Joffrey feasts on ‘The Green Table,’ a demanding work about the path to war

October 14, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times
Hedy Weiss


In the ever-astonishing and timely opening scene of Kurt Jooss’ ballet “The Green Table (A Danse Macabre in Eight Scenes),” a group of diplomats, seated at a great oblong table and dressed in white masks, gloves and tuxedo jackets, posture and gesticulate wildly as “peace talks” go absolutely nowhere. After a shot is fired and war is declared, the machinery of war takes over, with the towering figure of Death marching relentlessly in place. Banners are flown, young men go off to fight, battles rage, refugees plod on in misery, the Partisan and the Profiteer move through the action, battered soldiers return, and finally, the preening diplomats predictably gather once again.

Choreographed in 1932 — as World War I, that war that was to end all wars, was beginning to turn into World War II — the ballet was more than prescient in its warning and cynicism. In fact, Jooss was forced to flee Germany the following year when the Nazis asked him to dismiss the Jews from his company, including composer Fritz Cohen, and he refused.

As the story goes, Robert Joffrey first saw a performance of “The Green Table” at the age of 11, when a touring company came through his home town of Seattle. He never forgot it. And by 1966, when his company was a hot commodity in New York and the war in Vietnam was raging, he was able to fulfill a long-held dream. The Joffrey became the first company in two decades to be granted permission to dance the work outside Germany. The reconstruction proved a triumph, and the work became a signature piece for the troupe.

“When people talk about German Expressionism, they mostly think of the work of visual artists,” said Ashley Wheater, artistic director of the Joffrey. “In dance, it has to do with delivering emotion through a very specific movement style. The dancers must not act; they must understand the intention of every gesture they make. And the storytelling, the acting, is in those gestures. When this ballet debuted in Paris in 1932, it had a profound impact. Some saw it as propaganda; others saw it as a terrible foreshadowing.”

Wheater sees the work as a great learning experience for his dancers.

“It requires great discipline to get it right,” he said. “Every curling finger or extended finger, every very particular bend of the arm has meaning, and must be precise. And it’s wonderful to see what a challenge it can be for those dancers learning it for the first time, and how those who have danced it before grow into different characters.”

Fabrice Calmels will alternate with Dylan Gutierrez as the character who drives the story. “It is such an honor to be given the responsibility of dancing the role of Death,” Calmels said. “Death ties together all the scenes of the ballet. And I think that while we know death is ever-present in the real world, for some reason the gravity of it is not quite understood, except by those who experience the loss of a close one. So I hope the audience will connect with the ballet and take it seriously.”

Gutierrez admitted, “The experience of dancing and learning Death has, in a word, been daunting. You know before you start learning it that it is an extremely particular role. And Jeanette Vondersaar [the person who, since the demise of both Kurt Jooss and his daughter, Anna Markard, is responsible worldwide for staging the ballet] has a very specific vision of what she wants Death to look like and be like. She also wants to see it in your eyes, and your intention that you want to do it.”

Along with “The Green Table,” the Joffrey program will include Jiri Kylian’s 1981 “Forgotten Land,” inspired by an Edvard Munch painting of women on a beach (and set to the music of Benjamin Britten), and James Kudelka’s “Pretty BALLET,” a hugely challenging piece (with music by Bohuslav Martinu), that contrasts the worlds of the romantic and the mechanical, and was created for the Joffrey in 2010.