Dance and the Bauhaus
The “Bauhaus Dances” were a set of choreographic experiments that Oskar Schlemmer and his students performed intermittently during the late 1920s in the context of the Bauhaus stage workshop. The opening sentence of Walter Gropius’s “Bauhaus Manifesto” of 1919 read: “The ultimate aim of all visual arts is the complete building.”1 The building combined architecture with craft, but Schlemmer’s insight was the aim of building: to house the body. Although primarily a painter and sculptor, we can tell from his teaching notes that Schlemmer placed the human body at the center of building. In the workshop he and his students created masks, costumes, props, and decor for the theatrical presentation of choreography on stage that would both decompose and recompose the basic elements of the body and space in order to show their mutually conditioning relationships.2 Here, even chairs were important. This was, in a certain sense, an abstract theater in that it was an attempt to get at the most elemental compositional aspects possible: “form and color, space, movement, speech and sound, idea and composition.”3 But, it was motivated by the search for laws governing the place and proportionality of the human body in architectural space and the conflicts engendered by that encounter— in brief, the drama of the body and its dwelling.4 Hence, it was fundamentally choreographic. Although at times architecture was represented on stage and the theater itself was acknowledged to be an architectural environment, the drama of the “Bauhaus Dances” was that of the human body in architectonic relation to space.
When the Nazis shut the school down many Bauhauslers fled abroad, which actually led to the broader dissemination of their architectural and design ideas. Schlemmer, however, remained in Germany where he died in 1943. His movement and stage experiments were forgotten until, in 1982, Debra McCall premiered a reconstruction of Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus dances produced by the Kitchen. In doing this McCall essentially put Schlemmer on the map of 20th century choreography. The dances were performed at the first Schlemmer retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art and thereafter in many museums and dance venues. Thus, an early connection between dance and the visual with particular reference to architecture had been established.
I first saw this performance at the Guggenheim Museum in 1984 and performed myself in the final tour of the Bauhaus in Dessau in 1994. I remember thinking/feeling that these dances embodied a particular form of theater existing as if in an alternative world. Perhaps, this was the power of their choreographic reductions of core human actions involved in walking, running, sitting, and even talking. The image of Jan Hanvik running on the diagonal in “Space Dance” was unforgettable as was his interpretation of “Pole Dance” in which his body became reconfigured as a set of intersecting white lines against a black background. Juliet Neidish in “Hoop Dance” was also stunning as she manipulated multiple hoops, which in turn transformed her body in space.
Having been an audience member for some time—in part because I was also working with two of the dancers (Juliet Neidish and Brian Hanna) on my own work and coming to write about the dances in the epilogue to Dance as Text (1993) as woven into theatrical theory from Diderot and Kleist to Edward Gordon Craig, I was already part of the “family.” It seemed to me that Schlemmer puppets in the Bauhaus dances humanized the theoretical construct of the über-marionnette that had been a leitmotif of theatrical theory in the context of the perfectly repeatable act.5
In the wake of my extended spectatorship it seemed quite natural to join the cast replacing Nancy Stotts who was unavailable. It was very interesting to be taught the dances by Debra in rehearsal for Dessau where we would perform them on the stage Gropius had designed. Debra used Laban principles to explain to us what Schlemmer was after and how to perform these works. Laban created a system to capture very specific qualities in movement. Schlemmer’s steps were very simple but their qualities were important to understand. Here, Andreas Weininger was very important in understanding the interpretation because he revealed the playful nature of the dances.6 What was the energy behind the walk? Laban’s qualitative movement analysis helped infuse movement with its proper nuance. The very strong design sense that her production captured was also in some way due to Laban’s clarity about spatial relationships, geometries, and the way he formulated the body’s relation to space as an expressively meaningful relationship. As far as we know, Schlemmer had no exposure to Laban’s teaching. But, what they shared was an interest in the body in relation to space.
Debra felt that Schlemmer’s work prefigured and also illuminated the minimalism in dance of the 1970s; it was a missing link in the continuum of what I think of as the technological avant-garde of modern dance (going from Loïe Fuller to Alwin Nikolais). This was certainly true, but the dances also stood on their own as important works of the 20th century. It is a shame her reconstructions are no longer seen today as they would be of great interest to future generations of dancers and dance-goers.
- Gropius cited in Hans W. Wingler, Bauhaus: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago translated by Wolfgang Jabs and Basil Guilbert (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 1969), 31.
- Schlemmer’s first project was The Triadic Ballet (1922), notable for the influence of ballet.
- Oskar Schlemmer, Man. Teaching Notes from the Bauhaus edited by Heimo Kuchling and translated by Janet Seligman (Cambridge, MA.: The MIT Press, 1971), 27.
- See Mark Franko, “Can We Inhabit a Dance? Reflections on Dancing The ‘Bauhaus Dances’ in Dessau,” in Choreographing Discourses: A Mark Franko Reader edited by Mark Franko with Alessandra Nicifero (London and New York: Routledge, 2019), 116-129.
- See Mark Franko, “Epilogue: Repeatability, Reconstruction and Beyond,” in Dance as Text. Ideologies of the Baroque Body (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 138-150.