The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
THE TRIADIC BALLET
The Bauhaus (School of Building) is remembered today almost exclusively for its modernistic buildings, although ironically it didn't have an architecture department when it started in 1919. The school formed as the successor to the Weimar Academy of Arts of Crafts, run by Henry van de Velde, who had for twenty-five years proclaimed that the engineer was the true modern artist, the only one qualified to work in modern materials, such as reinforced concrete, aluminum, and linoleum. Walter Gropius, though only 32, had been part of the Werkbund movement, a call to unite art and craftwork so as to remove art from its elite province and bring it to bear on the needs of ordinary pupil and everyday adult. There was, of course a manifesto:
Art is not a "profession." There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman. The artist is an exalted craftsman. In rare moments of inspiration, moments beyond the control of his will, the grace of heaven may cause his work to blossom into art. But proficiency in his craft is essential to every artist. Therein lies a source of creative imagination. [italics in original]
The Bauhaus principles were codified by Albert H. Barr, Jr., Director of The Museum of Modern Art, when it ran a Bauhaus retrospective in 1938. The first and last are critical here:
that most students should face the fact that their future should be involved primarily with industry and mass production rather than with individual craftsmanship;
that because we live in the 20th century, the student architect or designer should be offered no refuge in the past but should be equipped for the modern world in its various aspects, artistic, technical, social, economic, spiritual, so that he may function in society not as a decorator but as a vital participant.
Oskar Schlemmer, five years younger than Gropius, came to the Bauhaus with a reputation in painting and sculpture, which led to a fascination with form and how pure forms could be applied to living humans through dance. He had a manifesto as well, expounded in The Theater of the Bauhaus, 1924, the fourth of a series of fourteen short treatises the Bauhaus released. [translated by Arthur S. Weininger]
The transformation of the human body, its metamorphosis, is made possible by the costume, the disguise. ...
The endeavor to free men from his physical bondage and heighten his freedom of movement beyond the native potential resulted in substituting for the organism the mechanical human figure. ...
Endless perspectives are opened up: from the supernatural to the nonsensical, from the sublime to the comic.
These sketches led directly to a dance piece he called Das Triadisches Ballett (The Triadic Ballet).
The Triadic Ballet consists of three parts which form a structure of stylized dance scenes, developing from the humorous to the serious. They first is a gay burlesque with lemon-drop yellow curtains. The second, ceremonious and solemn, is on a rose-colored stage. And the third is a mystical fantasy on a black stage. The twelve different dances in eighteen different costumes are danced alternately by three persons, two male and one female. The costumes are partly of padded cloth and partly of stiff paper-mâché forms, coated with metallic or colored paint.
The first performance took place in Schlemmer's hometown of Stuttgart in September 1922. Schlemmer took one of the male parts himself and used ballet dancers Albert Burger and Elsa Hötzel as the other two, properly so since they had originated pieces of the dance as far back as 1912, and danced parts of it publicly in 1915. Schlemmer continued to tinker with the piece, especially the music, varying from standard classical to a modern composition, now mostly lost, by Paul Hindemith who wrote it for a "mechanical organ."
Schlemmer also composed other dance pieces using similar design principles, with Space Dance, Form Dance, and Gesture Dance being the most literal examples. He so greatly influenced Bauhaus dance that stills of other dances like Musical Clown and Equilibristics could be confused with his work.
Although Schlemmer toured the ballet until he left Germany in 1929, it never received acclaim. Today it is remembered more for the fantastic costumes than the choreography, which is lost and needs to be re-imagined from Schlemmer's notes when modern performances are given.
Bauhaus modernism seems almost magically futuristic when compared with the work of contemporaries who remained caught in the tradition of overwrought details. When Bauhaus moved from conservative Weimar to progressive Dressar in 1926, Gropius designed a mind-bendingly ageless headquarters, impossible to consider 90 years old. (Another in the staggering long series of historic ironies is that the city of Weimar, the namesake of the louche and dissolute Weimar Republic, was itself so conservative that it drove the Bauhaus away because people felt they didn't want state money being spent on this despicable modern art. Sometimes the Future is only the Present rewritten.)
Yet Schlemmer saw himself not as a radical separated from art history but a conservator connected to and updating historic tradition for a contemporary age with new materials and ideas. When he spoke of the Kunstfigur, the mechanical human figure, he saw himself as part of the legacy of E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose story "The Sandman" was a milestone of German literature. A subtle tale of beauty, obsession, madness, and death, “The Sandman” (1816) depicts a student who falls in love with his professor’s daughter, Olympia, only to find she is a mechanical doll, a new twist to the tradition of Frankenstein and the Golem which became immortalized in the opera The Tales of Hoffmann. Monsters without souls bore obvious allegorical meaning. What Hoffmann recognized was that advancing technology meant that machinery indistinguishable from the human could become possible and create new realms of allegory. Hoffmann’s depiction of life so near yet so far from the norm would enter psychology and then robotics as “the uncanny valley,” referring to the majority preference for cartoon variants or perfect simulacra but revulsion for the almost, but not-quite human. A long line of automatons followed Hoffmann in literature and other arts - think of The Nutcracker Ballet - building on a European tradition of puppets and marionettes in high and low culture theater.
Schlemmer too wanted to depict the merger of humans and machines, approaching from the opposite direction and avoiding the uncanny valley by using shapes that captured only the outlines of human form and not the details. His dancers are as close to robots as mechanical men as his time permits. He didn't use the word himself - Karel Čapek's play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) intentionally had the robots made of artificial protoplasm so they would be identical to humans, what we today call androids - but the word automatically pops into the minds of those looking back on his creations. The heavy, restricting costumes allow only a graceful version of the limited, lumbering movements that movies would give to later robots and monsters such as Frankenstein's. The dancers are less than fully human but more than mere mechanical dolls; think of them as an early attempt toward cyborgs.
Fortunately, we have many photographs of the costumes on Schlemmer's dancers, although no film of the ballet appears to exist. The harlequin colors were a crucial element of their visual shock value, so you'll find both the originals and modern recreations below.
YouTube provides one of those recreations, a 1970 color film done for the camera rather than an audience. Margarete Hasting, Franz Schömbs, and Georg Verden did the choreography; Margit Bárdy reconstructed the costumes; and Erich Ferstl composed the music.
Stills from 1920s productions. The original costumes have been placed on display at museums around the world.
The photos below are from a performance by the Bavarian State Ballet II in the Reithalle (Riding Hall), Munich, Germany, on June 06, 2014. Artistic director Ivan Liška and his wife Colleen Scott had been members of Gerhard Bohner's troupe when he had done The Triadic Ballet starting in 1977, and had long waited for the piece to move into the public domain so they could interpret it themselves. All photographs copyright © Wilfried Hösl 2014