Jooss’s Antiwar Dance Premieres Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table, a powerful commentary on the futility of war, extended the subject matter and technical range of modern dance.

Summary of Event

The Green Table is a danse macabre in contemporary terms. Consisting of six scenes, a prologue, and an epilogue, the work presents the consequences of war and their related social results realistically in a stylized, unromanticized manner. Before the dance begins, discordant piano sounds foretell the ominous atmosphere of the ballet that will unfold. The music then changes into a lighthearted cabaret tango. The curtain opens to reveal a rectangular conference table covered in green; the table is lined on two sides by diplomats dressed in black morning coats and spats and wearing grotesque masks. The factions on either side of the table engage in rituals of diplomacy, making points and counterpoints, bickering among themselves, and almost coming to blows with the opposing group. A feigned mood of courtesy prevails as the arbiters gesticulate in puppetlike fashion. The scene concludes in response to the rising insurmountable tensions among the diplomats. Finding no solution to their discussion, they remove pistols from their vests, bow politely to one another, lift their arms upward, and shoot the pistols into the air, symbolically releasing a pattern of violence that will bring death, injury, and tragedy. The stage goes dark. [kw]Jooss’s Antiwar Dance The Green Table Premieres (July 3, 1932)[Joosss Antiwar Dance The Green Table Premieres (July 3, 1932)] [kw]Antiwar Dance The Green Table Premieres, Jooss’s (July 3, 1932) [kw]Dance The Green Table Premieres, Jooss’s Antiwar (July 3, 1932) [kw]Green Table Premieres, Jooss’s Antiwar Dance The (July 3, 1932) Green Table, The (dance) Dance;modern Modern dance Choreography;modern dance [g]France;July 3, 1932: Jooss’s Antiwar Dance The Green Table Premieres[08070] [c]Dance;July 3, 1932: Jooss’s Antiwar Dance The Green Table Premieres[08070] Jooss, Kurt Cohen, Fritz A. Heckroth, Hein

The grisly image of Death is then gradually revealed out of the blackness. Death, who dominates the work, is humanized as a skeleton and is garbed in the breastplate and helmet of Mars, the god of war. His menacing, repetitive, marchlike steps evoke a sense of doom.

The Standard-Bearer enters, holding a banner and rallying troops. Forces for battle are assembled, trained, and called to action. The combatants take leave of their sweethearts and mothers, and the story of war continues. The cunning Profiteer, a sleazy character whose pleasure derives from the misfortunes of others, is portrayed. The hovering, ever-present Death claims his victims one by one and triumphantly leads them in a procession of the dead. The figure of Death fades into blackness. Pistol shots ring out, and the scene returns to the conference table. Friendly relations are resumed, and the politicians once more enact their charade, which freezes in a stalemate.

The conceptualization of the libretto for The Green Table grew gradually over a ten-year period. Kurt Jooss had seen a sequence of medieval drawings of individuals from various walks of life dancing with Death, personified as a skeleton. Jooss found the dance of death a fascinating subject and thought the idea could be a proposal for an actual dance work. He also interpolated memories of World War I and the Depression into the piece. Jooss was an avid reader of Die Weltbühne, a German periodical edited by Carl von Ossie. The magazine published political writings by Kurt Tucholsky Tucholsky, Kurt that concerned moral integrity and the struggle for human decency; Tucholsky’s work directly affected the political overtones of The Green Table.

Movement for the ballet stemmed, in part, from Jooss’s study with Rudolf Laban, Laban, Rudolf an innovative teacher and theorist of the style of “plastic rhythm,” or motion for its own sake. This extremely different form of dance expression rejected the artificiality and structure of classical ballet that existed in German dance prior to World War I. Laban elaborated on the principles of anatomical expression and gesture set forth by François Delsarte in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1921, Jooss began to study with Laban at the National Theater in Mannheim, Germany, later becoming his assistant and principal dancer. Subsequently, Jooss founded Neue Tanzbühne (New Dance Stage), a separate entity of the state theater in Münster. The group included the dancers Sigurd Leeder and Aino Sümola, the composer and conductor Fritz A. Cohen, and the designer Hein Heckroth. The company toured throughout Germany for a two-year period presenting a repertoire of Jooss’s works.

