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

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010; E01

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.

* * *

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.

"Okay, this is a real, old-fashioned, going-off-to-war kiss," he tells Jared Nelson, a dancer with a withheld, distracted air and a mass of gold curls who will portray Gatsby. "Really take her and smooch." Webre demonstrates, pulling Daisy's ballerina incarnation, the petite, fine-boned Elizabeth Gaither, into a deep dip and faux-nuzzling her as she giggles.

Thusly commanded to snog the blonde, Nelson, a good soldier, complies. More giggles.

But there's no time to linger. In the next few bars of music, Gatsby's soldier buddies march on to lead him off to war, lifting him out of Daisy's arms and carrying him backward into the wings "so it's like a balloon floating away," Webre tells them. "Wait -- guys, do it so his foot doesn't kick her in the groin."

Hurriedly -- that is, more hurriedly than usual for Webre, who even under ordinary circumstances moves and speaks at a breathless clip -- he turns to Gaither.

"Now you do a little solo of anger. Let's see . . . " The words barely out of his mouth, he doubles over in a quick, violent convulsion, then whips around in a full turn and stops, reaching his arms to where Nelson has vanished. He swings around again.

"Now maybe you should go to the audience -- " He extends his arms.

Gaither does it, adding her own dramatic fillip at the end, reaching toward the front wall of mirrors with one hand while bringing the other to her cheek. It's a gesture that even in the gray rehearsal studio, ringed with backpacks full of toe shoes and heavy with heat and the smell of sweat, delivers a poignant sting.

"Yes!" says Webre. A glance at the clock; time's up. "Thank you very much, everybody," and as the dancers lightly applaud him -- a ballet custom -- he collects an armful of notebooks and CDs and rushes out of the room.

* * *

Webre, the extroverted center of attention at the Washington Ballet for the past 10 seasons, naturally operates up-tempo. There's an unmistakable forcefulness about him, from his quick stride and fast speech to his boldly sculpted features and important nose. In an average week he might juggle the teaching of company class, rehearsing repertoire, dancer scheduling, fundraising duties, marketing meetings, strategy sessions and donor receptions. But choreographing a full-length ballet at a breakneck pace is a challenge of another order.

"I've been so nervous," he gushes, running a hand through the dark hair hanging over his face as he flips through rehearsal schedules. Wearing chic, trim sports garb -- black down vest zipped over a white T-shirt, track pants and sneakers -- he's sitting in his sunlit office above the studio, holding charts of names, scenes and blocks of time that bear more cross-outs and handwriting than print.

Webre stabs a fork into his takeout chicken Caesar salad, the burger-and-fries of the dancer set. "Every night I go home and restructure the entire day."

Yet an observer can't help but sense that even in his agitation, Webre is completely in his element. The time pressure just makes it more exciting. And for Webre, who grew up primarily in Texas as the seventh of nine children in a Cuban American family, telling a yarn is second nature.

"They used to call me the Great Extrapolator," Webre says of his siblings. "We always had anecdotes flying around the parlor."

Tackling "Gatsby" "felt natural," he says. "It felt like a story I knew really well."

He fell in love with it in his 20s, when Fitzgerald's indictment of the downside of wealth dovetailed with his own experience. It was the late 1980s, and Webre was a dancer in New York, smack-dab in the age of junk bond king Michael Milken, with Wall Street rocketing to an apogee of greed. "I was fascinated by this notion of excess and its cost," Webre says.

Mixing choreography with his directing duties, Webre has created a number of works for this company and others over the years, revisions of traditional ballets and works based on familiar stories. But years have gone by since he has choreographed anything major. There was a bitter labor dispute and its aftermath to deal with (a union contract was first signed in 2006), and he's also been working on an expansion into Anacostia, with a second campus for the Washington School of Ballet.

About a year ago, Webre says, he realized "I was really hankering to get back in the studio with the dancers."

