A white square spiral of tape stretches across the floor. At the center: Kia LaBeija, the choreographer, in an unusual costume. Four hoops suspended down the length of her body—one at the head, like a brim of a hat, one at the shoulder, one at the hip, and one at the ankles, like a wide skirt—turn her figure into a slinky. The image is intended as a reimagining of Act 3, Scene 1 of the 1920s Bauhaus School’s theatrical work, The Triadic Ballet, where the dancer is a doll-like figure with a dress formed from a giant spiral spring. However, immediately, there are distinct differences between LaBeija’s work and its historical precedent.
In photographs from the original Bauhaus performance, most of the costume was black to emphasize the spiral form, which stood out and glinted in a metallic color. The arms held straight out at a downward angle, with the wrists level with the waist, and the flat hands turned sharply up, evoked the posture of a mannequin—part human, part machine. LaBeija’s reworking, however, sees the entire costume draped in pink sheer nylon, shimmering with sequins and rhinestones. Where the Bauhaus costume strove to conceal the dancer’s own body, here the dancer’s body can be easily glimpsed glittering under the translucent fabric. LaBeija also disposes of the mechanic gestures in favor of slow gliding steps and unfurling, twisting hand movements that resemble a slowed-down version of voguing hand performance.
Part of Performa 2019, which has taken the Bauhaus School as its theme, the festival commissioned (Untitled) The Black Act in partnership with the work’s venue, Performance Space, to explore the parallels between the 1920s German art school and the voguing practices of late 20th century New York ballroom culture. Quoted by ARTnews, Job Piston, Special Projects Manager at Performa, explains, “The ballroom scene is its own Bauhaus… it’s about a dance floor where people come together. It’s its own school of learning movement, visual arts, music, social history, pleasure…”1 Indeed, there are many aesthetic parallels between Ballroom and Bauhaus. (Untitled) The Black Act teases out these connections, although some could benefit from further nuanced consideration.
These overlapping aesthetics hinge on the literal and metaphorical figure of the mannequin. Many Bauhaus performances featured performers encased in full-body padded costumes, in bright primary colors, with their faces hidden behind metallic expressionless masks. For Oskar Schlemmer, the creator of The Triadic Ballet and director of the Bauhaus theater workshop throughout most of the 1920s, the mannequin represented an abstracted human figure. At the beginning of the 20th century, these mannequins embodied modernity’s rising interest in the automaton. Their abstracted bodies were an extension of their architectural surroundings. Heads as spheres, bodies as cubes, these costumes represent a theatrical middle ground between human form and abstract geometry. The dance historian Mark Franko, who has performed re-enactments of Bauhaus dances at the original Bauhaus site in Dessau, articulates how these costumes were an attempt to explore movement through a kind of architectural space. He writes:
Wearing the marionette’s costume and mask onstage in point of fact revealed to me the full force of an exterior pressure imposed on the body—as if, through this shell of a costume, the dancer were obliged to carry space as a set of restrictions imposed upon it. As a social fact, this space is composed, at least in part, of the other’s look.2
Fascinatingly, there is a real parallel here with the fundamental qualities of voguing. Though voguing in ballroom takes on a myriad of cultural references, it retains a large focus on fashion imagery. Performers seek to replicate the exaggerated poses of fashion models by studying the photographs in magazines. Particularly in “Old Way” voguing, the use of “lines” (the positioning of the body in lines and angles) creates theatrical spectacle. In this way, both the Bauhaus mannequins (who started their lives in Schlemmer’s abstract drawings) and voguing are performances that center on the body’s relation to the static image—specifically images with a compositional and geometric quality.
Moreover, in voguing, the emphasis is always placed on what the viewer or the camera sees as “natural,” even if it is constructed artificially. The construction of “realness” is a game of illusion; one that is guided by the audience’s perception—whose critical gaze exerts a kind of pressure on the performing body. Is this not similar to Franko’s feeling of “a set of restrictions” composed “of the other’s look”? Performers of Bauhaus and vogue may share a sense of their movements inhabiting a spatial and social costume, that manipulates one’s own movement according to the viewer’s gaze. The Bauhaus’s investigation of the effects of social architecture on the body finds a sister in New York ballroom.
