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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: the arts and the black revolution II

Siegel, Marcia B.
Editorial comment: the green table: movement masterpiece,   pp. 447-[454] PDF (9.3 MB)

Page 448

448      in the background, the soldiers and wives,
refugees and whores, play out the panorama
of war. The clarity of the dramatic line
is strengthened by a sparing use of the
other elements of production. Aside from
the grotesque masks and costumes of
Death and the Gentlemen in Black, all the
costumes are essentially practice clothes,
with suggestions of detail, like the derby hat,
white gloves, and dandified mustache on
the Profiteer. Frederic Cohen's cabaret-style
score is played by two pianos. There is no
set, ansi the stark lighting of Tom
Skelton provides all the atmosphere that
is needed. In fact, my one reservation about
the Joffrey production is that Skelton's
Death-greens and and destruction-reds are a
shade overstated.
As an effective theatre piece, The Green
Table does all the things a classic is
supposed to do: it tells a story economically
and clearly, it has characters who speak
for every age, and its message is of vital
significance. Yet, after seeing it for the
first time, a viewer may have an
incredulous feeling that something doesn't
add up. Clearly, the style of the piece is
dated, no one makes expressionistic dances
like this any more, imagine doing a concert
dance to a tango! Why, then, was he so
The answer is in the movement.
American theatre and most of American
dance is symbolic in style. Where actors use
words to convey a message, dancers use
patterned sets of movements. I confess I
am unable to respond, "ecstasy," when the
danseur noble lifts the ballerina high in
the air, but this is the premise on which
ballet has rested for hundreds of years.
Modern dancers rejected this artificiality
and substituted their own vocabulary.
Martha Graham's contractions and
contortions originally may have been a
realization of her own emotional states,
but they are now dogma, and are most
often used as a facsimile of the emotion
the dancer wishes to portray. The viewer
has to translate these representative
gestures into the terms of his own
experience. Kurt Jooss and others who
follow the German school of modern dance
believe that all movement has an expressive
as well as a functional content, and they
use the qualities inherent in movement as
a direct statement of feeling. In their
terms, a ballet lift would be quite another
thing than ecstasy because the dancers are
using great strength, control, and precision,
which are not the qualities of abandon.
Alwin Nikolais' choreography, which has
moved away from dramatic content, uses
the whole gamut of movement qualities for
visual and dynamic effect. He was
recently asked by interviewers for a
popular magazine what the dancers in a
photo of Imago were doing. He answered,
"Tilting," and, for him at least, that was
The process of looking at one thing and
perceiving another has become second
nature to us, so that when we are
presented with literal movement we
immediately look for symbolic content. Even
when the movement is in direct conflict
with the words, we usually accept the
words, allowing some remarkable things to
get by on stage. In a recent production at
the Vivian Beaumont Theatre I saw a
supposedly seductive girl beckon to a
reluctant lover as she crossed one leg in
front of the other. Perhaps the director
thought of this as a slinky movement, or
perhaps he judged that the audience would
not notice the movement at all, but I
was certainly confused.
The Green Table, on the other hand,
deliberately chooses movement qualities
that will reinforce the dramatic content.
Its message is unequivocal and it evokes an
emotional response even when the
audience is not sure why.
The pivotal figure of Death gains its power
from the varied use of two principal
movement qualities, strength and gathering,
in combination with control, directness, and
energy that flows in toward the body.
These qualities pervade all the actions of
Death and define his character as one of
self-centered, consuming appetite and
implacable determination.
When Death first appears, he does a solo
to a pounding martial rhythm, which he
maintains with stamping feet. Keeping his
torso expanded and immobile, he reaches
out horizontally around his body and pulls
in the energy with clenched fists. These-
the strength being driven relentlessly to
earth, and the energy gathered in from
as far as he can reach - are the
leit-motif of Death. In variation they appear
throughout the dance. He will emphasize

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