own syllabuses. The management lost its head, and sacked Malmgren on the trumped-up charge of creating "neck tensions".
Within days seven other teachers, including Lang and Blatchley, had left, to be followed by three quarters of the students. A call to Olivier to save the day was firmly, if politely, rejected, and Drama Centre London was born. The following year, Olivier invited Malmgren to undertake movement training of all National Theatre actors.
Central to Malmgren's approach was the body of work entrusted to him by Laban - a precise, detailed analysis of the non-discursive symbolism of dance, expressing import without specific meaning, and of gesture and the role it plays in underlying the act of speech, which forms the basic abstraction of all drama. This was the source of Malmgren's apparently effortless spell.
He also exerted on the young a fascination as a genuinely cosmopolitan figure, an artist as much at home in Paris, Berlin, Rio or San Francisco as he was in London or Stockholm. Here was a man who had somehow made out in the jungle of the city, whose familiarity with the streets was hardly less than that of Jean Genet, but who was at ease in the Proustian world of the haute bourgeoisie . His loss has left his students of several generations shattered and incredulous.
· Yat Malmgren, dancer and drama teacher, born March 28 1916; died June 6 2002

Christopher Fettes was one of an extraordinary group of teachers who I found myself being taught and inspired by when at the tender age of seventeen I entered the Central School of Speech and Drama at Swiss Cottage to train as an actor. The head of my course was John Blatchley and when he had been forming his team and sought to recruit the maverick Stanislavsky teacher Harold Lang, Harold had made his acceptance conditional on Yat Malmgren being included, and with Yat came Christopher Fettes. Central at that time ran various courses and the whole place was presided over by a tall, elderly, ram-rod straight woman called Gwyneth Thurburn, who eventually, jealous of our devotion to Yat, dismissed him. John, Harold and Christopher then all resigned. By that time I was just ending my second year. When we heard the news we were devastated and resolved to try and persuade John, Yat, Harold and Christopher to somehow give us our final year. They agreed and less than three months later Drama Centre, London opened its doors in the halls of an old Methodist church at Chalk Farm.
Yat was unquestionably a great artist and a wonderful teacher and it was he and his work on the psychology of movement that made that place special. He died in 2002 at the age of 86 and there is very little on record, especially on the web, about him and his work. Fortunately Christopher has recently completed a book on Yat’s work and has agreed to my putting something on the web, so I hope this brief account and these photographs of Yat that Christopher gave me on Wednesday will be the beginning of a more complete and suitable tribute to a very remarkable man to whom I shall forever be indebted. These photos are of Yat towards the end of his life and as a young man.
I had better add that Yat’s work and example profoundly influenced me in the direction that I follow today. I remember in the flat at 1, Belsize Avenue forty-five years ago finding and looking at a book on Buddhism. Then in a letter that he wrote to me shortly after Yat’s death, Christopher said, “As I’m sure you recollect, Buddhism had affected him (Yat) profoundly at various stages in his career; never more so than towards the close of his life, when he had lost the school and with it an active career as a teacher. … Our school was about craftsmanship and its relation to art on the one hand, to life on the other; about the possible meaning and purpose of art itself. All that, it may well be said, has little or nothing to do with the world of ‘show business’. But practically everyone in the crematorium that afternoon was to some degree exercised by such ultimate questions. That they owe to Yat, who was one of those rare beings who clearly exemplify what they teach. You could put out your hand and touch goodness and integrity.”

(--English Actor turned Buddhist monk Luangpor Khemadhammo)


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