A handful of other regional ballet companies have adapted "The Great Gatsby" in dance. Ohio's BalletMet Columbus unveiled its version just last spring. The Washington Ballet is borrowing sets and costumes from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production. But none of these treatments has garnered wide attention, Webre believes, because they have lacked a definitive musical score.

He hopes to change that. A live eight-piece jazz band and two singers will accompany the ballet, playing classics from the 1920s -- cakewalks and the Charleston, Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do?," tunes by Duke Ellington and others -- as well as original compositions by Novick, a saxophonist and bandleader based in Boston.

Novick is a specialist in the music of the era. However, he came on board with a caveat: He wanted the freedom to improvise, since jazz of the 1920s was all about spontaneous flourishes. Webre -- not surprisingly -- was up for the challenge, though choreographing to improvised music is no easy job. Each song's arrangement will be set, but within the framework there may be space for the musicians to cut loose. This means in some spots, rather than relying on musical cues, the dancers will be counting out bars on their own -- and hoping everyone else's counts match up.

"Honestly, it could be a bit of a problem," Novick says. "But I guess we'll find out."

* * *

We had luncheon in the dining-room, darkened too against the heat, and drank down nervous gaiety with the cold ale.

Standing around a small round table are five dancers, portraying Gatsby, Daisy, her husband, Tom, and their friends Nick and Jordan. It's a tense scene near the end of the ballet, a meal on a sweltering summer day at Tom and Daisy's Long Island mansion. Daisy's reawakened feelings for Gatsby are in full view of her husband, and Tom starts to bare his teeth at both of them in response. The moment is full of seething passion, growing confusion and awkward voyeurism. That, at least, is what the characters are supposed to be communicating. As Webre works out the dancers' steps, it's clear they've definitely got a handle on the confusion part. The passion and voyeurism, though, are entirely Webre's.

"Now, this might be kind of crazy," he says to Jonathan Jordan, who plays Nick. He rushes over to Gaither, tracing Jordan's moves. "You've just put her down. How 'bout you roll -- " he shows him, swiveling around on the floor all bunched up like he's a boiled egg. "And then you're here?"

It's a move you'll find in no ballet curriculum. Jordan, slouching into one hip, watches him with a look that says he's seen Webre propose lots of crazy ideas and none of them fazes him anymore. "That's the side Jared is on," he says.

"Crap," says Webre, without a trace of annoyance. "Never mind. It puts you on the wrong side." Another idea lands; he doesn't miss a beat. "How 'bout: Jon, you take her and roll around this way? Does that make sense?"

He dashes over to the CD player to find the right track. While his back is turned, the dancers, one by one, peer under the table and test its metal legs, tugging on them to make sure they're locked.

It's easy to see why when the music starts up, a swift-paced rag with a dark, wobbly undertone. The dancers circle the table, slap it, kick up a leg and bang the heel down on the surface. They step away, whip back around, fall toward it and kick up their legs before finally leaping upon it.

Tinkering with the dancers in such compressed space, Webre might as well be directing a clockworks, or a minidrama in a snow globe. Still, as they tower over him on their pedestal, he urges them to step bigger, arch more fully, fly in the tight dimensions as if they were soaring in an opera house. It may be a small space, but what's at stake is big, and Webre's imagination is bigger still, and the premiere is bearing down.

* * *

And so we beat on, boats against the current . . .

Nelson folds himself gingerly into a chair in the hallway outside the studio, remarking on how tired he is of slogging to rehearsals through snow and ice, so treacherous for injury-phobic dancers, and how he thinks it will be a while yet before he's comfortable enough with the choreography to start layering on the finer points of Gatsby's character. Right now, it's all about remembering the steps.

Webre "always has a lot of energy no matter what," says Nelson, a company member since Webre took over a decade ago. "But here he has a goal and he works really fast.

"It's hard for us dancers to keep up sometimes," he adds with a laugh. "But we're doing the best we can."

For his part, Webre seems happier than a bond trader before the crash. "I'm engaged in creative thinking and that creativity stays with me," he says. "I'm having a blast."

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