Jooss’s search for expression in a personal manner led him to merge and reorganize new ideas in theater dance continually. He traveled to Paris and Vienna in the winter of 1926 with Sigurd Leeder to study, both in mind and body, the system of classical ballet. While gaining physical mastery of classical dance, Jooss examined its technique and pedagogy. He adapted some of these ideas into his choreographic endeavors as he sought to give clarity to performance. Jooss earned the hostility of his classical as well as his modern dance colleagues in 1928, when he candidly stated that the rivalry between the two dance forms was absurd.

The Green Table synthesizes these two forms of dance, combining the dramatic expression of modern dance with ballet technique. The choreography utilizes the range of everyday movement while adding strong distinctive patterns for the soldiers, diplomats, and other dancers. Identifying movements used only by the Profiteer and Death were created.

The music moves along with the dancing and does not influence the shape of the choreography or its movement. At times the score conveys the atmosphere, which ranges from foreboding to lyrical to plaintive.

The masks used for The Green Table evolved in response to practical considerations. With only sixteen dancers in the piece, requiring a quick change of the opening scene and a change of costumes, the possibility of applying makeup was negligible. As the dancers had to look grotesque for the prologue and epilogue, masks were designed to transform their appearance in a rapid fashion.


The Green Table won first prize in a choreography competition organized by the Archives Internationales de la Danse in Paris, and the success led to an offer to participate in a season of innovative dance at the Casino de Paris in the fall of 1932. The event called for the inclusion of The Green Table and the competition’s other prizewinners in a production during the dormant period between the casino’s regular shows. When the Jooss dancers arrived in Paris, however, they learned that the other groups were unavailable and the casino was continuing to present its revues. The fall season’s offering began with the casino’s attractions of nudity, risqué songs, and other suggestive happenings. Following the intermission, The Green Table, with its sober commentary, was presented. The ballet, in sharp contrast to what went before it, was met with such commotion that the music could not be heard. In a short time, however, as the Parisian public learned of the performance, different types of audiences began to attend and gave their approval to the work.

A proper theater season in Paris and Europe was arranged for the following spring, and Ballets Jooss, Ballets Jooss Ballet companies;Ballets Jooss as the company had become known, was firmly established. The Green Table was presented along with other works by Jooss.

Created a year before Adolf Hitler seized power, the ballet expressed a message that was comparable to those expressed in many antiwar novels of the time. Sentiments portrayed in The Green Table were not, however, in keeping with the views of Hitler and the Nazi Party. As a result of this and of Jooss’s support of Jewish and partly Jewish colleagues, of necessity, Jooss and his company fled Germany.

During World War II, while Ballets Jooss was performing in England, Jooss made the decision to withdraw The Green Table from the repertoire. He believed that the effects of war were too near at hand and that those who attended the theater in wartime did so for relaxation. Audiences requested the ballet, however, and The Green Table was restored to the programs. With the final days of World War II approaching, Jooss again believed the end of The Green Table’s performance life was near, but he was proved wrong once more. Audiences continued to request the ballet, and so Ballets Jooss continued performing the work.

In 1948, Jooss was invited to Santiago, Chile, by former soloists of Ballets Jooss who had performed in the original production of The Green Table. There, Jooss staged The Green Table for the Chilean National Ballet, which his dancers had founded. During this production, Jooss made his final appearance as a dancer in the role of Death.

The enduring quality of The Green Table led to its incorporation into the repertoires of ballet companies worldwide. Productions have been staged by the City Center Joffrey Ballet in New York (March, 1967), the Tanz-Forum in Cologne (December, 1971), the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Toronto (November, 1974), the Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv (November, 1975), the José Limon Dance Company in New York (April, 1977), the Opernhaus in Zurich (May, 1978), the Suomen Kansallisbaletti in Helsinki (November, 1982), and the Bühnen der Stadt in Essen, Germany (March, 1985), among others. In addition, continued interest in The Green Table led to several televised productions of the ballet, including a German production in 1963, a British production in 1966 directed by Peter Wright, a Swedish production in 1977, and a Japanese production in 1979. In 1982, the Joffrey Ballet undertook a production for public television’s Dance in America series.

