The Legacy of the German Expressionist Choreographer Kurt Jooss

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Kurt Jooss is a major player in the history of dance. With his dance style he aids the further evolution of dance composition, how one perceives dance, and what people call dance. The German choreographer thrived in the age of Expressionism, a new art form that was certainly avant-garde at the time. He led, with the help of other dancers like his student Pina Bausch, the spread of this new idea into the dance realm by creating original works that are still well known today, like his The Green Table. They pioneered a new form of dance, Tanztheater, which was innovative and paved the way to a broader spectrum of how to analyze and define dance. Jooss' legacy is vital to dance history because he brought to light another new and inspiring style, further expanding what dance truly is.

The Expressionist movement originated in Germany in the early twentieth century as a part of the more expansive modernist movement. Expressionism's focus was inner emotion, and its subcategory of dance harnessed the "...technique of distilling a state of feeling" (Kisselgoff). This is the age in which Jooss began to become a prominent dance figure; his choreography broke away from the normal ballet constructions at the time, like telling a story or showcasing art for art's sake. His Expressionist influence guided him towards the creation of works that "present the moral and psychological dilemmas of modern man in allegorical guises" (Siegel 17). In other words, his ability to fabricate art that "embod[ies] the reality below the surface," or true inner-human emotion, through indirect and artistic means, is truly innovative (Kisselgoff).

Jooss was interested in every aspect of the stage that could be utilized to enhance a performance of his; total theatrical production became a staple of his work. According to Ana Sánchez-Colberg, his "choreographic vision is a synthesis: of diverse dance forms, of diverse dancers, of diverse theatrical elements" (16). This created juxtaposition that beckoned Jooss' audiences to reflect on themselves and the movement they experienced. This new focus of dance, with Jooss as the pioneer, became known as Tanztheater, which literally translates from German to dance theatre. This "form that blends dance and everyday movement with theatre, speech, music, and clever use of props and sets" is the commencement of a new lens through which to consider and spectate dance; it does not tell stories as classical narrative ballets do, but "tells of experience, reminds us of sensations or feelings and chimes with our own memories" (Winship). Jooss took dance, mixed it with theatre, and created a new outlet of artistic expression.

Jooss, in a way, strengthened Expressionism in the dance realm by creating a name for it (Tanztheater) through his work and the work of his students, but eventually, his new developments in the art pushed the era into the past to make room for a new one that he pioneered. He began in the Expressionist era, but concluded it in the dance realm with his special choreography. He began to abandon "the cult forms of the early 20's, establishing his dancers onstage as people wearing everyday clothing," for example (Kisselgoff). He was disinterested in portraying superhuman characters that appeared to float and flit around the stage, and appreciated the use of weightiness in movement. Realism became the key factor in his characters' self-portrayals; therefore he made his principal dancers appear exaggerated "beyond psychological realism, but... destabilized by [their] humanness" (Elswit 82). For example, in the opening scene of The Green Table, the diplomats, or the Gentlemen in Black, discuss political affairs while performing dramatic jumps and hand gestures, utilizing the infamous table as a centerpiece and support prop. These fantastical movements seem unrealistic, yet their humanly figures and the political context in which the piece takes place creates a sense of normalcy. Jooss began to favor complete theatricality by combining elements of fantasy and reality.

Tanztheater was a result of a great mind's frustration with old dance forms. Kurt Jooss yearned for a new way to present to audiences new and beautiful ways to move. He channeled this desire of artistic rediscovery and combined two distinct avenues to merge "positive aspects of ballet technique with those of the new dance [to combine] free personal expression and formal compliance" (Sánchez-Colberg 4). Jooss also believed that dance must evolve with the times; all political and social movements that traditional dances portray are now a part of history, as the dances themselves should be. He stated, as quoted by Sánchez- Colberg in Markard, that in order to make dance and theatre effective political/social critics, "the dance world of today must... [satisfy] the need of the theatre on one hand, but... working unceasingly on the overall idea of dance theatre" (4). Jooss' choreography is never meaningless nor superficial; its significance is always profound. In The Green Table, Jooss comments on the pointlessness, hopelessness, and terror of war through scenes depicting conflict, death, and sorrow. A message can be delivered through various methods and media; Jooss strived to advance dance and theatre together to continue its potentially didactic achievement.

Jooss' Tanztheater was nothing before seen in dance history, which thus makes it an avant-garde release for profound human expression. In addition to it adding theatre elements to dance performance, each movement presented in his works must have serious meaning. According to Jooss, who, in an interview with John Gruen as quoted by Sánchez-Colberg, said, "there is no movement... without a psychological background, and no psychological tension without resulting movement" (1976). The Green Table exemplifies this throughout its entirety; there is a reason for every movement made by each diplomat in the first scene, and the resulting war causes the character of Death to haunt every scene thereafter. His choreography focuses on human condition as a result of human affairs; his dancers' body movement henceforth conveys to audiences truly deep meanings about intense topics (like the misery of war.)

