By Stephanie Green | September 29, 2014 | Culture
Artistic director Septime Webre celebrates his 15th anniversary with the Washington Ballet.
Septime Webre is a prolific choreographer with wildly eclectic tastes.
Septime Webre’s feet rarely meet the ground. Fifteen years into his tenure as the artistic director of The Washington Ballet, Webre isn’t slowing down—he still brims with the same fiery enthusiasm as the boy who wrote his first play at age 10.
“My sister was my muse,” he says, telling of costumes cobbled together with curtains and safety pins. He recalls this early foray over lunch at Georgetown’s Peacock Café in between meetings with composers and set designers of his most recent production, Sleepy Hollow, debuting at the Kennedy Center in February.
Webre waxes poetic about ballet and his love of literature, which he has combined to create “The American Experience,” a 10-year project turning great American novels into ballets. “The American story hasn’t been told yet in the ballet canon,” he says. “I’m looking for projects that would distinguish The Washington Ballet from other great American ballet companies.”
Washington Ballet dancers rehearse for the fall performance season.
He’s well on his way with the success of his balletic renditions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in the past few years. He’s also mulling over the works of Edith Wharton and Tom Wolfe, pondering his next idea, and Gabriel García Márquez remains one of his favorite authors.
Webre is adding his imaginative spark to Sleepy Hollow by delving into Ichabod’s psychology and creating more of a backstory. In it, Ichabod will find himself confronting the Salem witch trials and the American Revolution, in addition to the menacing headless horseman.
This spring, for the first time, Webre’s dancers will perform the iconic Swan Lake with S&R Foundation’s Evermay Chamber Orchestra. Webre calls it “an audacious decision; it’s important for us to be tackling such a canonical work.” He describes the lead swan as “the great dual role. She has to have lyrical beauty with an air of tragedy. Then, within the 15-minute intermission, she has to be the epitome of the glamour of evil. There’s a lot of passion in both roles.” Four different ballerinas will be cast as Odette/Odile.
Audacity and passion come naturally to Webre, who arrived at The Washington Ballet in 1999 after six years as artistic director of American Repertory Ballet in New Jersey. At the time, The Washington Ballet had a budget of $3 million. Today, that number is well over $10 million. Webre also faced an artistic challenge: determining where to take the company aesthetically. “Fifteen years ago, there was still a very aggressive physicality in ballet, with abstract art and postmodern influences,” he says. “Today there remains a strong emphasis on physicality, but there’s been a return to narrative, which has suited me.”
Washington’s cultural renaissance has kept the wind in his sails. “There has been a cultural explosion in every way, and it’s been intense,” says Webre, who spent his previous 12 years in New York and New Jersey. “Obama’s election captured the American psyche. The arts, more than any other sector, distill that enthusiasm.”
Webre also has brought a touch of whimsy to the company with his recent production of ALICE (in Wonderland), which returns to the stage in May, and his annual take on The Nutcracker. Webre’s Nutcracker is actually a George Washington toy soldier, and cherry blossoms, along with a silhouette of the Washington monument onstage, further endear the ballet to Washington patrons. This holiday season marks the show’s 10th anniversary. “We have some fun things planned and some guest surprises,” he says, unwilling to relinquish more details.
Nurturing the next generation of dancers and arts patrons has been a hallmark of Webre’s tenure. “There was a great divide between the institution and the community,” he says. “I wanted to develop deeper ties to the fabric of the city.” Since launching TWB’s Community Engagement program 15 years ago, the ballet has reached almost 70,000 students, many of whom previously had little or no access to the arts. “DanceDC,” a program with the DC public schools, has given early dance exposure to some 10,000 second and third graders, since its inception in 1999.
Every year, up to 50 of those students are given EXCEL! scholarships to study ballet at The Washington Ballet, which is as much an education institution as it is a performing arts company.
Webre’s advice for young dancers is: “Work hard and get the best training you can. Put a greater emphasis on your academic life than your dance life, because that’s the only way to be a fully realized person and artist. Education is foremost.” He doesn’t romanticize the grueling career of a ballerina. “It’s so tough,” he says. “There’s only room for the best of the best in ballet. You need a plan B.”
Webre was one of the lucky ones. He got his first professional job at 22 as a dancer at Ballet Austin, then segued into choreography and hasn’t looked back. So is there a new mountain to climb for this cerebral man-child with fancy feet? “My dream job provides a challenge, a creative outlet, and allows me to collaborate with and mentor other artists,” he says. “I’m certainly doing that now.” The Nutcracker, Thearc Theater, Nov. 29-30, and Warner Theatre, Dec. 4-28, 202-397-7328
photography by stephen voss
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