Second Essay on Gymnastics

Hauptaktion, Munich, Germany, 2019
creative team: Jonaid Khodabakhshi, Dennis Kopp, Quindell Orton, Jasmina Rezig, Hannah Saar, Isabel Schwenk, Julian Warner, Oliver Zahn

about the production

The title of the play Second Essay on Gymnastics can equally be translated as Second Attempt at Gymnastics. Each of these renditions of the German term ‘Versuch’ refers to a different aspect of the work of the artistic research collective Hauptaktion. Their scenic work explores the history of Germany as a community practicing collective physical gymnastics or exercise, from its origins in 1811 until the present. It begins with the gymnastics movement of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, who founded a secret society that promoted liberation from Napoleonic rule. At first blush innocent exercise – gymnastics – was to benefit the trainees’ health and, secondly, prepare German youth for war with France. The group organised its first public gymnastics performance in 1811, and just two years later, their great gymnastics parade was joined by ten thousand spectators. Throughout the centuries, festivals and gymnastics parades were held all across Germany, but also in African colonies and in the South American exile. The text that rallied the trainees (or bodies) also changed over time. From Jahn through the Weimar Republic, the Nazi era, the GDR to the present, the ideological substance of exercises changed many times over.

In investigating this history, ‘Germany’ emerges as an imagined community entered through the gates of gymnastics, that is to say, through performance, into which the unsuccessful are denied access. This is just one of the aspects that make historical research of gymnastics interesting. While the antithesis of body and text may seem a matter of course, the embodied nature of our subjects leaves traces in the texts we produce. The reverse is also true – the texts we produce leave traces on our bodies. These traces can be found everywhere – from textbook definitions, for example, in a medical description or a legal enactment of what a healthy body and its normal functioning is or may be, to much subtler practices such as poetry or our way of handling textual images used to describe the body of someone we love or hate. Bodies are encompassed in texts of all kinds, even those that define the values or convictions and ideologies of a given community. Historical investigation into the types of text produced by bodies and the way these texts in turn deform or modify bodies offers interesting analyses but also many comic situations arising from the clash of the world of text (ideas) with that of the body (matter).

In their Second Essay on Gymnastics, this collective of eight makes use of choreographic elements and physical routines from different periods in the history of gymnastics and thereby analyses the notion of a ‘German body’ and its ideological manifestations. Importantly, this investigation does not only take place in the sphere of text. That is why Hauptaktion have chosen the format of a performative essay. An essay is considered an undefinable, unsystematic method that does not belong to a single literary genre and incorporates elements of all, which allows it relevantly to analyse or elaborate on a given theme. The value of an essay lies in its freedom, that is to say, its diverse, flexible, self‑reflective and experimental form. An essay fluidly alternates between the artistic and the scientific, the experiential and the intellectual, the subjective and the objective – and in the case of a performative essay, also between text and body, the material and the immaterial, the real and the virtual, text and space, and so forth. The field of investigation and the possible methods are multiplied by the involvement of body and space. Combining an essay and performance allows this investigation to be conveyed by various channels in real time to the audience and to incorporate their reactions – emotional, intellectual, bodily… Transgressing expected limits and stepping outside familiar and safe boundaries leads us to new discoveries. All the more so in the case of an artwork, in whose observation we do not restrain the potential of our experience with the goals of practical or theoretical activity, and we can focus all our attention on the process whereby these goals are formed. An artwork offers us new, surprising experiences, allows us to formulate our own goals within them and so come to understand the nature and dynamics of experience itself. Besides new pieces of knowledge, a performative essay can also arouse unexpected physical responses to them. In short, we may find out we feel like doing a bit of exercise, freeing our body or starting to think about our common physical practices through the optic of the ideology that stands behind them.

Ján Šimko


assistant: Nele Hussmann
dramaturgy: Josef Bairlein
video: Nicole Wytyczak
from and with: Jonaid Khodabakhshi, Dennis Kopp, Quindell Orton, Jasmina Rezig, Hannah Saar, Isabel Schwenk, Julian Warner, Oliver Zahn
co‑produced by Münchner Kammerspiele, SPIELART Munich, HAU Hebbel am Ufer Berlin, Schwankhalle Bremen and Theater Rampe Stuttgart v spolupráci / In cooperation with Pavillion Hanover
funded by Landeshauptstadt München, Bezirk Oberbayern,  Lotto Sport Stiftung Niedersachsen and TANZFONDS ERBE an initiative by the German Federal Cultural Foundation

presentation at Divadelná Nitra supported by Goethe Institut

creative team

Hauptaktion an independent theatre collective founded in 2015 around producer and dramaturge Hannah Saar, who cofounded the Initiative for Solidarity in Theatre and is in‑house dramaturge at Theater Oberhausen. Other members of the group include cultural anthropologist, dramaturge and performer Julian Waner, as well as director and choreographer Oliver Zahn, who experiments with research on memory, body and nationalism. Hauptaktion create theatrical works and prepare texts and lectures based on archival study, ethnographic analysis and artistic research. Their notable productions include: Situation with Outstretched Arm (on the cultural history of the Nazi salute, 2015) and Situation with Doppelgänger (on dance, culture and imitation, 2015). These performative essays, whose form hovers between choreography and historical investigation, were met with success at prominent German‑speaking festivals (IMPULSE, Tanzplattform, steirischer herbst, SPIELART), as well as abroad (Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom, Poland, Romania and elsewhere). Hauptaktion will make their first appearance in Slovakia at Divadelná Nitra.


Materials available

Video of the production: yes
Scripts of the production: SK, EN, DE

If you are interested in these materials, write to