The Akademie der Künste kicks off the jubilee celebrations to mark 100 years since the iconic design school was founded with a festival spanning dance, theatre, puppets and more.
Bauhaus’ stage experiments have often been neglected – a shame, as the modernist design school’s interdisciplinary approach is well suited to the format. But like the legendary institution itself, its ambitious forays into theatre were cut short and never given the space and time (not to mention funding) they needed to fully develop. It’s therefore encouraging to see a number of theatre performances at the Akademie der Künste’s Bauhaus 100 festival. But do they really do Bauhaus justice?
Unsurprisingly, Bauhaus’ approach to theatre transcends the stage on which performances are set. Oskar Schlemmer, who headed up the school’s theatre workshop from 1923, placed importance on the physical relationship between the stage and the auditorium in which it exists: the atomised, constricted space of the stage should be translated into the building as a whole. One such unrealised experiment is to be found in Walter Gropius’ 1926 blueprints for a “total theatre” – an adaptable, multi-functional space which would suit itself to any kind of performance. He saw it responding to every imaginable vision of a stage director, writing that, “The playhouse itself, made to dissolve into the shifting, illusionary space of the imagination, would become the scene of action itself.” The Great Depression quickly emptied the Weimar Republic’s coffers of cultural funding and the Nazi’s rise to power sealed the fate of Gropius’ dream theatre. In this respect, Richard Siegal’s virtual reality installation Das Totale Tanz Theater sounds like a promising attempt to transpose at least parts of Schlemmer and Gropius’ vision to our technological age. Using VR headsets, viewers can navigate the different layers of his virtual dance choreography in a three-dimensional experience, including a dance set to music by Einstürzende Neubauten.
Of the Bauhaus clan, Schlemmer has had perhaps the most enduring influence on theatre. He was concerned with transforming human figures into abstract, geometric forms as they move through the space of the stage – an imaginative mathematics of motion that expresses different moods, atmospheres and emotions. Gropius described Schlemmer’s stage work as magic that transformed dancers and actors into moving architecture. The best example of this is Schlemmer’s Triadisches Ballett – one of the most well-known Bauhaus theatre experiments and most-performed avant-garde dance pieces of the 1920s, which toured through Germany and France, helping to spread the design school’s aesthetic vision. A testament to Bauhaus utility, Schlemmer favoured a modular stage setup that could be transported easily with a travelling company. His dancers are simplified, abstract figurines – geometric human puppets that are choreographed through the matrix space of the stage. Gerhard Bohner revived the avant-garde ballet in 1977, turning it into a global success with first soloist Colleen Scott, who now returns as director alongside Ivan Liška for a co-production with the Bayerisches Staatsballett. Two more of Schlemmer’s Bauhaus choreographies from his material dance series, Stäbetanz and Reifentanz (“stick dance” and “hoop dance”) are also being performed as a double bill in a new reconstruction by the Catalonian choreographer Cesc Gelabert.
The festival also pays tribute to the school’s artistic influence on theatre, in particular through a Paul Klee puppet show. About Klee, a collaboration between United Puppets and the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, showcases recreations of the Swiss artist’s gender-fluid puppets in a playful kasperlesque performance. Constructed for his son from waste items such as beef bones, bristle brushes and animal fur, Klee’s bizarrely comic figures oscillate between toys and artworks. Also on the bill are some notable examples of post-Bauhaus theatre, exploring the influence and impact its philosophy has had on stage. Robert Wilson’s internationally acclaimed adaptation of Beckett’s one-act monodrama Krapp’s Last Tape celebrates its German premiere during the festival. Heavily indebted to the school’s aesthetic vision and Oskar Schlemmer in particular, an often overlooked influence, Wilson’s production is a stripped-back performance that harnesses intensity through limitation, using simplistic lighting, sound and movement, alongside an architectural stage design and functional props.
In a jubilee year, it’s easy to get swept away with excitement and easier still to forget the underlying principles of movements and institutions, engaging rather in an endless game of cultural heritage circle jerk. In October last year, the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation controversially cancelled the appearance of the indefatigably antifascist punk band Feine Sahne Fisch – let amid fears the far-right would stage protests at the UNESCO site. This, from the radical design school that was persecuted by the Nazis! Whoever claims Bauhaus wasn’t political doesn’t understand Bauhaus. And 100 years on, the question we should be asking is: where was Bauhaus when we needed it most? Its legacy has been mostly con ned to its iconically reduced aesthetics; its revolutionary utilitarianism and antifascist tendencies largely neglected. Bauhaus’ theatre experiments were highly ambitious but sadly never fully realised. While it’s encouraging to see Schlemmer’s choreographies on stage again and recognise the impact Bauhaus has had on practitioners such as Wilson, it would be better still to see something truly ambitious in a jubilee year: experimental performances that resonate with their spaces in a harmonious Gesamtkunstwerk that does justice to its radically innovative philosophy – a Bauhaus that’s bite is as big as its bark.
Das Totale Tanz Theater Jan 17-24 | Krapp’s Last Tape Jan 17, 19:00, 22:00 | Das Triadische Ballett Jan 21, 19:00, Jan 22, 19:00, 22:00 | Bauhaustänze Stäbe, Reifen Jan 24, 20:00 | About Klee Jan 20, 14:00, 17:00 all at Akademie der Künste, Tiergarten