The Triadic Ballet (Stuttgart 1915)
p. 40. Half shooting gallery, half metaphysicum abstractum. Medley, i.e., variety of sense and nonsense, methodized by Color, Form, Nature and Art; Man and Machine, Acoustics and Mechanics.
This is almost Gallery. In the final destruction that Nikolaiss ballet portrays, there has got to be something metaphysical. However the magic of the ballet is that the machines are run by dancers, or are the dancers. The use of black light, which produces many of the illusions, the moving properties, the masks, and the costumes all conform to a Bauhaus ideal.
p. 49. The theater [is distinguished] through its own synthesis of the elements of presentation: SOUND, COLOR (LIGHT), MOTION, SPACE, FORM (OBJECTS AND PERSONS).
In the 50s, Nik designated his work as The Theater of Sound, Light and Motion, which gave license to some superficial critics to say this was not dance. Then Nik changed the designation to Total Theater. On page 54 we find these words in a section heading: THE COMING THEATER; THEATER OF TOTALITY. The coincidence of labels is perhaps just that because both Moholy-Nagy and Nikolais were describing similar processes.
Niks company was finally designated The Nikolais Dance Theater. I am not sure of the exact date that this metamorphosis took place, but I feel that it represents Niks security with his multi-discipline esthetic. He no longer needed to point to his use of sound, light, and motion to create theater. He finally felt free to use whatever was at hand to create his images.
p. 50, Footnote 2: Gestaltung was among the most fundamental terms in the language of the Bauhaus. . . . In its fullest philosophical meaning it expresses the Platonic eidolon . . .
Nik frequently used the word gestalt. In one of Niks manuscripts, he defines Gestalt as that particular assembly of shape, time, space, and motion which brings about a coherence into an identifiable experience or thing, or area of experience or things.
Most of his students can recall, not his exact words because they were too devastating, but the spirit of the words. Hed say, Youve lost the Gestalt. We were, being young, prone to become so engrossed in the prowess of our facility that we abandoned the sense of the matter at hand. We knew the jumps, or rolls, or wiggles we put into our dance were there because we liked to show them and that they had not evolved from our original motional premise and Nik knew it, too.
Merriam Websters Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition defines gestalt: A structure, configuration, or pattern of physical, biological, or psychological phenomenon so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable by summation of its parts.
If the progression of the dance proceeds organically, will it not remain within the parameters of the founding gesture?
p. 57 . . . man himself in his totality as a formative medium for the stage . . . is to be employed on an equal footing with other formative media . . . with his totality of action, speech and thought.
Perhaps I take this passage out of context. No, not perhaps but absolutely, for it brought to mind the many theory classes in which oral sounds, produced by the dancers, provoked or coincided with motional exploration. Early on, an entire balletVillage of Whispers (1955)was accompanied by dancer voices. In Scenario (1971) vocal sounds, screams and grunts, hysterical laughter, deep sobbingfor the most part real human utterances that the dancers make during performanceare an integral part of the statement. And in the recorded scores that Nik composed, he frequently used vocal sounds, and even words together with tonal sound, as in the overture to Gallery.
p. 58. . . . from his own initiative submit to the over-all action process.
Is this not the release of Niks vocabulary although I know Nik would balk at the word submit. Release is really some kind of Zen thing, a giving of permission by the dancer-mind to his total body to produce the motion that the stimulus calls for.
p. 58 It is the task of the FUTURE ACTOR [read dancer] to discover and activate that which is COMMON to all men.
Nik had the idea that direct, uncluttered motional expression (dance) transcended cultural artifices such as native country, language, formalized gesture—indeed all learned tastes. His overwhelming acceptance in France, where he felt the audiences saw his work plain, that is, without preconception, made him anxious to explore this belief. He eagerly accepted the French governments offer to head a school of modern dance in France. There were many things about the actualization of Le Centre National de Danse Contemporaine dAngers that did not please himfor one thing, the location. He believed that human population density sparks creativity, that the ebb and flow of images that are inevitable in that population density are necessary to the creation of art. However, the school did provide him with the opportunity to test his basic human theories. In the two evening-long works that the stagieres (as the professional students of C.N.D.C. Company were called) produced, Passerelle (1980) and Recto Verso (1981), I saw Niks theoretical premises put to good use, but with a definite French accent. I dont feel that this means that Niks universality of art theory is faulted since I could reach out in my Zen way and feel these dances in my bones. I think it merely confirms that man is not simply a biological organism but also a thing shaped by time and place, and that we do transcend to reach other times and other places. I have no idea if Nik analyzed this as I have, but I offer it for what it is worth.
p. 60. . . . from the unanalyzable intangibles of creative intuition . . . the Theater of Totality . . . of light, space, plane, form, motion, sound, man . . . must be an organism.
