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Oskar Schlemmer: Mechanical Ballets?

Author(s): Susanne Lahusen Reviewed work(s): Source: Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 65-77 Published by: Edinburgh University Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 16/02/2012 05:59
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Susanne Lahusen

German dance in the 1920s is commonly identified with Expressionist dance: a genre which emphasised intense, personal experience. Few dance historians mention that a completely different kind of dance theatre existed in Germany at the same time. Whilst the Bauhaus at large has achieved universal acclaim and recognition, the activities of its stage workshops are generally considered to be of minor importance. What is often overlooked is the fact that the workshop headed by Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943), pioneered a form of dance which fitted the categories neither of classical ballet nor of German Expressionist dance. Schlemmer, in contrast to the general tendencies of his time, was the first artist to explore abstraction in dance. Admittedly, the actual number of dances Schlemmer created is rather small; yet, because of his innovative approach, his work deserves far greater recognition than it has received so far. Even when Schlemmer's work for the stage is mentioned, it is often described as an interesting yet insignificant attempt to create 'mechanical' ballets. In 1929 the Frankfurt theatre critic Bruno Reifenberg had condemned Schlemmer's art as meaningless experiment, comparable to a pianist's finger exercises to which no one would go to listen in a concert hall. In 1931, in a highly emotional article in the magazine Schrifttanz,Ernst Kallais had accused Schlemmer of making the human dancer superfluous and, instead of choreographing movement, simply presenting a series of 'stills'. In more recent times, Lincoln Kirstein, even though he attributed a certain historical importance to Schlemmer's Triadic Ballet, nevertheless suggested that 'the work is significant as a now familiar statement of dehumanisation, with bankrupt choreography replaced by costume as decor'. In the light of recent reconstructions of the Bauhaus Dances and the Triadic Ballet in the United States and Germany, and with the renewed interest in German dance during the 1920s, it


has become essential to take a fresh look at Schlemmer's work and to re-assess his historical significance. By 1923, the year in which Schlemmer took over the stage workshops, the Expressionist phase of the Bauhaus had come to an end. Schreyer, his predecessor, had been a member of the 'Sturm' group, which greatly distrusted the concept of form as a basis for the theatrical creation; intensity of emotion had become the prime measure for quality. However, with the changing philosophy of the Bauhaus, and its growing concern with pure form and the synthesis of art and technology, Schreyer's methods no longer fitted in with the new artistic concepts, and he was forced to resign.

Figure 1. The laws of motion of the human body in space, drawing by Schlemmer, 1924.

Figure 2. The metaphysical forms of expression,drawing by Schlemmer, 1927.

Oskar Schlemmer, who was already on the Bauhaus staff- he had been head of the sculpture workshop since 1921 - was immediately transferred to direct the stage workshop. This decision was made by Walter Gropius who had been greatly impressed by Schlemmer's Triadic Ballet which had had its first performance in Stuttgart in 1922. For Schlemmer, this new 66


appointment presented an ideal opportunity fully to devote himself to the creation of dance and theatre productions, an area which had fascinated him from an early age. Throughout his life, Schlemmer kept a diary which, together with a number of published articles, gives us valuable insights into his theories of the stage. Few of these theories are concerned with dance alone, for, like other Bauhaus artists, Schlemmer refused to recognise the limits of traditional art categories. Most critics emphasise that Schlemmer's dances are obviously the work of a visual artist, Yet Schlemmer never described himself as a painter or sculptor in the first place. His main concern was the exploration of space, for which both painting and the theatre had an important role to play. Painting provided a theoretical understanding of spatial elements, whereas the theatre was concerned with the practical aspects of experiencing space. This analysis of theory and practice led him to apply Nietzsche's concept of Apollonian and Dionysian elements in art, with painting being symbolised by Apollo and the theatre by Dionysos. Much of Schlemmer's work can be seen under this main theme: the reconciliation of polarities. Theory and practice were meant to complement each other, just as emotion and technology were not necessarily seen as mutually exclusive. From Schlemmer's writing it becomes clear that man has always been the centre of his work, and is seen as the measure of all things; yet, inherent in man, there is a longing for order, and a desire to analyse the mechanical laws within himself as well as the laws governing his relationship to the space surrounding him. Technology has arisen out of this desire for order, and can always be related to man himself. The modern artist's acceptance of technology, therefore, is by no means in conflict with the principles of traditional artists, as Schlemmer explained: When the artists of today appreciate the machine, technology and organisation, when they want precision instead of vagueness, then this is nothing but an escape from chaos and a longing for form. And when they turn to the old in art rather than to recent manifestations, then they honour convention and law. When Stravinsky reaches back to Bach and Pergolesi, or when Busoni turned to Mozart, or when 67


