THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS
Pacific Northwest Ballet Mercer Arts Arena, 363 Mercer St., $15-$100, 292-ARTS 7:30 p.m. Thurs.-Sat.; 2 p.m. Sat. runs Thurs., May 30-Sat., June 8
AT THE HEIGHT of the Great Depression, a wealthy Englishman living in Paris asked two young German refugees from the Nazis to put together a little show to set off the talents of his dancer wife.
It flopped. And no wonder, said the wise heads of the time: A vanity project, thrown together on short notice by a composer and librettist who weren't speaking to each other and staged by a young Russian choreographer with no musical theater experience—what do you expect? So The Seven Deadly Sins of the Petty Bourgeois was forgotten.
But its creators weren't, and a generation after the show's 1933 opening night, the smart money was asking how it could have flopped. Words by Bert Brecht? Music by Kurt Weill? Choreography by George Balanchine? Sung by Lotte Lenya (Weill's wife)? Obviously, here was a score ripe for revival. And they revived it. And it flopped again. And again, whenever anybody's tried to bring it back to life.
That being the case, why is Pacific Northwest Ballet trying once again? One reason is that, stageworthy or not, we've come to realize that The Seven Deadly Sins is one of the landmarks of 20th-century modernism: a work which combines the arts of dance, poetry, music, storytelling, and spectacle in ways never imagined before and rarely attempted since. You don't need to be an opera buff or theater historian to sense what an extraordinary piece it is. Just listen to the definitive 1957 Columbia recording (see cover above) starring Lenya herself: From the first wailing clarinet duet over banjo-strummed strings, the piece casts a spell, a bittersweet 20th-century-blues kind of melancholy like nothing else in the repertory.
But Weill's score alone hasn't saved the piece onstage. Choreographers as distinguished as Maurice B骡rt and Kenneth MacMillan have taken it on, as have avant-garde stage directors like Peter Sellars and Ann Bogart, with unsatisfactory results. Even Balanchine's own re-creation of the work for his New York City Ballet in 1957 didn't stay in repertory long.
Why? Donald Byrd, the man hired by Pacific Northwest Ballet to make it click this time, thinks—hopes—he knows. "The piece is called a ballet chant鼯I>," he says. "But when you come to look at it more closely, you have to ask, 'Where's the ballet?' There's a little story about these two girls who leave home to seek their fortune in the big city and a bunch of songs about what happens to them there, but what role does that leave in the piece for dance?"
Byrd saw both the Sellars and Bogart versions, which reduced dancing to a vestigial element in the acting out of an expressionistic music drama about sexual and economic exploitation. But, "looking for how to enhance the dance values in the piece," Byrd found something different: behind the tart 20th- century harmonies and swoony jazzy licks, a plangent, romantic nostalgia for a cleaner, purer life.
No contemporary art is more expressive of that kind of transcendence than classical ballet, which is to say 19th-century romantic ballet. So despite bows to the work's Jazz Age origins in costumes and setting, Byrd is drawing inspiration for the movement from the strict dance vocabulary that underpins Swan Lake: "Looking for the ballet" in the piece, he found Ballet.
There's a risk in choosing a movement vocabulary so out of key with the surface modernism of the piece. But The Seven Deadly Sins was full of such contradictions from the beginning: between the sentimental story line and the sardonic commentary on it that haunts Brecht's lyrics, between the languid longing of the song segments and the acidic scurry and snarl of the action sequences. Recognizing the fractured, disintegrated nature of the piece may be a first step to rescuing it onstage.
Most productions have tried to smooth off the rough edges of the work and paper over the gaping contrasts in tone. But perhaps in this piece clash and contradiction aren't something to be overcome; they may be what the piece is about. Whether intentionally or not, its creators fashioned a work in which words and music, story and dance, like facets of a jewel, each render separate aspects of a single idea: the impossibility of goodness in an indecent world. Far from being "expressionistic," The Seven Deadly Sins is something stranger: the world's first (and so far only) cubist musical.