Glow – Stop, Sinatra Suite, Known by Heart, and The Green Table

The American Ballet Theatre at the New York City Center on Thursday, October 19.

I love going to the ballet, but I attend as much for the music as the dancing. When I choose my tickets for the season, I consider the composers as well as the choreographers, and my enjoyment of the performances depends a great deal on how well I think the movements interpret the music. I’m not sure that’s the best way to evaluate dance—it’s actually quite limited—but for one who majored in music in college, it’s probably unavoidable.

My focus on the relationship between movement and music led to enormous frustration with choreographer Jorma Elo’s new work, Glow – Stop, for the American Ballet Theatre. Elo has an extremely distinctive style: a sort of hyper-kineticism that turns the dancers into perpetual motion machines. The steps are intricate and physically demanding, and Elo seems to employ them indiscriminately, regardless of the style or contour of the music he is using.

Glow – Stop pairs (incongruously, in my opinion) the final movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 28 and the second movement of Philip Glass’ Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, and Elo uses the same hyperactive steps for both. The Mozart, at least, is a lively presto, though I could never shake the feeling that Elo’s modernist style doesn’t mesh well with Mozart’s refined classicism.

Glass is a contemporary of Elo, more or less, but the Tirol movement doesn’t fit Elo’s aesthetic any more than the Mozart does. It has a pulsing undercurrent, yes, but that’s an undercurrent. Far more important, from a musical standpoint, are the slowly shifting harmonies, marked by a gorgeously simple, long-lined melody, but Elo’s fussy, agitated choreography doesn’t reflect that tranquility at all. Watching Elo’s visual manifestation of the concerto is like looking at Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte and seeing only dots.

Donald Knaack’s irrepressible Junk Music, the accompaniment for Twyla Tharp’s “Junk” pas de deux, might have worked well for Elo. Ironically, after the frenzied Glow – Stop, Tharp’s jaunty steps felt lethargic by contrast, but at least the duet has some spark (most of it owed to ballerina Irina Dvorovenko’s flirty, charismatic performance). Twarp’s Sinatra Suite is empty nostalgia, cutesy but forgettable.

The Green Table, by contrast, feels bitingly contemporary despite the fact that Kurt Jooss conceived and choreographed the work decades ago in the aftermath of the first world war. I confess F.A. Cohen’s music for a pair of pianists doesn’t do much for me on its own, but Jooss’ emotional yet strikingly formal choreography brings the score to life.

The short, eight-scene ballet opens and closes with a crush of diplomats safely ensconced around the titular green table but recklessly launching their people into a war. Green usually symbolizes life, but here it represents the opposite as a medieval specter of Death appears bathed in gangrenous green light.

David Hallberg gives Death a regal air. His features, exaggerated with ghoulish makeup, never betray emotion as he peels away the fatalities of war and bids them join his somber procession of the fallen. Jooss takes a broad view here, depicting not only soldiers dying in battle but also the starvation of refugees, the execution of militant civilians, and even the death of a young woman who has been sold at a brothel to a succession of passing soldiers. Jooss doesn’t distinguish between factions. Each death is a tragedy, and those who profit off that tragedy—either politically or financially—are the villains.

The battle scene feels a bit perfunctory: some heroic leaps and the inevitable entrance of Death to collect those who don’t rise from the stage floor. Jooss seems to reserve his best and certainly his most passionate choreography for the women of the ballet. The woman who ambushes an off-duty soldier and dies before a firing squad has a brief but ferociously expressive dance, arms outflung, back arched as she spins about the stage. The scene at the brothel might be the most traditional—classical ballet loves a fallen woman—but Jooss renders it beautifully. The final image, with Death crouched like an animal over the girl’s prone body, is indelible in my mind’s eye.

Apparently Jooss imagined The Green Table as a modern-day Totentanz, the medieval dance of death. Echoes of that old form resonate throughout the twentieth-century work, particularly in the figure of Death and his parade of souls. The Totentanz gives Jooss’ work an air of timelessness so that The Green Table is neither a relic of post-war Europe nor a strident, over-literal contemporary statement destined to be a relic of our era. Instead, the decades-old dance is likely to retain its meaning and power for decades to come.