When working on an scenic avant-garde and futurist collection there is no way not to think of Oskar Schelmmer. This is not psychedelic performance art from the 1960’s, those are his Triadic Ballet costumes for Theater of the Bauhaus in 1922. A multidisciplinary artist who saw dance theatre as uniquely unrestricted by what he called ‘the burden of tradition’.
Schlemmer considered the performing arts a fertile but underdeveloped medium for expression, and looked to break out of its rules. When it comes to body agency, who we are and who we want to be, how are we and how we want to be represented, which mirror are we giving and which one we want to give to an audience, and definitely talking about culture and counterculture, Schlemmer felt his subversive thoughts strong enough to bring the establishment conversation through his work forward.
Schlemmer was born in 1888 and studied art before being injured in the first world war. When he returned from the western front, he turned to sculpture and performing arts, working at the Bauhaus school in Weimar. Throughout history there are works of art that stand out as somehow timeless and this choreography is one such artwork.
The ballet featured three dancers (two female, one male) performing 12 choreographies across three parts, with 18 costumes. He sought to break out of the classic ballet models of dualism and soloing, instead trying to emphasise a collective.
Contrary to the form-fitting leotards and diaphanous gowns of the nineteenth-century ballet tradition, Das Triadische Ballett’’s costumes were designed to restrict movement. Schlemmer created the costumes before thinking of the choreography so the movements were designed around the limitations of the artwork they were wearing. As a result, performers moved around the stage as marionettes. All together created a ballet for the machine age. Shlemmer wondered if in the future the act of mechanising life through technology would make us perceive the human machine and the body’s mechanisms with greater awareness. Throughout his work, Schlemmer plays with the tension of the human body being a mechanical object and one with deep organic urges and needs.
As the name alludes the ballet is organised into three acts where his bold wild work and revolutionary spirit recreate a personal cosmovision where, as Deleuze says, the disjunctive struggle between the sacred and the profane, an aimed switch between the real and designed/desired sci-fi, work as a symbolic and transcendent personal and socio-political act of resistance. The plot-free work shifts from comic burlesque dances in a yellow-hued first act, to ceremonial movement in a bubblegum pink backdrop second, to a transcendent, mystical, and dreamlike realm which takes place on a stage dressed in jet black in the third one.
The production toured Germany throughout the 1920s and popularised the constructed aesthetic of the Bauhaus. A filmed version followed in 1970.
He has described The Triadic Ballet as ‘artistic metaphysical mathematics’ and a ‘party in form and colour’.
With the rise of the Nazis in the early 30s, Schlemmer was edged out of a teaching post in Berlin. His work was included in the infamous exhibition of ‘degenerate art’ in 1937. He then worked in secret in a factory in Wuppertal until his death in 1943.
Schlemmer’s grasp of theatricality, geometry and sheer eye-catching imagery has made him influential having David Bowie and New Order taking inspiration from his designs.