Editorial Review

'Juanita' Pairs Ballet With Latin Rhythms

By Sarah Halzack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 8, 2009

For his ballet "Juanita y Alicia," choreographer Septime Webre sought inspiration from an unusual place: his childhood living room. When he was growing up in the Bahamas, his Cuban parents would push the couches aside on Saturday nights, crank up folk music from their native country and dance for hours with the family.

In addition to drawing from his own memories, the artistic director of the Washington Ballet says the dance is "a very personal work influenced by stories I heard from my mother about Havana in the 1920s and '30s." The piece, which Webre, 47, choreographed in 1999, his first year with the company, is part of "PastForward," a mixed-repertory program that opens Wednesday at the Harman Center for the Arts.

The dancers play characters inspired by members of Webre's family: Juanita, spiritual and romantic, is his mother; Alicia, a rowdy party girl, is his aunt; and a trio of mischievous men are his uncles. Though the piece is set to Cuban folk music, which will be played live, the movement in "Juanita y Alicia" is decidedly balletic.

If Webre's work aims to transport audience members to Latin America, choreographer Edwaard Liang's "Wunderland" will take them to an entirely different world. Webre says that Liang, a former New York City Ballet dancer, was inspired by a recent trip to a small town in Russia, where he saw a scale model of the entire village in an oversize snow globe. Intrigued, Liang wanted to try to "re-create a whole little world" onstage, Webre says. Set to a score by Philip Glass, "Wunderland" also reflects Liang's City Ballet roots. "You can see some relationship with [George] Balanchine's work, particularly the inventive partnering," Webre says.

Fittingly, a Balanchine work, "Rubies," will be presented alongside Liang's world premiere. Webre says he chose the piece, one of three sections from Balanchine's 1967 ballet "Jewels," because he thinks it's a good fit for his current crop of dancers. "It's a very energetic company and a playful company, and those qualities can be seen in the ballet," he says. The dancers are being coached by two of Balanchine's muses and members of the work's original cast, Edward Villella and Patricia McBride.

"PastForward" was scheduled to feature the unveiling of "Rocketman," a ballet choreographed by Webre to the music of Elton John, but the piece was temporarily shelved because music licensing negotiations were incomplete. (Interestingly, the premiere of "Juanita y Alicia" was almost sidelined 10 years ago when a licensing agreement fell through but was saved when Webre found a Cuban band playing folk tunes in an Adams Morgan bar and got the group to step in.) Webre says "Rocketman" won't be performed until 2010 at the earliest.