Strange and futuristic: 100 years of The Triadic Ballet

A look at Oskar Schlemmer’s unique creation, which celebrates the centenary of its premiere on September 30.

Today, while still remembered as a Bauhaus designer, painter and teacher, Oskar Schlemmer’s contribution to dance gets little more than a passing reference. With one exception. His designs for his Triadic Ballet, which premiered at the Wurtemburgische Landestheater in Stuttgart on September 30, 1922 remain among the most striking and unusual ever conceived. The ballet itself never received acclaim in Schlemmer’s lifetime, however, only doing so with Gerhard Bohner’s 1977 re-imagining, commissioned by the Academy of Arts in Berlin.

The costumes or figurines as Schlemmer called them, of which nine of the eighteen originals survive, seven in the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, are extraordinary. Even a hundred years later, they look strangely futuristic, like something from a science-fiction cartoon. Schlemmer only hinted at possible interpretations of them in his manuscripts. “Precision machinery, scientific apparatus of glass and metal, artificial limbs developed by surgery, the fantastic costumes of deep-sea divers and a modern soldier,” he wrote.

Elsa Hötzel (Big Skirt) and Oskar Schlemmer (The Diver)
in a scene from The Traidic Ballet, 1922 or 1923
Photo Bauhaus Dessau Foundation, courtesy Staatsgalerie Stuttgart

Heavy and made from unusual materials such as foil, sheet steel, plywood, wire and rubber, they transform the human body into moving sculptures where movement is severely restricted.

Gold Sphere is an armless ovoid torso. Sphere Hands is a figure whose handless arms end in swollen coloured balls. The twin Disk Dancers, whose heads and bodies are set with thin blade-like disks, move toward each other from opposite directions, appearing to slowly slice through one another as they merge together. Wire appropriately appears as a figure snarled within the coils of barbed wire. Made of wood, The Diver is armless, grotesquely deformed and comes with a strange oversized helmet. It’s original, housed in the Bauhaus Dessau, is apparently so heavy that it takes two people to carry it.

Figurine plan for The Triadic Ballet by Alexandra Bormann-Arndt, c.1969
Moved by Schlemmer exhibition, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart
Photo David Mead

Perhaps oddest is The Abstract, which it has been claimed was something of an alter ego for Schlemmer, who danced the role himself on several occasions. Split into unequal areas of light and dark, largely white with patches of red, black and blue, it comes with a large half-head, one-eyed mask and wields a dagger and a club. On top of that, it has a permanently outstretched white leg that cannot be bent, which reduces the dancer to limping or hopping around impotently.

The female costumes do all bear some resemblance to a traditional ballet tutu, however. Perhaps that’s not so much a surprise when one considers that Schlemmer saw himself not so much as a radical but someone updating historic tradition for the new age with new materials and ideas.

While detailed designs for the remaining costumes remain, the choreography is long lost. Schlemmer’s left many diaries, notes and sketches but they do not detail the steps and there is no known surviving film. Those notes do at least detail many of the floor patterns though and have been used for modern re-imaginings that challenge perceptions of dance just as much as the 1922 ballet must have done.

Oskar Schlemmer as Turkish in The Triadic Ballet, c. 1922
Photo Oskar Schlemmer Archive, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart

Schlemmer was mooting the idea of a gesamtkunstwerk, a bringing together of visual art, dance and costume design, as early as 1912 after meeting husband-and-wife dancers Albert Burger and Elsa Hötzel. In many ways, he was one of the first true interdisciplinary artists, agrees Susanne Kaufmann-Valet, curator of the Moved by Schlemmer exhibition at the Staatsgalerie, staged to mark the ballet’s centenary.

Having staged initial sketches for what would become The Triadic Ballet at a charity event for his regiment in Stuttgart in 1916, Schlemmer continued to design a formalised, plotless, three-act ballet, which he referred to as a ‘Dance of Trinity’. It had three dancers, one female, two male, in 12 dances and 18 costumes. There were also the three dimensions of space – height, depth and width; and three basic shapes: sphere, cube and pyramid. Finally, there were three basic colours, one for each act: yellow for the first, which was festive burlesque; then pink, solemn; then black, mystical and fantastic.

