Sinful Memories

April 26, 2011

This month New York City Ballet mounts a new production of Kurt Weill’s
The Seven Deadly Sins. Balanchine had revived this 1933 ballet for one of his favorite ballerinas, Allegra Kent, in 1958. Since there is no film record of either version, the May 11 premiere has been entirely re-choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett. Here, Kent remembers each sequential sin from 53 years ago.


When I heard that Balanchine was going to revive The Seven Deadly Sins for me and Lotte Lenya, my skin tingled. I was ecstatic. I knew instinctively that I had been chosen for something unusual. The first version, presented in Paris in 1933, was choreographed by Balanchine with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht. It received a mixed response and was mostly misunderstood. The New York City Ballet’s production, which was to open on December 4, 1958, was newly translated into English by two poets: Chester Kallman and W. H. Auden. The costumes, décor, and lighting would be by Rouben Ter-Arutunian. Lotte Lenya would sing her original role of Anna I, and I was to be Anna II. When Lincoln Kirstein saw the first performance in Paris, he called it “an important landmark in dance history.” I was ready to make it my personal landmark.


The story is about two sisters, Anna I and Anna II, who act as alter egos. With numerical neatness, they will spend seven years in seven American cities and commit the seven deadly sins—one per city. The sisters live in smothering closeness, with highly conflicted identities within their partnership. Anna I sings and acts, expecting total complicity from her other half. She both asks and answers her own questions, “Isn’t that so, Anna,”  “Yes, Anna.” Without a voice, Anna II is left only to follow and dance.


At the School of American Ballet, then at 82nd Street and Broadway, Balanchine introduced Lotte and me. Lenya’s face, framed with orange hair and short bangs, startlingly recalled the cabaret theater of Weimar, Germany. When I stood arm in arm with her in the studio for the first time, her body felt soft and pliant. Her strength came from her unique style and presentation. Mr. B, working at his usual pace, put the first scene together in an hour.


The ballet begins in total darkness. Then, in dim light, Lotte and I are seen upstage, in identical clothing, linked together under one black cape. Lotte describes our goal: We will earn money for “a little house in Louisiana where the moon is a-shining ever.” I loved the way Lenya sang the word “Louisiana,” every syllable so clear and beguiling, like a little poem.


After the opening, the music rushes furiously forward, and the first section, “Sloth,” begins. We entrap a man. As I jump into his arms, Lenya photographs us and we blackmail him. With our success in crime, we are besotted; hormones sweep into our blood, but I become tired. Lotte offers me a shoulder and I sleep like a child with my mouth softly open.


In “Pride,” four bald waiters carry me aloft on a serving platter. I am nicely wrapped in cellophane like a bonbon—albeit a nearly naked one, except for a rhinestone-studded bikini. Balanchine asked me to move very slowly from one  suggestive position to another, stirring up sexual interest.


“Anger” explodes in Los Angeles, where “every door is open to welcome extras.” Anna II has movie work. Dressed like a circus girl and riding side-saddle, I’m up on a giant, white-lace horse supported by two men. We prance around the stage. Then in a moment of stillness, I slide off my high horse into an entrechat six, feeling ebullient. All these movements are filmed against a candy-cane background by a cameraman who looks like Groucho Marx. But I become enraged when I see a stagehand tormenting an animal. Uncontrollable fury rises in me and I beat him savagely with my riding crop. L.A. is over.


“Gluttony” was easy. On my small, raised platform, in a black leotard, I confront self-hate; gaining half an ounce meant trouble. Lotte the ruthless sits onstage with a pistol in one hand and a strawberry ice cream cone in the other. Balanchine requested Pilates, so I put my leg around my neck and twirled my foot twice—not exactly a Pilates step—but the audience responded with glee. When I discover a bit of disgusting fullness on my thigh, I loathe myself and yearn for those “little biscuits filled with honey.” After a walk-over, I tumble in front of Lotte, begging for mercy and a lick of ice cream.


In “Lust,” I become a paid companion to a grotesque man. I accept money from him which I, in turn, give to my boyfriend, Fernando. I’m deeply in love with him, but Lotte says we have to move on. “It’s so hard, Anna.”


