Streamed from Kaufmann Concert Hall, 92nd St Y, New York City
April 6, 2022
It is ninety years since that most anti-war of all ballets, Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table, had its premiere. From the opening shot of the pianists’ hands and the crashing chords to the (then) fashionable tango that heralds the eponymous table surrounded by the be-spatted politicians, Green Table is every bit as shocking and relevant today as it was in 1932 when first performed during Hitler’s rise to power.
The work always seems to fit modern dance companies particularly well, and the Paul Taylor Dance Company is no exception. Gestures always convey clarity without descending into cliché. Shaking fists alternate with elaborate bows in the timeless hypocrisy of war strategy. Bald pates (or bare chests) of course mean that none of these capitalist politicians are ever going to be in danger themselves; they just condemn the next generation to war. Plus ça change, tragically.
As the young soldiers rally around the flag, Shawn Lesniak was spellbinding as the figure of Death marching relentlessly behind them. Every step suggests destruction and the inevitability of meeting one’s end. As the grieving wives beseech husbands not to go, echoes of wars past and present march though the head, the calico flag painting mental images of the colours of many warring nations.
The movement vocabulary portrays the horrors of the first mechanised world war, the robotic form of Death and the jerky, inevitable movements that the dancers make towards their fates. Soft arms and rounded ports de bras are reserved for the cant of the politicians and the profiteers or the cynical arms of the soldiers as they embrace the women forced by the destitution of war into prostitution.
John Harnage’s Profiteer literally and metaphorically raids the bodies of the dead on the battlefield. Meanwhile, reflecting images now seen daily from Ukraine, the refugees wend their weary way. One widow dances a duet with Death, another is pushed by the Profiteer into prostitution, her only release death while the Partisan reminds us that women fight and die in wars too as she bourrées back towards death. Even the Profiteer is not immune.
As Death leads the final parade and the politicians gather around the eponymous green table to congratulate themselves, we can only but mourn the fact that this is sadly not just a matter of the past and history but that the ballet’s scenes are playing out before our very eyes. As the parade passes and Death stands centre stage, the dancer lets out a visibly deep sigh. One can easily imagine what he is thinking. We are all there.
28 years before Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe on another table, 90 years before Vladimir Putin presided over a very long table, and just a year before Kurt Jooss fled Germany, The Green Table signified all that was (and perhaps still is rotten) in international diplomacy, whilst Fritz Cohen’s score thunders through like a runaway train to the relentless end, interspersed with bittersweet dances and elegiac preludes. Jooss eventually returned to a very different Germany but one that seems that may be considering arming itself again and country after country re-assesses neutrality.
The performance was followed by a discussion between Stephen Biddle (Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations) and Janine di Giovanni (who has reported widely on war, conflict, and its aftermath for nearly 30 years in the Middle East, the Balkans, and Africa), moderated by David Rubenstein, although not one about the ballet itself. Indeed, the participants appeared to know little about the work, for example that the diplomats were originally conceived as businessmen (which aligned with Jooss’ views on social justice), the choreographer himself or his other works. However, in these times, it was not surprising that the conversation veered towards war and the efficacy or not of diplomacy more generally and war in Ukraine specifically, and how and when the latter might be resolved. The consensus was that it could easily take years. As interesting as it was, I can’t help feeling that the last word should have been left to Jooss, however.