Journeys and Reflections,
performed by Ballet West,
Salt Lake City, April 2017.
Looking out from the plane over the Great Salt Lake, I see celadon shifting into mustard as the sun ricochets off the water’s shallow surface. Pastels bleed together, at times cutting each other off in sharp edges. It’s Friday, April 14, and I descend from the sky to the streets of downtown Salt Lake City to watch the evening program of Ballet West at the Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theater.
My trip is organized around The Green Table, the third ballet in the program “Journeys and Reflections” at Ballet West. At its world premiere in Paris on July 3, 1932, The Green Table immediately earned a first prize award for its choreographer, Kurt Jooss, and even impressed Hitler, who asked Jooss to choreograph for the new German society. Jooss refused to comply with Hitler’s request to dismiss all Jews from his company, and the entire group went into exile in the UK in 1933, only returning to Germany in 1949. Robert Joffrey saw an Argen-tinian company performing The Green Table on tour in Seattle in the 1950s and introduced it into the repertoire of the Joffrey Ballet in the late Sixties; the company performed it many times in Berkeley during the Viet Nam War. I am curious to see how this legendary anti-war performance piece, created in response to the rising anti-Semitism and burgeoning fascism in Weimar Germany, will be staged by Ballet West eighty-five years after its creation, in an America that now suddenly seems to reverberate with an impossibly eerie echo of 1933. But before I can get to The Green Table, I need to watch the other two ballets first.
The program begins with Chaconne. The stage is washed in a deep teal, and nine women stand posed with long hair unfurled, wearing simple sheer peach dresses with no adornment other than the long swaths of tulle that selectively reveal a leg or two. Choreographer George Balanchine famously loved women, and this opening scene is evidence of that.
The first movement of the ballet is a simple walk forward. The middle dancer, at the back, approaches the audience with an attitude of “Here I am, simply look.” The ballet carries this sense about it as it evolves into a rotating celebration of movements, with groups of three, six, nine, and sometimes fifteen or more dancers alternating their displays. The simplicity of the first costumes gives way to a flood of sequins and embroidery. Sensuality abounds. Footwork astonishes. As befits true Balanchine, there is no story here. He choreographed this piece around music from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice to create (as Ballet West’s artistic director Adam Sklute puts it) “a poem” out of the ballet. During my first viewing, I suddenly taste wet salt as I watch the ballerina Beckanne Sisk; I can’t believe I’m crying at the sheer sight of Chaconne.
The second ballet, Façades, presents an entirely different flavor. Utah native Garrett Smith, who choreographed it in 2015 on commission for Ballet West, blends the music of Philip Glass’s Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra with selections from Vivaldi into a tapestry of pieces set in the Baroque period. The central theme is the idea of selfhood: how we at once see and fail to see ourselves. What at first seems to be forcedan actual mirror frame prop descends onto the stageturns into a delightful if sinister play with the idea of reflection. At times the dancers break the space of the mirror and at times they honor it. When they honor it, anticipation permeates the theater. Will the dancers stay mirrored, or will one group break off and do something else? And if so, which side of the mirror will deviate?
There is an optic pleasure in seeing the dances being performed in unison in two directions at once. One inspects the movements with the eyes of a technician, staying on sharp alert for errors. In only one performance (of the three I saw) are the dancers momentarily out of sync, and their recovery is so impressive, taking only two brief moves, that the moment of mismatch might as well have been a part of the choreography. Given that the piece is structured around (mis-)managing control of one’s reflection, actual errors cease to be errors.
At one point Smith consciously plays with the mismatch concept. As the central ballerina approaches the mirror with a low but gently outstretched hand, she is met on the other side of the mirror by an “infinity” illusion: six or seven dancers face her in a line, and they mimic her every move in unison. Sitting in the mezzanine, I relish the effect at a good angle. As the ballerinas (all in red except for one in black) imitate the “real” one, we see an allusion to many-handed Indian goddesses. As she bends low to the side, though, the ballerina in black remains erect, not shifting her body with the other dancers. A tense note sounds out from the orchestra. This tone is the single moment of new music composed for the entire program. It is a note of recognition that we have multiple reflections and that sometimes our reflections do not obey us, try as we might.
In the middle of the performance, as I peer into the blackness on the other side of this fictive mirror, it dawns on me that if this reflection were true, the audience should also be reflected in the mirror of Façades. But it isn’t. We are rendered irrelevant in our non-reflection. Or perhaps there is a pointed question being asked: What side of the mirror are we actually on?
This question lingers throughout the intermission as the orchestra clears out and two pianos are set up facing each other. My companion tells me that the Jooss estate refuses to allow the music for The Green Table to be recorded. I immediately recall viewings of silent German cinema with live piano accompaniment, which puts me into a familiar mood as the pianists strike their keys and then the curtain rises.
Jooss modeled his ballet on the idea of the “dance of death” in medieval woodcuts, a popular motif in interwar Germany; the full subtitle of the ballet is “A Dance of Death in Eight Scenes.” Given this, I expect to see a circular movement through the scenes, much as in Arthur Schnitzler’s play Reigen, with the last scene hooking somehow back into the firstand indeed, we get that here: both the first and last scenes focus on the politicians who are at the heart of the declaration of an unnamed, pointless, even sideless war.
As the ballet opens, ten masked politicians, all male, sit around a large green table, five on each side. We witness some type of negotiation. The politician on the back right raises both arms and appears to shout; the politician on the middle left slowly raises a single index finger straight up, as if to make a point. Then the dancers from his side depart from the table and convene. Those on the right turn around to “sit” with their heads resting on one hand, elbows on the table, facing away as those on the left return and collectively point their index fingers at them in accusation. The politicians on the right turn their heads back to look, and the index fingers morph into pompous, controlled clapping at their red-headed politician, who appears to pontificate. A politician on the right puts down a fist, slamming the table hard; his colleague also slaps the table and then raises his hands and looks out in shock, jaw dropped. This diplomatic dance runs through a few repetitions, until the dancers slowly form an arc across the stage and draw guns on each other. The cause of the war remains opaque, yet fighting proceeds. They fire blank pistols into the air. The lights go dark.
