His dancers are lunging and hurtling in front of him, springing into the air and thundering to the floor with a sound like stampeding oxen, but for Septime Webre it's clearly not enough.
"Okay, check it out," he announces in one of his last rehearsals with the American Repertory Ballet, the company he led before being tapped to direct the Washington Ballet.
"It's five, six--" Webre swings his hips. "Seven, eight--" he bolts into the air, crashing down hard in a crouch. As the dancers try to follow his example, he repeats the moves, jumping higher, coiling tighter and landing more forcefully than any of them. The studio resounds with bodies launching and falling. There's no music, just a hailstorm of slapping, slipping, crashing and thudding, and laughter and chatter, with Webre alternating between dancing all the parts and clapping out counts. In this excitable atmosphere, you'd swear the room was shaking.
And you ask yourself, what are the classically trained and understated dancers of the strait-laced Washington Ballet going to do when Webre bounces around in front of them?
'A Little Bit Audacious'
Not only the dancers but local audiences, too, are in for some surprises when Webre takes over the Washington Ballet. The hyperactive 37-year-old, who starts the job Tuesday, has lots of plans. The 1999-2000 season will give Washington audiences a crash-course in his wide-ranging artistic sensibilities.
For the past 23 years, the ballet company reflected the more conventional tastes of its founder, Mary Day. But Day is stepping down, and Webre has been hired to replace her.
And he wants the change to be felt immediately.
"For the first season I wanted to be a little bit audacious," Webre says. "A bit more experimental than what you've experienced at the Washington Ballet before."
In its September appearances at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, the company will perform works by neoclassic master George Balanchine, contemporary craftsman Jiri Kylian and Spanish romantic Nacho Duato, as well as a new dance by Webre, drawing on his Cuban heritage. Beefing up the roster of dancers will be American Ballet Theatre star Amanda McKerrow and her husband, ABT soloist John Gardner, who will join the Washington Ballet as principal guest artists for the season.
In February the company will tackle another Webre work, an irreverent take on "Carmina Burana," the Carl Orff cantata, which will be sung by a 100-voice chorus, paired with the esteemed Antony Tudor's whisper-soft classicism in "The Leaves Are Fading."
Other upcoming programs include Webre's collaboration with children's author-illustrator Maurice Sendak on the ballet version of Sendak's classic "Where the Wild Things Are," as well as works by contemporary choreographers Kevin O'Day and Dwight Rhoden.
Webre has also booked the Washington Ballet to perform at New York's Joyce Theater for a week in February. He says a European tour is not far off.
It's a stunning mix of style, approach, dance vocabulary, subject matter and level of difficulty to present over one eight-month season, especially when contrasted with the company's safe, unremarkable diet over the past few years. The Washington Ballet has been relying on a cycle of classically based works, a straightforward staple here and there by either Balanchine or the late, beloved resident choreographer and associate director Choo-San Goh, and more than a few forgettable pieces in the contemporary ballet vein.
All of which is to say the company has been long overdue for the kind of brisk change Webre is planning. Not only is Webre a distinct departure from the more conservative Day, but he also has little in common with the deliberative and detail-oriented Goh. Webre--tall, lanky and given to underscoring his points with bold gestures--moves fast, speaks fast and acts fast, and favors works with a similarly charged athletic pulse.
At the American Repertory Ballet, a well-respected regional company that Webre joined first as a dancer, he rose swiftly through the ranks, becoming its resident choreographer and then artistic director before he was 30.
Webre made his mark invigorating the repertoire with youthful, high-energy works of his own as well as by such popular contemporary voices as David Parsons, William Forsythe and Daniel Ezralow. With 22 dancers, ARB is roughly the same size as the Washington Ballet but has the problem of being close to New York City, the dance mecca of the world. Unlike most regional ballet companies, ARB cannot draw audiences with restagings of the full-length classics like "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty"; there are too many higher-caliber performances of those chestnuts a brief train ride away. The company has had to develop a repertoire that sets it apart from the New York scene, works that are either quirkily unconventional or plainly crowd-pleasing.
Once at the helm, Webre managed to pull the troupe out of a debt that had threatened to sink it and increase both the budget and the number of dancers. He also oversaw a merger with the Garden State Ballet and the expansion of the company's training arm, the Princeton Ballet School. Key to his accomplishments, say those associated with the company, were Webre's eye for new works and keen people skills. "He can really charm anyone," says ARB board chair Jane Factor. "It works for funders, and it works for audiences."
The path was not without its pitfalls. In his 12 years with the company, Webre created 17 ballets, and while some were hailed by critics, others were utter flops. The most spectacular of these--Webre now readily calls it "a nightmare"--was a piece called "Don't Smoke in Bed," in which songs by 1950s cabaret singer Julie London were interspersed with readings of letters that would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley wrote to actress Jodie Foster. Among the dubious highlights of the dancing, Webre recalls, were solos he performed holding a license plate, to allude to Hinckley's imprisonment.