painting returns on a large scale to representation, then this is nothing but a return to the basis that is most safe: tradition.2 ~~~~~~~h




rb I I -


Y 'Y


j v


A '/

Figure 3. The laws of cubicalspace, drawing by Schlemmer, 1924.

The excerpt is from an article called 'The Mathematics of the Dance' and it is in this article that Schlemmer's fundamental views on dance and on art in general are shown most clearly. Form is essential in all art, yet it is never dehumanising, as it is basic to the human condition itself. Just as Stravinsky looked back to Bach for the essence of musical form, Schlemmer looks at classical ballet in order to find a sound basis for his own innovations. His arguments for this choice are: The precise training, the choreography that has been developed for centuries, the 'freedom within law', all these in their finest achievements are still able to fascinate. The happiest union was still that between the full-blooded 68


dancing genius of the Russians and the French tradition, a union that led to ultimate victories. After that come chaos: high-school teacher methodology next to expressionistic ecstacy, next to heroic rubbish.3 Although Oskar Schlemmer was not a trained dancer himself, and there were no classes in classical ballet at the Bauhaus, he based some of his dances on ballet technique. Admittedly he made no innovations as far as the technique itself was concerned, yet from his writings it has become clear that he valued the simplicity and legibility that ballet had the potential to provide. In this respect, Schlemmer's theories are in harmony with the general philosophy of the Bauhaus; traditional crafts were seen as an essential part of the curriculum, and by no means opposed to modern technology. Technique and clarity of form were emphasised in order to liberate the artist from chaos and confusion. It was not technology that dehumanised the artist and his work, but the over-indulgence in decoration and ornamentation. Equally, Bauhaus artists argued that form itself was capable of shaping our thoughts and feelings. Walter Gropius stressed this phenomenon: 'for it is true that the mind can transform the body, it is equally true that structure can transform the mind.'4 To Bauhaus artists, therefore, it made sense to start with form, often in its greatest simplicity, and only after the work of art had been created might there be an attempt to analyse its meaning. Oskar Schlemmer's work epitomises this search for simplicity of form. He wrote: 'I am for the beginning with the 'one, two, three', and the ABC, because I hold simplicity to be a great force in which every significant innovation is rooted' and 'Dance movements should start with one's own life, with standing and walking, leaving leaping and dancing for much later.'5 Schlemmer's Triadic Ballet perfectly illustrated this theory. In terms of dance movement the ballet is very simple. Even though the ballerina in the first act is on pointe, and basic classical steps are used, the ballet is completely devoid of virtuosity. Instead, Schlemmer concentrated on creating floor patterns of great clarity which perfectly harmonised with the shapes of the costumes and the movements of the dancers. This search for simplicity and clarity led him closely to examine the mechanics and the efficiency of human movement, 69


