It seems almost impossible that "The Green Table" can still be theatrically viable. The bitter and beautiful anti-war ballet Kurt Jooss created in 1932 should look awfully naive in a time when violence is viewed as entertainment. Its prototypical characters, with names like Death, the Profiteer and the Partisan, should have become cliches long ago.
But the ballet seemed timeless when the Joffrey Ballet danced it Wednesday night at Wolf Trap. The broad, vigorous strokes of Jooss's choreography and the stark darkness of Frederic Cohen's piano score were matched by the intensity of the dancers' performances. The contrast of the surrounding idyllic woods made the ballet all the more poignant.
Between the opening and closing scenes showing the Gentlemen in Black at a fruitless and cynical peace conference (around the green table of the title), Jooss sketched, in six terse episodes, all of the tragedy and senselessness of war -- its heroes and villains, victims both innocent and deserving. The central character of Death is a dark parody of the 18th-century danseur noble, with his stiff, precise movements and his carefully taken classical positions. Tyler Walters made him loathsome, noble and just in an impersonal, implacable way. Death takes no particular pleasure in claiming his victims; he's just doing his job.
Death is the ballet's dominant figure, but all of the dancers were fine. Carl Corry's wormy Profiteer, Tina LeBlanc's heroically innocent Young Girl and Beatriz Rodriguez's angry Partisan were especially notable.
The impact of "The Green Table" was all the more surprising because it followed three of Artistic Director Gerald Arpino's lighter ballets, giving the Jooss work the effect of a sneak attack at a beach party. Nobody keeps dancers on the go better than Arpino; his ballets are concoctions of nonstop running, turning and jumping. They often remind one of sport, and "Italian Suite" had elements of both rhythmic gymnastics and platform diving interspersed with the more routine passages.
It's this juxtaposition that makes Arpino's ballets so jarring. In the opening section of this lyric work (a sort of "Suite Saint-Saens" in pink) women without partners patter around looking for unoccupied shoulders to jump on. In another section, a woman brings her leg over her head to kick the bouquet of flowers she's holding. In the central pas de deux, the woman, without any apparent motivation, does a belly-flop on her partner's suddenly raised knees. The dancers perform it all with equal seriousness and often look lovely.
"Touch Me," a long, unrewarding gospel solo for the hard-working Edward Morgan, and "L'Air d'Esprit," which gave LeBlanc a chance to show her quick, light and fluid dancing, completed the program.