How the Bauhaus School Gave Life to... Performance Art Movement!
Even though it’s best known as an architecture and design academy, the Bauhaus school was actually the first official artistic institution containing performance as a necessary part of education; meaning that performance art was accepted as an individual art form different from traditional theater and dance, already in the 1920s, by the progressive teachers and students of the Bauhaus. It was explored trough an experimental Bauhaus Stage workshop, which was supposed to cure students from Expressionism, and the most important period of its development was while it was lead by Oskar Schlemmer, who has been invited to teach at the school based on his reputation as a painter, sculptor and an avant-garde artist interested in translating the visual language to the language of performance art.
The Bauhaus school of arts and design was founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar, in 1919. The urge for exploring performance in a school concerned mostly with architecture and design was caused by their deep understanding of the importance of space; which lead them to investigating the relation between humans and the space surrounding them, between ideal geometric forms which make up the essence of space itself and the possibilities of mechanical and human movement within them. But, unlike the Futurist or Dada performances which were mostly anarchist and rebellious, the Bauhaus performances were based on order, law and precise structure, as stated in the Bauhaus manifesto itself; where this entire educational project has been defined as a cathedral of Socialism aimed at unifying all of the arts and operating as a community where people worked and lived together.
The Bauhaus Costume Parties – Triggers for Future Performances
Ever since Walter Gropius designed the famous arts and design school, there were three clear components which held the community together. The first was Bauhaus manifesto, then also the official lectures within the school, and finally the social events which were as much as important as spaces of free experimentation and improvisation, usually formed as costumed parties. These parties didn’t just attract the students and professors from Bauhaus, but also people from the local communities of Weimar, as well as the surrounding cities like Berlin. It was important to open up unofficial spaces where the community could socialize and share their ideas, but also space for performance to be explored outside of the rigid rules imposed on it later by geometry and theory studied by Schlemmer, who started the whole story by actually practicing the improvisational spirit of performance where everything was allowed, as long as the participants were dressed in costumes following the theme proposed for that specific party. They elaborately prepared the parties around topics such as The Beard, Nose and Heart Festival, or The White Festival, where everyone was instructed to appear in costumes which were dotted, chequered and striped, or the famous Metallic Festival. These parties were important as birthplaces of the topics which they later built their official performances on. One of the most famous social events held in Bauhaus was for sure the Metallic Festival in which the entire school was decorated in metallic color and substances, even the invitations were printed out on metal-colored cards, the music was adapted to fit a metallic atmosphere and everyone wore futuristic costumes made out of metallic-colored materials or even metal itself.
Play and Instinct as a Starting Point
The Bauhaus party setting was just a starting point, an invitation for the free and improvisational space where everyone used these visual elements as inspiration to move or behave in a certain manner. In the end, the most inspiring moments of these party performances would later be used as triggers for creating new official performances within the school program. Based on Schlemmer’s words, these parties were actually the early Bauhaus initial impulses which triggered the need for a more creative theater practice, which later emerged trough the official workshops. These festivities portrayed an early spirit of the school which was based on design, play and instinct and imaginative use of masks and costumes. In their beginning, they were also important since they had an element of satire and parody, a legacy of the Dadaists, which was used to mock the traditional forms of theater and dance. So, even if it looked like a negative action in its foundation, it actually helped the official Bauhaus Stage Workshop to develop within the school as a distinctive and contemporary art form.
The Bauhaus Stage Workshop – Translating Painting to Performance Art Movement
Since the entire program of the Bauhaus has been directed to overcome the dichotomy between theory and practice, The Stage Workshop was essential with its discoveries in this field, where Oskar Schlemmer tried to solve the problem of translating one art form to another; painting to performance. His contribution to Bauhaus was enormous, with both writing about the theory of performance, as well as experimenting with its production. Schlemmer expressed this complex problematics trough a classic mythological opposition between Apollo and Dionysus, a distinction initially made by the Ancient Greeks but revived in the field of aesthetics by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche. With Apollo, the god of intellect, he referred to the theory which was explored trough drawing and painting; and with Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy, he explained the practice filled with the pleasure of producing performances. Both in painting and performance, his main interest was in space design; the painting delineated the two-dimensional elements of space, and performance provided a place in which it was possible to experience space directly, in all dimensions.
The Gesture Dance (1926-27)
One of the most important pieces which shows the translation of his theory to practice was the Gesture Dance from 1926-27. This performance combined the complexity of geometric and predefined gestures with the banal everyday actions such as sneezing, laughing and listening. In order to create the performance, Schlemmer actually prepared an entire notation system which visually described every gesture to be made, built up trough linear patterns. These directions were then followed by three figures; dancers dressed in primary colors; red, yellow and blue. This was a perfect way to examine the possibilities of moving from one medium to another; from the two-dimensional surface to the plastic; from graphic notation and painting to the human body and it’s possibilities. Every performance was then prepared in a similar manner; starting from the abstract signs, design, geometric structures and predefined linear paths which were created in the form of paintings, and then practicing these ideal abstract concepts in reality, by working with the dancers on stage.
Understanding Space as a Unifying Element for Different Art Forms
The main issue within the analysis of space during the 1920’s Bauhaus experiments was the opposition between the visual plane and spatial depth, and Schlemmer was the first one to find answers to these questions by describing space as a unifying element in architecture, which he then explored in detail trough his Stage Workshop. All of the experimental dance performances he created had common denominators; the feeling of space volume and the sensation of space. The dancing figure was the central place from which all of the spatial geometry then expanded outwards; showing the centrality of a Kantian view of space and a Kantian approach to the differentiation between transcendental and empirical notions of it. This view of space places the subject in the center, the subject which carries the pure form of space as a possibility within itself, which then becomes manifested trough our perception of various empirical elements which constitute and fill the empirical space around us.