and their translation into dance. Frequently it is this aspect of his work which critics have in mind when they accuse Schlemmer of 'dehumanising' the dancer. It is true that Schlemmer was influenced by the theories of Heinrich von Kleist who had written an essay called 'Uber das Marionettentheater', in which he described the observations of a balletmaster visiting a puppet show. His description ends with the conclusion that the unreflective grace of the puppet is far greater than that of the human body. Schlemmer often directed his students to imitate the movement of puppets so that they would explore gestures totally different from traditional dance styles. However, he did not want to reduce the dancer to a robot; what he strove for was to create new symbols to represent the technological age. Amongst these new symbols there might well be a mechanical figure, yet this figure would never replace the human dancer. Mechanisation, for Schlemmer, is only one of a number of choices for presenting man on stage. It is an important one, because mechanisation has become an emblem of our time, but it can never be an exclusive one. Schlemmer described mechanisation as: 'the inexorable process which now lays claim to every sphere of life and art. Everything which can be mechanised is mechanised. The result: our recognition of that which cannot be mechanised.'6 Apart from the mechanical theatre, Schlemmer made a list of numerous other forms of theatre, ranging from the abstract formal to the comic, the sublime, the political and the metaphysical theatre, to name only a few. Man provides the central focus for all of them, yet the concept of man has to be explored in different ways, which traditional theatre has largely neglected. In fact, if the artist was to look for models from traditional theatre at all, Schlemmer suggested that they were far more likely to be found in the Javanese, Chinese and Japanese theatre, than in the European theatre of today. In his own work, Schlemmer largely concentrated on concepts of abstraction. Today, the TriadicBallet is recognised as marking the beginning of a new, abstract dance style. Schlemmer explains abstraction by contrasting it with the 'theatre of illusionistic realism': 'Either abstract space is adapted in deference to natural man and transformed back into nature. This happens in the theatre of illusionistic realism. Or natural man, in deference to 70


abstract space, is recast to fit its mould. This happens on the abstract stage.'7

Ballet,a speciallyarranged group, Berlin, 1926 (first Figure 4. Triadic performance,Stuttgart1922). For Schlemmer, dance in its purest form is necessarily abstract, because its creations arise largely from what he called the 'sensation of space'. He held that space, by determining the law for everything that happens within the limits, also determines the gestures of the dancer within the space. In his drawings as in his writings, he tried to demonstrate that: 'out of plane geometry, out of the pursuit of the straight line, the diagonal, the circle and the curve, a stereometry of space evolves, almost of itself, by the moving vertical line of the dancing figure.'8 Schlemmer did not see space as a void, but something which can be experienced by sight as well as by touch. The design of the actual performance space, therefore, was of great importance to the Bauhaus stage workshops. In Schlemmer's opinion, the traditional European stage did little to enhance the audience's spatial experience of a performance. He greatly admired Walter Gropius' idea of 71


the 'total theatre'. Inspired by models from antiquity, Gropius had designed a performance space in which all seating could be adjusted so that the stage would be positioned at either end of the auditorium or in a central position. In addition there was a circular acting area entirely surrounding the audience. In reality, Schlemmer had to adapt most of his dances to traditionally designed theatre spaces. No actual theatre existed in Weimar and plans for the specially built performance space in Dessau had to be greatly modified. Schlemmer, therefore, concentrated on costume design which he regarded as equally important in his pursuit of abstraction. Man has to be transformed into 'man as dancer' (he uses the German term 'Tanzermensch'), and costume is one of the most obvious means for this transformation. In his view, very few genuine stage costumes had been created to achieve this transformation; far too often artists confused theatrical with native costumes. Genuine stage costumes are mostly found in the Commediadell'arte, such as Harlequin, Pierrot and Columbine. Schlemmer believed that the transformation of the human figure could be achieved by four basic methods of abstraction. One would be to look at the laws of the surrounding cubic space. The cubic forms are transferred to the human shape, thus the costumes consist of separate cubes for each part of the body. A second method is to look at the functional laws of the human body in its relationship to space: 'These laws bring about a typification of the bodily forms: the egg shape of the head, the vase shape of the torso, the club shape of the arms and legs, the ball shape of the joints.'9 The result would be a costume giving the dancer a marionette-like appearance. The third method of transformation emphasises the laws of motion of the human body in space. These costumes are meant to show the various aspects of rotation and direction. All of Schlemmer's ballets have made use of these three different types of costume, and they have certainly contributed to a very characteristic Bauhaus style of performance. It is, however, the fourth method of transformation which Schlemmer thought to be the most important one. He argued that the body itself had numerous possibilities for abstraction. He described these transformations as: 'the metaphysical forms of expression, symbolising various members of the human body: the star shape of the spread hand, the 72