This passage brings to the forefront the idea of Total Theater, the term Nik used to designate his company for a time. He was bringing into play all the elements that Moholy-Nagy enumerates. I exhaustively detailed his work in this process in 1978 for Dance Dimensions (Wisconsin Dance Council, Inc., University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Green Bay, WI), so I need not go into that here. But I cite the word organism. Nik did stress in his composition classes and in his own works that from the seed of the first motion the entire dance must grow. The initial gesture must come from a pure release, and then the dance be permitted to become.
p. 64. THE MEANS and following to p. 67. This section is devoted to the prediction of the use of all kinds of sound producing and recording equipment, much as Nik used time and again, even after he obtained his synthesizer. It foresees the use of all kinds of instruments for transforming and projecting light, from kaleidoscopes to Linnebach, motion picture and slide projectors, to hand-held battery-operated devices. It advocates the use of much mechanical apparatus, including mirrors and trapezes. All of these advances in technology, and some transformed old stuff, were constant in Niks work.
p. 92. [the human figure] becomes a part of the stage . . . a space-bewitched creature . . . each gesture or motion is translated [by the viewer] in meaningful terms into a unique sphere of activity.
Of course, this statement presumes a sentient audience, unprejudiced, without preconceptions, perhaps untutored. However, the necessity of spatial projection and impact in performance is indicated here. Those of us who have watched reconstructions since Niks death have been disconcerted by the performers concentration on the muscular act without considering its projection and impact outward to infinity. This is not because the young dancers are unconcerned with performance. For the most part they care about presenting Niks works as authentically as they can. But they have simply not been schooled in Niks theory classes. Their enviable technique does not have the practice of totality and projection, the complete immersion of performer in motion/idea (note the slash) and in releasing the action of such to project to infinity.
p. 95. The actor [dancer, performer] . . . is altered, transformed, or entranced by the addition of some applied objectmask, costume, propthat his habitual behavior and his physical and psychic structure are either upset or else put into a new and altogether different balance.
That masks, costumes, and hand properties were major tools in Niks creative life is constantly obvious and can be traced from his use of offertory swags in Extrados (1949) to the light wands in Aurora (1992). His original company had much tutoring in the use of masks, properties, and exotic costumes. In his plays for children, from Fable of the Donkey (1949) through Legend of the Winds (1954), he required his dancers to transform themselves for children (the toughest of audiences) into animals and fishes, winds and Dresden china pieces, merry-go-round horses and exotic humans from Egyptians to Amerindians. Children cannot be enchanted by fake transformations, and Niks dancers had to be for real. In theory classes, his students explored the transforming energies of all kinds of artifactscloth and ropes, tubes and poles, boxes and wigs, any and all of which help performers become other than what they are. Most of his ballets contain some element of transformation, if not with costume, mask, or hand prop, then with the spatial transformation of light.
However, I note in this passage from Schlemmer the word entranced. It is delineated by quotation marks in the Bauhaus text, which seems to indicate an out-of-mind experience, some kind of mesmerizing. Nik would have none of this.
p. 96. We do not want to imitate sunlight and moonlight, morning, noon, evening, and night with our lighting. Rather we let the light function by itself, for what it is . . . Let us . . . open our eyes and expose our minds to the pure power of color and light.
In these words we have both Niks progress in turning his back on traditional lighting practices and a clear signal as to a possible reason why he disclaimed the Bauhaus as a forerunner.
Niks avoidance of boy-girl involvement, of story telling, of psychodrama, and his pursuit of the dance of time-space-motion led inevitably to his finding traditional theater lighting unsuitable. His art clearly demanded a change in the way his stage was illuminated. The moving three-dimensional figure needed three-dimensional lighting. Light just could no longer come from above alone. He sought to have light strike the figure in motion from every angle, to lift it from the floor, to mold it into a three-dimensional mobile. Changes were gradual. He started with the then-standard nine acting areas, with footlights and border lights for fill, and scoops for lighting the background. (At the Henry Street Playhouse he had a glorious plaster cyclorama for the background.) In one tentative step after another, he added lights to hit the dancing figure from angle after angle until the paths of the light resembled the Bauhaus illustration (right) of the laws of cubical space.
As technology offered further options, Nik explored them and used them. Of course, he used strobe lights and black lights. He mechanized kaleidoscopes mounted on the lens of Lekos (ellipsoidal reflector spotlights). He used gobos (patterns projected by Lekos). He used Linnebach projectors. He tried motion picture projections. He used all kinds of flashlights, smoke pots, and flash pots. And finally slide projectors, which were retrofitted for his purposes, as had the flashlights, black lights, strobes, kaleidoscopes, flash pots, and standard stage lighting instruments.
I sense in the Bauhaus a remotenessa removal of man to be replaced by machine. There is a mathematically clear organization in the Bauhaus, which Nik certainly had somewhere in the depths of his vast persona. However, it was not the organization but rather the production of art that was his goal. I recall when at one rehearsal the sound man asked for the sound tape, Nik handed him a shoebox from which protruded many tails of tape, each marked with a number indicating the order in which the strip was to be heard. He had composed the score, bit by bit. He just hadnt spliced it together. Of course, he had the sound score, and it was organized. Was it ready for rehearsal? Was this Bauhaus?
An Interesting Afternote:
In Chicagos Photographers and their Abstract World, New York Times, 05/08/02, Sarah Boxer writes, Moholy-Nagy (at Chicago Art Institute from 1937 to his death in 1946) was interested in seeing lights effect on surfaces. The point of photography at the New Bauhaus was to help people see in extraordinary waysquickly, slowly, closely, abstractly. Certainly this was how Nik used light.
© 2000 Ruth E. Grauert