The Founding Father of Tanztheater: Kurt Jooss

The Profiteer (left) cowers in the face of Death (right) in Jooss' The Green Table. Photo by Anthony Crickmay, courtesy of the Dance Magazine Archives

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."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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