The Green Table’s significance extends beyond the ballet’s message and reflects Jooss’s innovative use of choreography, stagecraft, and lighting. A period of development during which Jooss formulated his beliefs and experimented in dance movement and in stagecraft preceded his creation of The Green Table. His dance technique negated many premises that were accepted by ballet choreographers of the time. To Jooss, a painted set, a corps de ballet, and the sound of an orchestra were nonessential; instead, the dramatic effect of dance was underlined by stagecraft. He placed emphasis on costume rather than on decor, using costumes to accentuate symbolism rather than for merely decorative purposes. Jooss also used costumes to make his dancers appear more vividly three-dimensional to the audience.

Jooss’s unusually fluid use of lighting contributed to his three-dimensional concept. He altered the stage space by filling or emptying different areas, surfaces, and levels with light. He used lighting to mask, reveal, or emphasize a solo figure or group; the color, volume, and direction of Jooss’s lighting were constantly changing to reveal the spaces necessary for action at any moment.

All aspects of Jooss’s style of theatrical dance were first completely realized in The Green Table. Jooss blazed a trail in dance with The Green Table; until the piece’s premiere, dance, with few exceptions, was escapist in its audience appeal. The Green Table is acknowledged as Jooss’s greatest, most successful, and most enduring work. The ballet remains a powerful indictment of war. Green Table, The (dance) Dance;modern Modern dance Choreography;modern dance

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Jack. Art Without Boundaries: The World of Modern Dance. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997. Comprehensive chronological history of dance since the nineteenth century presents discussion of Jooss’s work. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bergsohn, Isa, and Harold Bergsohn. The Makers of Modern Dance in Germany: Rudolf Laban, Mary Wigman, Kurt Jooss. Hightstown, N.J.: Princeton Book Company, 2003. Examines the connections and influences among the three choreographers considered to be the founders of German modern dance. Includes photographs and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chujoy, Anatole, and P. W. Manchester, eds. The Dance Encyclopedia. Rev. ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967. Provides brief accounts of The Green Table, Kurt Jooss, and Ballets Jooss. Includes a photograph of Jooss in the role of Death.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clarke, Mary, and Clement Crisp. The Ballet Goer’s Guide. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. Presents a capsule view of Jooss’s career and a brief synopsis of The Green Table. Illustrations include photographs of the tableau that opens and closes the work and Jooss in the role of Death.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coton, A. V. The New Ballet: Kurt Jooss and His Work. London: Dennis Dobson, 1946. Valuable work on Jooss presents discussion of the background of twentieth century ballet that places the development of Ballets Jooss in proper context. Includes excellent information on The Green Table and other selected Jooss works. Features photographs and line drawings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gruen, John. The World’s Greatest Ballets. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1981. Presents an account of Jooss’s career and a vividly descriptive synopsis of The Green Table.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Markard, Anna, and Hermann Markard. Jooss. Cologne, Germany: Ballett-Buhnen-Verlag, 1985. Excellent resource, based on part of an exhibition for a 1981 Venice dance festival. Includes a biography of Jooss, a record of the tours of Ballets Jooss, and a list of Jooss’s choreographic works. Features photographs of ballets and of soloists, some taken at productions of The Green Table.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Partsch-Bergsohn, Isa. Modern Dance in Germany and the United States: Crosscurrents and Influences. Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1994. Discusses the progression of American and German modern dance over the course of the twentieth century, focusing on the similarities and differences in the art in the two nations. Includes discussion of Jooss’s work and its influence. Features bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williamson, Audrey. Contemporary Ballet. London: Rockliff, 1946. Provides a chapter of commentary on Ballets Jooss, which made its home in England during World War II. Critiques the major ballets of Jooss and presents insightful commentary on The Green Table.

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Categories: History