A dancer's 'Tail'

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"I was 10 when I wrote my first play," Septime Webre explains, leaning way forward like he's sharing a secret. "My 8-year-old sister was my muse [inspiration]. I made her a white gown by using a bedspread and pinning it on her."

This homemade production gave no hint that Webre -- the seventh son in a family of eight children -- would go on to become a star in the ballet world. Webre didn't try ballet until he took classes with his sister at age 12 or 13, and he didn't dance seriously until college, where he studied to go to law school. But ballet pulled him in, and after graduating he had a successful career as a dancer. For the past 11 years, Webre has been the artistic director of the Washington Ballet, where he has built an international reputation for the local ballet company.

Now, for the first time in 17 years, Webre is getting back onstage for a brief, live performance in a show aimed at kids. Called "Shoogie: The Tail of My Wiener Dog," the production is part play, part ballet, and tells the story of a wiener dog that keeps drinking water, without peeing, until he eventually explodes.

The show features Webre dancing a brief solo and doing a funny monologue about the dog in a heavy southern accent. The story, brought to life by a group of advanced student dancers, age 16 to 20, also features the music of Elvis Presley. Webre hopes it will open up the world of ballet to younger audiences.

" 'Shoogie' is a new way to tell a story," Webre says. "It's a really entertaining experience but also an introduction to an art form I love and am passionate about."

Shoogie draws heavily from Webre's childhood in Brownsville, Texas, where he moved when he was 12. (Webre grew up on a sugar plantation in the Bahamas.) He first wrote and produced the play 20 years ago for an adult audience, but parents started bringing their kids. During rehearsals for the current production, he still reads the monologue, written in perfect, faded cursive, from the same black-and-white school notebook he wrote it in.

Webre is the son of a Cuban mother and an American father, who fled Cuba to escape the communist revolution. They settled in the Bahamas so his father, an engineer, could continue designing sugar mills. All the children were expected to become lawyers or engineers. But in the Bahamas, and again in small-town Texas, there was "not much to do so we invented our own fun," Webre said, including wild storytelling sessions and Saturday night family dances with the living room furniture pushed aside.

"I was always the hotshot showoff on the dance floor, even at age 8," Webre recalls.

So how does it feel to be back onstage again, at age 48? "Nerve-wracking!" he said.

-- Margaret Webb Pressler

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