Leading the Way
by Carol Herron; contributing writer Dani Crawford
April 2004 -- Washington, D.C.
Septime Webre may well be the Pied Piper of dance. Since becoming the Washington Ballet’s Artistic Director five years ago, his boundless energy, childlike enthusiasm and his very apparent love affair with ballet have so charmed the denizens of the nation’s capital that even the most jaded seem to have come under his spell. Whether it’s listening to his frequent ballet talks after performances, sitting in on his “Ballet: Dance for Dummies” class at the studios, or just bumping into him at a performance, Webre’s pure joy for what he does and what he wants to share with the audience is so compelling, that you find yourself wanting to follow him, to be a part of what he is creating. It is no wonder then that he has managed to change the face of the company with dramatic consequence in so little time. While he is quick to say he is not alone in this endeavor, it is still quite clear that it is his vibrant personality, his upbeat and fresh approach to evolving the company, and his own unique creative flair that will bring The Washington Ballet to a place of prominence amongst its contemporaries.
We recently had the opportunity to sit and chat with Webre in a delightful conversation that covered the transformation of the Washington Ballet, the development of the dancers, his choreography, his plans for the future of the company and where he would like the company to be as part of the Washington, D.C. community.
“Let me start about the growth and the artistic life of the company. It’s very simple, we’re just working hard over time and have made excellence a priority. And we’ve also been unafraid to experiment and some of the experiments work out and some of them, lay an egg, as they say in showbiz.” He laughed.
“But I think the tipping point was reached about a year and a half ago. The company tackled “Serenade” in the Fall of ’02; that, in all honesty, for me was a moment that the company rose, that all elements of the company’s artistic life melded into a defining moment and it became clear, certainly to me, that the company was dancing at a new level.”
Since then the company has had several more important successes. “One of them, in a contemporary way, was Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” this past Fall, which announced to me that the dancers were at a new place in terms of tackling contemporary dance, like a pitbull with a rag.” He laughed again. “And another one, in a more neoclassical way, was “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and I felt the whole institution really rose to a new level. So we’ve been laying the groundwork for sometime.”
We then discussed how the dancers have evolved and developed. “There are a number of dancers in the company that I hired my first year or two here. Many of them were at the time, 20 and 21 years old, but were beginning to tackle principal roles already. And now at age 24, 25 and 26 this group of dancers are contributing to our success, with some exceptions there some dancers who are more senior who are contributing as well, and some younger ones coming up. But the backbone of our success has been in the growth of this group of dancers. They have just grown up on stage and they all kind of came together , I think, in “Serenade” a year and a half ago.”
That brought about the discussion of how dancers grow and whether Webre directs their growth towards fulfilling company goals.
“There are multiple goals coexisting. One goal is, of course, for the Washington Ballet as a company to succeed and that’s the first goal. In order for it to succeed each dancer needs to succeed individually. So there are another series of goals for each of the dancers. I think the dancers grow in three different ways.
“One is through coaching, they are taught a role, and then after they learn the steps but before they perform it, the details, the nuances are developed with coaching with myself or one of the other artistic staff working them to develop the role with a layer of depth that will take them forward. A good case study is Jonathan Jordan as Oberon, he’s been here a few seasons now and he was in our school previously, and his talent was clear from the beginning, what’s happened, is through coaching and through experience, he’s gained confidence and he can approach a role with a kind of depth. That seriousness and depth that is newly mature. And he is still young, maybe 22, so he is still growing with every role, he is growing in depth and seriousness, which is excellent to see.
“Another one is what the dancer brings to the process. I think when dancers reach a certain level they become autodidacts to a great degree. I or one of the artistic staff teach company class all the time. Mimi Paul, one of the great Balanchine ballerinas, is teaching class right now for example, she is delivering wonderful information but, in fact, what most of the dancers will get out of the class, is what the dancers bring to the class. Mimi will bring information, but they will figure it out and adapt it to their bodies. There is a kind of self-reliance once you reach an advanced level, and that’s the case with advancing in roles. The third, is I think, tackling roles that are not necessarily in your nature to excel at and through grit and hard work, making it work. Sort of casting against type is something I do from time to time. Sometimes it’s because we’re a small company and we just need someone to do the part, but more often it’s looking to have the dancer grow into a specific role.”
As we talked about Webre’s vision for the company the subject of a hierarchy within the ranks of dancers came up. The Washington Ballet is currently an ensemble-style company with no identified principals or soloists. We also discussed the size and growth of the current company and how it may change over the next few years in response to the changes in repertoire.