In the next scene, the character of Death emerges from the blackness. Illuminated by a single green spotlight, Death appears centerstage, facing us, dancing solo. His monochromatic visage, bones drawn in black on his bleached white skin, reminds me of Cesare, the eerie somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. During Death’s solo, he forms a sickle with his legs and arms. The dancer’s thigh extends sharply, straightening his whole leg and bringing it down with force on the stage. Arms tense into a type of handle and sweep the area, swinging back as the other leg now mirrors that first forceful thrust. I cannot get enough of this sequence.
This and the next five scenes depict the development, execution, and aftermath of the nameless conflict and introduce us to prominent archetypes at work in society. We encounter soldiers, a standard bearer with the flag of allegiance, a young girl, a wife, a mother, refugees, and a profiteer. All except the profiteer are treated to their own kinds of death. The soldiers are felled with a sweep of Death’s hand as he rides a murderous chariot through the killing fields. The old mother gratefully accepts Death’s offer after leading the refugees to safety. Death forcefully renders the young girl horizontal, leering over her in the most overtly Cesare-like moment of the entire ballet.
The only person Death seems to respect as she dies is the wife. Once the soldiers depart for conflict, she turns into a rebellious partisan and murders a soldier returning from the front as his troop marches diagonally across the stage. Her scarf turns into a weapon as she thrusts it at the last soldier in the line, and Death slips out from behind the curtain as the soldier falls. Sidestepping the body, Death dances toward the front of the stage, seemingly dragging the partisan by some invisible hook around her neck, keeping her still for her execution by death squad. As she’s shot, she turns toward Death and genuflects, and he gives her a proper nod of acknowledgement before he looks up and out over the audienceyes, even up toward the mezzanine. After the show, people near me said they felt personally addressed: “Am I next?” Another reviewer, Mary Lyn Graves, said that Death gazed out at us all as if to ask if we understand. Yes.
Jooss referred to his choreography as “essentialism,” which for him meant that the dancers’ movements should reveal their characters. In this context, the drab clothing might be seen less in terms of a new sobriety and more about allowing the gesture to speak without distraction. Yet if this were entirely so, why does The Green Table use masks to depict the politicians? Their message relies just as much on costume as on movement. Perhaps the dance is making a sort of commentary on what it means to be a politician versus any other kind of character in society: masked, unknown behind the never-changing façade, never truthfully reflected in a mirror.
In the second-to-last scene, when the last old soldier dies and relinquishes the now-tarnished flag to Death, they both march off, leaving the stage vacant yet still lit. The moment lasts as long as it takes the old soldier and Death to run behind the main stage and re-enter from where the scene began. (Death, that is, moves only in one direction.) The characters who have died march together now, as the real dance of death begins, a diagonal ghost parade. Death leads the way with the banner, eventually ushering everyone offstage once more.
The final scene, again at the green table, opens with another shot of the guns into the air. The dancers no longer bang on the table with force, as in the first scene, but they still perform the exact same repetitive moves. The politician on the back right raises both arms and appears to shout, the politician on the middle left slowly raises a single index finger straight up as if to make a point. Then the dancers from his side depart from the table and convene. And so on… Everything is exactly the same, with music that suggests a punchy charade. The audience has just seen every character die in manifold ways, and this delicate dance of diplomacy continues unabated. Reflecting on our current state of affairs, I think to myself: at least back then there were rules of engagement, proper costumes to wear, decorum. Now all betsall masksare off.
At the very end, the dancers remove their masks while the curtain is down and place them on the table facing out toward the audience. As the curtain lifts again, they bow to us with ten decapitated heads staring out from behind them in rows too neat to be accidental. As the lights go up in the theater, the air is thick with stunned silence and awe. There is no way to follow The Green Table with anything but astonishment, and each time I saw it, I found myself arrested for a few moments before I could speak. If this ballet had intertitles, Aleppo would have been just as relevant a word as Europe. Part of the endurance of Jooss’s message is his decision to reduce all sides of war, in any given war, to Death. This ballet is about what happens to people, rather than who wins. Death and profit are the only victors. The macabre unity is echoed at the level of the musiceven the dueling pianos play the same music together.
The Green Table is the closest thing to German Expressionism I have ever seen performed live. It could be the green spotlight on Death, turning him monochrome the way film cells used to be painted, or the live music that so completely belongs to this context, or the quality of movement that so perfectly evokes the era. The Green Table in Salt Lake City brought all the silent cinema screenings I had ever seen into new relief. For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of the buzz one must have had in the 1930s, seeing such a performance. Eight decades of technological development melted away, and I was transfixed by the palpable sense of history coming to life as the present. After all that time, I finally got a sense of what it was like to be one of the people I had studied for so long.
The feeling was so incredible I went back two more times, to the matinee and evening performances on Saturday. Each one built on the last, and I felt as though I were meeting every dancer in the company. There were differences in the roles depending on who danced them, but these interpretations of the movement only served to make me fall in love with the program that much more. The architectural poetry of Chaconne finally broke through to me, the dizziness of Façades washed over me, and when Death arrived in The Green Table, I welcomed this foray into another world, a world that has never left us, even if we do not dance this way anymore.
Jennifer Zahrt, a former deputy editor of The Threepenny Review, holds a PhD in German literature from UC Berkeley. She currently lives in Seattle and is the co-director of the Sophia Centre Press.