Teaching the Bauhaus to Drama Students

text of presentation gtext of presentation given at PQ, June 2015, to the IFTR/FIRT Theatre Architecture Working Group.

The State Bauhaus was established in Weimar in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius. Over the next 14 years and under three directors, it developed new approaches to artistic training, art, architecture and design. In present company, the Bauhaus needs no introduction in relation to its significance in its modernist experimentation with the unity of the arts and a merging of art and design towards a new, contemporary life. Architecture was the key discipline, despite not being taught there within the main curriculum during the early years.

Its innovations in theatre are less well known, though informed by the same impulse to unite the arts in a practical, experimental space. Like the Bauhaus conception of architecture, the stage could be seen as an ‘orchestral complex’ of elements – an idea we will return to. Yet the stage workshop was never an equal part of the curriculum (it could never award a Bauhaus diploma) and was generally taken alongside other specialisms, and from the beginning the stage work informed and contributed to celebratory and social events. Oskar Schlemmer, who led the stage workshop from its inauguration until he left in 1928, suggested that the Bauhaus theatre was the ‘flower that was eagerly seen in the Bauhaus buttonhole but in principal unnecessary’ (‘eine gern gesehene, im Grunde aber unnötige Blume im Knopfloch des Bauhauses’ Speech 1928 cited in Scheper p.177 and Blume 30 and 32).

In Jan-March 2015, I taught on a module with the title ‘Research and Performance’ at the Drama Department in Exeter, leading 18 first year Drama students towards creating their own work, based on a research topic. This was an exercise in research through practice. I chose to focus on the stage work at the Bauhaus.

However… To do so presented certain obvious problems. The Basic Course at the Bauhaus introduced students to the study of form and materials through workshops focused on work with metals, wood, fabric or clay. My students, on the other hand, had spent a term exploring different notions of play, plays and devising, while also studying theories of performance and performance analysis. While they had the advantage over the Bauhaus students in having a sense of the performing body on stage, they had a decided disadvantage in approaching the stage as an assemblage.

Itten’s ‘Design and Form’ introduces the basic course at the Bauhaus, which all students would have taken. In this slide, you see a series of illustrations of principles of contrast and composition – transparent/opaque, smooth/rough, rest/motion, muth/little. Also the contrast between points, lines, volumes and planes. What I had to do with such ideas was find a means of translating these into embodied, stage terms, rather than leaving them on a two-dimensional picture plane.

Here are some images of the students exploring this. We experimented with dividing the stage in different ways, using tape. We also played with sticks, flat shapes, umbrellas and hoops, alongside movements that echoed or contrasted with those of the shapes.

Colour theory was also an important element for Bauhaus students to learn and one that my students found rather alien, and difficult to conceive as related to them.

In practice, we again made this spatial and explored colour dynamics by using coloured t-shirts to personify colours in spatial arrangements, before experimenting with synaesthetic responses to colour through music and movement. Kandinsky’s play, ‘Der Gelbe Klang’ was a useful text to reference, despite pre-dating the Bauhaus itself. One could readily see how colours were perceived to have their own dramatic and dynamic qualities.

This is a page from Paul Klee’s ‘Pedagogical Sketchbook’ in which he ‘takes a line for a walk’ and then experiments with ‘complementary forms’. We translated this into movements, with students taking physical lines through the space and experimenting with contrast and intersection, as well as with shapes made quite literally using illuminated wires.

Here you see a section of the final performance where students use red, blue and yellow illuminated wires to create moving lines in space. They manipulate these separately at first, then bring them together to create shapes. As the section continues they whirled the wires to blur the lines and then introduced illuminated hoops into the stage picture. The lines move in three dimensions. I have taken the soundtrack out, because it is rather faint, but it is accompanied by a quotation from Schlemmer: ‘One should start with the fundamentals. Well, what does that mean? One should start with a dot, a line, a bare surface, the body. One should start with the simple, existing colours: red, blue, yellow, black, white, gray…One should start with space, its laws and its mysteries.’

And here is a different section of performance, where you can see students drawing on their warm-up experimentation with drawing a line in space, and with moving on a grid pattern. They indicate lines cutting diagonally across the grid, as well as moving with it. I will come back to this movement work.

And in this video – I will only show a few moments – they are working from Kandinsky’s paintings, but you can see that they have animated the shapes as a form of puppet, in effect. This is actually quite challenging for them because they are having to think about themselves in this – are we part of the picture? Are the contrasting shadows part of the picture? How are the shapes moving and at what point is the picture fully resolved? I think there was further to go with this section, in fact.

