Putting Politics on the 'Table'

American Ballet Theatre is restaging Kurt Jooss's antiwar work,
American Ballet Theatre is restaging Kurt Jooss's antiwar work, "The Green Table," which is more than 70 years old. (By Mary Sohl)
By Lisa Traiger
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 27, 2006

It was 1932. F.D.R. was elected president. The Yankees trounced the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. "Grand Hotel" won the Oscar for Best Picture. Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo over the Atlantic. The Nazis' march to power in Germany had begun. And Kurt Jooss's balletic indictment of politics and war, "The Green Table," had its world premiere in Paris.

"The Green Table," with its politics-on-the-sleeve antiwar message, made its mark just as Adolf Hitler was gaining political momentum. Jooss himself was a victim of the prevailing anti-Jewish sentiment of the ascending Nazi Party: Officials demanded that the dancer and choreographer dismiss his Jewish composer, Frederic Cohen. After refusing, Jooss fled Germany.

This season, Jooss's masterwork, with the chilling subtitle "A Dance of Death in Eight Scenes," entered the American Ballet Theatre repertory, and its arrival in Washington at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Tuesday seems apropos for a country at war. (The piece is part of a program that also includes Jerome Robbins's staging of "Afternoon of a Faun.") Although ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie says "Green Table" was on his curation list for a decade or more, "it didn't hurt how relevant it would be at a time like this. . . . I get asked all the time, 'Is it relevant that you're bringing it because we're at war?' And I say, 'Well, I can't say that doesn't play into it, but it's not the reason I brought it back. I brought it into the ABT repertory because . . . it's a great work of theater. It [has] belonged in ABT's rep for a long time.' "

Staged for ABT by Jooss's 74-year-old daughter, Anna Markard, the work is distinctively expressionistic yet conveys sentiments of universal import. "Green Table" is not devoted to the self-centered expression so common in modern dance. The work matters and has survived because its choreographic bones are rooted in archetypal characters and in spare but pointed movement sequences. There are the opening and closing frames, the puppet-like masked Men in Black gesticulating around the iconic green negotiating table as statesmen or less-than-noble politicians; their dumb-show to Cohen's dual piano score bookends a series of vignettes. Among the characters who encounter the central figure, Death, are the young military recruits, an old woman and a young girl.

McKenzie explains: "It's a remarkable juxtaposition -- a sort of tango -- and the lighthearted negotiation at the table [is] juxtaposed against the ravage and the distinctly different personalities that Death brings forth." Death, he says, comes not in the form of skeleton and scythe. "At times he's cavalier, at times he's noble, at times he's ruthless, at times he's comforting."

Jooss found inspiration for "Green Table" in the medieval Dance of Death, here staged for a dancing master who symbolizes all that is unknowable and terrifying.

"It is a great work," says McKenzie, who studied at the Washington School of Ballet as a youth and in 1989 began dancing with the company, rising to artistic associate before moving on to ABT. "['The Green Table'] evokes an emotion so much bigger than one could articulate," he says. "It taps into that universal sad story about how little for us as humanity war really does serve. But it's in the act of dying that people learn so much. It's an incredibly poignant work . . . both timely and timeless."

American Ballet Theatre Kennedy Center Opera House 202-467-4600 Mixed repertory, including "The Green Table," Tuesday through Thursday "Romeo and Juliet" Feb. 3-5

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