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Flash Review 2, 6-19: Weill Song
Something to Care About from Het

By Jill Cirasella
Copyright 2003 Jill Cirasella

AMSTERDAM -- Krzysztof Pastor's 2001 "Kurt Weill," which the Het Nationale Ballet performs through Sunday at the Het Muziektheater, is a stunner, both visually and aurally. Though not about the life of the German-Jewish composer who fled Germany in 1933 for Paris and then the US, it is aware of his times and trajectory. The ballet, seen this past Saturday, begins in Europe, keeps a close eye on Hitler, and ends in the United States.

Weill is best known for his music for the theater, including the Bertolt Brecht collaboration "Three-penny Opera," and for Hollywood. I expected "Kurt Weill" to be something like Balanchine's Gershwin extravaganza "Who Cares?" And there are similarities in structure... but not in mood. "Kurt Weill" includes many of Weill's earlier and heavier German compositions, so, unlike "Who Cares?" it is not frothy. And, unlike "Who Cares?" it entertains for the entire evening. (Is it blasphemous to suggest that "Who Cares?" is just a few minutes shy of tedious?)

"Kurt Weill" has no set, but it uses moving projection screens to excellent effect. Sometimes they show slides; sometimes they show films; and sometimes they show nothing and just reshape the space. The songs are performed by a full orchestra, a featured pianist and cellist, a chorus, and three onstage soloists. And, in two of the most successful scenes, there are only songs and screens, no dancers.

The first of these scenes opens the second act and uses Charlie Chaplin's balletic talents to remind us where we were headed before the intermission. It pairs "Caesars Tod" (from "Der Silbersee") with the scene from "The Great Dictator" in which Chaplin's Hitler makes the world his plaything. (The evening's one laugh came when Chaplin bounced the globe off his dictatorial bottom.) The second illustrates "Lost in the Stars" (from "Lost in the Stars") only with projected bits of lyrics. Pastor is right to give centerstage to this song and its singer Hans Voschezang. They are simply arresting.

Of course, the dances and the dancers are most responsible for the ballet's success. The evening began and ended with stark solos by Federico Bonelli, perhaps the clearest mover in the cast. Later, he and Igone de Jongh danced a pas de deux that was lovely but somehow less compelling than the simultaneous duet faintly visible through a projection screen.

After the double duets came "Berlin im Licht-Song," a dancehall scene with a kick-up-the-heels feel almost like "Who Cares?" A bit later is a pas de cinq to "Alabama Song," one of Weill's most recognizable tunes. Pastor does well with fives: "Alabama Song" is full of surprising and sophisticated interactions and is thoroughly enchanting. The first act's final solo was danced Saturday by Ruta Jezerskyte, who did amazing things with her shoulders. (Shoulders are an unusual thing to praise, and at first I wasn't sure whether the credit should go to dancer or choreographer. Later, when I watched Jezerskyte in a group, I realized that the gift is hers. Strange as it may sound, she is blessed with expressive shoulders.)

The second act includes two magnificent duets for men, the first to a fragment from "Der Silbersee" and the second to two songs from "Lost in the Stars." And sometime between these duets, the ballet seems to move from Germany to the United States. (The Andy Warhol slides are a big tip-off. First come his Coke bottles. Then, more menacingly, his electric chair.)

Just before the closing solo is "Collage rock-interpretation." I had spotted this on the program and was expecting the worst kind of labored, mock-MTV treatment. Happily, I was wrong. The steps are slinky versions of those seen earlier, and the sound "collage" by William S. Burroughs, David Bowie, and Tom Waits is well done. In fact, the only unfortunate thing about this scene is its name.

So much of "Kurt Weill" is so right, but its costumes are not. The fronts of the shirts and vests are normal, but the backs are a nude stocking material, with just a few tabs of fabric wrapping around from the front. These tabs are exactly like the tabs that hold paper clothes to paper dolls, and I don't see why real people shouldn't have clothes with real backs. Also, many of the dresses' tops are made entirely of that nude stocking material -- a bad compromise between modesty and nudity. In fact, I found the fake nudity more distracting than I would have found real nudity. (I'm the first to admit that these are small complaints about a big dance. If only one's objections were always so petty.)

Weill once said, "I have never acknowledged the difference between 'serious' music and 'light' music. There is only good music and bad music." And his music is good. Good enough to inspire and sustain a very, very good ballet.

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