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When Septime Webre was a teen, in the late ’70s, his idea of good dance was more high camp than high art. In one of the musical farces he wrote and directed in his youth, his sister portrayed Ivaydna Greene, “from Wichi-taw Fah-lls, tha buckle on tha Bible belt,” twirling a silver baton and dancing classical ballet in satin pointe shoes while reciting Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” with a honeyed Southern accent.
At the same time that Webre was mixing kitsch and culture in his hometown of Austin, Texas, the young Washington Ballet was just beginning to expand its repertoire beyond annual performances of The Nutcracker. The Ballet’s founder, Mary Day, wouldn’t have guessed then that her successor would be a guy who didn’t even begin serious dance training until his first year of college.
Instead, Webre planned on becoming a high school band leader.
“I would spend all of my time daydreaming about staging halftime shows,” Webre recalls. “My desire to be a band leader had less to do with music and everything to do with staging.”
In his heart, Webre still wants to stage halftime shows, those spectacles of movement and dance that the whole town comes out for. The difference is that today, in his new job, he’s trying to do it on the proscenium stages of the Kennedy Center and New York’s Joyce Theater rather than on muddy football fields.
“It’s that ivory-tower thing,” says Webre. “I want to really be able to reach out, if for nothing else than to prove we can do it.”
Webre has almost finished his first year as the Washington Ballet’s artistic director, having taken the helm last spring from the venerable Day, who, now in her late 80s, continues to teach and oversee the company’s ballet school.
For more than 15 years, Day had been trying to find someone whom she could groom to take over as her company’s artistic director. Choo-San Goh, the company’s resident choreographer, was Day’s first choice, but he died unexpectedly in 1987, at age 39. Kevin McKenzie, whom Day had taught since he was 11, was then expected to take her chair. But McKenzie was hired by the American Ballet Theatre in New York to become that company’s artistic director, in 1992.
“It wasn’t possible to have that time of apprenticeship,” says Day, who would have preferred to hand-pick someone the traditional way rather than go through a headhunter, but the headhunter, it turned out, found Septime Webre.
Webre has a hand in every aspect of the company. He’s changed the typefaces on the marketing materials. He’s added 10 new ballets to this season’s repertory. He has helped bring free ballet classes to District primary schools. And recently, he’s been frantically preparing for the company’s winter concert, which opens this week, featuring Anthony Tudor’s The Leaves Are Fading and his own choreography set to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Even this early in his tenure, it’s clear that although Webre may revere the legacy of Day, he will not be doing things her way.
But Day, more than anyone else, understands that holding to traditions won’t keep her company alive. “Each day,” she says, “I’m faced with the generation gap.”
On the surface, Webre appears to be Day’s complete opposite. Always impeccably dressed, Miss Day, as she is known by her legions of students, can be found most afternoons welcoming students before class with all the understated grace of royalty. Webre, meanwhile, dashes from his office to his studio in khakis and hip black oxfords, like an escapee from a Banana Republic bus ad.
But both share a deep love of dance, both favor contemporary choreography with a strong classical base, and, perhaps most important, both have business savvy—the kind of savvy that keeps ballet companies running in the black.
At the American Repertory Ballet in New Jersey, where Webre served as artistic director before coming to Washington, he is credited with having saved a company sinking in debt and having doubled its budget during his six-year tenure. Day purchased the one-studio frame house that serves as the school and the company’s rehearsal space in 1948 for next to nothing. She gradually added more studios and kept the company’s roster at a manageable 20 dancers.
“There’s a strong philosophical linkage between Mary Day and myself,” says Webre. “Mary Day has maintained a company of strong classical technicians dancing contemporary ballet. In the core, my aesthetic is consistent. I’m the next generation. So it’s not so much a departure as an evolution.”
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two is in how aggressive Webre has been in reaching outside the company’s confines—to other dance institutions, to other areas of the city, and to nonballet audiences.
“I didn’t encounter resistance so much as I encountered disinterest,” says Webre of the initial response from the Ballet’s longtime supporters, who warned him to be cautious. “I knew right away that we could connect more and that we had an obligation to do better, to close the gap between the artist and community at large.”
What better way to break the ice than with a six-pack? In a move away from the usual white-wine-and-cheese fundraising reception, Webre came up with “Beer and Ballet” as the theme for a recent company mixer. For $10, ballet fans got to tour the new studios and preview works from the upcoming performance, and they received a coupon for 10 percent off tickets. Oh, and honey-wheat ale from the bar. Granted, sampling microbrews from John Harvard’s Brew House isn’t the same as chugging Budweiser with your fraternity brothers, but Webre can go only so lowbrow.
