I always connect best with dance when the dance itself connects with theater. So I had a great time Wednesday night as the New York City Ballet opened its spring season with a new version of Brecht and Weill's "Seven Deadly Sins" and a revival of one of George Balanchine's most pleasurable creations, "Vienna Waltzes."
The opening night was a gala, attended by such notables as Sarah Jessica Parker (who is on the City Ballet board), Sandra Bullock, Brooke Shields and the venerable designer Betsey Johnson. I was flattered that Parker's husband, Matthew Broderick, recognized me from an episode of Theater Talk in which I give a tour of the Players Club. I was even more flattered when she said, "I know exactly who you are" and remembered when, on a dreary assignment from the Daily News, I had to interview a performer and a sibling. She was already famous when her brother opened on Broadway in 1996 in "Rent" but she graciously consented to the interview, and the three of us had a jolly breakfast at the Polish Tea Room.
Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's "Seven Deadly Sins" was their last collaboration before Weill heard himself denounced publicly by the new Nazi government in 1933 and fled Berlin as quickly as he could. Like their opera, "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny," this traversal of the venal sins is set in a crude, cartoon version of America that Brecht imagined before he too took refuge here.
A family living in a hovel in New Orleans sends their daughter Anna out on the road to make money to buy a mansion. The helpless innocent who undergoes many travails in enriching her indifferent family, is played by two women, a singer and a dancer.
When Balanchine originally staged it in Paris in 1933 they were Weill's wife, the immortal Lotte Lenya, and the fabled actress/dancer Tilly Losch. He restaged it for the NYCB decades later but his choreography has been lost. It was restaged -- splendidly -- by Lynn Taylor-Corbett. The two women last night were Patti LuPone and Wendy Whelan, and the piece will be repeated through the end of the week.
You only have to hear about four notes to recognize Weill's Germanic style. (I am among the handful who think his compositions became more varied and interesting when he came here but we'll go into that some other time.) Like Brecht's verse (here translated by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallmann), the music is acerbic, sharp-edged but hauntingly tuneful. It is sung with full appreciation of its musical sinuousness and drama by Patti LuPone.
Taylor-Corbett's choreography manages the difficult task of balancing the sense of abrasive comedy abundant in the music with a lyricism that reflects its melodic melancholy. Wendy Whelan conveys both with consummate grace. In the wonderfully sensuous pas de deux Taylor-Corbett has created to illustrate Lust Whelan is partnered magnificently by Craig Hall.
The score was presented in its full power by guest conductor Paul Gemigniani. A superb vocal quartet sang the hymn-like pieces of Anna's family. It was a marvelous piece of theater.
It is easy to forget that Balanchine, who did so much to create the vocabulary of modern dance, spent much of his life in good-old show business. A large part of his income during the '30s came from creating dances (he was not yet called a choreographer) for the giddy musicals of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.
He returned to that world late in his career, during the '70s, when the audience for dance in America was exploding and the repertory of the City Ballet was more rarefied than a lot of "the new people" were ready for. What attracted them was the spectacular dancing of the defectors -- Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Makarova -- who were dancing with American Ballet Theater. Mr. B eschewed the idea of "stars." His company was the star.
In acknowledging a growing audience who were not yet ready for his more austere work, Mr. B created what I think of as his three Show Biz Ballets, "Stars and Stripes," "Union Jack" and "Vienna Waltzes." By comparison to most of his ballets, which were performed on a virtually bare stage with minimal costumes, these had an almost Radio City glitziness in their sets and costumes.
The most refined of the three was his tribute to the waltz, which followed the popular dance from its simple origins -- evident in Johann Strauss's "Tales from the Vienna Woods" -- to its decadent, sensuous climax in the waltzes from Richard Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier."
Balanchine showed the progression in choreography that becomes increasingly complex but is always elegant and irresistible. A high point is a rollicking peasant-ish pas de deux dazzlingly danced by Megan Fairchild and Joaquin de Luz.
The final stage pictures filled with sumptuous white Karinska gowns whirling around with an almost MGM grandeur is quite thrilling. The corps recreated Balanchine's vision impeccably.