“Well, when you see the performances you see who is featured more frequently. We are an ensemble company, but including the studio company, we are about 27 dancers right now. So in fact we are growing. About the size, we are an ensemble, at the same time we’ve grown tremendously, and we are tackling some serious repertoire which is structured with a hierarchy implicit in the structure. Balanchine’s structure, for example, mirrors an abstraction of the Petipa structure, with the principal dancers overseeing, genially, their kingdom with soloists and the corps de ballet underneath that. For me from a socio-political standpoint that is Petipa’s conservative bent, where he saw society, he built a metaphor for society as he saw it. Where the Czar and Czarina ruled genially over the nobility, who then, benevolently, oversaw the serfs. And we can sort of see this statement of conservative social political structure.
“Balanchine sought to abstract that, so he retained the kinetic potential, the kinetic concepts, the form, the formalism and the hierarchy but distilled, took away all the trappings. So in the repertoire there are these hierarchies. I don’t see naming publicly principals, soloists and corps ranks because we are still a tight team. I think we would be compromised by doing that. The family life of the Ballet is very, very strong and I’m a very hands-on director who is in the studio all the time, so I don’t want to put in more layers than are already there. But I do think we will be tackling some serious repertoire, continue to add new works to our repertoire that pose neo-classical and classical challenges that we may not have tackled before.
“Midsummer Night’s Dream” was a watershed, it was a really a huge amount of growth on the part of the company and it suggested to me a decision-making process about what repertoire we would set our sights on. I understand the kind of company we want to be and the kind of dancer I like, but ultimately where you are going as a company is really defined by the sort of repertoire you select. That will attract the kind of dancer, that will determine the way those dancers are working. I see the growth in two significant directions. One is tackling bigger, important works from the neo-classical and classical canon. And next season I’m presenting both by the production of “Giselle” and a production of Balanchine’s “Stravinsky Violin Concerto.” So these two works are works the company has not tackled before and pose significant challenges. They are stock in trade for some other companies who were designed and built to tackle that repertoire, whose raison [d’etre] is that repertoire.
“But for us, a company which started off as modest size, a small company of young neo-classical dancers dancing new work [like] this poses a significant challenge. I think because of our growth, we are taking steps to tackle this repertoire, how we danced “Serenade,” some of the other Balanchine repertoire, “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and the challenge of “Coppelia” right now. So that’s one wing of the repertoire. The other wing of the repertoire is influenced by our successes with the Forsythe and it makes me want to challenge the company even more strongly with high profile contemporary programs. That will always be one of the elements of our personality, new works made on us. It’s going to be one of the elements that makes us very special, by doing the works by Forsythe, by Duarto, Twyla Tharp, we’ve been negotiating for some work. So I think this new repertoire, and new works made by me and by Trey McIntire and others will be another important part of what we do.”
The Studio Company is a big part of the new image for the Washington Ballet.
“We have just founded in September of 2003 the Washington Ballet Studio company, so it’s just about 6 months old and it’s going beautifully. And those dancers incorporate into the company repertoire and dance their own rep. Ideally a studio company of 8 to 12 dancers and a full company of about twenty-two dancers would be spectacular. Maybe 20 dancers and 2 apprentices, 10 men & 10 women is small enough to retain the intimacy, with the presence of the studio company, which is itself an intimate company, we are large enough to tackle significantly sized rep. And keep everyone dancing a lot”.
The Ballet has a good core of talented and versatile dancers. We wondered where and how does Webre look for new dancers. “I’m always looking for new dancers, new talent. We have auditions every winter. We just went them, the week before last we had our big, open auditions in New York, about 160 dancers auditioned for the Washington Ballet there. Then last week we had an audition here, and about 140 dancers auditioned here and perhaps another 50 or 60 will have come through company class over the period of the winter. So that’s about 350 dancers that we see. All of them are talented, all of them are committed to ballet, all of them are well trained, we’ll only have a small number of positions open in any given year so it’s a bit dizzying the process of distilling all that information” he laughed. “There’s not very much turnover in company life in general, and very little turnover in our company. The studio company is, by definition, a two year program, so after two years a dancer in the studio company will either get into the full company or we offer assistance, with letters of recommendation and so on, to help place them in other companies”.
