Back from the Brink

April 30, 2008

Septime Webre, artistic director of The Washington Ballet, blazes across the local scene, frequently bounding in front of the curtain to introduce his programs. He’s a very public presence and a fixture on the social circuit, always upbeat, sometimes controversial.

He shepherded his group in a successful, highly publicized visit to Cuba in 2000, mounted a lavish Washington-oriented production of The Nutcracker—featuring George Washington and Tidal Basin cherry trees—and weathered a bitter labor dispute two years ago that cost the company a million dollars.

In the nine years since he arrived, Webre has turned a chamber-sized group with a modest profile into a lively company whose annual budget went from $2.8 million to $8 million. Its subscriber base has more than tripled, the number of performances doubled, and its new Nutcracker has reached a gross of $1.8 million a year.

As the galvanizing force behind the company’s rise, the director has clear goals and the hyper energy to carry them through. Named Septime because he was the seventh of nine children (and after his French great-grandfather who was also a seventh child), he grew up in Texas in a large, fun-loving Cuban-American family; he comes by his ebullience naturally.

Webre’s company dwells in a city more concerned with politics than the arts. But Washington, D.C., is also host to the large, thriving Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which brings in the best of ballet from around the world—the Kirov, the Bolshoi, ABT, NYCB—and even sponsors a ballet company of its own, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet.

Webre has met this situation with his usual verve and optimism. “Most of those groups bring their large 19th-century works,” he says. “That challenges us because we’re going to be in the same building, playing to the same community. We want to insure we’ve got a vision distinct from theirs. We’ve tried to carve out a lively, venturesome approach to the ballet repertoire.”

With that awareness TWB has flourished. Two years after a labor dispute that made headlines (and was resolved through an outside arbitrator) the company is making headlines for its increasingly brilliant dancing.

Anticipating his 10th anniversary next fall, the director talks about building on the roots of founder Mary Day’s classical training and the inventiveness of former resident choreographer, the late Choo-San Goh.

“I like a very energetically lived life and I want our work to feel that way too,” Webre says, revealing how much he is putting his personal stamp on the company’s style. He feels his relationship with the dancers is more collegial than before the labor conflict, but some of the dancers say a certain wariness is a fallout from the controversy.

He has raised the technical and artistic standards of the company by tackling challenges as diverse as Giselle and William Forsythe’s athletically demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated. Webre has also fought hard for a Studio Company, a stepping-stone to the main company. Occasionally adding its eight young dancers to the main company’s roster of 22 lets him mount larger full-length ballets. His Cinderella will be performed this month with new sets and costumes, and next year he mounts Bournonville’s La Sylphide.

The school has not been strong enough in recent years to produce dancers for the Studio Company. But with the advent of the new school director, Kee Juan Han, that may change. A prize pupil of Mr. Han’s, David Hallberg (a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre), is slated to make a guest appearance with TWB this spring.

Today, Webre claims the company has arrived at a new national level. One way TWB has achieved that, he says, is through acquiring major works by acknowledged masters working in the field today. Proof of that effort was its February program “Genius!” (Webre is big on attention-getting packaging.) The mix of Mark Morris’ Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, Christopher Wheeldon’s There Where She Loved, and Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs was a triumph. The dancers looked like stars, performing with new confidence and snap, going beyond technique and bringing their own wit and personality into play.

Next year the same lineup of choreographers will return, with Morris’ Pacifica, another Wheeldon work, and Tharp’s Baker’s Dozen. Eventually Webre hopes these three artists will create original works for his dancers—“as their schedules allow and as our dancers’ understanding of their aesthetic evolves.”

New works he and resident choreographer Trey McIntyre have set on the company have also helped define its style. Case in point: their Bach/Beatles program last season. Both men displayed a common thread of sizzling, go-for-broke energy, a TWB strong point. This was an ambitious program, if artistically uneven.

