HELLERAU Festival Theatre was built in 1911 as a school of Rhythmics, its design based on the vision of Heinrich Tessenow, the pioneer of modern architecture, and the music educator Émile Jaques-Dalcroze. Today, it is home to HELLERAU – European Centre for the Arts. A City of Dresden theatre, HELLERAU is one of the most important interdisciplinary centres of contemporary art and is still regarded today as a source of inspiration for architecture, expressionist dance and modern design, and as the birthplace of Rhythmics teaching. 

The myth of HELLERAU was established through the vision of the craftsman and entrepreneur Karl Schmidt, who founded the Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau furniture workshops and in 1909 created the Hellerau housing development as the first German Garden City. HELLERAU Festival Theatre was built in 1911 to a design by the architect Heinrich Tessenow. Tessenow’s plan was to bring to life the visions of the stage designer Adolphe Appia and the music educator Émile Jaques-Dalcroze in a layout that was to point the way for modernism with its clear lines and functional structure. This building was a visionary alternative to all traditional theatres: featuring a retractable orchestra pit, freely combinable stage elements and rows of audience seating, Appia’s hall did not have any permanent fittings – neither a stage nor a curtain – making it a “cathedral of the future” (Appia) in which the audience and performers were supposed to merge into spiritual and sensory unity. The real curiosity, however, was the lighting concept developed by the Georgian painter and stage designer Alexander von Salzmann. The ceiling and walls were lined with white waxed sheets of cloth, behind which thousands of bulbs produced a diffuse, indefinite light that rid the room of every last grain of naturalism, bathing it in transparency and transcendence. The teachings of Émile Jaques-Dalcroze also offered an alternative to previous dance and theatre traditions: they revolved around the “man in motion” who, by deliberately exercising his rhythmic abilities, was brought up to be a holistic individual who incorporated art, work and life all at once; who not only “knew” but also “felt”. 

Wolf Dohrn, a close friend of Karl Schmidt, met Émile Jaques-Dalcroze and brought him to Hellerau. The newly founded educational institution quickly became a success, with Dalcroze starting lessons as early on as October 1910. His first pupils were brought with him to Dresden from Switzerland, but by the second year there was already a mixture of learners from all over the world. Among them was the young Mary Wigman, who was later to pick up his teachings and continue them in her own way. At the first public school fête in the summer of 1912, known as the “Festival”, the students performed scenes from Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice” before 500 journalists and an audience of more than 4,000, as well as improvisation and group exercises. At the second festival a year later, an audience of 5,000 in the Festival Theatre then watched a full performance of “Orpheus and Eurydice”. The viewers included G.B. Shaw, Oskar Kokoschka, Stefan Zweig, Max Reinhardt, Franz Werfel, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Claudel, Gerhart Hauptmann and many other European intellectuals. The radically new staging approach at the Festival Theatre was diametrically opposed to the traditions on the stage of the Semper Opera House, in the centre of Dresden. Alongside disapproval, it also met with great enthusiasm and sparked interest throughout Europe. HELLERAU, then a suburb of Dresden, became a centre for European modernism.

This golden age came to an end after just three years. When Wolf Dohrn died suddenly in February 1914, HELLERAU sorely missed its tireless driving force, funder and visionary. In the summer of 1914, Émile Jaques-Dalcroze and Adolphe Appia took a trip to Switzerland and never returned to Hellerau. After the outbreak of the First World War, the international students left the school. Financial aspects also played a role, however. Alexander von Salzmann’s ingenious lighting system cost a fortune to power, and in 1915 the school went bankrupt. Nonetheless, teaching continued in HELLERAU, as did experiments with new types of school. The influential Scottish educator Alexander Sutherland Neill, for example, founded a forerunner of his famous “Summerhill” school here. Branches of Dalcroze’s school, and their pupils, spread his teachings not only through Dresden and Europe but all over the world. In 1938 the Festspielhaus was rebuilt as a police college; by that point the Rhythmics lessons had come to a standstill years before. The guesthouses around the Festival Theatre were demolished and replaced by military barracks. Later, the Waffen-SS used the buildings and grounds. After 1945, the Soviet army used the Festival Theatre as a military hospital and later as a barracks and sports hall for paratroopers. Although the building was inscribed on the GDR Central Heritage List, the Festival Theatre did not attract the attention of the authorities or the public. Hellerau was almost forgotten. 

Once the last Soviet soldiers had left, the first initiatives began to revive the historical site’s cultural legacy. In 1996, the festival “Theater der Welt”, directed by Hannah Hurtzig, saw major international performances at the Festival Theatre. More and more institutions settled down on the grounds; plans were made for their restoration and an architectural competition was launched. In 2002 the Dresden Centre for Contemporary Music moved into the Festival Theatre grounds; on 1 January 2004 it became the Hellerau European Arts Centre (Europäisches Zentrum der Künste Hellerau). First, with funding from the Free State of Saxony, the interior of Hellerau Festival Theatre was restored according to the plans of the Munich architect Josef Meier-Scupin, in line with Tessenow’s ideas. After two years of building work it was opened again on 7 September 2006. From 2003 to 2018, the DEREVO dance theatre had a permanent place at HELLERAU, joined from 2004 by the Forsythe Company, today the Dresden Frankfurt Dance Company. Since 2009, performances have again been held all year round. The Festival Theatre’s restoration ended with the completion of the façade in October 2011. Under artistic director Dieter Jaenicke, HELLERAU built on the heyday of the old festivals.The site increasingly developed into one of the most important centres for the contemporary arts in Germany and Europe. The main focus is on contemporary dance and contemporary music, but since 2018, under Carena Schlewitt, the Festival Theatre has also offered a platform to modern theatre and the contemporary visual arts. As the European Centre for the Arts, HELLERAU has always been a growing “Laboratory of the Modern Age”.