REMEMBRANCE OF ANNA JOOSS-MARKARD
by Suzanne K Walther, 2011
The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.
Marcus Tullius Cicero
In early January I received one of those forbidding letters in which the spare text is framed in black. Its simple message was – ANNA died on December ….. after a long and painful illness. During this time she experienced some good productive times with her husband and some distressing times … pain and suffering.
We all wish never to get such a letter but we also realize that it is inevitable. Death is a part of the life of everyone we love, and of ourselves. We can read in one of Anna’s last photographs her characteristic strong, uncompromising and brave stand. She faced death with the personal strength and iron will her friends know so well, and with the loving support of her husband Hermann Markard. Her life mission was to rescue, assemble, and preserve in authentic form, the legacy of her father, the choreographer Kurt Jooss – a legacy which occupies an important place in the dance legacy of Europe and indeed of the world. She saw it as her critical task to keep the legacy accurate and alive, and she became a world traveler, working intensively with every company that produced the Jooss Ballets. Her staging of the four extant ballets reconstructed the choreography and supervised the execution with microscopic attention to detail. When she began her efforts after the Second World War, out of the fifty known Jooss ballets only four had survived with sufficient detail to recreate the choreography: Pavane on the Death of an Infanta (1929), The Green Table (1932), Big City (1932), and A Ball in Old Vienna (1932). Though painfully few in number, these four ballets still represent the essentials of Jooss’s many-sided talents and interests.
When the Joffrey Ballet revived that entire Jooss repertoire in 1976, Kurt Jooss was still alive and Anna worked beside him in setting and rehearsing the entire production. At the time she already knew the choreography very completely, but she absorbed additional nuances that helped to define the essence of each movement from Jooss himself, who told everyone that her knowledge of the ballets was by then far more accurate than his own. In the Jooss aesthetic the form of each movement creates the content of the ballets, so mastery of the correct execution of each movement is unusually critical. Luckily these nuances have also been preserved (to the extent possible) in Labanotation, by two excellent notators who worked with Anna: Ann Hutchinson Guest and Gretchen GretcSchumacher. Gretchen’s notation of The Green Table has been published in its entirety in Anna’s book on Jooss.
I met Anna in Wiesbaden on an extended European vacation with my husband and two small children. We included Germany mainly to meet Anna personally. She was expecting us for we called ahead and I remember her greeting us at the top of the stairs with her usual graceful gestures and welcoming smile. Close to the entrance to the apartment stood an impressive nearly life size painting of a man by Hermann, her husband and an artist who worked with Jooss. We sat around her cocktail table and sipped tea from delicate china as I told her about my mission. I was in the beginning of writing a doctoral dissertation on Kurt Jooss. Anna listened with great interest and some fascination. She told us that she was unfamiliar with the U.S. academic world but we assured her that she wouldn’t have to do anything with them. All I needed was her help with my research and permission to use her archives, which she immediately offered.
I had first seen The Green Table a long time ago in Brooklyn with the unforgettable Maximillian Zamosa in the role of Death. This was an unforgettable experience for me. One of the signs of a work of art created by a genius is that the more you see it the more you appreciate it. You are moved by it anew and each time you take away from it new feelings and memories. I realized this when I saw the Joffrey revivals and the idea of writing my dissertation on Jooss began formulating itself.
I explained to Anna that I would like to write a biography of Jooss through his art. Katherine Bowen, the famous American biographer, wrote that an artist’s life can best be captured through his creativity. I was really interested in the Jooss Ballets but I wanted to tie them to his life experiences as much as they were relevant. Anna was delighted with the idea but kept reiterating that she was unfamiliar with academic dissertations. Later on she kindly read through every word and found it quite comprehensible.
First of all I needed her permission to work with the Jooss Archives at the Dance Division of the Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, which she gladly gave. Then I needed additional historical material that she could furnish, and most of all I needed her knowledge of Jooss and the ballets. She was an absolute gold mine of information which she was always ready to share, in interviews as well as countless informal discussions. Her kindness extended to introducing me to Elsa Kahl-Cohen, the wife of Fritz Cohen, the Ballet Jooss’s musical composer and piano player. He created the score for The Green Table. He was Jewish and in 1932 the Nazis began pressuring Jooss to fire him. He refused and escaped with his whole company to England. It was Elsa, who became Fritz’s wife, who created the role of the Partisan Woman in Table. She was a tall imposing woman and when I visited her she stood up from her wheel chair to greet me. A hip replacement that went wrong had put her there. We studied the Jooss legacy together at her dining room table. She prepared for me a most impressive dossier that gave a chronological account of many important events involving the Ballet Jooss.