”A couple of new dancers, Nikkia Parrish and Luis Torres, have made quite an impression already this season. “Neither of them came through public audition, they came through company class. They were both interested in the Washington Ballet and interested in working with me. They asked to come participate in company class. Nikkia tried for two years and I didn’t have spot for her last year, so she went to DTH for a year and she re-iterated her interest and I had a spot for her, and I am very happy with both of them. They are very energetic and statuesque both of them. It’s wonderful. Most of the dancers who come into the company come in through the apprentice program or what have you. We are growing our talent. Michele Jimenez was an apprentice my first year here, she was a member of the school before that, an obvious example of the other way to do it, to grow your talent. Or Jonathan Jordan, who is now displaying a lot of potential”.
Septime Webre has also been an active choreographer and we asked him to describe how he started in choreography.
“I would say in the early years, in retrospect, my main concern was finding a place in classical ballet. As someone who was interested in ballet, its history and its technique, and less interested in modern dance. I was a ballet person interested in form and formalism, and simultaneously I was somewhat steeped in American pop culture and in ideas from alternative music world and the visual arts world. And really I was a club kid, I was living in NY and staying out until 5 in the morning. Really finding a way to integrate these two seemingly contradictory concepts was really the main concern as a choreographer. It all kind of came together after my brief stint as a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. I left ballet for a period and danced as an apprentice with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in the early 90’s. Ultimately I missed ballet and returned to my real home which is ballet. I found that the technique wasn’t exactly suited to my body, but his ideas were so compelling I sought, in those first couple of years after that experience, to make work that was influenced by his dance-making techniques and concepts although perhaps not really by his technique.”
Webre then went on to tell us a hilarious story of his early choreographic efforts. “The first work I made after that was called “Sugie” and I made a work about growing up in south Texas, it was very a physically, almost violent work. And the movement phrases were kind of deconstruction of ballet, referring to classical ballet but also using some of the things I experienced growing up in Texas as a basis to develop these movement phrases. Watching reruns of “Charlie’s Angels” after school, Saturday night cruising the Dairy Queen, this sort of thing. I created the whole ballet in silence, these outrageous movement phrases that were very physical and gestural. And, simultaneously, I wrote a 20-minute monologue for myself in the voice of Bertha May Keel (and here he drops into a south Texas accent) ‘an elegant woman, who lived in a double-wide mobile home in Texas, and it was a fantasia about her wiener dog Sugie, short for Sugar. It’s poignant tale about how Sugie started taking on water one day and eventually explodes’. And the dancers didn’t hear this monologue until dress rehearsal, that was why I had the dance finely timed. Simultaneously I was working with a director as an actor to deliver these lines. And I sat on a little set in the middle of the stage on a La-Z-boy recliner with taxidermy all around me, as this post-modern ballet was enacted all around me.
“It was really influential in how I thought about making dances because, for the first time, I separated elements, I thought about each element separately. Its follow up was my ballet “Fluctuating Hemlines.” It was a ballet made after having read Camille Paglia’s incendiary book “Sexual Persona” which lays out the thesis that we are all essentially animalistic. We don’t have to look very deep or very closely at our rules of etiquette and our art and culture to see signs of our animal selves bubbling right beneath the surface. I thought was an interesting premise for a dance and I ultimately planned, I commissioned a driving percussion score that was going to be ready for the dress rehearsal. I used a compilation of songs from cassettes that I had picked up while on tour with the dancers in Kansas. They were songs that I picked up at a truck stop: Dolly Parton’s greatest hits, Edie Gorme singing Spanish with an accordion, Sly and the Family Stone. And I would play these songs on the tour bus to tease the dancers and they would groan. Anyway I put these songs together, my favorites, Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” as a medley and “I Want to Thank You for Letting Me be Myself” by Sly and the Family Stone and some other songs and we made the dance to this compilation. I gave the compilation to the composer and insisted that he follow these rhythms and time markings but sounded nothing like it, and the two came together at dress rehearsal and was quite successful”.
The discussion then proceeded to how he approaches the choreographic process, and the driving forces in developing a dance. “I certainly get an exhilarating thrill in making steps and in organization. Yes, I love it. There are definite phases, I would say, four phases during which I receive separate thrills. One thrill is preparing material to work with the dancers. I have the rhythm, I listen to music with a boombox on my dining room table at night, usually from 9 to 11 p.m. when I find myself most creative, drinking cold Mexican beer, taking notes and occasionally dancing around my apartment. I did it last night after City Ballet from 11 to midnight and I had two Negra Modelo, which happens to be my brand” he laughed.
“The next phase is the creating the steps with the dancers. So in the studio I bring these notes, of course, they never really work out. So it’s merely a structure. And with the dancers, through improvisation, we put the steps together. The next phase is actually preparing it for performance, which is coaching, honing and refining and getting performance qualities out of the dancers. The fourth phase is the technical elements, the theatre process. I will add to that the design concepts and all the other pieces that make it a ballet. Those started usually way before anything else, because they have to be started a year and half or two years out, when planning to actually do the piece.
