Professor Richard Beacham’s account of the rediscovery and re-generation of Hellerau as the European Centre for the Arts was both romantic and inspiring. Founded by Karl Schmidt and Wolf Dohrn in 1909 as a garden suburb of Dresden, Hellerau was an ideological attempt to create a community that would live and work in social equality and harmony in an idyllic setting. Hellerau became the home of an Institute and Festspielhaus that drew together the ideas and practice of the progressive innovators , and has been cited as the birthplace of modern theatre. Experimental work at Hellerau embodied theories in which architecture was subservient to rhythm, light created space, and the human body became the medium of transmission between dramatist and audience. These works of living art influenced dance, theatre, music and design in ways that are visible not only on stage but also in our urban surroundings today.

The Institute closed in 1914, and Appia and Dalcroze never returned; the theatrical experiment at Hellerau had lasted for only three years. The building was later taken over by the Nazi ‘SS’, and subsequently by the Soviet military. Space was central to the ideas that inspired the creative practice at Hellerau, yet that physical space was effectively lost to the outside world for decades. The story of its rediscovery after the fall of the Berlin Wall, owes much to detective work by Beacham who travelled to Dresden in 1990 with so little information that he had to follow a letter written by George Bernard Shaw before the First World War to find out which trolley bus to take; incredibly, more than seventy years later, the bus was still running.

This almost forgotten but important corner of our collective artistic and cultural inheritance was brought to life again in the 1990s, thanks to lobbying that led to its designation as a Saxony heritage site. It was an enormous achievement, and the culmination of a search for the almost mythical Utopian settlement that embodied the ideas of visionary thinkers. What is even more remarkable is the way in which, although Hellerau the place was nearly lost, its work had lived on, in areas ranging from education (reflected in the work of A.S. Neill, founder of Summerhill), through art and architecture (as seen in the Werkstatten and Bauhaus movements), to theatre and dance. Mary Wigman, Marie Rambert, Rudolf Laban and Kurt Jooss all spent time at Hellerau, and it is hard to imagine what dance would be like today if Hellerau had not existed.

Maggie Watson

13th November 2019