The Green Table at 85
Eighty-five years after Kurt Jooss’ groundbreaking debut of The Green Table, the narrative is just as relevant, and the drama just a searing as the day it was produced.
Witnessing his country being torn apart by nationalism, populism, and anti-Semitism, Kurt Jooss choreographed a 30-minute ballet in 1932, The Green Table subtitled “A dance of death in eight scenes.” Jooss and his collaborator, Jewish composer, Fritz Cohen had an affinity for art that addressed moral issues, and they abhorred plotless dances. With fascism on the rise in Germany, they worked together to create a ballet with a strong anti-war statement and to this day it remains one of the most powerful ballets in the compendium of dance.
The Green Table opens with diplomats in grotesque masks, arguing. When negotiations fail, guns are pulled and shots fired. The next six scenes portray the horrors of war, with the character of Death consuming everything the stage presents: from patriotic soldiers wanting to serve, to their weeping mothers, as well as fleeing refugees. The piece ends as it began, with the “Gentlemen in Black” around the green table, indifferent to the ravages of war. The ballet uses classical ballet and a technique Jooss called “Essentialism,” which tries to capture the essence of each movement or pose.
On July 3, 1932, Jooss presented The Green Table at a choreographic festival in Paris, he danced the role of Death himself. The originality of the piece won him first prize and marked an important step in his career. On the very same day as the competition, 12,000 Nazis paraded in Munich, Germany, marching for coming elections.
Shortly after Adolf Hitler was elected Chancellor on January 30, 1933, Nazis came to Jooss and asked him to dismiss his Jewish company members. He refused and was forced to flee Germany with Cohen and other members of his company. They took refuge in the Netherlands before escaping to England.
After the war, Jooss returned to Germany and continued teaching and doing choreography, but The Green Table remains his perennial work. The New Yorker recently called the piece, “the world’s most famous antiwar ballet.” And The New York Times still calls it an “indisputable masterpiece.”