On the brink of World War II, German choreographer Kurt Jooss arrived in New York with his company to perform. Before curtain, Jooss learned that some black audience members had been barred from their seats. Jooss told the theater administration that unless they amended their whites-only policy, there would be no show. The theater obliged and the show went on. It was this sense of injustice that fueled Jooss’ artistry and led to a new form of dance theater, which paved the way for the work of Pina Bausch and choreographers working today, like Suzanne Linke and Mats Ek.
A natural leader and independent thinker, Jooss (1901–1979) helped develop what is now known as German Tanztheater, an expressive dance style that combined movement, text and drama. For Jooss, movement and words were inextricably linked; their connection was key to making performances as powerful an experience as life itself. Unlike expressionist choreographers of his time whose dances spoke to emotional themes, he sought to reveal the fallibility of the human condition. He created dances about urban alienation, social injustice and post-war trauma.
Born near Stuttgart, Germany, Jooss grew up studying piano, voice and drama but was drawn to dance from an early age. In 1919, he met Rudolf Laban, who was creating mass movement choirs danced by both professionals and amateurs, including Jooss. Although he had little dance training, he became Laban’s student and choreographic assistant. That same year, Jooss presented his first evening of dance, Two Male Dancers, with fellow student Sigurd Leeder, who became his longtime collaborator. Soon after, Jooss started his own company and created stage works for trained dancers.
In 1927, he began his tenure as the first head of the dance department of the Folkwang School in Essen, Germany, which he co-founded that year. The school was innovative in that its three branches—theater, music and dance—created cross-disciplinary forms of study; it was based on Laban’s theory that performers must be expressive in dance, sound and word. Jooss and Laban worked together to flesh out Laban’s notation system for recording and classifying movement. Laban’s movement categories (quick, sustained, strong, light, bound, free, central and peripheral) served as the foundation for technique classes.
Also crucial to Jooss’ style and the Folkwang curriculum was a strong basis in ballet—which he had gained by studying in Paris in the ’20s. This was considered treasonous to other German expressionists, like Mary Wigman, who believed ballet failed to express the full gamut of human emotion. But Jooss remained convinced that ballet’s vocabulary could be combined with new movements to express contemporary ideas. In this respect, he was ahead of his time, comparable only to Ballets Russes choreographer Michel Fokine. And it’s interesting to note that it’s been ballet companies that have kept Jooss’ major work, The Green Table (1932), alive.
He began creating The Green Table in 1929, when he assumed the role of ballet master of the Essen Opera House and formed a new company with dancers from the Folkwang School and the opera. He drew inspiration from the medieval artwork “Lubeck’s Dance of Death” and Germany’s collapsed economy. (A climate of resentment was growing among German citizens over the steep war reparations demanded by the Treaty of Versailles.) Jooss captured this zeitgeist in the ballet’s opening tableau: Leaders in a war room freeze around a green conference table. They lunge at each other in time to a strident tango and declare war. In six subsequent scenes, soldiers, women, profiteers and patriots fall prey to war’s horrors. Looming above all is the figure of Death. With music by F.A. Cohen, The Green Table was set in an abstract time and place, allowing Jooss to reveal without preaching or moralizing how politics begets war. Audiences were astounded, and the ballet won first prize at the 1932 Concours de Chorégraphie in Paris.
The terror depicted in The Green Table was not far from reality. In 1933, the year Hitler became chancellor, three of Jooss’ Jewish colleagues were fired from their jobs at the opera house, and Jooss was accused of harboring Jews. He and his dancers fled to England (where the company became known as the Ballet Jooss).
After WWII ended, Jooss returned to Germany and resumed his position as dance director of the Folkwang School, and he remained there until 1968. During this period, he added ballet to the curriculum and hosted like-minded teachers Antony Tudor, Alfredo Corvino and Pearl Lang to give classes and set choreography. He established a post-graduate program with a focus on performance and composition. It was in that program that Pina Bausch presented her first choreographic work. Today, the Folkwang University of the Arts continues to be a major center for dance education, and students from all over the world come to study the elements of Tanztheater.
In 1971, Jooss trained Joffrey dancer Christian Holder for a revival of The Green Table. When Jooss died eight years later, the Joffrey Ballet held an impromptu performance of the work. Holder, who danced that night, recalls Jooss’ coaching. One cannot teach his work solely with ballet vocabulary, he says. The movement was ascribed to metaphor. “It was approached dramatically,” he adds. “It’s not just écarté. You are reaching for the flag, clutching for your identity.”