infinity sign of the folded arms, the cross shape of the backbone and shoulders, the double head, multiple limbs, division and suppression of forms.10 All four methods of transformation clearly show how abstract concepts of space, form and colour closely relate to the human condition. In practice, this factor is particularly well demonstrated by Schlemmer's Bauhaus Dances. In Space Dance each of

the three dancers wears a different-coloured costume and shows distinctive movement characteristics and floor patterns. These differences are contrasted with the uniformity of the outline of the costumes. The three gaits are inextricably linked with the characteristics of the three colours. Space Dance is thus a visualisation of Schlemmer's theory in which a colour, a major aspect of form, becomes a metaphor for human temperament. Another dance which is equally important for illuminating Schlemmer's theoretical work is Pole Dance. A dancer, dressed all in black, enters the stage with long white sticks fastened to her limbs. Each movement creates a new design as the sticks function as extensions of the dancer's body. What becomes clear is the close relationship between the organic geometry of the human body, and the abstract geometry of the surrounding space.

1929 (firstperformance,
Dessau, 1926).

Figure 5. Metal Dance,

Another dance in the series, called Metal Dance, was highly symbolic of the concerns of the Bauhaus at large. Under the 73


leadership of Moholy-Nagy, the metal workshop had become one of the most important departments of the school. Metal was seen as the most obvious symbol of the technological age, yet for Bauhaus artists it did not represent a threat to man's aesthetic sensibilities. On the contrary, by 1929 the metal workshop had created so many superior new designs that its products virtually became synonymous with the art of the Bauhaus. Schlemmer's dance is set in an environment of metal; the dancer, however, is not dominated by this environment - she controls it from centre. All of Schlemmer's dances, with their elaborate stage and costume designs, bear the strong mark of the painter and sculptor, yet their essence lies in the movement content itself. Schlemmer, in an article called 'Misunderstandings' (a reply to Kallai's review), recalls that the figurines from the Triadic Ballet had lost all their meaning when shown motionless in an exhibition. Furthermore, having already been established as a painter and sculptor, there would have been no need for him to start choreographing had he not primarily been interested in the movement factor. The main reason that he chose abstractionism as the predominant style was to provide a balance to Expressionist dance, of which he believed there were already far too many representations in Germany. A critic from the National Zeitung in Basel recognised the significance of his approach. He wrote: People who are trying to discover 'something' behind all this will not find anything, because there is nothing to discover behind this. Everything is there, right in what one perceives. There are no feelings which are 'expressed', rather feelings are evoked. The whole thing is a 'game'. It is a freed and freeing 'game' . . . Pure, absolute, form. Just as the music is.l Schlemmer prophesised that dance would be more successful than most other arts in its pursuit of abstraction. The New York critic, Anna Kisselgoff, suggests that Schlemmer's predictions could even apply to Balanchine's pure-dance ballets, where space and the body have become the dancer's main instruments. Yet Schlemmer has not left a direct heir to his work. Looked at superficially, Alwin Nikolais' approach has some similarity. Nikolais' main concern, however, has not been primarily with 74


spatial aspects, but rather with the effects obtained by the media of film, costume, props and sound. Whereas Schlemmer was interested in the function of objects, Nikolais' aim is to create a 'theatre of illusion'.

Figure 6. Pole Dance, 1927 (first performance, Dessau, 1926).

