The Winds of War Are Kicking Up

American Ballet Theatre presented
American Ballet Theatre presented "The Green Table," Kurt Jooss's antiwar piece, the night of President Bush's State of the Union address. (By Marty Sohl -- American Ballet Theatre Via Bloomberg News)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 2006

In the past year dancers have given the term "antiwar movement" new meaning. One legacy of the bloody, intractable Iraq war may well be its role as an artistic inspiration.

Starting with American Ballet Theatre's revival of Kurt Jooss's "The Green Table" at the Kennedy Center last February, protest works have made an impact, as company directors have put uneasy -- even brutal -- views of war onstage.

Two of the works felt especially political. ABT performed Jooss's 1932 treatise on bureaucrats with blood on their hands the very night that President Bush was delivering his State of the Union address. A coincidence, probably, but a particularly delicious Washington moment nonetheless.

It was artistically rich as well. This work, a historical treasure of enduring relevance, is full of drama and outsize characterizations: the stuffed-shirt politicians who drive the conflict but remain at a safe distance, soldiers in battle, mourning women and the magnetic figure of Death, which dancer David Hallberg injected with arrogance, charisma, menace and seductiveness. He was a stalker and a lover: the ultimate predator. This work makes its point with eloquent economy: What begins at a conference table ends in hell.

Local choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess commented on current events with more subtlety, though less clarity, in "Images From the Embers," which premiered in March at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium and was performed again in October at George Mason University. Mostly abstract, there were just wisps of a story involving the ghost of a soldier, a grieving woman and a Jooss-like Death, both cruel and comforting. In its tension and despair, this work, based on Marguerite Duras's short stories from the World War II era, also reflected present-day anxieties.

Most recently in Washington, the Paul Taylor Dance Company performed "Banquet of Vultures," Taylor's self-described homage to "The Green Table," with a sadistic suit-wearing central figure who the choreographer has said is a stand-in for Bush. Here, as in Jooss's work, politicians make the first move, and soldiers die for it. This work, performed earlier this month at the Kennedy Center, dealt blatantly in violence -- with imagery of rape and stabbing, and a few crashing moves that looked as if they might even be injurious to the dancer. Overall it was heavy-handed, and at times cliched.

Will we see more dances of death, more political statements? Only time and choreographers' imaginations will tell. It's hard to think such works would be the hottest draws at the box office (here, live through a little agony on your evening out!). And as the uneven results of these works make clear, careful treatment is essential. Still, for a few artists this year, speaking out was worth the risks.

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