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Principal ballet of the century: Oscar Schlemmer and the Bauhaus theatre

The XX century was generous with artistic experiments, performances, plexus of different types of art, plotless, symbolic, abstract, provocative actions. But with all this defiant diversity, there is one theatrical production a century ago that still looks avant-garde and bold. It is periodically revived by choreographers for contemporary theater festivals and is constantly quoted: in fashion collections, in photographs, design, stage images. This is Oscar Schlemmer’s Triadic ballet, which premiered in Stuttgart in 1922.

“Triadic ballet” was actually an experimental student production, but, like most of the developments conceived and carried out within the walls of the Bauhaus, it became a cult work and changed not only theatrical art, but also design, painting and sculpture.
The Bauhaus graduate school of construction and artistic design was established immediately after world war I in Weimar. The school did not just learn painting, sculpture and architecture — it embodied the idea of a synthesis of arts and crafts in order to organize the living space of a person according to the laws of art.
The school Director Walter Gropius managed to create a unique teaching staff: Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, lászló Moholy-Nagy, Itten of Johannes. Students of the school developed designs, sketches and made objects based on them in several workshops. The Bauhaus had metal, wood and stone workshops, a weaving workshop and a fresco workshop.
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Theatre workshop in the first three years of the school did not exist, it was created only in 1922. Its first Director Lothar Strayer tried to create several expressionist productions, but these experiments did not really attract students. And Strayer didn’t stay long at school. Then Oscar Schlemmer is appointed to lead the stage workshop — and with this appointment the legendary theatrical era begins in the Bauhaus.

Oscar Schlemmer. Photo: theguardian
Schlemmer rules
Oskar Schlemmer was not a dancer, he did not study choreography — he was a painter and sculptor. He perceived the possibilities of stage practice as a new artistic method: the stage gave him a unique opportunity to use color and form in dynamics. Unlike the static arts (sculpture, painting, architecture), stage production added a fourth dimension to the work — time.

Oskar Schlemmer with students stage workshop on the roof of the school in Dessau, 1927.
Schlemmer came to Bauhaus as a 33-year-old experienced artist, who before the war managed to study as a graphic designer, then received a scholarship to the Academy of arts in Stuttgart. Before the war, he worked in Berlin, collaborated with the famous avant-garde gallery Der Sturm, opened his own gallery Neuer Kunstsalon and participated in a large urban project: in collaboration with two artists created murals for the exhibition hall of the German Federation of labor in Cologne.
Oscar Schlemmer. The Staircase Of The Bauhaus
Schlemmer went through the war, first as an ordinary soldier, and after being wounded as a cartographer. In the Bauhaus he was invited to work in the workshops of drawing from life, sculpture from stone and sculpture from wood. But a year later he headed the stage Studio, and at the same time became the organizer of the famous parties and festivals of the Bauhaus: it was he who came up with the concepts of the Silent party (it was possible to communicate only with gestures), the festival of metal And many others. In the last two years at the Bauhaus, Oskar Schlemmer taught a special author’s course called ” Man ” — an interdisciplinary course that was not limited to the study of human nature, but also included philosophical, biological, social aspects of human life.

By and large, this course became the theoretical basis for Schlemmer’s theatrical experiments-because so far on the stage he has been exploring the same things: man in his biological, social and metaphysical incarnations.
Costumes for Oscar Schlemmer’s “Triadic ballet” at the State gallery in Stuttgart
Man in space
The first version of the “Triadic ballet” was based on 12 dance numbers, in each of which there were no more than three actors on the stage. In 1926 Schlemmer reduced the production to 8 scenes — and this version is most often reconstructed by modern ballet masters. This version was taken as a basis by Gerhard Boehner, when in 1977 he restored the costumes created by Schlemmer from photographs and drawings, and for the first time since the Bauhaus undertook to repeat his stage experience.