(Untitled) The Black Act explicitly reworks the third and final act of The Triadic Ballet, which was performed on a black stage (the previous two acts often using white and yellow respectively). The most famous of Schlemmer’s works, conceived in 1912 before being realized fully at the Bauhaus and performed many times throughout the 1920s, The Triadic Ballet has an episodic structure with brief scenes each featuring between one and three characters in spectacular costume. For art historian Juliet Koss, the costumes and figures become increasingly abstract as the ballet progresses, making the final black act the most abstract of all.3 Koss quotes Schlemmer saying how the work “avoids actual pathos and heroism” with three key features of the ballet being: “the costumes which are of a colored three dimensional design, the human figure which is an environment of basic mathematical shapes, and the corresponding movements of that figure in space.” Yet, here is where LaBeija in fact deviates most significantly.
The costumes, designed by fashion designer Kyle Luu, are greatly paired down. The garments, while beautiful, do not share the Bauhaus’s attempt to elevate the human body towards abstraction. The central figure from the third scene originally wore a kind of tutu composed of a structure of gleaming circular wire, an abstracted fountain of coils, as if a giant spring had been wrapped laterally around their waist. While LaBeija’s reworking still sees this figure remaining en pointe throughout, she reduces the spring to a very legible umbrella-like skirt in sequin studded black fabric. LaBeija’s taming of the Bauhaus’s eccentricity is particularly note-worthy given the potential for spectacular costumes in the “Bizarre” category in ballroom. Noting also the organic quality of her choreography, her reconstruction of Schlemmer’s classic turns away from the expected synthesis of voguing and Bauhaus.
The costume’s gendering is a significant theme for this comparison too. The padded Bauhaus mannequins often grossly exaggerated elements such as hips, while maintaining an androgynous whole and obscuring the gender of the performer’s body underneath. Meanwhile, ballroom is well known as a celebration of gender masquerading and androgynous play. Luu clads two performers in amplified padding that evokes the Bauhaus dolls. However, with the padding now asymmetrical and bulbous, the colour beige, with breasts and thighs revealed in circular cutouts, the contemporary reinvention is that of a fetish suit complete with hooded sex masks. The exposing and highlighting of the performers’ own bodies, all of whom are women of color, is perhaps a form of critique: asserting a type of body historically prevented from accessing the modern dance canon. Yet, there may be a greater, more fundamental difference here between LaBeija’s staging and that of the Bauhaus.
LaBaija’s own outfit is the largest aesthetic departure from the original. The final scene originally featured a strange figure, only vaguely resembling a human, assembled from an array of geometric forms; a swirled sphere for a torso, a rounded stick for one arm, a bell like form for the other, giant asymmetric legs, and an almost cubist head formed from three distinct shapes. Meanwhile LaBeija dances the final scene in sparkly corset and tights, small gems glinting in her braided hair. With no mediating costume, and with unrestrained movement, the figure of the performer emerges. This is not the abstract figure but the specific, individual figure of LaBeija herself.
The choreography of LaBeija’s interpretation structurally follows that of Margarete Hasting’s 1970 filmed reconstruction. Filmed from above, scene one of Hasting’s film sees the slinky figure emerge out of a white spiral painted on the black floor, while scene three’s characters traverse a grid-like pattern. Both these floor patterns are now marked out in tape at Performance Space; however, LaBeija imbues them with new meaning. As the program explains, the grid pattern now represents a map of Manhattan, and the once abstract choreography takes on the narrative of her personal “journey.” LaBeija’s reveal, now uninhibited by restrictive costume, seems to represent a moment of self-discovery. The controlled abstract gestures of the Bauhaus are replaced with organic, improvised movements. The spring and the spiral are no longer studies of bodies in space, but represent the artist finding her path through life. The Bauhaus’s study of impersonal unification is replaced by a preoccupation with the individual. This is in fact the “pathos and heroism” Schlemmer once hoped to avoid. The finale is not the brink of abstraction but LaBeija herself, in glittering glory.
- M. Durón, For Performa Biennial LaBeija Reinvents a Bauhaus Classic – With a Ball Culture Twist, ARTnews, 11/08/19.
- M. Franko, Choreographing Discourses: A Mark Franko Reader, ed. A. Nicifero (Routledge, 2018), p.122.
- J. Koss, “Bauhaus Theater of Human Dolls” in The Art Bulletin, vol. 85, no. 4 (Dec., 2003), p.737