Orbiting in abstraction: the dances of Oskar Schlemmer

05 March 2010 | By Anna Sutton

“What are experiments if not the first step into the future?” (O.Schlemmer).

Before the Nazis took control of Weimar Germany and closed down the Bauhaus school forever, artist Oskar Schlemmer was pioneering a new form of abstract dance that remains unique in its vision. Jack Andersen wrote in The New York Times in 1984 that Schlemmer’s dances were “dances only a painter could have choreographed“. Schlemmer applied Nietzsche’s concept of Apollonian and Dionysian elements in art, fusing order and chaos by combining elements of painting with those of theatre. Schlemmer’s was the art of Gesamtkünstwerk: The Art of Total Theatre.

Schlemmer’s Triadisches Ballet (Triadic Ballet) of 1922 was a dance in three parts whose geometrically choreographed participants moved in relation to a trinity of costume, dance and music. Its meaning is rather mysterious, but the following images appeared in my reading: a chaste ballerina in a wedding cake-like tutu pirouetting before a beastly assemblage of puffy geometrical shapes attached to a frowning alien head. An ethereal figure resembling a giant boiled sweet sugar coating a marshmallow pink landscape, and a dancer bobbing around in a costume of shiny balloon-like balls. In part three the costumes are suggestive of the myopic power of science fiction.  Black-clad figures, made sinister by impenetrable slits for eyes and silver space helmets, are silently tortured by bright crescent moons.

Schlemmer often tested the laws of motion with costumes that responded to dancers’ individual movements. The ballerina suspended in a dazzling frame of wire hoops (a live sculpture) is like a barbed tower springing to life against the vibrations of a metaphysical city.

Schlemmer was interested in mechanics and the potential of puppetry to convey new movement and represent technology; consequently his dancers often appear like marionettes. However, rather than being dehumanised, they embody the principles of human movement. Dances were based on simple forms with a grounding in (often ballet) technique. The footwork itself was far from fancy, but harmonised with costumes and movement to create a sensation of intricate pattern and logic.

While many writers see Schlemmer’s work as being a manifesto for a robot world – a by- product of a communist society – the qualities that prevail in his work are visuals that reel you into a sublime, unfamiliar world that evokes complex moods and startling sensations.