"This is really a room full of women in charge, which is bizarre in ballet," says Wendy Whelan. "We have a woman pianist, a ballet mistress, two women lead characters and a woman choreographer- director. It's wild!"
The occasion for that estrogen party is New York City Ballet's allnew production of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's The Seven Deadly Sins. Directed and choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, it stars Whelan alongside Tony-winning Broadway veteran Patti LuPone. They appear as dancing and singing incarnations, respectively, of Anna, a woman sent out into a bruising world by her moralizing Louisiana family to earn the money to turn their humble shack into a McMansion.
"This piece has haunted me for a long time, for reasons unknown," says Taylor-Corbett, who previously staged Mercury for NYCB in 1992 and Chiaroscuro in 1994 for Whelan's frequent dance partner Jock Soto. "I never really understood it, but I had this incredible affinity for it, knowing vaguely that it was about a split personality."
The ballet premiered in 1933 at the Th_ê¢tre des Champs-ê_lys_es in Paris, produced, directed and choreographed by George Balanchine. At that time, the decadent atmosphere depicted onstage was a direct reflection of Hitlerian Berlin, which had been Brecht and Weill's inspiration. Their chosen setting, however, was a capitalist America they imagined but had not yet seen first-hand.
Balanchine revived the piece for its NYCB debut in 1958, casting Allegra Kent opposite Lotte Lenya, who originated the role in the 1933 production co-starring alongside Tilly Losch. For mid-century American audiences, the ballet's brooding despair struck a chord with atomic-age anxiety, giving the work a fresh satirical edge.
Taylor-Corbett anticipates that in 2011, the ballet will yet again take on new significance, echoing a bitterly divided political and social spectrum in which the haves are separated by an ever-expanding gulf from the have-nots.
"It's like Mother Courage," she suggests. "The work so speaks for itself that I bet you could put it in any context and it would resonate for somebody. Right now in terms of polarity, it's deeply resonant to me."
Taylor-Corbett says the separation into two selves of the central character: the vulnerable dancing idealist and the more coolheaded singing pragmatist: means it requires as much psychological as physical preparation. This has involved long hours of verbal rehearsal time, contemplating where Anna starts out, where she ends up, and her bumpy zigzag journey across the U.S. map in between.
"I'm still trying to figure Anna out," says Whelan. "But I think the piece is going to mirror the division of society, the rich and the poor, the very powerful with money and the less powerful who have it taken away. That's a strong mirror for today, politically."
LuPone agrees: "You know, gluttony, greed, envy, lust: I think it's as applicable today as it was when they wrote this as a response to Nazism."
The Broadway star is no stranger to the iconoclastic writer-composer team's work. She starred in a 2007 Los Angeles Opera production of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and in 2009 she sang a Brecht-Weill program with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia that included The Seven Deadly Sins.
"Having done it in concert, it sorely missed the ballet, but I felt this would be The Seven Deadly Sins the way it was originally intended," says LuPone. "Lynne is a wonderful director. She's an actor's director as well as a choreographer. So we are investigating the psychological and emotional qualities of this woman together."
Taylor-Corbett says LuPone stands out in contemporary culture as one of the few performers with the necessary gravitas to take on this material, prompting her to approach the Broadway star personally to participate. However, the production was born out of a desire to choreograph something specifically for Whelan.
"I've always admired her and I told Peter Martins I thought it would be exciting to do something more theatrical for her," recalls Taylor-Corbett. "I mean she's theatrical just standing there, but there aren't that many contemporary roles for women. When I suggested The Seven Deadly Sins, Peter lit up. It was something that dovetailed with his interests."
The ballet appeared poised to return to the NYCB repertoire once before in 1976, when Balanchine made successful overtures to Bette Midler to appear as the singer. But that production never made it to the stage, and The Seven Deadly Sins became one of the "lost" works from the company's pre-video history.
Taylor-Corbett and Whelan both acknowledge that many people share a sentimental investment in seeing Balanchine's production brought back. But given the impracticalities of such an endeavor, their intention is to build something entirely new around the piece. And while the director spoke with Kent, who was 22 when she danced the role of Anna, she recalled very few specifics of the earlier staging.
"You've got to have somebody with a really strong focus to create it and that's why we're so lucky to have Lynne," says Whelan. "You can't put it back from memory only. This kind of piece is too complicated. It really has to be analyzed theatrically from a director's perspective."
For Whelan, the production represents a unique opportunity, requiring her to channel almost as much expressiveness into her acting as her dancing. As such, the production's timing seems serendipitous, coinciding with Whelan's 20th anniversary this spring as a NYCB principal. She calls it "a tremendous honor and a gift" to work with this creative team.
"Patti has been so generous and warm to me, and that's been really comforting because I had no idea what I was going to come up against working with such an icon of theater," says Whelan. "She's really helping me a lot."
LuPone returns the compliment. "Watching Wendy dance informs me about my character," she says. "She's inspiring. There's no gravity in her body."
For LuPone, the production represents the completion of a full-circle journey that takes her back to her days as a young actor in the Drama Division of the Juilliard School and as a member of John Houseman's touring repertory ensemble, The Acting Company.
"I basically came of age with New York City Ballet," says LuPone. "My first professional job was with The Acting Company and we had a residence in Saratoga for four seasons during the same months as City Ballet. I was there with Peter Martins, Allegra Kent, Suzanne Farrell, Gelsey Kirkland. So to be actually back with the company is important to me. I'm very proud of it."
Taylor-Corbett and her two stars agree that their primary goal in presenting this ballet for contemporary audiences is to elucidate an enigmatic work without over-explaining it.
"What I feel my job has been is to realize the vignettes with theatrical clarity so the audience stays with it and the women stay accessible as characters," says Taylor-Corbett.
"The piece is undeniably episodic, but what happens to the women is an arc," she adds. "For me the greatest challenge is for the audience to see the development throughout the ballet of those women‹that woman‹so they can follow and understand where the two parts of her end up and why. It would be really nice if I could achieve that. I'd be happy about that."
The Seven Deadly Sins performances this Spring 2011:
May 11 at 7:00 pm (world premiere)
May 12 at 8:00 pm
May 13 at 8:00 pm
May 14 at 2 pm and 8 pm
May 15 at 3 pm
David Rooney writes frequently about the arts for The New York Times and is a contributing editor at The Hollywood Reporter.