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New York City Ballet

'The Seven Deadly Sins', 'Vienna Waltzes'

by Lauren Butler

May 11, 2011 -- David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY

For its Spring Gala performance on May 11, 2011, the New York City Ballet presented the world premiere of a new version of the Brecht/Weill ballet chante “The Seven Deadly Sins,” choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, on a program together with George Balanchine’s venerable “Vienna Waltzes.”

First the good news: Wendy Whelan and “Vienna Waltzes” both look as good as ever.

“The Seven Deadly Sins,” however, is a different matter. Perhaps the poor sound quality had something to do with it (from where I was seated, it was extremely difficult to decipher the lyrics being sung by Guest Artist Patti Lupone), or perhaps it was the sense that the company just wanted to get it over with (there were no welcoming introductions or cinematic rehearsal highlights or historical contextual analysis or congratulatory remarks; the lights dimmed and the ballet began; that was it). Regardless, this viewer found little to like in this production, the best parts of which were the prologue and the epilogue, and that it didn’t last too long.

“The Seven Deadly Sins” is the final collaboration between Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, composed after the Nazis had seized power and after both Weill and Brecht had fled Germany. Its initial performance, choreographed, produced and directed by George Balanchine, was in Paris in 1933. The NYCB revived it in 1958.

Brecht was a Marxist, and the libretto for “The Seven Deadly Sins” reflects his anti-capitalist passion. The intention to convey a particular point of view in an artistic creation is nothing extraordinary – it’s probably been the impetus for most works of art as long as there have been works of art . So having an anti-capitalist theme as the sole raison d’etre of a ballet shouldn’t be problematic, and should not necessarily be difficult to appreciate on a dance level as long is it’s interesting to watch. It’s been done. For example, no matter what one thinks of the one-note ideology behind two of Kurt Jooss’s ballets that were created around the same time, “The Green Table” and “The Big City,” both are well-crafted and dynamic dance theater pieces, which, though somewhat dated when the Joffrey Ballet remounted them in the 1970s, are still interesting and exciting to watch. “The Seven Deadly Sins,” whose cabaret-like style appears similarly dated, is neither.

“The Seven Deadly Sins” tells the story of one young girl’s efforts to survive in a capitalist society. The capitalist society is the United States, which at the time of its writing neither Weill nor Brecht had ever visited. [Weill would later emigrate to the United States, and eventually died in New York; Brecht also spent a period of time in the United States, but returned to Europe shortly after testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, and settled in East Berlin.] The reasons for setting the production in various locations in the U.S. is unclear – perhaps doing so was safer than directly attacking European society in general or German decadence in particular, or perhaps they considered the U.S. to be a Germanic-like society, or perhaps it was simply an effort to add a touch of foreign exoticism to the piece. In any event, the protagonist, Anna (a surrogate for ‘everyperson’ in a capitalist society), is split into two characters, called Anna I and Anna II. Anna I is that part of Anna that recognizes that she needs money to survive and to help the Family, and will do what it takes in a capitalist society to accomplish that; Anna II represents that side of the same person that is idealistic, innocent, and moral – in other words, she’s the sympathetic character, the ‘nice’ girl who succumbs to the need to do whatever it takes to make money and satisfy the needs of the money-hungry side of her personality. One sings, the other dances. Also central to the ballet are singing characters collectively known as “The Family,” a sort of Greek chorus cum barbershop quartet comprised of Mother (in drag), Father, Older Brother and Younger Brother, who represent both Anna’s family and the capitalist society that Anna’s efforts reflect and support.

The story has the Annas, accompanied by The Family (in a metaphysical rather than corporeal sense) traveling from their home somewhere in Louisiana, through seven different U.S. cities, and then back home to Louisiana. The specific locations have little to do with anything – the cities are simply where the action takes place, and which, in some of the scenes, can be seen as the inspiration for the stage set (e.g., in the scene located in San Francisco, a San Francisco ‘hill’ is pictured in the background). If these specific locations have any significance at all, I suspect it’s to emphasize that the heartless, amoral capitalist society portrayed in the ballet is systemic.

