Kurt Jooss and the timeless masterpiece, The Green Table

American Ballet Theatre’s repertoire for its autumn 2015 season includes works by Balanchine, Ashton, Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris and Paul Taylor – no surprises there – but it also encompasses an odd couple, both revivals from the early 20th century in Europe, Michel Fokine’s Le Spectre de la Rose and Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table, A Dance of Death in Eight Scenes.

Do they have anything in common? On the surface, no, but at the premieres, maybe yes, as both had a major impact on audiences of the time.

Apart from its historical importance as a Ballets Russes’ work that showcased the virtuosity of Nijinsky, Spectre de la Rose, premiering in 1911 represents a gentle embrace as opposed to the confrontational and non-negotiable battle of The Green Table, first performed in 1932 at a time of political turmoil in Europe. The Jooss Ballet performed the world premiere at the Théatre de Champs-Élysées in Paris with Jooss in the role of Death.

Jeanette Vondersaar will stage the ballet for ABT. Last performed by the company in 2006 the German Expressionist work, depicting the futility of war, is set to music F.A. Cohen, with costumes by Hein Heckroth and masks by Hermann Markard. The Green Table is always last on the program by request of Jooss, who died in 1979.

As a child, I was entranced by such Royal Ballet stars as Margot Fonteyn, Moira Shearer and Svetlana Beriosova and aged about 12, saved my pocket money to buy ballet books including annual ballet albums.

That’s where first saw photos of The Green Table, and although I knew nothing about dance-theatre at all, I was fascinated by the images of masked diplomats in white gloves, sitting around a big table covered in cloth, seeming to glare at one another as they engage in a debate about war and politics.

Only later did I discover the way the narrative continues from debate, to a declaration of war, to war itself. Stalking through the ballet is Death, shown as a skeleton.

If I had seen a photo of Death as a child, I would have been frightened, rather than intrigued by the grotesquery of the diplomats’ costumes, especially the crazy-comic masks created by Markard, an artist whose first stage designs were created for the Juilliard Opera Theatre in New York in 1960.

Markard subsequently collaborated with Jooss, then staged his works and married Jooss’ daughter, Anna, who died in 2010.

In 2000, I was lucky enough to interview Pina Bausch in Wuppertal, Germany.

It wasn’t an easy interview until I asked her about her early years as a student dancer. Suddenly her mood turned from coolness and restraint to a childlike happiness.

At 14, she studied at Jooss’ Essen Folkwang School. There she knew Jooss as ‘Papa Jooss’.

“He was like a papa, in a way, very, very kind, very, very warm, with a lot of humour, very much joy for things, people. A very beautiful man. He knew so much about history, music. His school was very special, with an opera department, acting, pantomime, graphic arts, photography, sculpture, all together”.

Bausch succeeded Jooss as a director of the school then moved to Wuppertal to work with her own dance ensemble. They both left a remarkable legacy.

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The Green Table, Joffrey Ballet, photo © Herbert Migdoll

The Green Table, Joffrey Ballet, photo © Herbert Migdoll

The Green Table, Joffrey Ballet, photo © Herbert Migdoll

The Green Table, Joffrey Ballet, photo © Herbert Migdoll

The Green Table, photographer unknown

The Green Table, photographer unknown

Costume design for Kurt Jooss as Death, The  Green Table, Hein Heckroth (1901-1970), from the Jooss Company production in Paris

Costume design for Kurt Jooss as Death, The Green Table, Hein Heckroth (1901-1970), from the Jooss Company production in Paris