Some of Schlemmer's ideas found recognition at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where in 1936, Xanti Schawinsky, one of his students, began teaching a theatre course. His productions were largely based on Schlemmer's didactic experiments, but there is no evidence of any recognition other than within the College. There are several reasons why Schlemmer has left no legacy. The most obvious one is the discontinuity created by the Nazis. Whereas most other Bauhaus arts flourished in exile, the existence of the stage workshop was too intimately linked to Schlemmer's personal initiative. At the same time, it was impossible to divorce his own aesthetic from the general philosophy of the Bauhaus. It was unlikely, therefore, that an outside choreographer, who had not been exposed to this philosophy, could 75


have produced similar work. Another important factor is that Schlemmer had not evolved a particular dance technique, nor did he outline a specific choreographic method. His stage workshop was not a proper theatrical school as such, but it was one of many options within a curriculum which increasingly favoured architecture as the predominant field of study. Nevertheless, Schlemmer's art deserves far more recognition that it has received so far. In contrast to the work of many of his contemporaries, Schlemmer's dances do not look in the least dated. Their visual beauty, the clarity of form and the subtle sense of humour - all these factors are still able to 'fascinate audiences in the 1980s.' Schlemmer had sensed that his abstract style was too avantgarde for the dance world of his time. In 1931 he wrote: 'There is no doubt that the present climate is averse to experiments. However, if these experiments spring from an inner necessity and are not merely following fashionable trends, then the exact time of their realisation does not matter. For what are experiments if not the first step into the future?'12


OSKAR SCHLEMMER: MECHANICAL BALLETS? NOTES Lincoln Kirstein, Movementand Metaphor,London, Pitman, 1971, p. 214 Oskar Schlemmer, 'The Mathematics of the Dance', in The Bauhaus, ed. Hans Wingler, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1978, p. 118 3 Ibid. 4 Walter Gropius, Introduction to The Theaterof the Bauhaus ed. Walter Gropius, Wesleyan University Press, 1961, p. 14 5 Oskar Schlemmer, op. cit., p. 118 " Oskar Schlemmer; 'Man and Art Figure', in The Theaterof the Bauhaus, p. 28. 7

Oskar Schlemmer, 'Man and Art Figure', p. 26 Ibid., p. 27 l Review from National Zeitung (Basel), No. 196, 30 April 1929, reprinted in Wingler (ed.), The Bauhaus, p. 157 12 Oskar Schlemmer, 'Misunderstandings', Schrifttanz,4. Jahrgang, 1931 (translated by author). o

x Oskar Schlemmer, 'The Mathematics of the Dance', p. 118 '

Ibid,p. 28.

BIBLIOGRAPHY BAYER, Herbert, GROPIUS, Walter and GROPIUS, Ise, eds., Bauhaus 19191928 London, Secker and Warburg, 1979 DUBERMANN, Martin, Black Mountain: an Exploration in Community,London, Wildwoodhouse, 1974 GOLDBERG, Rose Lee, Performance,London, Cox and Wyman, 1979 GROPIUS, Walter, ed., The Theatreof the Bauhaus, Wesleyan University Press, 1961 KALLAI, Ernst, 'From Ritual Dance to Cabaret', Schrifttanz4 Jahrgang, June 1931 KIRSTEIN, Lincoln, Movementand Metaphor,London, Pitman, 1971 KISSELGOFF, Anna, 'They Created Dance Works at the Bauhaus, Too', New YorkTimes, 31 October 1982 KISSELGOFF, Anna, 'The Bauhaus Works were Prophetic', New YorkTimes, 29 January 1984 PATTERSON, Michael, The Revolution in German Theatre, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958 SCHEYER, Ernst, 'The Shapes of Space: the Arts of Mary Wigman and Oskar Schlemmer', Dance Perspectives,41, 1970 SCHLEMMER, Oskar, 'Misunderstandings', Schrifttanz, 4. Jahrgang, October 1931 SCHLEMMER, Tut, ed., OskarSchlemmer: Briefeund Tagebucher,Munchen, 1958 SCHNEEDE, Uwe, ed., Die ZwanzigerJahre, Koln, Dumont, 1979 SZEEMANN, Harold, ed., Der Hangzum Gesamtkunstwerk, Aaran, Saverlaneder, 1983 WINGLER, Hans M., ed., Das Bauhaus, K61n, Dumont, 1975. Also translated into English: The Bauhaus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1978