Friday, February 12, 2010

* The Green Table: Amsterdam 1972, Now, and Always

Kurt Jooss (1901-79)

Mary Wigman (1886-1973)

Vergiu Cornea (1914- )

I was broke in Amsterdam in 1972 after only a week there. I'd borrowed enough money to fly to the Netherlands from Connecticut ($199 round trip as I recall) and stay there for two weeks (another $200), but I'd misjudged. After week on the third-floor of a tiny hostel with winding staircases, eating yoghurt and nuts every day, I was down to my last $20 and the remaining return trip on my air ticket. That was IT.

At that point a total extravagance seduced me and I wound up with two dollars in my pocket. I even had to hitch-hike from La Guardia to New Haven when I arrived back in the states, my wallet was so empty.

Here's the extravagance: The Royal Amsterdam Ballet was giving a performance of the work of Kurt Jooss. I knew the name because my Acting teacher at my undergraduate school was a 50 year-old dancer who had studied with Kurt Jooss and with Mary Wigman, a Roumanian named Vergiu Cornea, who had also been First Dancer of the Berlin Operacomique and balletmeister of the Hamburg Statsopera during the 1940's, the War years.

I wanted to see how Jooss had influenced Cornea's own choreographies, which were
anachronistically narrative in a time when the art world generally had eschewed narrative in favor of raw form: in music, in art, and dance.

What I spent my last $18.00 on that Amsterdam afternoon turned out to be Jooss's most famous ballet: The Green Table.As a ballet, it had the same problem which made Thornton Wilder's The Long Christmas Dinner almost unstageable: a table both dominates and blocks the center stage.

Unlike Wilder's play, you can dance on top of the green table, so the stage problem isn't quite as immoveable for a ballet as it is for theatre.

In the interpetation I saw at with the Royal Amsterdam Ballet, the green table was a huge billiard table.(Often it is simply a plain green table.) All the dancers wore top hats, black cutaways and white goves and had billiard cues. The table, inclined so the audience could view the top, was green alright (the symbol of money, and, ironically today, ecological dignity), but superimposed on it was a bright blue and white map of the world. It was clear from the choreography that the dancers were world "leaders" (political or economic) and that they were doing battle, conniving, and carving up the world, not just with relish or greed but with elegant rapacity.

I said that Jooss and Wigman and Cornea were considered too "narrative" for the
art of the 1960's and 70's.

Funny. Forty years later I don't remember a dancer's name from The Green Table. I don't remember the the music played. But I came out of that matinee (I could not afford evening tickets) into the summer sunshine a different human being. That image---the world being carved up on a billiard table by gentlemen in top hats, and white gloves, seared my soul. All of the greed and hypocrisy of war and politics had cut into me like a green laser.

Almost four decades later the metaphorical power of that choreography speaks to our Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, TARP-laden times---to say nothing of Viet Nam, and two Gulf wars.

We are all but billiards on the Green Table of Greed, to be knocked around by the whims of bankers, bullies, and bureaucrats: diplomats, demagogues and divines.

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