“Originally I found the music first, or the image, or concept first. But now, because I am a director with responsibility to the stewarding of the institution, I find myself tackling works that the institution needs to have in their repertoire. So the institution idea might come first, for example the decision to do “Peter Pan” was an institutional one actually. We were looking to do family programming and by coincidence I got a commission from the Cincinnati Ballet to tackle “Peter Pan.” So I thought well let’s do it together. It was not that I was looking to do Peter Pan, but for institutional reasons the project came to me and then I got into it, I began to explore it’s potential. That’s an example of how I think many artists find an assignment the best way to work, because it limits your possibilities. And when possibilities are limited you find interesting solutions. So much of my best work comes from an assignment. Parameters that are the initial assumption then I take it from there”.
We then asked whether if by institutional he meant what brings in the people, and then that brings in the money. We also discussed the plans for the new “Nutcracker” that will premiere this coming Christmas season. Webre replied “That might be one of the things. The “Nutcracker” is different situation. Mary Day’s “Nutcracker” is one of the great treasures of Washington D.C. When Mary Day decided to retire as director of the school, she decided she wanted to retire her “Nutcracker.” I had hoped we could continue to do her “Nutcracker” but I certainly respected her decision. Our institution needs a “Nutcracker.” I also happen to know, of course, that ballet very,very well, and after decades of being involved in Nutcracker” every year, I certainly had had ideas percolating for many years about my own “Nutcracker” should I be in a position to do it.
“The institution needs
the “Nutcracker”: the “Nutcracker” is big business
for us. We are an organization of between five and six million dollars
per year, of that about three million comes from earned income, ticket
sales and tuition. Of that 1.4 million dollars comes from “Nutcracker”
ticket sales. That’s to say we could not possibly survive without
doing the “Nutcracker.” And that is the case, probably, for
almost every ballet company in the country. New York City Ballet is the
ballet that the “Nutcracker” built, and that phenomenal success
helped pay for their growth over decades. And so that is an important
part of what we do and we have to take seriously our investment in it.
I think the board was fueled by some exciting ideas that I presented to
them about the concept for a new “Nutcracker” but also they
had a fiduciary responsibility to raise money to invest in this important
piece. And they raised $800,000 of the one million dollar price tag for
sets and costumes. The production with that type of price tag will be
lavish. By comparison my “Cinderella” production, which is
a pretty lavish production, had a budget of about $120,000, $100,000 for
costumes and we rented the sets for about $20,000. So that gives you idea
of what the scale will be.
“Act II is set among the cherry blossoms in full bloom on the banks of the Potomac. Some of the divertissement will be adapted to reflect American culture. For example, what is usually an Arabian duet will be a dance for two Anacostia Indians. The Candy Cane dance will be danced by a frontiersman based on Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone, and there will be a dance for American birds, the little Bluebird or Cardinals, I haven’t decided which. I wanted to connect to Washington D.C., and the Anacostia River is such an important icon in the city. These are parts of our heritage, the history of Anacostia. But the river is also a geological fact that divides us in so many ways. So I wanted to refer to it in a proud way, it’s history and beginnings. Also a few select historical figures will appear in the ballet, for example Frederick Douglass will be a party guest in Act I, and we will likely have a fictional president in Act I as well.”
When asked how the Nutcracker will look like George Washington, Webre replied with a laugh “Balanchine famously said “there are no mother-in-laws” in ballet, as in careful in getting too specific in plot in ballet. Ballet is not a good place to depict a complicated plot machinations. So I followed his lead and let the American imagery to be fairly abstract. It’s a Nutcracker prince, so when he comes to life, he’s not George Washington, but he’s an idealized young man who embodies the ideals. We are not including wooden teeth in our designs” again he laughed.
“There are a couple of other things about the ballet that I’d like to tell you. Community participation is at the centerpiece of this production and we’ll use about 250 children from the Washington School of Ballet and from our outreach program, DanceDC, which reaches about 500 inner-city DC school kids, who will dance in the “Nutcracker” each year. We are also developing a whole series of partnerships, the Washington Convention and Tourism corporation who we have developed a big partnership. We have a big partnership with the Washington Business Improvement District, with banners all around town, a big festival in December. The Hecht’s department stores will be a significant partner. We are developing a museum project with partnerships with several museum’s, including the Smithsonian, the National Building Museum, Mount Vernon, the Capital Children’ museum and the Tudor Place and Gardens, which is beautiful home in Georgetown which was built by Martha Washington’s granddaughter and remained in Martha Washington’s family until it was turned into a museum a couple of decades ago. So there is a whole series of community participatory elements to the ballet.”
