MOVEMENT STUDY: 'DAS TRIADISCHES BALLETT,' OSKAR SCHLEMMER, AND THE BAUHAUS THEATER
In the early stages of design, I often study art history. This time around, I frequently looked to Bauhaus, a Modernist art movement that spawned from art schools in Germany, and eventually spread throughout Europe in the early 20th Century. My initial impression of Bauhaus was limited to architecture, typography, and design. And then I delved deeper, learning that the group's ethos combined art forms, similar to the American Arts and Crafts movement of the same era. This philosophy, which discarded academic traditions by giving equal weight to various arts, resulted in a multi-disciplinary corpus of work.
Most standard art history timelines omit mention of Bauhaus, and yet the group's work impacted society to such an extent that fonts developed by Bauhaus designers are still used today. Not to mention the returned interest in Bauhaus graphic and textile design, which is happening contemporarily. I also think that the current trend of calling oneself a “maker” indirectly adopts one of the core principles of Bauhaus, namely its attempt at uniting creativity and manufacturing. In melding these two components, Bauhaus was able to encompass various art forms, and so beyond architecture and graphic design, came textile and costume design, as well as dance, performance and theatre.
It is with the latter that I am most intrigued. Partly because many of the participating artists were female, but also because of the bizarre and beautiful nature of the work.
In 1922, Oskar Schlemmer, a professor in the Theatre of Bauhaus debuted Das Triadisches Ballett (The Triadic Ballet) in Stuttgart, Germany. Schlemmer used the human body as a medium, experimenting with pantomime and ballet with this performance, which toured Europe through the mid 1930s. By incorporating costumes that reduced the human figure to geometric, formalist shapes, Das Triadisches provided strange and humorous imagery via dance and dress.
The Schlemmer Theatre Estate describes Das Triadisches Ballett choreography and color settings, stating that the origin of the title, "Triadic Ballet" derives from the division of the acts:
The first part, which takes place on a stage dressed in lemon yellow colors, is a comedic burlesque. The subject of the second part, on a stage dressed in pink, has a festival/ceremonial air. Finally, the third part is developed in a mystical/fantastical way before a totally black background. Three dancers, two men and a woman, perform twelve dances of alternating forms.
The costumes deliberately limit the participants’ freedom of movement due to the weight of the materials they are made from, their forms, and the masks worn. They are walking architectural structures that move in a comic fashion, playful, sharp, and clumsy across the entire stage. For his figurines, Oskar Schlemmer took advantage of the new technologies of the era, “the scientific apparatus of glass and metal, the artificial members that are used in surgery, the fantastic military and diving uniforms."
I often draw from military costume for inspiration, and so I am especially intrigued by Schlemmer's style in military design. It goes to show that artists can share influences with dissimilar results. I also really love working within certain restraints, like using a Polaroid camera instead of a digital, or in this case dancing in restrictive costumes. If dancers can perform a ballet without restriction, what happens when the artist places themself in a box? Schlemmer's approach in designing the costumes before the choreography explored just that.
In 1968 Das Triadische was reconstructed and performed in a thirty minute piece for German television by Margarete Hasting, Franz Schömbs and Georg Verden. The re-performance of this work was a major feat because it is said that about eight minutes of the original score by Paul Hindersmith remained at the time of reconstruction, and that if Schlemmer had made a more detailed record of the choreography, it no longer existed. Everything was pieced together from notes, mostly from the archive of Schlemmer's 1938 costume and design exhibition at MoMA. Thus the performance and the costumes may not be completely accurate, given these circumstances. It is unclear to me whether the costumes were reconstructed entirely at that time since a few of the original costumes remain in the archive, but there is record that some had to be remade from Schlemmer's drawings.
Regardless of whether the re-performance is entirely accurate, the work is incredible. It is funny to me that what was "modern" in the 1920s was just as modern in 1968, and remains modern today. Generally, what was once experimental later becomes the norm, though in this case the experimental elements of the work with regard to costume and movement remain.
Schlemmer's original work influenced the costumes in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), providing evidence that his designs were seen as futuristic from the start:
And in 1974, David Bowie appears as Ziggy Stardust wearing a costume designed by Kansai Yamamoto which closely resembles a costume from Das Triadisches.
In both cases with Metropolis and Bowie's attire, the costumes are viewed as 'cutting edge,' despite being variations of Schlemmer's ballet costumes from the early 20th Century.
In 1977, Das Triadische was reproduced again, this time by German choreographer Gerhard Bohner. It looks like Bohner's version toured through the 80s because I found a funny review from 1985 in the New York Times on the piece, basically calling his version total shit.
Finally, in 2014 Das Triadische was performed yet again in Berlin, this time based on Gerhard Bohner's reconstruction. But since Bohner's work received such poor reviews, I'm not sure what resulted from the latest iteration.
Being passed down in an almost folkloric way, Schlemmer's work has been preserved verbally and through imagery, leaving reperformances open to interpretation. While still relatively unknown, Das Triadisches has invariably influenced aesthetics, even at the end of the post-modern era.
Courtney Cady, © Bagtazo, 2015