Dance Of Death...And Life
Ballet Arizona Stages Kurt Jooss' 'The Green Table,' among Other Masterpieces.
By Margaret Regan
OCTOBER 12, 1998: THE TIME WAS September 1933 and the place was Germany: not a good combination for a proponent of avant-garde dance.
German choreographer Kurt Jooss, age 32, a farmer's son from Württemberg, was enjoying acclaim abroad for The Green Table, his dark dance-drama of death. Winner of the choreography prize in an international competition in Paris the year before, the eight-part work was lauded as a turning point in dance. Critics praised its wondrous fusion of modern sensibility with classical precision, its innovations built on ballet tradition. Hitler and company, in power just four months, begged to differ.
For one, the composer of its musical score, F.A. Cohen, was a Jew, and some of its dancers were a quarter, or a half, or wholly Jewish. And while The Green Table was on one level a contemporary rendering of the medieval "danse macabre," in which a skeleton leads all and sundry into death, the government culture police did not fail to miss its contemporary pacifism nor its dim view of murderous authorities. The Nazis decided to pounce. Luckily for Jooss, and for modern dance, the troupe was tipped off.
"Jooss decided to go overnight to Holland with his company," said Isa Partsch-Bergsohn. A former head of the UA dance department, she worked with Jooss in the '40s and '50s, and much later wrote a book about him and pioneering German dance.
"They basically packed their bags in the middle of the night," added Michael Uthoff, artistic director of Ballet Arizona, "and crossed the border."
Uthoff's company is staging "The Green Table" as part of its Masters concert this weekend at Pima College, along with seminal works by George Balanchine ("Agon," 1957) and Antony Tudor ("The Leaves Are Fading," 1975). Uthoff, too, has a personal connection with the Jooss piece: He's the son of two Jooss dancers who made that midnight flight--Ernst Uthoff and Lola Botkin. What might have happened to the Uthoffs, to Jooss and his family, and to the rest of the Ballets Jooss had they not fled, is all too imaginable. In a later autobiographical note, Jooss wrote that the Gestapo arrived at his house in Essen just 18 hours after the precipitous departure.
"They had no home for a while," Partsch-Bergsohn said, so the company went out on tour, in Europe and in the United States. In an acclaimed six-week run on Broadway in November 1933, Ballets Jooss gave America a glimpse of a German avant-garde that would virtually disappear for a generation. Jooss and company eventually settled at the estate of an English benefactor and continued to tour during the '30s, a period of stability and creativity that Partsch said was the golden age of Jooss' life. The troupe may even have come to Arizona then: Uthoff believes that Ballets Jooss performed in Tucson and Phoenix on a whistle-stop tour of America in the late '30s.
"I'm sure they performed 'The Green Table,' " he said. "It was one of four works on their program."
The war's outbreak ended this happy period. The troupe dispersed, and Jooss, refugee though he was, was interned by the English as a German national. He was held six months. Uthoff senior and Botkin ended up in Chile. Their son said they were stranded in Latin America because a Dutch ship refused to take any Germans on as passengers. They were rescued by an invitation of the Chilean government; with another Jooss dancer, they founded the Chilean National Ballet.
As Partsch-Bergsohn writes in her book, Modern Dance in Germany and the United States, Jooss' other German colleagues fared even less well. His mentor, Rudolf Laban, and rival, Mary Wigman, at first tried to continue their work under Nazi supervision, but quickly found themselves labeled "degenerate artists" in Germany's new straight-jacketed cultural milieu. Partsch-Bergsohn, as an aspiring young dancer growing up in Nazi Germany, kept track of the fabled Jooss.
"When I was 12 or 13, my older brother sent me a poster from Ballets Jooss in Paris," Partsch-Bergsohn said last week in Tucson, where she lives with her husband in a small house with a garden near the Rillito. Now in her 70s, the dancer has a face beautifully etched with wrinkles, and she uses her lithe body expressively, raising her hands with grace, turning her neck just so.
"In my head, I said, if I ever had a chance to work with Jooss, I would."
That chance didn't come until years later, after the war. In the late '40s, Jooss was invited back to Germany to reestablish his school in Essen and to start a new company. A joyful sense of liberation had followed the fall of the Nazis, Partsch-Bergsohn said.
"We were so glad to be back dancing. It was a wonderful feeling. The war and the whole Nazi regime were gone...You could dance experimentally," Partsch-Bergsohn remembered. It didn't last. Conservatism soon began once again to smother the arts, and ballet companies returned to "terrible stuff. All red velvet (costumes)."
Partsch-Bergsohn was working with a stuffy ballet company at the opera house in Essen.
"I was pretty desperate there. Then Jooss came to give a summer course...Dancers came from all over who wanted to be in his company. One afternoon I went out, and I saw really nice, beautiful, juicy movement. I knew in one hour that was the man I wanted to work with."
The young woman studied under Jooss for three or four years. When she got her teaching certificate, she went off unhappily to work in another provincial ballet company, still another bastion of old-fashioned dance.
"I got a call from Jooss. 'Please can you come?' One of his lead dancers wanted to go to Chile with Uthoff. I broke my contract (and went)."
Partsch-Bergsohn worked with Jooss as a teacher for six years in the 1950s. "It was a wonderful chance. He tried out with me what he couldn't do himself...As a teacher, he was patient and gentle, but insisting...You worked your head off, but it felt good."
She eventually left Germany for a university teaching career in the U.S., first in California, then in Tucson. Even today, she continues to teach modern dance at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. Jooss' fortunes were up and down, she said, and never again matched the good English years. The city of Essen abruptly withdrew funds for his company after just a year. He continued running his school, and created other lasting works, including "Journey in the Fog," but he had his own troupe again only briefly in the mid-'50s.
Over the years, though, he worked as an independent choreographer and his reputation steadily grew. Jooss kept in contact with the Uthoffs, and during a low point after the war they invited him to work as a guest choreographer in Chile, where he staged a number of his works and even danced the part of Death in The Green Table.
Their son, Michael Uthoff, met up with Jooss in 1967 when he was a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet in New York. Jooss had agreed to allow the Joffrey to perform his works, Uthoff said, after his proud parents enthusiastically reported to their old friend that the Joffrey "is better than we were!"
"We called him Papa Jooss," Uthoff remembered. "He had white hair and a cherubic face."
The Joffrey's Green Table was laden with all kinds of subtexts. Jooss and the elder Uthoffs were in the audience. Despite Hitler, the war and the disapora of the troupe, Ballets Jooss' signature piece had survived. And Michael Uthoff, who might never have been born but for that midnight flight, took the part of the Standard Bearer, the same role his father, Ernst, had danced in the Paris competition of 1932.
The new Ballet Arizona production bears the Jooss imprimatur: It was set on the company in Phoenix by his daughter, Anna Markard, who made the journey into Holland as a toddler. Markard spent six weeks in Phoenix training 18 dancers in the elaborate staging of the 34-minute work.
The Green Table, Uthoff said, remains important in part because of "the unfortunate nature of the subject matter. War never goes away...It's so cryptically done, so precisely put together. It tells something succinctly, with full pathos and great artistry. It grips the audience."
Partsch-Bergsohn disagrees that the work is explicitly political. "It's a human statement," she said, "about how everybody has to face death."
Jooss himself met death in his native Germany, after a car accident, in 1979, at the age of 78.
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