Not long after that, the largesse of fate brought Ernst Uthoff to Long Island from Chile, with his wife the dancer Lola Botka. Uthoff had created the role of the The Young Soldier in Table and The Libertine in Big City. I visited them, and since Lola was Hungarian we were able to converse in our mother tongue. By this time I was steeped in the history, the stories and personalities of the early Jooss Ballet. Elsa had spoken of the beauty of Anna’s mother, the Estonian dancer Aino Siimola, whom Jooss regarded as his most important artistic collaborator and second self; she had also spoken frequently about Jooss’s friend and early partner, the talented dancer and craftsman Sigurd Leeder. In 1932 it was Leeder who had created the original masks for Table; a generation later when the ballet was restaged it was Hermann Markard who recreated them. It was invaluable to be able to add Ernst Uthoff’s recollections as a second perspective on the events described by Elsa Cohen.
Once again fate was kind to me, since that winter the Essen Opera undertook to stage an all-Jooss program which would include all four of his surviving ballets. Anna arranged for me to watch the rehearsals. I could have received no greater Christmas gift, and no greater luck of timing. My husband and I arrived in Essen in a great cold snowstorm. We found a hotel in which the steam heat almost never reached our room on the top floor, but which was situated within walking distance of the theater. There hadn’t been a heavy snowfall for years in Essen, so both homeowners and shopkeepers were very poorly equipped to clear snow. There were practically no shovels to be had in the town, but the practical German housewives borrowed their children’s play shovels; bending low from the waist, they scraped and pushed enough snow and ice to allow pedestrians to use the sidewalks. The equipment available to the city was grossly inadequate, and for weeks we dealt with deep slush that repeatedly half-melted and half-froze.
Every morning my husband guided me through the snow and ice to the theater, where I arrived glowing with happiness to witness Anna choosing the dancers and teaching them the steps and gestures from the very beginning. I kept a gigantic notebook with me at all times and filled it with hasty scrawls – so much was going on all the time! – and for me at least the years of graduate school turned out to have taught me a useful skill. In reviewing the auditioning dancers Anna knew exactly what she was looking for and who had the quality that she needed. Body type was important, as was the ability to move naturally in the Jooss/Laban technique. But Anna went far beyond that, looking for those inner qualities upon which she could construct the characters of the ballets’ protagonists. She had an uncanny sense for spotting the dancer whose emotional make-up would elicit most accurately the dramatic character of a role. This empathy with each individual character that the dancers achieved was what made each episode in each dance so real and exciting. Years earlier someone had asked Jooss how he taught his dancers to act, and he replied that he never did and was against doing so! The performers create the characters out of their own feelings and understanding, as guided by the choreography they were learning. In Jooss’s works, form and content are always one.
Anna was a strict taskmaster. Only her perfectionism could bring out the necessary nuances of the composition. That was especially important because many of the younger generation considered the ballet to be old fashioned, too literal and unfamiliar. The stress of learning something so different from their previous experiences reduced many of them to tears. — There is a similarity in this to Nijinsky’s choreography of Faune. If it is not performed with absolute concentration on the form and expression of every movement, it loses its power. I have seen the audience holding its breath when Nureyev performed it, and have heard snickering when lesser performers tried to duplicate his movement. It is due to every movement in the Jooss ballets being performed with correct gesture and pose, to the energy and understanding of the musical phrasing, the tight construction, the startling characters and alarming actions that these ballets have survived and still communicate effortlessly in the 21st century. There is no such thing as an old-fashioned piece of art; there is only good art or bad art.
Anna had immense energy and demanded the same from everyone who worked with her. She was the first to arrive in the studio, always wearing the same black outfit of loose black silk trousers and matching top. (She hated and never wore anything made of artificial fibers). I sat front by the mirror and took copious notes. When I looked at a duet and thought that it looked wonderful and could not be better, Anna would purse her lips, praise what had been done well, and then (after the ominous word “but”} she would explain all the little things that had gone wrong, and demonstrate how to correct them. And every smallest fault had to be corrected! After many many repetitions, when Anna was finally satisfied, the changes were so tiny as to be hardly noticeable – and yet the duet had mysteriously come alive; it was moving and exhilarating.