At each of the scenic ‘locations,’ the Annas' effort to make money is portrayed in relatively brief sketches indicative of one of the seven deadly sins: sloth, pride, anger, gluttony, lust, greed, and envy. The ballet’s conceit is that the seven deadly sins are not necessarily bad – rather, what is ‘bad’ or a ‘sin’ is that in order to earn the money that Anna I covets, Anna II is obligated to sacrifice her right to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of any of the seven deadly sins. For example, in the first scene, Anna II is anything but lazy – she’s seen as working her tail off cleaning the floors, Cinderella-like, while others ignore her or consider her pathetic for working so hard. And Anna I collects Anna II’s earnings. In the second scene, Anna II overcomes her pride and self-respect in order to work as a stripper/courtesan in a ‘gentleman’s club’/cabaret – the message being that Anna II has to degrade herself in order to make money, and would have been better off maintaining her pride. And Anna I again collects Anna II’s earnings. And so it goes.

The capitalist society, and Anna II’s efforts to succeed in it, eventually doom her to losing her idealism, innocence and sense of morality. So when Anna I and Anna II eventually return to The Family and their Louisiana home, Anna I is triumphant. Anna II is defeated, and disappears. And Anna (the complete person) is condemned to living life as an amoral, money-grubbing capitalist, neither cognizant of nor concerned about what she’s lost.

Although the piece seems to be an ironic or sarcastic attack on capitalism, it displays neither irony nor sarcasm. Rather, “The Seven Deadly Sins” mocks both the capitalist society itself and the efforts of citizens of that society to survive in it – and successfully communicating mockery seems a tougher theatrical road to hoe.

Although the NYCB program describes this production as being ‘completely reimagined,’ Ms. Taylor-Corbett’s choreography appears to have been bound by the piece’s cabaret style (which she captures) as well as its thematic emphasis. However, using the Berlin cabaret/European theater style (which I’m not suggesting was inappropriate) makes the piece look ‘small,’ and the DHK Theater stage seemed to dominate the field of view and overwhelm the action. Perhaps the production would look more appropriate in a smaller setting (e.g., Studio 54 or the Vivian Beaumont Theater).

But if the production was indeed remade from scratch, some of the choices (both choreographic and stylistic) appear unfortunate. For example, the ‘anger’ scene displays what is supposed to be ‘Latin’ dancing. But the Latin style doesn’t seem to fit Weill’s music, and, worse, is so superficial it makes similar Latin dancing displayed in Dancing with the Stars look polished and authentic. [Perhaps the forced and garish appearance of the dancing in this and other sections of the piece was intentionally choreographed this way to add a sense of artificiality to each of the scenes. If that is the case, the concept succeeded too well.] And the ‘gluttony’ scene should have been reimagined differently. In this scene, Anna II has contracted to be a dancer, and also has agreed as a condition of the contract not to gain any weight. So, although she’s starving, the capitalist society that imposed this contractual condition, and which she feels bound as a good member of society to honor, prevents her from partaking in the lavish (and garish) buffet that’s paraded in front of her. She’d rather starve than violate her contract. It’s supposed to be funny, but it’s not. Worse, regardless of any ideological merit it may have, the point is overshadowed by its having been made in the context of an already thin dancer refusing for whatever reason to eat. In a society in which dancers’ eating disorders are a significant concern, surely a better vehicle to make this point could have been imagined, even if it required some tinkering with the libretto..

The piece was not helped by having many of the scenes bathed in a particular light. The color choices were appropriate for what was being displayed, but instead of illuminating the particular scene, the lighting often overwhelmed it. For example, having the debauchery of the ‘gentleman’s club'/cabaret scene (pride) drenched in red light, with red being the primary color of the costumes worn by the club’s entertainers, was borderline tolerable. Having the ‘envy’ scene smothered in green light, with green the predominant costume color, was akin to being beaten over the head with an anvil.

