Watch an Avant-Garde Bauhaus Ballet in Brilliant Color, the Triadic Ballet, First Staged by Oskar Schlemmer in 1922

We cred­it the Bauhaus school, found­ed by Ger­man archi­tect Wal­ter Gropius in 1919, for the aes­thet­ic prin­ci­ples that have guid­ed so much mod­ern design and archi­tec­ture in the 20th and 21st cen­turies. The school’s rela­tion­ships with artists like Paul Klee, Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky, Las­z­lo Moholy-Nagy, and Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe means that Bauhaus is close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with Expres­sion­ism and Dada in the visu­al and lit­er­ary arts, and, of course, with the mod­ernist indus­tri­al design and glass and steel archi­tec­ture we asso­ciate with Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles and Ray Eames, among so many oth­ers.

We tend not to asso­ciate Bauhaus with the art of dance, per­haps because of the school’s found­ing ethos to bring what they saw as ener­vat­ed fine arts and crafts tra­di­tions into the era of mod­ern indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion. The ques­tion of how to meet that demand when it came to per­haps one of the old­est of the per­form­ing arts might have puz­zled many an artist.

But not Oskar Schlem­mer. A poly­math, like so many of the school’s avant-garde fac­ul­ty, Schlem­mer was a painter, sculp­tor, design­er, and chore­o­g­ra­ph­er who, in 1923, was hired as Mas­ter of Form at the Bauhaus the­atre work­shop.


Before tak­ing on that role, Schlem­mer had already con­ceived, designed, and staged his most famous work, Das Tri­adis­che Bal­let (The Tri­adic Bal­let). “Schlemmer’s main theme,” says schol­ar and chore­o­g­ra­ph­er Debra McCall, “is always the abstract ver­sus the fig­u­ra­tive and his work is all about the con­cil­i­a­tion of polarities—what he him­self called the Apol­lon­ian and Dionysian. [He], like oth­ers, felt that mech­a­niza­tion and the abstract were two main themes of the day. But he did not want to reduce the dancers to automa­tons.” These con­cerns were shared by many mod­ernists, who felt that the idio­syn­crasies of the human could eas­i­ly become sub­sumed in the seduc­tive order­li­ness of machines.


Schlem­mer’s inten­tions for The Tri­adic Bal­let translate—in the descrip­tions of Dan­ger­ous Minds’ Amber Frost—to “sets [that] are min­i­mal, empha­siz­ing per­spec­tive and clean lines. The chore­og­ra­phy is lim­it­ed by the bulky, sculp­tur­al, geo­met­ric cos­tumes, the move­ment sti­fling­ly delib­er­ate, incred­i­bly mechan­i­cal and mathy, with a rare hint at any flu­id dance. The whole thing is dar­ing­ly weird and strange­ly mes­mer­iz­ing.” You can see black and white still images from the orig­i­nal 1922 pro­duc­tion above (and see even more at Dan­ger­ous Minds). To view these bizarrely cos­tumed fig­ures in motion, watch the video at the top, a 1970 recre­ation in full, bril­liant col­or.


For var­i­ous rea­sons, The Tri­adic Bal­let has rarely been restaged, though its influ­ence on futur­is­tic dance and cos­tum­ing is con­sid­er­able. The Tri­adic Bal­let is “a pio­neer­ing exam­ple of mul­ti-media the­ater,” wrote Jack Ander­son in review of a 1985 New York pro­duc­tion; Schlem­mer “turned to chore­og­ra­phy,” writes Ander­son, “because of his con­cern for the rela­tion­ships of fig­ures in space.” Giv­en that the guid­ing prin­ci­ple of the work is a geo­met­ric one, we do not see much move­ment we asso­ciate with tra­di­tion­al dance. Instead the bal­let looks like pan­tomime or pup­pet show, with fig­ures in awk­ward cos­tumes trac­ing var­i­ous shapes around the stage and each oth­er.


As you can see in the images fur­ther up, Schlem­mer left few notes regard­ing the chore­og­ra­phy, but he did sketch out the group­ing and cos­tum­ing of each of the three move­ments. (You can zoom in and get a clos­er look at the sketch­es above at the Bauhaus-archiv Muse­um.) As Ander­son writes of the 1985 revived pro­duc­tion, “unfor­tu­nate­ly, Schlemmer’s chore­og­ra­phy for these fig­ures was for­got­ten long ago, and any new pro­duc­tion must be based upon research and intu­ition.” The basic out­lines are not dif­fi­cult to recov­er. Inspired by Arnold Schoenberg’s Pier­rot Lunaire, Schlem­mer began to see bal­let and pan­tomime as free from the bag­gage of tra­di­tion­al the­ater and opera. Draw­ing from the styl­iza­tions of pan­tomime, pup­petry, and Com­me­dia dell’Arte, Schlem­mer fur­ther abstract­ed the human form in dis­crete shapes—cylindrical necks, spher­i­cal heads, etc—to cre­ate what he called “fig­urines.” The cos­tum­ing, in a sense, almost dic­tates the jerky, pup­pet-like move­ments of the dancers. (These three cos­tumes below date from the 1970 recre­ation of the piece.)


Schlemmer’s rad­i­cal pro­duc­tion has some­how not achieved the lev­el of recog­ni­tion of oth­er avant-garde bal­lets of the time, includ­ing Schoen­berg’s  Pier­rot Lunaire and Stravinsky’s, Nijin­sky-chore­o­graphed The Rite of SpringThe Tri­adic Bal­let, with music com­posed by Paul Hin­demith, toured between 1922 and 1929, rep­re­sent­ing the ethos of the Bauhaus school, but at the end of that peri­od, Schlem­mer was forced to leave “an increas­ing­ly volatile Ger­many,” writes Frost. Revivals of the piece, such as a 1930 exhi­bi­tion in Paris, tend­ed to focus on the “fig­urines” rather than the dance. Schlem­mer made many sim­i­lar per­for­mance pieces in the 20s (such as a “mechan­i­cal cabaret”) that brought togeth­er indus­tri­al design, dance, and ges­ture. But per­haps his great­est lega­cy is the bizarre cos­tumes, which were worn and copied at var­i­ous Bauhaus cos­tume par­ties and which went on to direct­ly inspire the look of Fritz Lang’s Metrop­o­lis and the glo­ri­ous excess­es of David Bowie’s Zig­gy Star­dust stage show.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

Kandin­sky, Klee & Oth­er Bauhaus Artists Designed Inge­nious Cos­tumes Like You’ve Nev­er Seen Before

Down­load Orig­i­nal Bauhaus Books & Jour­nals for Free: Gropius, Klee, Kandin­sky, Moholy-Nagy & More

 32,000+ Bauhaus Art Objects Made Avail­able Online by Har­vard Muse­um Web­site

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Ronnie Carnwath says:

    Mar­vel­lous stuff — was this also an influ­ence on Philippe Decou­flé — the per­son respon­si­ble for New Order’s “True Faith” and Fine Young Can­ni­bals’ “She Dri­ves Me Crazy” videos? It would be inter­est­ing to find out.

  • Ian stewart says:

    Hi there yes it was- a great video fyc she dri­ves me crazy

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.