The choreography itself was developed by Burger, Hötzel and Schlemmer in collaboration. Floor geometry and geometric shapes determined the paths of the dancers. The music was a collage by eight composers across three centuries. The programme for the opening night noted how the ballet flirted with comedy without being grotesque and brushed against conventions without becoming base. It also suggested that it might demonstrate the beginnings from which a particularly German ballet could be developed. The costumes certainly determined the movements of the dancers, who had to subordinate themselves to their rigid shapes, although, from his notes, it seems that restricting movement per se was not Schlemmer’s prime aim.

In the premiere, Schlemmer danced under the pseudonym Walter Schoppe but, in a letter to Swiss artist Otto Meyer-Amden, he wrote, “As a dancer…I failed. I may be a dance director, but not a dancer.” The reviews were mixed, although the Frankfurter Zeitung commented, “The foundation has been laid for a completely modern ballet that is real art.”

The Bayerisches Junior Ballett München
in Gerhard Bohner’s 1977 remaking of The Triadic Ballet
Pictured: Alisa Bartels as The Wire Skirt
with Alexander Bennett and Nicholas Losada as The Gold Balls
Photo Wilfried Hosl

The Triadic Ballet would go on to have a fraught history. Burger and Hötzel, who had financed the costumes besides collaborating on the choreography, soon fell out with Schlemmer, feeling that their contribution was not sufficiently recognised. They parted ways after two further performances in August 1923. The costumes were divided up. Schlemmer keeping six and having six new ones made.

The ballet seems forever to have been a work-in-progress. It resurfaced at the Donaueschigen Chamber Music Festival in 1926, now to specially commissioned music for mechanical organ by Paul Hindemith, and again at the Great Frankfurt Bridge Review, where the layout of the venue forced Schlemmer to change the choreography and number of dances. The same year, his financial situation led him to rent the costumes to the Metropol Theatre in Berlin for a section in a review but the organisers soon went bankrupt and he never received a penny.

Alexander Bennett and Nicholas Losada as The Discs
in Gerhard Bohner’s version of Oskar Schlemmer’s The Traidic Ballet
Photo Wilfried Hösl

After another part-performance in 1927, The Triadic Ballet achieved sixth place at the Concours de Choreographie competition in Paris in July 1932, the choreography yet again substantially altered. The performance was the last in Schlemmer’s lifetime. Plans for further outings in the 1930s came to nothing, in part due to the political situation. Schelmmer’s work was removed from the Staatsgalerie in 1933 as part of the now Nazi German government’s purge of art and by 1937, prominent Bauhaus artists such as him were completely ostracised.

Schlemmer died in 1943 and the Burgers’ costumes were destroyed by fire in 1944. Schlemmer’s only survived the Second World War because he sent them to New York in 1938 for a Bauhaus exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, where they remained until the 1960s. The ballet itself fell into oblivion until it was reinterpreted in 1968 as a 30-minute piece for German television by Margarete Hasting, Franz Schömbs and Georg Verden. More notable, and by far the most successful of all the versions of the ballet, is that by Bohner nine years later.

Nagisa Hatano as Big Skirt in The Triadic Ballet by Gerhard Bohner after Oskar Schlemmer
Photo Wilfried Hosl

Reconstructions of old ballets are always problematic since, even if steps can the recreated, the original context cannot. Bohner’s advantage was that he had no choice but to rework it, albeit while trying to understand and keep to Schlemmer’s intentions by studying his notes in detail, and trying to understand them from the author’s point of view. The costumes, however, were exact replicas. Another new score by Hans-Joachim Hespos is a strange mixture of creaking, metallic and other industrial sounds. If there is any rhythm, it’s largely hidden and indistinct.

Prior to remaking the ballet, Bohner spent much time looking at better documented Bauhaus stage works and what partial records existed of other dances by Schlemmer. In a television documentary about the making of the ballet, he explained how he “tried to treat Schelmmer’s notes as if they were my own. Although you can read your own notes, they are often incomprehensible to others.” He then considered how rehearsal costumes could convey the same key concepts as Schlemmer’s originals. Only then could choreographic material for his new version, where the movement was dictated by the costume rather than vice-versa, be devised. The result is a ballet probably as close as anyone is ever likely to get to the 1922 original.

Florian Sollfrank
when with the Bayerisches Junior Ballett München
as The Abstract in The Triadic Ballet
Photo Wilfried Hosl

But yet again, The Triadic Ballet soon vanished from the stages as Schlemmer’s estate refused to allow it to be performed. Only in 2014, when their rights expired, did it return, since when it has been danced by the young dancers of the Bayerisches Junior Ballett München (BJBM, Bavarian State Ballet II), where Ivan Liska, a member of the 1977 cast, is artistic director.