Exploring Space on a Bauhaus Stage
So, starting with the plane geometry and the pursuit of a straight line, a diagonal, a circle, a curve; the entire design space evolves, taking the subject as it’s center by the movement of the dancer’s body placed as a vertical figure from which the entire space expands. It was important to create a feeling of this mutual relation, and Schlemmer described it as imagining a space filled with a soft pliable substance, in which the sequential figures of the dancer’s movement would be left to harden as a negative form. He explained and experimented with this idea of the unified space further trough his lecture/demonstration given to the Bauhaus students in 1927. The practice started by diving the square surface of the floor into bisecting axes and diagonals which were then completed by a circle. After this, they crossed wires over the empty stage, using them to define the volume or the cubic dimension of the space itself. Then the dancers moved within the spatial linear web, and their movement was dictated by the stage which they previously divided geometrically as described. Again, combining the theoretical geometry with the practice of it, Schlemmer managed to unite different art forms into an exploration of a common idea of space which served as their unifying element.
Chamber Dance Company – Selection from Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus Dances
The Triadic Ballet – The Ultimate Bauhaus School Performance
A performance lasting for several hours, The Triadic Ballet, was a piece by Oskar Schlemmer which brought all of his design and performance ideas into practice and perfectly portrayed the power of the balance between the abstract concepts and emotional impulses. Its initial materialization happened as early as 1922. but the entire production went on over a ten-year period trough which all of Schlemmer’s performance propositions were examined and ultimately put to practice. The title Triadic Ballet was a key to understanding the concept; triadic coming from triad (three); there were three dancers and three parts of the symphonic architectonic composition, as well as a triple fusion of the dance with the costumes and music. The process of creation started by first designing the costumes, then finding the right music to suit them, and lastly constructing the dance movements which follow the costumes and music. The dance progressively evolved from the everyday life actions like standing and walking, to more complex designed geometric gestures. It also explored the connection between the artificial and human, since Schlemmer introduced puppet-like performers whose natural movement was limited by the ideal geometrical costume shapes. This “metaphysical dance” was truly different from anything seen previously in traditional theater or dance production. It became the most widely performed avant-garde dance that continues inspiring all artists who search for the basics of the historical avant-garde and use it for broadening the definition of dance and performance, even today.
Oskar Schlemmer – Das Triadische Ballet (A 1970’s Remake of the 1922 Piece)
Translating Forms, One Into Another
Even though Performance Art officially started existing within the Futurist movement, Bauhaus was the first official institution to recognize it’s difference from other forms of art and to offer it as a field of study which would unite all ideas behind the manifesto of the school itself. As much as the entire movement is known mostly for the innovative approach to design, the influence of these first avant-garde performances can not and should not be overlooked when taking into consideration the influence of the Bauhaus philosophy on an entire contemporary art development in the 20th and 21st century. Truly interdisciplinary and innovative in the approach not just to design but also performance, it marked a whole new beginning of exploring the connection between different art forms, of translating one art form to another, of thinking differently about the everyday movements which can become art; one of the key ideas standing behind the performances later explored in the Black Mountain College which truly marked an opening of the recognition of performance art in the second half of the 20th century. In 2019, the school is celebrating 100 years of existence and the will be organizing an experimental, transitional and radically contemporary Bauhaus celebration titled Die Welt neu denken (Reconsidering the world), which will examine the influence of the school on a whole century of art in all of its forms.
Focusing on the work of painter, choreographer and scenic designer Oskar Schlemmer, the “Master Magician” and leader of the Theatre Workshop, this book explains this “theatre of high modernism” and its historical role in design and performance studies; further, it connects the Bauhaus exploration of space with contemporary stages and contemporary ethics, aesthetics and society. The idea of “theatre of space” is used to highlight twentieth-century practitioners who privilege the visual, aural, and plastic qualities of the stage above character, narrative and, themes (for example Schlemmer himself, Robert Wilson, Tadeusz Kantor, Robert Lepage). This impressive volume will be of use to students and academics involved in the areas of twentieth-century performance, the history of performance art, the history of avant-garde theatre, modern German theatre, and Weimar-era performance.
- RoseLee Goldberg, Performance: Live Art 1909 to the Present, Harry N. Abrams, Inc Publishers, New York, 1979
- Johannes Birringer, Bauhaus, Constructivism, Performance, Design and Performance Lab at Brunel University, London, 2012
- The Charnell House, Oskar Schlemmer’s Costume Parties from 1924 to 1926, The Guardian [March 8, 2017]
- Joseph Nechvatal, Oskar Schlemmer’s Dancing Robots, Hyperallergic [March 9, 2017]
- Bauhaus Official, 100 Years of Bauhaus Celebration, Bauhaus [March 8, 2017]
Featured image: Oskar Schlemmer – Triadic Ballet, 1922, Courtesy of Charnell House, Oskar Schlemmer – Mechanincal Ballet, Oskar Schlemmer – Gesture Dance, Oskar Schlemmer – Three Figures from Triadic Ballet, 1922, Courtesy of Charnell House. All images used for illustrative purposes only.