The involvement and the development of the community participation is a wonderful aspect of the Ballet that we had not really understood or seen before. It’s amazing what one person can do to make a difference, when we asked him how he has been able to achieve all this Webre said “We have a great staff, essentially it was my idea, but an amazing energy has been wrought, has been unleashed on the part of our board and staff to realize these partnerships. And it has been really a welcomed piece for our board.
”I won’t take credit for it all at all. It’s been a huge amount of work for a lot of people, particularly for our board, our staff and our dancers. It’s been an amazing road, the board has stepped up in lots of wonderful ways. Our dynamic board chair, Kate Kendall, became board president as I became Artistic Director and together we forged the partnership, that is really an important piece of how we’ve been able to be successful. The board has raised really a huge amount of money over five years to support these new efforts. For example, the board voted a few years ago to increase their annual giver amount from $5000 to $10,000 without any prodding, to reflect our growth.”
As we prepared to wrap-up our interview Webre said “I have three more things to tell you: The Washington Ballet organization has a three-pronged mission. First is to build and maintain a national-level ballet company. The second is the school, The Washington School of Ballet, which has an important place in the international landscape, as Mary Day’s school has delivered to the industry generations of some of the dance-world’s greatest artists. I saw Jenny Ringer just last night in the NYCB, she came from our school. Kevin Mackenzie, Amanda McKerrow, Virginia Johnson, Shirley McLaine, the list is endless.
”The third is our Outreach Programs which connect the company to the social fabric of the city. With Mary Day’s retirement I will take on responsibility for the whole institution. We have recently announced the hiring of Rebecca Wright, former principal dancer with Joffrey Ballet, soloist with American Ballet Theatre. She has had an illustrious international career. With her we are looking to spotlight our school in ways that we haven’t in the last several years. The school has continued to produce wonderful dancers and it is time for us to invest in the school, and really to focus and showcase the school and our students. We are looking to invest more in the professional track in our school, invest in the young people, while simultaneously growing the other elements of our school. We’re not looking to grow the professional track, just invest in their training. But we do want to grow the pre-ballet and first years of ballet, the young children’s program and grow our adult program. So we will be investing significant resources, new resources, both into the program itself and into marketing that program. I think it’s going to be a really great synergy between the company’s growth and new school growth.
”The next part is actually is the third piece of the, let’s say, troika of ideas and values, it is our Outreach Program. The Washington Ballet has had decades of outreach programs, but right now our centerpiece is the DanceDC program which was founded about four years ago, just after I got here. It has 500 kids in four different public elementary schools throughout the District providing free ballet training using the Washington School of Ballet and a parallel program called Dancing with Words, which relates the dance training to the language arts requirement of the D.C. public school system, so it has a literacy component. We focused it to deliver to first and second graders, so as to be able to identify talent young. So if there is a first or second grader who shows talent, commitment, initiative, and desire to pursue ballet training they can matriculate young enough into the Washington School of Ballet so as not to be at a disadvantage. If we started with fifth or sixth graders, that’s when girls are already going onto pointe. We want to start young enough so they can be matriculated into the program.
“This has led to a new,
significant partnership, that you will undoubtedly will hear about, it
is our participation in The Ark. The Ark is 22-million dollar building
facility that is being built right now in Ancostia, and it will house
a illustrious collection of partners. The Washington Ballet will have
two state-of-the-art studios and we are, in the design of the building,
given pride of place. Also in the building is a 350-seat theater which
we have access to, more or less designed to our specifications, so it’s
really appropriate for our use. Our partners will include a big facility
for the Boys and Girls Club, the Levine School of Music will have a quite
a large facility, also the Washington Opera and the Corcoran have both
recently announced programs that will be housed there, and a number of
other important partners. It will open in the Spring of 2005 and give
us a real presence in Anocostia. I am really looking forward to that,
it’s a big part of what we are going to be doing. Actually I used
about 10 boys from our DanceDC program as bumblebees in Cinderella.
Ambitious plans for the company and the community? Indeed. But after five years of watching Webre at work, of witnessing what he and those close to him have been able to achieve, there should be no doubt that passion, talent, diligence and the right attitude can move mountains. In a city that is full of ‘leaders’, Septime Webre should be counted as one of them. A dynamic personality who makes wonderful things happen, he is one of the good guys we hope to keep ‘in power’ for a very long time.
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