Modern researchers love to talk about Schlemmer’s” Triadic ballet ” — this topic still seems fresh, modern and not fully explored. This ballet is written about by professors of dance history, art critics, theater critics, Directors, it seeks (and finds) mathematical perfection, coloristic, even purely pictorial, research, philosophical and metaphysical meanings, futuristic predictions about the uprising of machines and human robots, even political and social satire. One thing is for sure: Schlemmer invented an entirely new type of theater in which the plot is excluded from the production and there is only one task for research — to study the interaction of man and space.
Costumes for “Triadic ballet”, 1922
“Man is an organism of flesh and blood, but also a mechanism of size and proportion. Man is a being of emotion, reason, and many other dichotomies. He carries them within himself and is much better at reconciling the fact of this duality within himself than in the abstract structures of art outside himself” (Oscar Schlemmer)

Each Director’s decision Schlemmer laid triad (because ballet and triadic): the main colors-yellow, red, blue, three dimensions-height, width, depth, three actors on stage, the main geometric shapes — circle, square, triangle. In the famous second version of the ballet there are three parts: the Yellow group, the Pink group and the Black group. The corresponding background of the scene and the color scheme of the costumes – in each. When Schlemmer was asked why ballet is called triadic, he replied: “because three is an extremely important, outstanding number in which egoism and dualistic contrast are transformed, giving way to the collective.”

Augmented person
Costumes are the most important element of Schlemmer’s production. It all started with the costumes, the most attention was paid to the costumes. If from tour to tour, from festival to festival Schlemmer easily changed the music to which the artists of the “Triadic ballet” performed, the costumes were unchanged for all 10 years, during which the production was played on the stages of different cities.

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Photo: interiorator.com. The drawings of the costumes of Oskar Schlemmer: moma.org
The Golden ball, the wire figure, the spiral figure, the disc dancer-all these costumes fulfilled the role that the plot had played in the theatre before Schlemmer. They will determine the dancer’s role. Having Bauhaus workshops at his disposal, Schlemmer made deliberately voluminous, fantastic outfits for his own money (often the latter) and did not limit himself in fantasies and experiments with different materials: costumes for artists were made of metal, fabrics, wire, wood. Bulky and massive, they limited dancer in movement, and thus dictated him a small set of affordable gestures and plasticity. Deliberate the volume of suit would turn a man to type for him, it was impossible to see half the figure, and for reliable effect on the face was worn a mask, leaving the hero’s personal hell.

Photo By Hansel Mieth, 1938. Source: e-flux.com
The dancers, clad in coils of wire or huge metal discs, with helmet masks on their heads, moved like puppets or mechanical puppets. The costume added additional meaning to the person, and sometimes created armor, protection from the outside world, made the space around clear, and the movements cautious, thoughtful, geometrically accurate. This effect was enthusiastically accepted and quoted in the twentieth century by world stars. David Bowie-at least twice.

David Bowie performs “The Man Who Sold the World” in 1979. His suit was so heavy that two assistants carried it to the microphone.

Left: the costume of Oskar Schlemmer. Right: a costume by Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto created for David Bowie in the early 1970s.
The British rock band Genesis also seemed to be inspired by the”Triadic ballet.” The frontman of the group Peter Gabriel in the 70s performed in a suit, as if cut according to the sketches of Oscar Schlemmer.

Scene from the ballet (reconstruction). Photo: Severin Vogl. Source: artnet
A scene from the band’s contemporary show “The Musical Box” is a reproduction of the Genesis concert. Photo source: chicagonow.com
Schlemmer, by the way, said that his findings seem audacious and unconventional only in the context of European theater, but quite fit into the tradition, if we talk about the theater more broadly: remembering the Japanese and Chinese theater, for example.
The body, movement, space and society
After the” Triadic ballet “Schlemmer engaged in tiny productions, which are now called” Bauhaus Dances.” Each lasted a few minutes-and continued the same theme of the existence of man in space. Pole dance, gesture Dance, dance in space, Dance in planes-these were small theatrical sketches, most often for three dancers. In the” pole Dance ” to the hands, feet, torso dancer attached sticks, lengthening his limbs at least twice. Dark suit against a dark background would make a person invisible, and sticks formed into a geometric moving patterns of its dance.

Oscar Schlemmer. Sketch for pole Dancing, 1927
Pole dance, 1928

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