Yes, there's that old saw about polemical art, "if you want to send a message, go to Western Union." But "The Green Table," the celebrated antiwar ballet created by Kurt Jooss in 1932, is a message ballet that not only retains its overwhelming emotional impact after half a century but also qualifies unquestionably as an exalted work of art. It succeeds neither because of the message nor in spite of it, but because Jooss had the craft, the feeling and the insight to fuse dramatic content with simple, telling structure.
"The Green Table," along with the life and times of its creator, is the subject of tonight's episode (airing on Channel 26 at 9 p.m.) in public television's "Dance in America" series, and the ballet itself receives a warmly luminous performance from the Joffrey Ballet, the troupe that was the first to present Jooss' masterpiece in this country.
Jooss was a leading exponent of expressionist dance in Europe in the pre-World War II era, forging a personal idiom that fused classical and modern movement vocabularies into a theatrical style of considerable power. "The Green Table," which won an international choreographic competition in Paris in 1932, putting Jooss on the world map, had its inspirational roots in the medieval Dance of Death pageantry. Jooss' ballet, though heavily stylized in the expressionist manner, with masks, tableaux and exaggerated, angular gesture, is clearly set in the World War I era, but the central figure is Death -- death as the grim reaper turned warrior (his makeup, with its skeletal outline in black and cavernous eye-sockets, and his costume, with a gladiator's helmet and heavy boots, suggest an implacable slayer of humankind).
Once seen, the imagery of the ballet is hard to wipe from memory -- the opening, with its "Gentlemen in Black" (scheming, cynical diplomats in masks) engineering political wars with supercilious gesticulation around the green table; the solo that introduces Death, stomping, stiff and menacing; and the succession of scenes depicting men in battle, refugees, the execution of a partisan, the squalor and despondency of a wartime brothel, the ultimate conquest -- even of the opportunistic Profiteer -- by Death, and the pessimistic epilogue, in which the Gentlemen in Black start the bitter process all over again.
Although the Joffrey performance was supervised by Anna Markard, Jooss' daughter and colleague, the interpretation doesn't quite muster the power of earlier Joffrey ensembles (one still recalls with a shiver the portrayal of Death by Maximilian Zomosa, who himself died tragically at an early age) -- there's too much lightness in the movement, and too little weight or punch, at least as it comes across the small screen. The missing ingredients, moreover, along with a haunting intensity, do project themselves from many of the stills and clips of "The Green Table" and other Jooss ballets which are seen in the narrative portion of the hour-long show, devoted to Jooss' career, its triumphs, ironies and hardships. Much valuable and interesting historical footage, hitherto unseen on TV and rarely elsewhere, is displayed, including radio and television interviews with Jooss himself, who died in 1979 in an auto accident at the age of 78. Altogether, the show makes a fine chronicle and a much deserved testament to one of the century's seminal makers of dance.