This article about US Marine and Iraq war veteran and ballet dancer Roman Baca, who has choreographed ballets based on themes connected with the war, its veterans, and their families, reminds me of the fact that although there have been a number of ballets attempting to depict war and the military, they just don’t seem to work very well.
That’s hardly surprising. “War ballet” would seem to be the ultimate oxymoron. On the other hand, there have been extremely successful poems, novels, and paintings about war, so why not dances?
The answer is that dance just doesn’t seem to be the right medium. It’s too light, too pretty, too abstract, too something—or maybe not something enough. But every now and then someone gives it a try, quite a few of which I’ve had the dubious pleasure of seeing.
Perhaps the most successful war ballet is Kurt Jooss’ “The Green Table,” an expressionist German work choreographed in 1932 between the two World Wars. Saying it’s the most successful war ballet doesn’t mean it entirely succeeds; perhaps I should say it’s the least unsuccessful. Like the other war ballets I’ve seen, it’s heavy-handed and static and portentous and yet still offers only a caricature of war. Here’s a video of the first few minutes; it starts with the diplomats’ negotiations (the entire thing is on YouTube in five parts, if you’re interested):
As heavyhanded as that is, the following is worse: the Chinese Communists’ bizarre “Red Detachment of Women.” I’ll let it speak for itself:
Far more successful—because it’s really not a “war ballet,” it’s more about the atmosphere and era in the USA around the Second World War—is “Company B” by Paul Taylor, set to music by the Andrews Sisters and featuring some of the swingiest costumes ever:
Unfortunately, the available “Company B” video is so short it fails to give the full flavor of the work, and emphasizes its lighter aspects. And there’s no doubt it has a lot of joy and flair, as well as nostalgia. But as in Paul Taylor’s best work, there’s darkness there too, although here it’s kept in the background (literally) by having the “war” part of the dance conveyed at the back of the stage as a sort of counterpoint to the bittersweet gaiety up front.