I’m excited to have a chance to experiment with Bauhaus ideas in the studio, working with a group of 20 first year students on our BA Drama course. I’ve been thinking about the Bauhaus and in particular the convergence of theatre and architecture, but previously without the opportunity to explore anything practically. This blog is partly documentation of this new process and partly to clarify the decisions I’m making in the teaching.
Whereas Oskar Schlemmer was working with art students, bringing their work into new forms of theatre and dance, we are necessarily working the other way around, from theatre attempting to assimilate fine art and design principles. This demands a different way of thinking from those more accustomed to narrative theatre. Bauhaus composition refers more to form, line and colour, than to plot, character and representation. It is still more challenging to understand the philosophical ideas that inform the work, in the context of Modernism and of Germany in the 1920s. As this course is about a relationship between practice and scholarship based on reading, it will be important not to lose sight of the latter in an eagerness to leap to performance.
I’m beginning by focusing on line, shape and form in week 1, colour and light in week 2 and the body and dance in week 3, before a break for reading in week 4.
One of the difficulties I have is that although there is quite good documentation of the performances given at the Bauhaus, including meticulous reconstructions (albeit we have to be careful with these), there is less detailed evidence of the process and methodologies by which Schlemmer and others reached their various performances and scores. There are some descriptions of improvisations at the Bauhaus and a few accounts of particular struggles (for instance, the grappling for language in the experimental Haus ?), but perhaps because ‘theatre studies was never offered as a full, autonomous and equivalent subject'(Blume and Duhm 2008:23), it’s hard to identify any systematic approach to pedagogy or methodology. Nevertheless, this experimentation would have been underpinned by a shared understanding of artistic form that was taught on the ‘Basic Course’ and precedes the stage workshop itself. This foundation somehow needs to be communicated, at least in part, to our Drama students. In other words, there are shared methodologies that did underpin Schlemmer’s work that are not specifically theatre methodologies.
What I did, then, was a kind of translation of exercises from Paul Klee’s teaching on line (drawn from his Pedagogical Sketchbook (Klee 1968 )) and Johannes Itten’s teaching on contrasts (drawn from Design and Form: The Basic Course at the Bauhaus (Itten 1997)), supplemented by theories of spatial composition of the picture plane that one can see informing Schlemmer’s division of the stage.
So, for instance, rather than taking a line for a walk on the page, the line was taken for a walk in space. Discovering a contrasting line was also found through movement. The stage space was divided firstly into two, secondly roughly proportional to the ‘Golden Section’ , and thirdly into 4 quarters each divided by ‘Golden Section/Ratio’, then into a grid. In each instance, we looked at contrasting figures and movements in the different sections (fast/slow, big/little, sharp/soft etc).
We also looked at movements around the grid, using it as a way of regulating bodies, before putting circular movements into the mix, as contrast (and using wooden hoops). Staves were then brought into the grid, emphasising lines and directionality.
In working on this, my colleague, Kara Reilly remarked that the exercises I was describing reminded her of Anne Bogart’s and Tina Landau’s ‘Nine Viewpoints’ (Bogart and Landau 2005). Indeed my exercises are very close to some of their spatial exercises on a grid, and I don’t think this is coincidental, given a lineage that goes back to Judson Church and Anna Halprin , whose work came into contact with that of former Bauhaus teachers in various ways.
In our second session, we worked more with these hoops and staves. In pairs, one student ‘let their gestures and movements instinctively follow what these shapes [conveyed] to them’ ((Schlemmer, ‘Theater [Bühne]’ 1927 lecture, in Gropius and Wensinger 1961:97)), while the other improvised using only their bodies, following the first performer’s stimulus. This resulted in a layered improvisation based on circular shapes.
We then experimented by introducing a ‘clown’ figure, who enters carrying a tea cup and joins the formal ‘dance’ using the cup as circle form, with some precarity (the cup is full) – this was again inspired by the 1927 essay, in which Schlemmer proposes that a ‘Musical Clown’ is a ‘winsome and pathetic companion to the other [three] figures in quite a seriously intended [trio]’. (Schlemmer was working with 4 performers, so he writes of a ‘quartet’). This seemed to have potential and Ju naturally wanted to use vocal sounds for the clown, which seemed right.
We tried a similar thing with brightly coloured umbrellas. These, however, proved not to be comical objects at all, but in fact rather lyrical, blending beautifully into the ‘dance’ of hoops and circular movements. The teacup carries connotations of the prosaic, the domestic and the non-work space that gives it a comically different dimension (a more ‘theatrical’ one, if you like) than the purely formal experimentation which was, all the same, very pleasing.
I also introduced cardboard shapes – Blue Circle, Red Square and Yellow Triangle (while admittedly Schlemmer himself preferred a blue square and a red circle, this seems more representative of the Bauhaus as a whole).
We tried improvisations with sticks, hoops and shapes in which groups manipulated them to mark out abstract line drawings and forms on a grid. This proved a difficult thing to describe and to execute, though it was also at a point in the session where people were beginning to tire.
We tried making abstracted, but more pictorial images of landscape, house, etc, using the shapes. These seemed too literal, but a combination of abstraction, occasionally coalescing into more representational forms seemed to have some potential for future work.
(Thanks to Emily Giles for the photographs)