Washington Ballet's Septime Webre looked to athletes for 'Great Gatsby' moves

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 Liz Clarke
Saturday, February 27, 2010

Neither Tiger Woods nor Roger Federer is listed among the credits for the Washington Ballet's production of "The Great Gatsby."

And if the world's best golfer or No. 1 tennis player attended a performance at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, neither would imagine that he served as an inspiration for the dance that opens Act II. But creator Septime Webre studied footage of both in developing the dance.

The pas de deux, between characters Nick Caraway and Jordan Baker, accounts for just three minutes of the ballet, but it serves an important role in F. Scott Fitzgerald's narrative. And from an artistic perspective, it represents the common terrain between athletes and dancers, Webre said.

"They are both fluid and graceful and confident in their movement," Webre said. "Assuredness in one's own coordination and grace is an important building block of ballet, and it's certainly part of Roger Federer's and Woods's approach."

Turning to the courts

Webre initially envisioned the scene as a tennis date. He rationalized that, because Jordan is a professional golfer in the novel (representing the modern, independent woman of the early 1920s), she and Nick wouldn't play golf on a date because she'd crush him. So he settled on tennis as a backdrop for Jordan telling Nick the back story of the romance between Jay Gatsby and her friend Daisy Buchanan.

Webre turned to Mark Ein, owner of the District's World TeamTennis squad, the Washington Kastles, for advice on choreographing a tennis match. Ein suggested he study footage of Federer, regarded as peerless in his on-court grace.

So Webre immersed himself in YouTube footage of the Swiss champion.

"You could see what Federer is doing is really dancing," Webre said. "The directional changes are lickety-split. You want both changes in level, both up and down, and changes in lateral direction. Swift changes of direction and a mercurial kind of approach to the physicality make for an interesting dance phrase."

Former tennis pro Patrick McEnroe, captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, routinely refers to Federer as "Baryshnikov in sneakers." So he wasn't surprised to learn that Federer served as a choreographer's muse.

"Part of the reason Federer has had this consistency over the years is because of the way he moves and his economy of movement," McEnroe said. "Even when he's out of balance on full stretch, he appears to be in perfect balance."

Three weeks before opening night, Webre had a change of heart, worried that a tennis match might confuse audience members who knew that Fitzgerald's Jordan was a golfer.

So he asked the composer of the sequence's music to cut out the wood blocks simulating the sound of a tennis ball being struck and reworked the dance to one in which Jordan teaches Nick to golf.

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