In “Avarice,” my adventures fill me with vanity. I become callous. Wearing a flapper outfit and my signature white, pointy shoes, I casually tell a young man to be off or kill himself, I really don’t care which. At the end of this episode, Lotte demands everything that I have. She forces me to toss my clothes, piece by piece, into her bag—even my shoes, one after another, leaving me with only a black lace bra and panties. Again, we move on.


Arriving in San Francisco, “Envy” boils up within me. The set has changed: Four closed doors appear. As I walk toward one, it opens and a discordant musical sound knocks me into a backbend. I quickly stabilize my balance and twist forward to try another door. Inside, ready to march out, are men in stark white masks, tight tuxes, and bowler hats. Also revealed behind the doors are women in black boots, wide belts, and glittering bikinis. At one dramatic moment the men kneel and form a disconnected diagonal with their backs creating a platform. I was to run as fast as I could on their spines. This was wildly exciting to do and not really hard. During rehearsals, just before “the spinal tap,” I used to yell, “Flatten your backs.” Good grief.


Toward the end of “Envy,” Anna II knows there is no reason for living anymore, and the music seems to encourage her decision. The background has become a huge, abstract design of black, gray, and silvery shapes. With wild, unwavering purpose, I race toward a window of aluminum foil, one that’s not backed by wood. At last, my torment will end. Balanchine showed me how to form my body into a stabbing unit for the dive and takeoff. My fingertips hit first and I felt the excitement of breaking through a barrier. At last, Anna charts her own destiny.


Recently I spoke to Eddie Bigelow, an original member of the 1958 cast, who stood behind the backdrop in readiness to catch me. A mattress was placed on the floor for my psychological security. But it was really useless. I said to Eddie, “You caught me!” and he responded, “Every time.” “How did you know when to catch me?” He said, “By the musical clue, and there was also a peep-hole with someone saying, ‘Here…she… comes!’” Balanchine liked to make his audiences worry.


But in the story, Anna II does not die. In the wings, I throw on a short black cape and return to unite with Lotte onstage. Our adventures are over. We’re going home.


When the piece was almost together, Balanchine and I went to Karinska’s costume shop for a consultation. Karinska wanted my input on the brief outfits. New York City Ballet had very little money in those days, so my almost non-existent costumes were extremely cost-saving. Because of my faster-than-fast changes, I asked for extra-large shoes that I could kick off in two seconds and be barefoot or jump into pointe shoes.


Before the first performance, in the cramped wings of City Center, I laid out my costume changes meticulously—among them a black stretchy miniskirt, a circus hat, and glittering gloves. The ever-so-cool wardrobe mistress Mme. Pourmel helped me glide through these transformations in split seconds. Sin had its own glorious tempo.


As the final curtain closed, the atmosphere in the theater was electric. The ballet was a triumph. The piece jumped across the footlights. I took my bows with Lenya and Balanchine, then dashed barefoot upstairs to my dressing room on the second floor. There was only a brief intermission before I had to become classical with a crown for the second movement of Symphony in C.


Mr. B must have been watching. Two days after the opening of The Seven Deadly Sins, a box arrived backstage. Inside was a pair of light blue, velvet house slippers. Like my stage shoes, they were slightly too big. I knew that only a man with a profound sense of humor could have sent them. I thanked Mr. B and he feigned surprise. I wasn’t fooled.


This extraordinary theatrical event took place when I was 21. My roles in the previous six years had been ethereal, mystical, humorous, or classical and had arrived in bewildering profusion. But this assignment was different. Balanchine understood something in my psyche that I tried to disguise, something I was afraid of exposing except onstage—I was secretly sensual. “Isn’t that so, Allegra?”  “Yes, Allegra.”



Allegra Kent, author of
Once a Dancer, teaches ballet at Barnard College at Columbia University.


Top: Kent (left) with Lotte Lenya in 1958: About to commit sloth, pride, lust, and more. Photo from collection of Robert Greskovic, © Balanchine Trust. Bottom: Kent in class at Steps in 2007. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.