“And death shall have no dominion”, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas asserts, paraphrasing St. Paul and making a lyrical case for the ceaselessness of life. But in the profound ballet “The Green Table”, from the genius of the 20th century German choreographer Kurt Jooss, Death indeed does have dominion. In “The Green Table,” Death conquers all.
American Ballet Theatre has done us the great favor of keeping this masterpiece in its repertoire. At recent performances, two different casts brought the story to life, of small grey men around a green baize table in a diplomatic tango, agreeing to disagree, and the utterly corrosive consequences: War. We meet Death, Mars-attired, haunting, in a savage muscular dance, pounding, stalking, completely dominating the stage and the action. In comparison the young soldiers, flag bearers, patriots, are naive and vulnerable. In the battle Death is there, batting down the men with casual ease. Amongst The Refugees, it is Death who carries away The Old Mother, dying of grief, or starvation? She seems to welcome him. At the place of execution, Death stands behind the partisan, impassively waiting for her to be shot. In the brothel, Death joins in the rape of The Young Girl, until she turns to him in relief and he lays with her. And The Aftermath? A dance of death, medieval style….a lurching, painful, ferocious procession with Death leading the way, carrying the now blood and powder-stained banner. And the sole survivor? The slithery Profiteer, who hovers vulture-like, manipulates, lurks and manages, always, to stay one step ahead of Death.
Marcelo Gomes, one of the finest and most elegant of male ballet dancers in the world today, made a relentless study of the character of Death. He extended mortality to all with equanimity and indifference. In sudden nightmarish appearances, his body exuding power, he showed no favoritism, prejudice or interest in these humans who had blundered into his realm, but his power was absolute. In another performance, Roman Zhurbin’s portrayal of Death was slightly more compassionate. When he pulled into his arms the Old Mother, you could feel, though his mask of death and martial costume, a sense of gentleness. His Death seemed to have some slight pity for these blundering, destruction-hungry humans.
Kurt Jooss was born in Germany in 1901. That means he would have been a young teenager during the horrific years of the First World War. In 1932, when he choreographed “The Green Table”, Hitler was on the rise in Germany. Jooss knew about war, its hideous human cost, its uselessness, its idiocy. As an early creator of Tanztheater, or dance theatre, he took what he knew of war and made for us a lasting, compelling artistic document of its madness.
Despite Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. Despite Picasso’s Guernica. Despite What Price Glory, The Trojan Women, Mother Courage, Slaughterhouse Five…..and Mr. Jooss, it goes on. It still goes on. We’re not paying attention.