In her position as art director Bettina Wagner–Bergelt is responsible for the Opening Festival of 100 years of bauhaus. The festival launches in January 2019 the Bauhaus Centenary in Berlin. Wagner–Bergelt was already enganged in the subject of the Bauhaus stage long before her involvement in the event.

Bettina Wagner–Bergelt is curating the Opening Festival 2019 in Berlin / Image: Sacha Kletzsch
Bettina Wagner–Bergelt is curating the Opening Festival 2019 in Berlin / Image: Sacha Kletzsch

Ms Wagner-Bergelt, you’re curating the opening festival in January 2019. What awaits the audience?

It’s the opening festival of the Bauhaus Year 2019. As such, its main functioƒn is to stimulate interest and curiosity about the many facets of the Bauhaus that are being celebrated and contemplated throughout the entire year in many cities, both across Germany and around the world in places like Chicago and Tel Aviv. That means I’m envisioning a vibrant organism consisting of many different formats. Berlin’s Akademie der Künste in Hanseatenweg will be filled with curious people who, for one whole week, will be immersed in artworks, installations, concerts, theatre, dance and puppetry, and who enjoy discovering both the old and the new in the context of the Bauhaus, both then and now. It’s important to me that the festival really exudes the spirit of the Bauhaus.

When someone thinks of the Bauhaus, or people ask about it, the first words that usually come up are architecture and design, furniture, tableware... What topics are you presenting?

Well, the Bauhaus as a topic really has an infinite scope. The first step during my research was to look at the many areas dealt with by the artists and students at the Bauhaus and then to work out my own theme; to concentrate on what interests and fascinates me personally about the Bauhaus – and that is, of course, the Bauhaus stage in the broadest sense, and its protagonists: the ideas, concepts, specific works and other traces whose influence can be followed up to the present day.

What does the Bauhaus theme mean in terms of the festival’s focus?

The festival is monothematic, but it’s also transmedial and interdisciplinary. It’s not just an exhibition, but it can also be seen as an exhibition. It’s not a seminar, nor a symposium, but nevertheless it has discursive elements. A festival is first and foremost a place and an opportunity for people to meet. It’s a living thing. And from the very beginning, the Akademie der Künste was seen as offering an ideal location, with its stages, exhibition halls, lobbies and lounges. I’ve explored this framework and developed my concept over the last few months.

Of course you’re not able to reveal any specific points of the festival programme yet, but what about the notion of working together, of teaching and learning at the Bauhaus? Will this topic be a part of your programme? Are we only allowed to be observers, or can we also take part?

For sure, there will be participatory programme events, and most of the artists will also be available for workshops open to different target groups. The festival will appeal to all ages, including children! And there will also be a party – the Bauhaus parties were legendary and an important part of their living and working together. Of course today we may celebrate differently, but hopefully with the same sense of fun!

Circus, Sketch for a scene on stage (tamer and monster), Autor: Xanti Schawinsky, 1924. Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / © Daniel Schawinsky
Circus, Sketch for a scene on stage (tamer and monster), Autor: Xanti Schawinsky, 1924. Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / © Daniel Schawinsky

What links you personally to the Bauhaus?

Starting in the mid-1980s, I worked repeatedly with [the late dancer and choreographer] Gerhard Bohner, who, like few artists I’ve know, saw himself within the aesthetic tradition of the Bauhaus and really embraced it very intensely. I’ve encountered him in many works. I invited him to perform at festivals, in dances by Oskar Schlemmer like the “Metal Dance” and with Bohner’s own dance pieces “ and “. I oversaw his “Tortures of Beatrice Cenci” in Munich, and eighteen years ago, also in Munich, I undertook the first serious attempt to produce a reinterpretation of Schlemmer’s “Triadic Ballet”, working with an American minimalist choreographer and new music. We even used some new costumes, continuing the experimentation with contemporary materials and their impact when moving on stage – just as Schlemmer had done throughout his life.

Unfortunately, that project was abandoned just before rehearsals began due to the difficult legal situation at the time, which prevented Schlemmer’s theatre works from being adapted at all until 2014. When the rights became available in 2014, I got the reconstruction of Bohner’s version from the 1970s started together with Nele Hertling from the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. I was able to convince Ivan Liska, who had danced with Colleen Scott and others for decades in Bohner’s original staging (first produced in 1977 at the Akademie der Künste), to produce the reconstruction using the junior company of the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich. This took place with the support of the Dance Heritage Fund of Germany’s Federal Cultural Foundation. It was – and still is – a very successful dance piece that the junior company performs everywhere, and with which I even brought them to the 2017 Hong Kong Arts Festival.

