Troubled Washington Ballet Is Further Shaken by Death Of Its School's Director

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Washington Ballet, struggling through contentious contract negotiations with its dancers and the cost of having prematurely closed its "Nutcracker" run in a related dispute, has suffered another blow. Rebecca Wright, director of the company's affiliated Washington School of Ballet, died Sunday night after a long battle with cancer, officials announced yesterday.

Wright's death falls especially hard on the institution because she had directed the school only since September 2004. Wright, 58, was the first successor to founder Mary Day, who had run the school for 60 years. Wright had been brought on to continue Day's tradition of nationally recognized excellence, said Artistic Director Septime Webre, but she barely got a chance.

"I feel heartbroken that her tenure was so brief," Webre said yesterday. "But I feel honored to have worked with her so intensely." Webre praised Wright's energy and "unflagging commitment to high standards," and said that under Wright's leadership school enrollment grew from 350 to 450 students. As recently as two weeks ago, he said, she was teaching as well as traveling to audition students for the school's summer program.

Webre said he would be available to make artistic decisions at the school, in consultation with the faculty, until an interim director is chosen.

According to Washington Ballet spokeswoman Keri Mesropov, Wright had undergone treatment for breast cancer before assuming her post here, and in recent months she had discovered she had ovarian cancer. Scarcely a week ago, she found out the cancer had spread to her liver, Mesropov said.

Wright's death and the need to find her successor complicates an already tangled situation at the ballet, where the management of the professional company has come under scrutiny. Negotiations on a first-ever union contract with the dancers turned sour in December, when the ballet charged that the dancers had threatened a strike by refusing to dance without an interim agreement. The ballet shut down nearly half of its moneymaking "Nutcracker" run, resulting in a loss of profit that led to the cancellation of other scheduled productions through April. The dancers have been laid off. A return date has not yet been decided, though Webre said he hopes rehearsals will resume in March.

Contract negotiations have continued, though yesterday's meeting was canceled, Webre said.

Webre said Wright's death highlights the need for healing at the institution, among the students who have lost a teacher as well as among the dancers and company leadership. "Certainly we all know there's been a lot of difficulties this year not related to Becky but related to the current labor disputes, and we certainly want healing of that as well," he said. "Difficult times bring people together."

Before coming to the Washington School of Ballet, Wright had run American Ballet Theatre's summer intensive program. She had been a principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet and then a soloist at American Ballet Theatre in the 1970s and early 1980s. ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, in town for the company's opening at the Kennedy Center tonight, recalled Wright's "quicksilver technique and elfin quality" as a dancer.

"She always appeared to be having such a good time," McKenzie said. "In fact, that was true during her performing career and after. Becky was never afraid to take on a challenge -- whether she actually liked it or not -- and have fun with it."

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