Kurt Jooss (1901-1979) created The Green Table: Dance of Death in Eight Scenes in response to World War I. In 1932, it won first prize at the International Competition of Choreography in Paris. During World War II, Jooss settled in the United Kingdom and returned to Germany afterwards.
Though The Green Table is his only ballet performed on a regular basis, the German choreographer devised his influential Ausdruckstanz (dance-theatre), an original narrative told combining ballet and modern dance steps. For The Green Table, Jooss added medieval art and German Expressionism. Cinephiles will notice that the ballet’s stilted, heavy movement recalls The Seven Deadly Sins coming to life in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926). Dance makers influenced by Jooss’ ‘Essentialism’ include Pina Bausch, Eliot Feld and Antony Tudor. Another is Bob Fosse. Green Table’s Profiteer wears a bowler hat and gloves. He curves his hand over his angled-down head several times — a signature Fosse move. Gary Chryst who made The Profiteer one of his signature roles danced for Fosse after retiring from ballet.
In 1967, The Joffrey Ballet became the first American company to perform the ballet. During the Vietnam era, the cast and audience marched out of the theater to protest against the war. Jeanette Vondersaar recreated the choreography for ABT, which retains the original costume and lighting design.
The ballet begins with The Gentlemen in Black sitting at a large green table. The diplomats (male and female members of the ensemble) wear Hermann Markard’s ugly rubber masks shaped as old men’s faces. They are dressed in the same long black coats and spats negotiators wore at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, which formally ended ‘The Great War.’ A tango accompanies their posturing and repartee. One Gentleman lifts his leg onto the table as if it were a ballet barre — the sole comic relief. Their diplomatic dance ends with the participants standing in front the table. They remove guns from their pockets and shoot them in the air. The stage darkens. War is declared.
A spotlight reveals Death (Marcelo Gomes). F.A. Cohen’s score for two pianos now sounds like thunder and drum rolls. Death wears skeletal makeup and a Trojan War helmet — a World War I propaganda poster come to life. Hein Heckroth’s costume design is a grey unitard with leather pieces forming armor and a battle skirt. Jooss, who created the role, uses the scuffling sound Death’s black felt boots make with a flat rather than pointed foot. Recruits and their families join him onstage oblivious to his call to arms made repeatedly by marching in fifth (legs crossed in front of each other) position.
Each of the subsequent scenes of battle, refugees seeking shelter and a brothel where a Young Girl (Sara Lane) grieving for her beloved Young Soldier (Aaron Scott) now works all end with Death. Green lighting, the same shade of the table, makes him more malevolent, and yet, he still has ‘feelings.’ With an Old Mother (Luciana Paris), he is comforting; when a Partisan (Devon Teuscher) faces the firing squad, he is indifferent; and he shows no mercy when claiming the Profiteer (Herman Cornejo).
Death has the final say but not the last word. The Gentlemen in Black returns, behaving no differently than before. Another war is inevitable.
Jooss’ imagery is brilliant. Death personifies a moving war machine. The most pitched and pointed fighting is over carrying a flag. The only ‘parade’ is Death leading his new subjects. They also move mechanically like characters on a medieval clock tower. The choreographer places the dancers in the same position as subjects in Death from Lübeck. Though destroyed during World War II, Ingmar Bergman also copied the mural’s image for the final scene of The Seventh Seal (1957).
The cast, particularly Herman Cornejo’s Profiteer and Sarah Lane’s Young Girl, were exceptional in measuring their dancing with desperation. Wonderful as they all were, attention was rightly on Marcelo Gomes. Death is a physically demanding role; his repeated marching in place lasts several minutes. His only nobility is in performing his immortal task. Gomes keeps redefining himself as a complete dancer. Death has no soul but requires someone who does.
Despite the audience’s overall enthusiasm for The Green Table, there were quite a few ‘dance moms’ and grandmas displeased with such an ‘ugly,’ ‘modern,’ ‘odd’ ballet. The natural unnaturalness of the ballet offers an escape from the real world. With The Green Table, the real world enters the theater, and it’s impossible to look away. Doing so disregards dance and world history.