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euro-scene: Excavating Oskar Schlemmer

in Arts/Dance by

Sometimes you know you have witnessed greatness, and you just want to go somewhere and contemplate what you’ve seen. That’s how I felt after euro-scene’s opening presentation at Schauspiel – a reconstruction of The Triadic Ballet by Oskar Schlemmer, one of the masters at the Bauhaus.

The piece was performed in Leipzig by Bayerisches Juniorballett München, under the direction of Ivan Liška. For someone like me, an artist who studied interior design and uses movement as one of her mediums, to see The Triadic Ballet come to life was truly a treasure. It was something I never thought I’d experience.

Yes, I was that nerdy student who read outside the curriculum just because I was thirsty for knowledge. And yes, I was moved to tears on my first visit to the Bauhaus in Dessau. And again on Tuesday night at the annual performing arts festival in Leipzig.

I had seen some of the original costumes in an exhibition at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen and was perplexed by the thought of having to move in them. I talked to the dancers after the performance, and they said the hardest part was the weight. Many of the costumes are made of wood.

In the opening scene, the costume weighs 10 kilos. While the choreography is not complex, there is a lot of point work, balancing from side to side and bending over.

Schlemmer’s original work was made with the most stable of all forms in mind: the triangle.

A ballet in three acts, it would be performed by two male dancers and one female dancer. Each act would have a different coloured background and mood. The first would be yellow and be comedic burlesque. The second would be pink and have a festival or ceremonial flare. The last would be black and would take us into the land of fantasy.

The costumes were purposely made to restrict the dancers’ ability to move. The movement is clumsy, playful, disjointed and yet controlled. This was a sharp contrast to what was happening in dance at the time it was performed in 1922.

You had traditional ballet and you had people like Mary Wigman shaking things up with free-form movement. According to Ivan Liška, Schlemmer didn’t like the wildness of Wigman and the other choreographers of the time who were rebelling against the rigidity of ballet. He also sought experimentation, but within constraints.

Oskar Schlemmer photo collage of Triadische Ballett
Oskar Schlemmer photo collage of Triadisches Ballett.

Schlemmer was concerned with how the architectures – for that’s what they became in their costumes – moved in space.

After it toured in the 20s, the original choreography of The Triadic Ballet was basically lost. Schlemmer was not a choreographer and had no way of recording it on paper, due to lack of dance notation knowledge.

There were only snippets of film left as document. So, when the ballet was performed again in 1977, choreographer Gerhard Bohner reconstructed it the best he could with the help of Schlemmer’s wife, who was still alive.

Bohner was faced with yet another challenge, since only 11 minutes of the original score by Paul Hindemith had survived. Instead, he chose to use a tape of new music by Hans-Joachim Hespos, with a passacaglia by Handel as a finale.

The version we saw at euro-scene used the same choreography and music as they did in the 1977 reconstruction.

While I’d be quite curious to hear the original, I really enjoyed Hespos’s music. The fact that a piece from 1922 can be restaged in 1977 with a new score and remain fresh in 2017 is a testimony of just how visionary this work was.

Respect to Schlemmer for deconstructing movement long before Derrida started deconstructing texts and political institutions. We also see his costumes influencing art, film, music and fashion. Each time they reoccur in new ways, they remain avant-garde.

Oskar Schlemmer 1921 designs inspiring
Bauhaus-inspired Ziggy Stardust jumpsuit. Designed by Kansai Yamamoto for David Bowie in 1973.

The theme for this year’s euro-scene is Excavation, which looks at the rich history of contemporary dance in Germany and its continuing effect on international contemporary dance. euro-scene was funded for 5 Präludien von Marianne Vogelsang and Zwei Giraffen tanzen Tango by Tanzfonds Erbe, an organisation dedicated to the preservation of German contemporary dance.

This is the first German national initiative to address the issue of maintaining Germany’s contemporary dance heritage. Usually funding comes from the individual federal states.

euro-scene celebrates its 27th year this year with 12 guest performances from 7 countries, in around 25 representations at 9 venues. It includes not only dance, but spoken theatre, performance and also something for the kids.

Festival director Ann-Elisabeth Wolff carefully chose pieces for the festival based on professionalism, innovation, originality, quality, and the courage for aesthetic experimentation. This isn’t just something pretty to entertain. The works should move one to discussion.

I talked to Christain Watty, co-director of the Artistic Advisory Council, about one such work. Five easy pieces will make you laugh, but not for the reason you think. You laugh because that’s the only way you can get through the pain.

The story of Belgian pedophile and murderer Marc Dutroux is told through the eyes of the children. It was clear this work by Milo Rau, performed by Campo & IIPM, had really affected Watty.

On Sunday, Watty will be one of the jury for the Best German Solo. He says it’s an exciting, but tough decision to be part of. Acts range from comedy, to performance, to music, to solo dance pieces. It runs Friday and Saturday, with the finalists performing on Sunday night and €2,000 awarded to the winner, €1,000 to second place, and €500 for third.

This is the 13th time the contest has taken place. It happens every other year and was originally conceived by Alaine Platel from Ghent.

Sometimes what we learn from history. we are delighted to repeat.


euro-scene festival
7-12 Nov

Five easy pieces
CAMPO & IIPM / Milo Rau, Gent

Germany’s best solo

Free admission to euro-scene fringe

ARTE-Film »Mary Wigman – Die Seele des Tanzes« 

ARTE-Film »Evangelium« von Pippo Delbono 

Technische Führung »Die Räder im Getriebe«

Maeshelle West-Davies gleans her varied life experiences to expose a personal perspective through a multitude of mediums. Sound, video, photography, dance, performance and public art are the tools she uses to convey her message. Her work is a response not only to a physical journey, but an emotional one, as with all of us who walk along or beside our individual paths.

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