The best scenes, at least to this viewer, were the Prologue, showing the Annas leaving their home and The Family, which was lovely to watch (blue sky, full moon, house and The Family upstage, the Annas downstage with their luggage), and the Epilogue, which was both funereal and mockingly celebratory, with the prodigal Anna II disappearing from view as if pulled away by some heartless capitalist force. And the “lust” scene, which describes Anna II having to sacrifice her relationship with the man she really loves (‘Fernando,’ danced by Craig Hall) in order to remain with the man she married for money (‘Eduardo'), was choreographed (as well as danced) with straightforward passion and despair.

The production’s focal point is Anna II, and as Anna II, Wendy Whelan was super, as she seemingly always is. Of course she danced what the choreography required, including having her body manipulated and posed in a manner appropriate and necessary to portray the travails of an entertainer/courtesan. But more than that, she convincingly conveyed the innocence and pathos that the piece requires. Patti Lupone’s Anna I suffered from the poor audio quality described, but in other respects was sung and performed with sufficient amoral relish. The piece was conducted with flair by Guest Conductor Paul Gemignani.

“The Seven Deadly Sins” was reportedly composed in a week. It was commissioned by one Edward James, a wealthy Englishman who operated the ballet company with which Balanchine was affiliated at the time, and was intended to be an ‘offering’ of sorts for his estranged wife, Tilly Losch. [Ms. Losch in fact initiated the role of Anna II in its initial European production. Anna I was sung by Lotte Lenya, Mr. Weill’s wife, who also performed it at the NYCB production, for which Allegra Kent famously danced Anna II.] By naming the character of the man Anna II married for money ‘Eduardo,’ the creative team was (perhaps jokingly) accused of biting the hand that feeds it. Ironically, NYCB can be accused of the same thing. The audience at this performance consisted largely of people of means who have achieved a measure of financial success in this capitalist society, and who paid handsomely both for their tickets and the opportunity to dine with each other and, presumably, company members in a closed-off area on the theater’s balcony and mezzanine both during the intermission and following the performance.

Perhaps as an absolution offering to the hands that feed it, NYCB paired “The Seven Deadly Sins” with Balanchine’s “Vienna Waltzes.”

“Vienna Waltzes” is comprised of five waltzes lavishly choreographed to familiar compositions by Johann Strauss II, Franz Lehar, and Richard Strauss, and the piece comes across as a sumptuous visual feast of a ballet that appears to have been created from a little schmaltz, a little schnapps, and a little sacher torte with whipped cream and Viennese coffee. The piece is not simply a collection of simple waltzes; it is a complex, inventive, and stunningly romantic work of art that never allows itself to get too sweet or syrupy. Megan Fairchild was delightfully vibrant and effervescent in the fast-paced “Fruhlingsstimmen” section, Jenifer Ringer and Ask La Cour led a classy and sophisticated “God Und Silber Waltzer,” and in “Erste Walzerfolge” from “Der Rosenkavalier,” Maria Kowroski almost made me forget Suzanne Farrell. But highlighting these dancers is not intended to diminish others – the entire cast, led by Rachel Rutherford and Jared Angle, Ms. Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz, Ana Sophia Scheller and Adam Hendrickson, Ms. Ringer and Mr. la Cour, and Ms. Kowroski and Charles Askegard, as well as the corps dancers who filled the stage with elegance, was superb. Clotilde Otranto’s conducting was dynamic and fiery, and in no small way added to the richness of the performance.

“Vienna Waltzes” is not only homage to the waltz; it is a sumptuous celebration of Vienna’s Hapsburg golden age of wealth, as well as a paean to the gilded societies that can afford to nurture the creation of such breathtaking beauty. In other words, although “Vienna Waltzes” is a glorious piece for anyone of any background to watch and get lost in, it might have seemed particularly rewarding for those of means for whom elegance and opulence may not be either alien or unusual, even in this economy. And so it seemed to be to the Gala audience which saluted the dancers at the performances’ conclusion with enthusiasm and apparent relief. And on my way out the door, I overheard one of the glitterati state to several of her friends: “Well, I’m glad they put them in that order.” So was I.

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