The new director’s populist sensibility also carries over into the dance studio, where there’s not a single pair of tights to be found among the nine male dancers learning his choreography for Carmina Burana. The guys sport torn, rolled-up sweatpants or loose khakis. Instead of the usual white ballet slippers, Webre wears a pair of bumblebee-yellow-and-black Nikes. Watching from the side, Ballet Master John Goding, who’s been with the company since its inception, almost looks out of place in his traditional clingy black tights and rib-revealing white T-shirt.
Webre’s idiosyncratic, athletic choreography, in combination with his Martha Stewart-like meticulousness, means that the dancers have no room to coast. In addition to classical movements like jete, ballote, and temps leve, Webre throws in “renaissance angel,” “stigmata” and “sad-clown-I-want-a-hug” to describe the various upper-body contortions and curves that characterize his work.
The men dance with, on, and around sturdy black chairs, vaulting their bodies over the chairbacks and springing off the seats. Without the music, the effect is very Jerome Robbins, or early Janet Jackson, if you will. But once Orff’s grand score begins—you’d know it as the familiar soundtrack to so many horror movies and television commercials—the ballet-ness of the dance comes through.
Webre watches the dancers, nodding in some places, almost grimacing in others. Right away, his perfectionism kicks in. The dancers barely have the gist of the sequence when he starts rattling off corrections.
“When you arch,” he tells one dancer, “you want to think about arching in the midsection of the back, but arch to the side with the upper body….Yes, that’s it.”
Turning his attention to the whole group, he details specific gestures. “You really want to grab the position in the air,” he says, jumping high with his legs tucked under him, “and then you want to do this homeboy thing,” he adds, swooping one arm under the other in a modified Run-DMC pose.
“Remember, ‘vomit’ on the one,” he says, trying to get the dancers to coordinate a strong gut contraction with a musical cue.
The dancers struggle to master the idiosyncrasies of Webre’s work. Some grasp it more quickly than others.
“It’s like the Redskins’ Daniel Snyder,” dancer Runqiao Du says, getting excited. “He had a different management style. He had a meeting and told the players they could not sit and collect a salary and not do work. It’s the same with the Washington Ballet. Suddenly down the line people will see a very different Washington Ballet with a very different energy.”
“Sometimes I have to stop and think, We didn’t do it that way, [but] we have to do it this way,” Day says resignedly. “This is today’s world.”
Washington Ballet Board President Kay Kendall served on the search committee and was initially pessimistic about finding anyone for the job—until the headhunter delivered Webre.
“Septime, well, he’s just a jewel,” says Kendall, a gentle Tennessee accent coloring her words. “He had a stellar background. And the dancers really enjoyed working with him. He was someone we were all willing to take a bet on.”
There’s always the element of a crapshoot when you hire someone to take over a company, but so far, the bet has paid off. The winter performances sold out a week in advance—which hadn’t happened in four years.
“My personal feeling was, Let’s give it our best shot for three years, and if it didn’t work out, it wouldn’t be Septime’s fault—it would just mean that Washington wasn’t the place to have a company,” Kendall says, though she is optimistic about the company’s future under Webre’s leadership. “He seems clearly to me to represent the next wave of interpretation for what ballet stands for.”
In ballet, interpretation is everything. It’s not about adding to the canon so much as it is about telling the same story in a different way. Webre is not the first person to set a ballet to Carmina Burana. (The company even has a version by Fernand Nault in its recent repertory.) But he is the first to include a 16-foot-high, powder-white Marie Antoinette wig as part of the costuming.
Webre cites Virginia Woolf’s novella Orlando as one of his primary inspirations for Carmina, but—though he doesn’t admit it—the costuming and staging owe a clear nod to Sally Potter’s film version of the time-travelling, gender-bending novella.
“I choreographed some of it to David Byrne and then put it to Orff,” Webre admits. “I added some other input: Virginia Woolf. Renaissance art. I find my way to the score kind of through the back door.”
Webre’s back-door approach, his postmodern pastiche drawn from literature, film, visual art, and the visual noise of MTV, distinguishes him from the traditional ballet world in which Mary Day made a name for herself.
Dancer Du, who has been with the Washington Ballet for 10 years, says he noticed the difference right off: His body aches in new ways. But he has no complaints.
“If you are a true artist and have a strong mind, comfort is not what you’re looking for in this business,” says Du. “If you’re looking for comfort, this is not the company to be in anymore. ‘Anymore’ is important—because it used to be.” CP