The way in which Jooss dealt with his pieces' roles and scene orders were also innovative in that he allowed them to come together themselves. That is, the performers and audience develop them both from their own unique perspectives. Jooss strived to give his dancers opportunity to express themselves as individuals: "In my production the roles are only partly written... I indicate to the artists what I wish [them] to convey to [their] audience and allow [them] to improvise and give from his own emotions" (Jooss, as qtd. by Sánchez- Colberg, 1933). In addition, the choreographer also ordered the scenes of his works as a series or a montage, disregarding realistic time lines. Jooss did not simply combine dance and theatre, he created a completely new method, process, and form of approaching them.

It is clear that Kurt Jooss has become an important individual to dance history due to his fresh take on artistic expression. His legacy is best seen through his most famous work, The Green Table; this emotional critique on the effects of warfare truly defines a piece of Tanztheater. Personified death and its reminder that it is inevitable (the archaic idea of mememtomori) are prominent in this unique ballet; its impact on the human race brings Jooss' goal of analyzing and revealing heartfelt emotion of the human race. His topic choice was very problematic at the time in which he choreographed The Green Table; it was "during a time when dance was undergoing dramatic upheavals," especially in Germany during the Nazi regime (Elswit 75). Some Nazi opinions were that the piece was propaganda against the Geneva Convention (which, for Nazis, was a good thing), while others believed it was detrimental towards their fighting spirit.Rising tensions in Europe drove him to critique the happenings in his own special way, which was not even the reason why he was forced to flee his homeland. The Nazis forced him to dismiss the Jewish dancers in his company, and he refused.

This ballet was not lighthearted and cheery as seen in past renown classical ballets, and did not deal with seemingly superficial topics. In an interview with Robert Joffrey, Jooss stated that it played with "the dance of death altogether... [and] an accumulation of inside that a new war was going to be prepared" (uploaded 2012). Death certainly was not a common topic of dance expression at the time, which led to it leaving its mark on history. The "essential human truth" depicted engaged "the topos of death where the... mortality.... directly impacted [the dance's] display" (Elswit 79). This complexity of the topic intertwining with the dance itself truly defines Jooss' Tanztheater, making the genre infamous.

Proof that the German choreographer's legacy is eminent in dance history is clearly visible through choreographers that have come and created after him. His student, Pina Bausch, for example, succeeded him and continued the magic of Tanztheaterthrough her Wuppertal Tanztheater in the 1970s. Audiences "were perplexed by the amalgamation of diverse elements, not all coming from dance, which gave the production its distinct characteristic" (Sánchez-Colberg 1). Although Jooss and Bausch are closely related to Tanztheater, other choreographers throughout the century were definitely influenced by the movement during the modern dance and contemporary ballet periods more broadly. According to Sánchez-Colberg, "Jooss was first to bring to dance a focus on the body/the dancer" (5). Person, space, and movement all came together in Jooss' works, as did many of the acclaimed modern dancers that came after him.

Kurt Jooss broke away from the norms of dance by straying from story ballets and works with no meaning. Beginning in the era of Expressionism, Jooss created Tanztheater, a genre of dance that combined theatrical and dance elements that would inspire and influence future pioneers of modern and contemporary dance forms. Like all noteworthy choreographers, Jooss achieved in broadening the forever evolving definition of dance by creating a whole new perspective. One can see Jooss' dance theatre legacy lives on today through companies like Lucky Plush, who also consider themselves dance theatre performers. Sánchez-Colberg states that:

Jooss sought wisdom about our human condition - for himself as an artist, for his ensemble, for the audience, for the dance world; though the means and methods of dance; attempting to draw us closer to the fundamental questions about ourselves in the world, questions that remain open-ended to this day (11).

Jooss' pieces, especially like The Green Table, get the audience thinking about the underlying message that the choreographer is attempting to convey. His critiques on the human condition are didactic indeed; he does not want spectators to just be entertained, he wants them to be influenced. He hopes that one is so moved by his work that they will do something to change the hardships his dancers depict.

Works Cited

  • Elswit, Kate. "Berlin... Your Dance Partner Is Death." TDR: The Drama Review. 53.1 (2009): 73-92.Web. 17 Mar. 2014.
  • <>.
  • Jooss, Kurt. Interview by Robert Joffrey. The Green Table - Interview between Robert Joffrey and Kurt Jooss. YouTube. 01 Oct 2012. Web. 17 Mar 2014.
  • Kisselgoff, Anna. "DANCE VIEW; HOW MUCH DOES DANCE OWE TO JOOSS?." New York Times 11 July 1982, Dance View n. pag. Web. 17 Mar. 2014.
  • <>.
  • Sánchez-Colberg, Ana. "Living Philosophies: The tanztheater legacy of Kurt Jooss and Pina Bausch." Web.
  • <>.
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The Legacy of the German Expressionist Choreographer Kurt Jooss. (2022, Dec 12). Retrieved July 22, 2024 , from

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