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Music: Jooss Start

5 minute read

Two pianos struck the keynote simply from a darkened theatre pit one afternoon last week. On a stage bare of properties the current dance season began in Manhattan, not with the Monte Carlo Ballet Russe of glamorous traditions and virtuoso performers, not with any of the U. S. moderns struggling to express themselves by gymnastic abstractions, but with performances designed by Kurt Jooss, a 35-year-old German whose ballets, scorning any set technique, tell stories.

Three years have passed since the Jooss dancers first visited the U. S., failed financially in spite of the indelible impression left by The Green Table, a scathing satire on the men who promote war (TIME, Nov. 13, 1933). Last winter the Jooss group staged its comeback, thanks in part to the booming interest in ballet. This year its tour will extend to the Pacific Coast, later on to the Orient.

The Green Table remains the best of the Jooss ballets, wears well as a masterpiece. In it ten of the dancers mime as diplomats, first suave, later pompous, finally furious. With foolish toy pistols they start the war through which Death stalks, imperiously destroying soldiers and their womenfolk, pecking fatally at a cocky little profiteer, sparing only the diplomats, inscrutably masked, back at the green table again making more trouble.

With most critics The Mirror finds favor as a portrayal of post-War confusion, reaching its climax when Dancer Elsa Kahl, as a laborer’s wife, discards her drab clothes to join the women of the streets. With frothy moods Choreographer Jooss is less successful. A Ball in Old Vienna is only tritely pretty. Johann Strauss, Tonight! is a cluttered potpourri which does little more than show that Elsa Kahl can turn a cartwheel.

In The Big City a pale-faced street crowd jigs automatically to the twangy jazz rhythms of Alexandre Tansman’s Transatlantique, an accompaniment which makes Dancer Hans Zuellig seem all the more lonely when he loses his girl to a silk-hatted libertine. For The Prodigal Son, the one ballet to have its U. S. premiere last week, Choreographer Jooss went back to the old Biblical legend, cast himself as the square-bearded patriarch, Elsa Kahl as the mother, muscular Rudolf Pescht as the wandering son. Result was not another Green Table, but a ballet with spots that were powerful, spots that were not. The sirens Pescht meets on his philanderings contribute little to the modern dance. On the other hand, his homecoming is deeply moving, from the time he drags himself in, ragged and exhausted, to the final scene when he rejoins his parents and with slow, swinging, monotonous steps suggests his resignation to the drudgery from which he had tried to escape.

Every Jooss ballet is the creation of the man who gave the troupe its name. Son of a farmer who kept a brewery on the side, Kurt Jooss was expected to go through a general schooling, return to the soil. He rebelled. At school he was moody, more interested in the piano and taking pictures. For a time he struggled with farming, but after one session with Rudolf von Laban he was suddenly determined to dance, studied for three years with the eccentric who inspired Mary Wigman and many another of the modernistic school.

Jooss was scarcely out on his own when old-style ballet began to impress him. He admired it for its discipline, its grace. As ballet master at the opera house in Münster he found a sympathetic collaborator in Fritz Cohen, a budding young conductor who was glad to write music for dancing. In Münster the leading dancer was Aino Siimola, a sleek black-haired Esthonian who became Jooss’s wife and assistant director.

From Münster Kurt Jooss moved on to Essen where his troupe grew its first teeth.

Elsa Kahl was there, wife of Fritz Cohen who now writes or arranges most of the music, plays one of the pianos in the pit.

So was Sigurd Leeder, who assists Jooss as dance instructor, Ernst Uthoff, who dances and acts as the troupe’s paymaster, Rudolf Pescht, last week’s prodigal son, who began his career selling books. In Essen Kurt Jooss brooded for weeks over a danse macabre, worked up The Green Table which he took to the International Dance Congress in Paris in 1932 where he won the gold medal and 25,000 francs.

Suddenly Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitic campaign drove Composer Fritz Cohen from Germany. This compelled Kurt Jooss to go touring, although his dancers still needed more training. The troupe gained grace and prestige with the addition of Hans Zuellig, 22-year-old Swiss (The Big City) and pretty Noelle de Mosa, 19, a Java-born Dutch baroness. Both conform to the Jooss type, employ the widest and most theatrical use of pantomime.

Jooss partisans point to the fact that the Monte Carlo Ballet suits its steps to well-tried music, that most of the modernists demand music improvised to suit their own highly athletic dancing. By way of a happy medium Jooss and Cohen devise programs in which dance and music are, for better or for worse, interdependent. Financial backing was the chief Jooss need after the U. S. visit in 1933. In England the sponsor was found—Mrs. Leonard Knight Elmhirst, an heiress to the U. S. Whitney fortune who, with her British husband, is striving to build up an idyllic artistic community at Dartington Hall in Devonshire.

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