A few years later, I also developed a production of Kandinsky’s “The Yellow Sound” at the Bavarian State Ballet, with a new team of artists and an orchestral score by Frank Zappa. By 2016, that company had built up an outstanding modern repertoire and presented it internationally, where these works found their rightful place and an enthusiastic audience. So my association with the Bauhaus stage has been on-going for a long time and is very emphatic.

What questions present themselves today?

Well, for the historical Bauhaus stage works that’s easy to answer because they really stand on their own; they’ve retained their magic and unique character. Between their two- and three-dimensionality, their use of images and puppetry, they continue to captivate audiences even today. They’ve become legendary, presumably because they’ve been staged so rarely. But what impact do the artists’ ideas and concepts really have today in relation to Bauhaus theatre – or more broadly, for performative art? That’s much harder to answer. So I concentrated on certain lines of research: Like the relationships of [Paul] Klee, [Lyonel] Feininger and [Wassily] Kandinsky to music, for example – on the inspiration they found in Bach’s music, which found its way into their painting. That influence continues to have its effect on the work of young artists, in composition and painting, sculpture and in objects of utility. On their experimentation – the many ways that light and shadow can be used, for example in the work of [László] Moholy-Nagy, and on Schlemmer’s rejection of speech and his concentration on movement. He had a preference for the artificial figure, the contrived surrogate for the human figure, which should nevertheless be indirectly humanly inspired. On his deliberate treatment of space.

On the use of technology: the very naive approach to technology – which the Futurists knew how to ably employ ideologically and powerfully, whereas at the same time it was seen at the Bauhaus above all as functional and pragmatic and essentially above suspicion. Today there’s one conference after another on the state of technology; one symposium outdoes the next with the critical questions: Will humankind replace itself with robots? Are we becoming a digital-surveillance state? Is democracy going to the dogs? Are we erasing human aspects in favour of engineered systems? Do we need to actually do everything we can? Is technology becoming increasingly unpredictable? In other words, are we on the verge of doing ourselves in? At the same time, digital and virtual technologies also offer entirely new real and aesthetic possibilities. [William] Forsythe choreographed a piece featuring a group of robot arms that develops a poetry that even human dancers couldn’t create more powerfully. Today there are research institutes that focus on nothing else but crossing the borders [between art and technology] in both directions, such as the ZKM [Center for Art and Media] in Karlsruhe.

What political significance do you see in the Bauhaus and Bauhaus theatre?

Even without the Bauhaus having explicitly formulated political positions, their work itself was of course already immensely political back then: at a time when, as arch-enemies, Europeans had just slaughtered each other in the millions, an open, international, interdisciplinary artistic, didactic and human discourse was bound to attract the attention of foes. Just as certain right-wing circles today again want to force us to justify advocacy of diversity, pluralism and internationalism, and to yield to nationalistic interests.

It seems to us that the Bauhaus stage and its concepts have attracted the least attention over the last hundred years. Is that a mistaken impression?

No, that’s not at all mistaken. In fact, theatre was not even part of Walter Gropius’s original Bauhaus Manifesto.

What does Bauhaus theatre mean to you?

I think that theatre very quickly became a central focus because everything the Bauhaus was, or wanted to be, came together there as a kind of crystallisation point: a testing ground. It was a place where teachers and pupils, masters and students could engage in a professional or dilettantish way with materials, with light, with movement, text, music, and with the [different] forms of the performative, of the play. You didn’t have to be a specialist in anything.

When we see the “Triadic Ballet” performed today by top-class dancers who nevertheless have to struggle in their own way with the material of the costumes, with their form and properties, they make this apparent. So can you imagine how Oskar Schlemmer, who lacked a dancer’s figure, not to mention the coordination or musicality or even virtuosity, must have struggled? We don’t want to imagine how that looked … or maybe we do: it was funny, playful, earnest and joyful and did not have a resolute ambition to be perfect. It wasn’t primarily about results, but about curiosity, trying out, exploring – and also about failure. Because you learned from that.

Or take László Moholy-Nagy, who was interested in stage work from a completely different point of view and also did research that was scientific and much more fundamental. His light experiments, in contrast to the stage plays, have continued to inspire generations after him. Korean-American artist Tim Lee, whose works are in the world’s top museums, has built a light modulator inspired by Moholy-Nagy, but it is a modern, contemporary one of today.

Jan Tichy was inspired by Lucia Moholy’s glass plate negatives and created installations based on them.

Contemporary choreographers use similar glass plates as “dance floors” and as musical sources of inspiration in their performance spaces. They also experiment with the way moving glass reflects light, how it influences the dancers’ movements, and what sounds are created when it breaks, in order to bring all that together aesthetically as a whole in their works.

One of my goals is to follow these different creative lines up to the present and to repeatedly draw the audience in and involve them; to conjure up the creative atmosphere of teaching and learning, of seeing. The complete programme will be presented at a press conference in autumn.