With the appointment in 1920 of painter and set designer Oskar Schlemmer as workshop master at the newly established Bauhaus Weimar the stage there, too, becomes a place for “delight in design”. The Triadic Ballet soon makes history – but only its later reconstructions bring the renown it deserves.

Figurines of the Triadic Ballet by Oskar Schlemmer, Metropol-Theater, Berlin. Photo: Ernst Schneider, 1927. Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin.
Figurines of the Triadic Ballet by Oskar Schlemmer, Metropol-Theater, Berlin. Photo: Ernst Schneider, 1927. Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin.

When Walter Gropius establishes the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919, his aim is to reunite the arts and crafts and to thus to create alternatives to the assembly-line products of industrial mass production. To this end he employs singular artists from diverse disciplines – architects, sculptors and painters – who support and complement one another in their work.

Their collaboration influences a new style, which even in the Weimar period reaches the arena of the stage. Here, Oskar Schlemmer achieves a “combination of the artistic-ideational and the handcrafted or technical-practical means of exploring the elements of design”. [1]

First attempts

For their various celebrations the young, party-going Bauhauslers initially ‘only’ decorated spaces and designed masks and costumes (e.g. for the Lantern Party or Kite Party). However these processes of “inspiration, of whimsical delight in the primitive” [2] soon mature into complex parodies of existing theatrical forms such as opera, drama, circus, cabaret or ballet. They break away from traditional models and give rise to new forms of representation.

One such attempt is The Triadic Ballet first performed on 30 September 1922 in Stuttgart, which is named after the three dancers (triad), the three-part symphonic-architectonic development and the unity of dance, costume and music. Despite the fact that the ballet was only seen by an audience of around 1,000 [3] in its performances up to 1932 under Oskar Schlemmer, this work is surrounded by a myth which various generations of artists have repeatedly addressed.

The challenge

Schlemmer, then twenty-four years old, demands a lot from his dancers. He dresses them in rigid costumes of wire, wood, leather, aluminium foil, papier-mâché and celluloid, in saucer-shaped stiff skirts and bell-like helmets reminiscent of tutus and diving masks, and has them move to the music (specially composed by Paul Hindemith from 1926). With their abstract dance movements they refer to the automata of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Robert Wiene’s expressionistic silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which became a milestone in cinematic history.

But The Triadic Ballet had a limited impact at the time. Whether at the Donaueschingen Festival on 25/26 July 1926, shortly afterwards in September at the opening of a revue at the Metropol-Theater in Berlin, or six years later at an international dance competition on 4 July 1932 in Paris – the audiences tended to comment on the oddity of its figurines, rather than on the choreographic concept with its “resistance to the conventions of ballet and its seemingly mathematical equation of music, sculpture, painting and dance”. [4]

Later fame

Only in 1938, when nine of the eighteen papier-mâché figures are shown in an exhibition in New York – now immobile, but still exuding the aura of dancers – does interest in the ballet actually grow, prompting a question: how were these inflexible sculptures once made to dance? From now The Triadic Ballet makes history and earns late fame through its own reconstruction: From this point on it was performed anew countless times and it has since inspired own interpretations by diverse artists, among them Margarete Hasting in Munich (1968), Gerhard Bohner in Berlin (1977), Helfied Foron in Tübingen (1978) and Debra McCall in New York (1982).

Oskar Schlemmer leaves the Bauhaus of his own accord in 1929 owing to internal conflicts. He receives a professorship at the Staatliche Akademie für Kunst und Kunstgewerbe in Wroclaw and lectures here until its politically motivated closure in 1932. The magnitude of his influence on the Bauhaus stage may be ascertained especially with hindsight: his position as head of the stage workshop remains unoccupied after his departure and the workshop activities gradually tail off. 

The painter Oskar Schlemmer enriched the Bauhaus beyond his own artistic works and stage productions. For demonstrations of modern dance, he also brought high-profile guests such as the dancer Palucca to the Bauhaus. As a result the Bauhaus became a centre of the intellectual debate about avant-garde dance design. Looking back, Oskar Schlemmer confirmed that The Triadic Ballet had never been a “mathematical prank”. “But it was an attempt to unite many and in part heterogeneous elements in an unusual whole.” [5]

[AW 2017, Translation: RW]

 

[1] [2] Oskar Schlemmer, Offset, Buch- und Werbekunst (Bauhaus-Heft 7), Leipzig 1926.
[3] [4] Arnd Wesemann, Die Bauhausbühne. In: Bauhaus, Hg. Jeannine Fiedler, Peter Feierabend, 2006/2007.
[5] Oskar Schlemmer 1935, in: Bauhaus, Hg. Jeannine Fiedler, Peter Feierabend, 2006/2007, S. 538.