A special challenge to the dancers is Webre’s innovative “7 x 7” program, planned to be a bi-annual event in the future—seven dances, each seven minutes long, created by seven choreographers, some up-and-coming, some established. Last year the subject was “Shakespeare;” this season the theme was “Love Duets.”

During the two-week rehearsal period for “7 x 7” last winter, dancers dashed from one studio to the other; choreographers created with one eye on the clock.

One of them, Mark Dendy, a magical, mercurial creature in his dancing days, took it all in stride. At the end of his first three-hour rehearsal, his five couples—and Dendy too—were bathed in sweat. Still, the dancers matched the driving energy of Metallica’s heavy metal score pounding from the boombox. The men flung their partners over their shoulders in a cartwheel. A moment later the women locked arms together in a circle, legs bent sharply, skittering on point like crabs. Dendy kept the atmosphere intense but casual. Wrapping it up, he said, “Let’s try it again from the top, I want to see what we have. I haven’t got much more in me today.” He had made one and a half minutes of dance, with four more days of rehearsal to go. “Right on target,” he commented with a grin.

The dancers lived in a pressure cooker atmosphere leading up to the “7 x 7” performances, which ran for three weeks in the company’s largest studio, made more dramatic by white panels and modest lighting effects. It’s a popular event, a chance to see the dancers up close and personal.

Company member Jonathan Jordan, 26, is someone who’s thrived under these demands, turning in one thrilling performance after another. “The wide range of the rep has definitely helped me grow,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate to perform so much at a young age. In the bigger companies it sometimes takes a long time to be able to dance as much as I have.”

If change is the buzzword in politics, it is at TWB too. Michele Jimenez, the company’s leading ballerina, left last year to join the Dutch National Ballet, returning as a guest in February’s program. Jeff Edwards, the associate artistic director, is leaving at the end of the season. Trey McIntyre, who is expanding his summertime company to be year-round, is resigning as resident choreographer of TWB. Jason Hartley, whose brilliant dancing is at the heart of TWB’s vibrant style, will be heading west to join McIntyre in Boise, Idaho.

Hartley, 30, has been with Webre the longest, coming here with the director from his previous job at American Repertory Ballet. “The company is like family to me,” Hartley says. “I really appreciate all I’ve learned here, but I’m eager to move forward with my career.”

Jade Payette, 20, a striking young dancer with an electric stage presence, has risen swiftly. After a year in the Studio Company and a year as an apprentice, she became a company member this year, already dancing some of the most coveted roles in the rep. Nonetheless she reflects the insecurity that change has produced in the company.

“I came the season the lockout happened, so the whole time I’ve been here the company’s been on an up-and-down rollercoaster,” she says. “I’m so glad that I’m here while Jason and all the other dancers are still around. Great performances happened at the beginning of our season this year. But coming off that high, it was sad to see how quickly things can change, like company members being asked to leave. It’s kind of scary; you never know what could be coming your way. But I hope I’ll continue to be given wonderful roles like I have so far.”

In spite of these upheavals, Webre keeps a steady focus on his company’s achievements and its increased visibility. During Nutcracker season, prominent Washingtonians have made cameo appearances. This year Vernon Jordan and George Stephanopoulos turned up as guests in the first-act party scene. Laura Bush chaired a TWB gala two years ago. Chelsea Clinton, who studied at The Washington School of Ballet and danced in Mary Day’s Nutcracker, has continued to be supportive. Aiming to draw in young audiences, the company sponsors “Beer and Ballet” evenings three times a season. It’s been a sellout.

As Septime Webre has been focusing on his dancers’ growth, it’s been a learning curve for him too. “I’ve been here long enough to have the sense that it’s not just about the show we’re doing right now,” he says. “It’s about the development of these artists and this company over time. That’s a different point of view than the one I had when I first arrived.”

Jean Battey Lewis is dance critic for
The Washington Times. She has written on dance for The New York Times and other publications and has broadcast for NPR.