One of the reasons ballet revivals often fail is that an era's esthetic, politics or style becomes dated; another is that earlier performances will be remembered too fondly, that today's dancers won't be able to compete with yesterday's legends.
Perhaps one reason for the continued success of the Joffrey Ballet's production of "The Green Table," choreographed by Kurt Jooss in 1932 and given its first performance of the season last night at Kennedy Center's Opera House, is that there are few members of a contemporary audience who saw the Ballets Jooss of the '30s, and so "The Green Table" can stand on its own merits, unhaunted by ghosts.
"The Green Table" is a ballet about war and its horrors, with characters named Death, the Standard Bearer and the Profiteer. It's hard to imagine a choreographer today making a dance so unabashedly symbolic, but Jooss' choreography is so expressive and heartfelt that the symbols still work. Death is implacable yet kindly as he bears away the population of a continent. The only survivors are the Gentlemen in Black, horrid little creatures in grotesque makeup and wigs who mince and prance as they start wars, then carve up countries when their work is done. The Joffrey dances "The Green Table" with a conviction that makes it totally fresh and horribly relevant.
Vaslav Nijinsky's "L'Apre s-midi d'un faune" competes with too many photographs and memoirs to work today. A dancer taking the role of the Faun is not merely playing that character, he's playing Nijinsky, and there are few who can withstand that burden.
Jerel Hilding is miscast by physique and temperament. The Faun is a small man's role; Hilding is large, and looks cramped and awkward in the static, two-dimensional choreography. He doesn't look innocent, either, and his leers during the encounter with the Nymphs make the ballet more comic than poetic. Charlene Gehm, as the Leader of the Nymphs who entices the Faun from his rock, is an impassive temptress, totally in accord with the spirit of the ballet.
Robert Joffrey's pseudorevival of "Pas de De'esses" competes with ghosts at several removes. Nobody can honestly pretend to know how Marie Taglioni, Fanny Cerrito or Lucile Grahn danced. What we're left with are misty descriptions--"light," "vivacious" and "young," respectively--and that's about how deep the characterizations go in this 20th-century version of a 19th-century showpiece for superstars.
"Pas de De'esses" has a curious structure; it rambles like a Victorian garden. There's a mass adagio for all three women, supported by another superstar character, Arthur Saint-Leon. A dancer enters, seems to begin a solo, then leaves the stage to her rival. Some of the choreography retains the correct period style, with lots of beats and small, precise steps. Some is blatantly anachronistic. One doubts that Grahn would have been carried on stage with her skirt up and her legs spread, for example, or that Taglioni raised her leg to her ear.
None of the dancers (Patricia Miller, Beatriz Rodriguez, Denise Jackson and Kurt Speker) is in the superstar category, although the women acquitted themselves reasonably well. Without stars, a piece like "Pas de De'esses" loses its point, becoming merely a pleasant exercise in style and dance history.
Gerald Arpino's enervating "Light Rain," a ballet unlikely to be revived by future generations, completed the program.