Kurt Jooss: Dance theater with a social conscience
December 1, 2015

German choreographer Kurt Jooss was a pioneer of the Tanztheater (dance theater) movement, combining movement, text and drama. Unlike his German Expressionist contemporaries, who rejected technique in favor of raw, expressive movement, Jooss worked in the vocabulary of ballet and modern dance. His works dealt with the issues of his time: social injustice, urban alienation and post-WWI trauma.


Jooss was born near Stuttgart, Germany. At age 19, while studying at the Stuttgart Academy of Music, he met Rudolf Laban, who invited him to become his student and choreographic assistant. Six years later, in the summer of 1926, Jooss went to Paris to study ballet with a former Mariinsky ballerina. While there, he began developing his radical choreographic style, which blended ballet and modern—two genres rarely mixed before. His work soon drew criticism from German modern dance contemporary Mary Wigman, who considered ballet too formal and old-fashioned to truly express human emotion.

When he returned to Germany in the fall, Essen city officials asked him to create a dance department for a brand-new college, the Folkwang Schule. His curriculum drew from the teachings of Laban and emphasized dynamic, three-dimensional movement. In 1928, he established a student company, the Folkwang Dance Theater Studio, which later provided the foundation for his own company, Ballets Jooss.

In 1932, his politically charged The Green Table won him first place in a Paris competition, along with a standing ovation and a reputation as a master choreographer. Shortly after, he fled to the Netherlands to escape pressure from the Nazi Party to fire all Jewish dance company members. He successfully toured his company around Europe and the U.S. until 1947, when it disbanded for financial reasons.

After the war, he returned to Germany and devoted himself to teaching full-time at the Folkwang Schule. He ran his final company, Folkwang Ballet, until his retirement in 1968. He died 11 years later at age 78.

Style

Jooss rebelled against the German Expressionist movement of the time, holding firm that dance must have structure and choreographic clarity, rather than be purely expressive. He believed that modern dance should have a base in classical ballet, and that ballet could be a vehicle for social issues (rather than just a way to retell fairy tales). He used the defined movement qualities of his mentor Laban (strong versus weak, light versus heavy, sustained versus quick) to represent emotional states in his choreography.

ABT performs Jooss’ The Green Table. Photo by Marty Sohl, courtesy of American Ballet Theatre

The Work

Pavane pour une infante défunte (“Pavane for a dead princess”) (1929) In this early work, Jooss combined ballet steps with movement inspired by simple, 17th-century Spanish court dances. This was one of his first attempts to combine two different dance styles.

The Green Table (1932) Considered to be Jooss’ crowning choreographic achievement, this piece about the horrific consequences of war was based on a work of visual art depicting men and women dancing with the character Death. In the opening sequence, old men in coattails confer over a long, green table.

The Mirror (1935) A sequel to The Green Table, The Mirror dealt with hardships of people whose lives had been disrupted by war. Whereas The Green Table focused on the victims, The Mirror highlighted the survivors.

Fun Fact

In 1967, Robert Joffrey commissioned Jooss to set The Green Table on the Joffrey Ballet. This revival breathed new life into Jooss’ work, and Vietnam War–era Americans strongly identified with the antiwar message.

The Legacy Lives On

Tanztheater choreographer Pina Bausch (profiled in Wim Wenders’ 2011 documentary Pina) was Jooss’ student at the Folkwang Schule. After his retirement, she took over as dance director and soon became a significant force in modern dance. The Folkwang Schule, now called the Folkwang University of the Arts, continues to educate students in dance, music, theater and design. Jooss’ The Green Table remains in the repertory of ballet companies like the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.

Resources

Print:

“Kurt Jooss: The founding father of Tanztheater,” by Rachel Straus, Dance Teacher, August 2011

The Makers of Modern Dance in Germany, by Isa Partsch-Bergsohn and Harold Bergsohn, Princeton Book Company, 2003

No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century, by Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick, Yale University Press, 2003

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