The most frequent corrections were reserved for the important characters and events. In Table the role of Death was danced by Christian Holder as guest artist and he arrived from New York when everything was set and needed little correction. The Profiteer, The Young Girl, and the Partisan Woman all had very difficult movements and had to work hard to perfect them. The members of the crowd scenes seemed to set naturally in every ballet. The Green Table communicates on many levels. It is known as an antiwar ballet with the main message that death is the only winner in a war. The second message is delivered by the masked man around the table. They represent the evil of power misused. They are not all politicians, they stand for the bankers, the unethical philosophers, the spies, the corporate moguls, the merchants who accept bribes, the embody all the evil of the world. They congregate like a great black cloud bearing a storm they form a consortium of evil and bring on a self serving war. They don’t fight, only the youth and population suffers. They are funny, but it is black humor. The third important — somewhat philosophical — meaning is that every person dies the way he lives. Death is a natural consequence and continuum of life, he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.
Pavane on the Death of an Infanta is one of Jooss’s most amazing choreographic achievements. Jooss places the story in Spain among the customs of Spanish Royalty and probes the psychological depth of their brutal neglect and the resulting suffering and death of a little girl. The Infanta who is intended to inherit the throne dies of loneliness. He communicates all this in five and a half minutes. The ballet is a masterpiece of clear message in extreme brevity. The story of the actual death of the Infanta is told through the costumes, the steps and the formations of two rows of dancers. The costumes in Pavane are constructivists, created from wire, silk, paper etc. evoking characters and atmosphere perfectly. They were created by Sigurd Leeder Jooss’s first partner (they traveled as To Male Dancers) and a terrific visual artist. Anna worked most closely on the formations – two lines of dancers – and on the self-absorbed aristocratic manners of the courtiers that it represented.
Big City is a forthright social commentary. It depicts the callousness of the upper classes as they heedlessly ruin the lives of the working class. They think of nothing but their own pleasure. The most important figures in this story are the young lovers, an innocent working-class couple, and the upper-class rich dandy who lures away the innocent girl with money and promises. An entire working-class neighborhood is implied by the ballet where the worried mothers shield their children (ineffectively, of course) from witnessing the incident. The choreography was so evocative that afterwards I clearly remembered a row of bushes as props that dancers hid behind, whereas in fact there was no such thing; the stage was empty of props. It was the action of the mothers that created this strong impression. Anna was pleased with how well the choreography worked in my imagination, and I was relieved that she had caught that inaccuracy in my writing.
Ball in Old Vienna is a collection of waltzes. Jooss and Siimola liked to waltz together and Jooss created this absolute delight of a ballet a froufrou that cheered everyone up. Here Anna’s work became hard because the waltzes were incredibly complicated and difficult. She herself waltzed her way around expertly to demonstrate, sometimes alone, often with a partner teaching the rhythms and steps. Anna had danced when young, then went into the teaching profession. Her later career setting and teaching the Jooss Ballets was a natural continuation.
After many months of work, rehearsals, then costume adjustments, Hermann Markard arrived to do the lighting, a very important element of each ballet, especially The Green Table. Finally came the opening night of the performance. I have seen a great many opening nights of Jooss ballets, of course, but unfortunately only twice have I seen all four ballets performed on the same program. Almost always it is The Green Table alone that is performed; still, that one ballet is sufficient to assure Jooss’s reputation of greatness. And for this we can thank Anna; the Jooss legacy would surely have been lost without her. She was nervous but happy at each premiere, a monumental work once again successfully accomplished. I finished my doctoral Dissertation and later published it as a book, so in a small way I have also contributed to the preservation of the Jooss legacy.
On many occasions Anna came to New York to set Jooss ballets. In the early years she would usually stay in our home. While I was working on my dissertation, after dinner the two of us would remain at the dinner table and work on my manuscript for hours. Anna carefully read every word pertaining to the ballets to make sure that everything I wrote was correct. She even read the academic framework out of curiosity. She told me stories and anecdotes during these sessions, which contributed invaluably to my understanding of Jooss and his company. In later years Anna more often stayed in hotels, but she always visited us at least once for dinner and for a lengthy conversation.
Anna, like her father, lives forever in the memories of those of us who knew her. The two of them also live on in the spirit of these ballets, these great works of art created by Jooss and preserved with unprecedented authenticity by Anna. She has achieved greatness by ensuring that they will survive for future generations and remain an active part of dance history.