What started to become self-evident with all these experiments was that it took very little adjustment to move a pedagogical exercise from the artist’s studio or workshop into the stage space. It was only ever a matter of working in three dimensions and with the body, which was also happening in other contexts. For instance, here Itten uses yoga-like exercises with students as a warm-up to drawing, encouraging them to think creatively with the whole body.

And here we see Klee’s proposed diagram of the basic course, in which he positions the stage ‘Bühne’ at the centre of the Bauhaus curriculum, next to architecture/building ‘Bau’. Neither architecture nor theatre are part of the classes that make up the core course, but both are equally central for his understanding of the Bauhaus work.

Here again, Klee’s two postcard invitations to the Bauhaus exhibition of 1923 emphasise the ‘Sublime Side’ – architecture and the ‘Bright Side’ – theatre. Alain Findeli, writing about Moholy-Nagy’s later pedagogy in Chicago, identifies in the Basic Course two types of exercise, one predominantly technical and the other aesthetic and theoretical. Art + Technology. The functional + the organic. He also suggests that this polarity is intrinsic to every design school since the Bauhaus. (Findeli 1990:7-8)

In relation to these two poles, it is not surprising that my students tended to emphasise the aesthetic and the organic, rather than the more technical and functional elements, since their emphasis is the stage. Our practical experimentation also served to reveal aspects of the stage work that moved away from the technical and formal enquiry into the stage as a complex of materials and forces. As these images of Schlemmer as clown suggest, popular forms are present in the Bauhaus work.

An experiment with a hoop, drawing on a score for a ‘hoop dance’, starts to become reminiscent of a circus act.

A staging of a simple text entitled ‘black-white-trio’, with reference to accompanying photographs, seems to suggest a deconstruction of a black and white minstrel show could be lurking behind the formal decomposition of the body.

When reworked by my students as part of their performance, this element faded and was replaced by a sense of cabaret. This video is not very easy to see, but gives a sense of how this worked here, and might have been understood at the Bauhaus.

A final element I want to consider is the movement work. Schlemmer placed the body at the centre of his stage experiments and most of his work can be considered in relation to dance. However, although we know a little about the Bauhaus ‘dances’ and his earlier ‘Triadic ballet’ he does not leave behind a fully developed dance vocabulary. However, he worked with dancers who had trained with Dalcroze and he was certainly familiar with Laban, although he makes very little reference to his work.

We drew on Laban’s techniques, however. Laban was also trained as an architect, and his understanding of geometrical, three-dimensional space is evident in his systemisation of movement in terms of direction and ‘effort’. My colleague, Pam Woods, came in to teach a workshop based on Laban, giving the students a language with which to explore the lines of the body in space. The other images also show Schlemmer’s parallel work with dancer Manda Von Kreibig, using staves, and our own experimentation with broomsticks.

Schlemmer was also interested in building structures around the body and letting these inform both movement and interpretation. While his work is generally not a move right away from the body towards machine or puppet, we also looked at Kurt Schmidt’s ‘Mechanical Ballet’.

This is one of the students’ first experimentation with making cardboard costumes, based on the mechanical ballet and seeing what effects of movement, shape and structure could be created through these means.

Through our embodied work, we discovered connections between contemporary theatremakers and choreographers and Schlemmer’s ideas. Here is one instance, where our work with grids led us to Anne Bogart’s viewpoints, and an observance of similarities then prompted detective work to trace this back through to the Bauhaus. The line is indirect, but certainly present, prompting a sense that postmodern theatre and dance can itself be better understood through this attention to its predecessors. My colleague, Rebecca Loukes, writes about the ways in which performer training is passed on through a process of embodied translation that can often be overlooked by historians. Our rediscovery of contemporary theatre through the Bauhaus could suggest a similar process here.

Finally, two videos that show two very different ‘dances’ within the performance. The first is a version of the ‘Mechanical Ballet’ by Schmidt. It is not a reconstruction, but has been created with close attention to images and other reconstructions of the original work.

And this is a reworking of Schlemmer’s ‘Triadic Ballet’, though it is very loosely based on it. Abi, the ballerina clearly brought her ballet training to this. She is working with the circle shape, echoing Schlemmer’s first section. When Alice enters, using triangles, they depart from Schlemmer’s own work more completely. The other performers also work with shapes and movements, comedy and form, art and technology, in ways that aim to echo the students of an earlier time.

(Credit slide.)