Septime Webre betting Washington Ballet's 'Gatsby' resonates in recession times

The Washington Ballet rehearses for the world premiere of "The Great Gatsby," choreographed by the company's artistic director, Septime Webre after the F. Scott Fitzgerald book.
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010

It took F. Scott Fitzgerald three years to write "The Great Gatsby," the Jazz Age novel we all read in high school, the one that breaks your heart as it sends the American dream through a shredder of greed, carelessness, dishonesty and false hope. But Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, doesn't have an author's luxury of time as he distills the novel into an evening-length dance production.

The world premiere of Webre's "The Great Gatsby" -- the biggest creative project Webre, 48, has ever undertaken -- opens Thursday at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater and runs through next Sunday. It's a half-million-dollar gamble, a test of his ability to pull off what other dance companies may do only rarely, if ever: produce a brand-new, full-length story ballet.

"The Great Gatsby" is not Webre's most expensive production -- that would be his 2004 "Nutcracker," which cost twice as much -- but it is by far the most artistically ambitious. Webre is bringing it forth virtually from scratch. Unlike a reworking of such standard fare as "Swan Lake" or "Giselle" -- what most ballet companies resort to in the way of full-length productions -- there is no set "Gatsby" libretto for a ballet (Webre wrote his own), no established musical score (he cobbled one together with jazz musician Billy Novick), no boilerplate choreography passed down over the years. (He's making that part up, too.)

Creating a "new" production of, say, the timeworn "Nutcracker" is essentially traffic control and rearranging furniture. Creating "The Great Gatsby" is something Fitzgerald's super-confident hero, Jay Gatsby, himself might savor: a great big optimistic bet.

Can Webre's dance conception approach Fitzgerald's lyricism? Can he convince us of an emotional truth, with movement and music alone? Will audiences take to it? "Gatsby" could be a $500,000 flop. But Webre is a born storyteller and a showman, and his "Nutcracker" and other works, such as "Where the Wild Things Are" and "Peter Pan," have been fairly reliable hits.

Then there is the timeliness of Fitzgerald's book. From the depths of our Great Recession, his view of society teetering on the edge of the Great Depression feels very 21st century. Coming off a raucous financial ride not unlike the Roaring Twenties, we're primed to look darkly upon the reckless rapacity of such moral bottom-feeders as Daisy and Tom Buchanan, the to-the-manor-born foils to Gatsby and his self-made fortune.

Yet social relevance, courage and showmanship get you only so far in a venture of this magnitude. Making a ballet from the ground up is deep wallow in microeconomics and minutiae. Creating a three-minute pas de deux takes Webre some five hours of studio time. The full ballet will be 100 minutes (two hours with intermission). Neither the math nor the calendar is on his side, but this is a man who seems to thrive on frenzy. It's a good thing, considering the timetable he's set for himself.

He squeezed in some rehearsal time last fall, just before "Nutcracker" season. After the holidays, as guest choreographer schedules dictated, the dancers had to work on future repertory for the company's April and May programs. Webre has had only the past couple of weeks to focus on "Gatsby." Working in the wake of snowstorms, illnesses and injuries, Webre has to keep to a schedule of six-hour days carved like therapy sessions into 55-minute blocks. Rehearsals have resembled nothing so much as a manic pinball game of bodies set to eight-count bars of music, with cast members bounding from corner to corner and Webre at the controls -- one eye on his dancers and one on the clock.

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On a recent afternoon at the company's studios on Wisconsin Avenue NW, Webre has been working for nearly an hour on one scene, a flashback to when Gatsby first meets Daisy, the devastating belle with whom he becomes so obsessed that he resolves to win her back even after they're forced apart, even after she marries Tom.

He knew that when he kissed this girl . . . his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her.

Of course, Fitzgerald's imagery come across a little differently in Webre's conception.

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