As part of research for an article for the programme for the centenary performances, German Journalist and Dance Historian Anna Beke has collected former BJBM dancers’ experiences of performing Bohner’s version.

Eloïse Sacilotto, now with the Staatsballett Berlin, recalls trying a costume on for the first time. “We had been warned but it was so amazing. They are so heavy and complicated. It was a challenge! But such a fun experience!” She does admit that the ballet “really wasn’t love at first sight. I think I only really started to appreciate it once I left BJBM and started working professionally. I realise how much it brought me. It gave me musicality, finding solutions to problems very quickly and also improvising if something goes wrong on stage!”

Sinthia Liz, now at the Wiener Staatsballett notes how it might not be about humans or fairy tales, “but still it has that abstract sensibility in its choreography the audience can emphasize with.” She adds, “It’s very exposing. You are onstage at most with two other dancers and no setting just lights. There is a fine place between the costume wearing you and you wearing the costume.”

Florian Sollfrank, now with the Bayerisches Staatsballett says, “The costume for the Abstract is really restrictive. A lot of movement really is not possible in it.” He remembers how they were all initially irritating but, once accepted, how they became helpful and guided him through the movement. Their weight can be used to advantage, with their mass being helpful in turns, he says.

The Bayerisches Junior Ballett München in The Triadic Ballet
Pictured: Alexander Bennett and Nicholas Losada as The Disks
and Nagisa Hatano as The Spiral
Photo Wilfried Hösl

Others have noted that, while the costumes do limit movement, more important is how they help dancers to depart from the strict formula of classical ballet. Weight is clearly an issue. The heaviest costume in Bohner’s version, Big Skirt, comes in at around 10 kilos and is reportedly not evenly distributed with more at the back, although some have commented that losing the normal, well-grounded feeling for one’s own weight and resulting control over its momentum, is actually a bigger issue. The costumes also force dancers to be slow, severely restrict sight; and limit, or perhaps alter, emotion, expression and communication. On the plus side, Liska says how dancers say they help them better “feel the stage” and get an increased sense of the physical presence of other dancers.

When I saw it at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in 2017, the young dancers clearly found the costumes difficult. Wooden tutus are not the easiest to dance in! Surprisingly, given the automaton-like nature of the characters, Bohner’s ballet does have moments of humour and humanity. There’s even a hint of romance in a vaguely traditional pas de deux, although, in general, the costumes make real encounters between the dancers nearly impossible. It is an interesting watch but I would not disagree with critic Natasha Rogai who wrote in the South China Morning Post, “A combination of limited movement, slow pace and dreary music mean interest soon flags.”

A figure from Handles by Haegue Yang, which offers a contemporary perspective on Schlemmer’s preoccupation with humans as machines
Photo David Mead

To mark the 100th anniversary of the premiere of the Triadic Ballet, the Staatsgalerie are staging a Moved by Schlemmer exhibition that considers Schlemmer and his ballet’s relevance to contemporary art and in which the figurines can be seen in motion on a revolving stage. It really is quite fascinating to be able to get so close to them.

The exhibition does have performance aspects, but understandably does rather focus on design, integrating the historic figurines into installations by three contemporary artists, the most successful of which is Handles by Korean artist Haegue Yang that features six large sculptures with wall, floor, and sound components that, like Schlemmer’s figurines, can be interpreted as hybrids of human and technical beings. They even ‘dance’, as, on the first Sunday of every month, they are set in motion to Images, a quartet for flute, oboe, violin, and cello by Isang Yun.

The Smashing Pumpkins at the Download Festival, Donnington Park, 2019
From the Moved by Schlemmer exhibition at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart
Original photo Joseph Okpako

Schlemmer’s influence has reached outside dance too. lives on. Among others, David Bowie has twice worn costumes that closely resemble those from the ballet. Also in music, in 2019, the American alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins adapted them and turned them into three giant inflatable fantasy figures that towered over the performances.

It’s impossible not to disagree with Sacilotto when she says, “The Triadic Ballet is an important piece of art. I would call it museum on stage but why is that bad?” It is certainly odd. It is probably like no other ballet before or since. It should be seen at least once. It’s spirit lives on.

This is a significantly extended version of a feature that first appeared in the September 2022 issue of Dancing Times.