Paul Taylor Dance Company in “The Green Table” by Kurt Jooss. Photograph by Richard Termine/92Y

War & Peace

Paul Taylor Dance Company presents “The Green Table”

Performance
The Paul Taylor Dance Company: “The Green Table” by Kurt Jooss
Place
92Y, New York, NY, April 6, 2022
Words
Cecilia Whalen

In his piece, “The Green Table,” which the Paul Taylor Dance Company presented for one-night-only at the 92Y on April 6th, Kurt Jooss depicts a group of ten nasty gentlemen at a conference. They discuss the world situation, lightly jumping on and off the table, making presentational gestures, and offering mixed applause for one another’s bright ideas. Dressed in black suits and disgusting, balding masks with distorted faces, the gentlemen are a farce of politicians and diplomats who seem to start wars for sport. Jooss created “The Green Table” in 1932 reflecting on the disastrous Great War as his native Germany tried to hold together their shaky Weimar Republic and brace themselves for the rise of fascism and conflict to come. At the end of their meeting, the gentlemen in “The Green Table” draw pistols and shoot in the air making a jolting BANG! created by real blanks. The lights shut off; a war begins.

The piece follows the stages of war: the initial conference, a mobilization of troops, active combat, the fleeing of refugees, and even war profiteering by a single opportunist who appears in and out to take advantage of the horrors. Commenting on the industrialization and inhumanity that masters of war make out of their armies, Jooss depicts soldiers dressed identically who march and leap in unison and proudly wave a flag. The music, by F.A. Cohen and performed live by pianists Margaret Kampmeier and Blair McMillen, is clunky and mindless in this section, showing the robotic nature of the armies, as well as of the fascism that was soon to take hold in Jooss’s day.

Michael Apuzzo and Shawn Lesniak as Death (behind) in “The Green Table” by Kurt Jooss. Photograph by Richard Termine/92Y

Meanwhile, Death, who is a personified character, lingers, marching in the background and shadowing the other dancers ominously. Taylor’s Shawn Lesniak portrayed a strong Death, the role which Jooss originated in the piece’s premier at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, and whose costume is of a warrior, bringing to mind the Greek god of war, Ares. Death has solo moments in which he demonstrates his strength and endurance through repetitive marching steps, jumps, and strikes of arms, but most often he follows behind soldiers and their grieving women patiently. He does not move quickly, nor does he attack. He simply waits.

The Taylor company and the 92Y decided to show this piece recognizing its relevance in a time where war is at the forefront of our world news and our minds. “The Green Table” emphasizes the futility of war, the vast destruction and inevitability of death that is the result of the remarkable irresponsibility and homicidal tendencies of a powerful few. This presentation was responding in particular to the war in Ukraine, where a similarly nasty master of war and his apparatchiks are wreaking havoc and imposing death on the innocent.

It is thematically timeless. Jooss’s style and vocabulary, on the other hand, is historically specific. Created towards the end of the German expressionist movement, the piece has all the characteristics of eerie Weimar art: bold and distorted figures, caricatures, and a narrative that is not emotional but distancing, and certainly not optimistic. It’s purposefully cartoonish, and we are not made to feel terribly sympathetic to anyone—even the grieving mothers and lovers of the doomed soldiers—but rather disturbed by the experience and brought to question. The end of the piece is exactly like the beginning, with the Gentlemen in Black seated and gallivanting around the green table, once again drawing out their pistols and firing, as if nothing has changed. Despite the futile violence and death, at the end, we kind of feel that there is nothing to be done to stop it.

Jessica Ferretti in “The Green Table” by Kurt Jooss. Photograph by Richard Termine

There is one glimpse of an alternative, though, as a woman dressed in red (Jessica Ferretti, this evening) explodes into a defiant solo. She leaps and lands in a wide second position, with fists clenched. Soldiers march behind her, and in a burst of rage, she kills one. Immediately after, she is set in front of a firing squad. She stands brave and tall as Death leads her away.

Though having committed an act of violence, herself, this woman symbolizes a rebellion to the seemingly inevitable cycle of war. She decides to fight knowing full well what fate awaits her in the wings. It is not romantic; However, if we are to take it as an act of courage rather than some psychotic frenzy, it is a hint that a passive acceptance of the absurdity of the war is not all there is to do: One can resist.

The futility and doom of war and criticism of political powers evoked by “The Green Table” are enduring themes and relevant in considering the wars and conflict of today. That said, the story of war, certainly that in Ukraine, while marked by the monstrosity and hubris of a few men—in this case, one weasel-faced war criminal, in particular—and their damage done, it is equally marked by the incredible courage and martyrdom of many defenders. It is a story of evil, unwarranted, and pointless aggression; but it is also a story of heroic resistance.