"That, undoubtedly, will never rear its head again," Webre says, enjoying a deep laugh at the memory.
Sometimes his eagerness to try new voices got him into trouble, such as when a guest choreographer contributed a piece in which dancers wore tastelessly skimpy bikinis. Webre hadn't seen the costumes. When he did, he canceled the performance at the last minute, yanking the dancers from the wings just before they made their entrance.
There have been other misadventures, he acknowledges, some due to inexperience, and some that can only be called acts of God, as when the ship bearing the lavish costumes and sets for his new version of "Romeo and Juliet"--which the company had performed on tour overseas--sank to the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.
But Webre nonetheless plowed ahead with a self-confidence and optimism he traces to his parents' openness of spirit.
Webre grew up in what he calls "a big Latin family," one of nine children born to a Cuban mother and French American father. The two met while Alfred Webre was managing sugar refineries in Cuba. Webre's older brothers were born on the island; the family went stateside in the aftermath of the revolution, where seventh child Webre and his two younger siblings were born. ("Septime" derives from the French sept, for seven.)
"My family experience was exuberant," says Webre. "We were given a beautiful legacy, which was a real curiosity about the world."
The Webres eventually settled in Brownsville, Tex., where Septime remembers choreographing shows with his siblings and inviting the neighbors to watch. Alfred Webre was frequently overseas on engineering assignments; the family would join him in such locations as the Sudan, Africa and the Caribbean for vacations. It was during these drastic periods of cultural adjustment, Webre's father recalls, that his son's love of dancing gained force.
One summer on the Ivory Coast, young Septime organized the other expatriate kids in a comic version of "Cinderella" that had the sugar mill workmen howling in the aisles, the elder Webre relates by phone from Brownsville. At another time, the Webres were in the Bahamas during the islands' New Year's Eve celebration, and as the public merrymaking reached a fever pitch well into the early hours of the morning, "there was Septime leading the crowd, dancing in the streets," recalls his father with a laugh.
It wasn't until he was enrolled at the University of Texas, however, that Webre took his first dance lesson. He fell headlong in love with the architectural beauty of ballet, eventually dancing with Ballet Austin, then moving to New York for further study and settling in with the nearby American Repertory Ballet. (He left in 1991 for a brief stint as an apprentice with the Merce Cunningham Company, the acclaimed modern dance ensemble.)
With his late start in training, Webre wasn't properly molded for the purely classical, "white tights" roles in the ballet repertoire. But his vitality onstage drew notice, recalls Dermot Burke, the former ARB director who hired Webre.
"He had physical gifts that were in the medium range but he got a lot out of them," says Burke, who now heads the Dayton Ballet. "He was very energized and totally focused."
Webre began choreographing almost immediately upon joining the company, with a predilection for highlighting his dancers' individual movement signatures.
"He wants to get under the skin of the artist and the idea," says ARB Managing Director Harris N. Ferris. "He does like to find what is idiosyncratic about each dancer. He wants to draw them out as collaborators."
In past works, Webre has taken inspiration from sources as varied as the ruminations on social mores of Camille Paglia and the ring-shout traditions of the black South. Webre makes no apologies for his unorthodox tastes in both ballets and dancers. "I'm attracted to the oddball, in a way," Webre says. "The person who's extreme is actually more vulnerable. We learn more about that individual, and we can relate to them more as a person."
For hints of what future seasons of the Washington Ballet might offer one can look to the ARB repertoire. A recent performance series in New Jersey featured works by Balanchine, aggressive postmodernist Ezralow, a premiere by a member of the company making one of his first forays in choreography and a violently supercharged all-male dance by Portuguese choreographer Olga Roriz, whom Webre met while his company was on tour in her homeland.
While at that viewing the technical level of the dancers appeared to be somewhat lower than that of the Washington dancers, the ARB members displayed a distinct fearlessness and drive. Company members say that's a Webre hallmark, and sure to be elicited from the Washington Ballet dancers.
"I think what they'll be most surprised by is a demand for a supreme physicality and rawness that he cherishes," says ARB member Stephen Shropshire of Webre's new charges. "Even in his classicism there is that rawness."
"He likes the explosive side of dance, the in-your-face, exciting part of ballet," says dancer Jason Hartley, whom Webre is bringing to the Washington Ballet along with dancer Erin Mahoney. (A half-dozen Washington Ballet dancers will be leaving.)
To hear some members of the Washington Ballet, they can hardly wait for the shift, however drastic.
"He's the type of inspirational figure that is very good for this company," says Runqiao Du, who has danced with the company for the past decade. "Miss Day puts a lot of effort on the line of the legs and feet; that's a very typical look for the Washington Ballet. I'm expecting to see some changes. Septime is more aggressive and expressive; he's not going to limit anything."
Webre has already been making contact with several local leaders of dance organizations to round up support for cross-pollinating projects, presenting ballet and modern dance on the same stage, or ballet and African dance.
He hopes to launch a venture tentatively called Dance D.C., in collaboration with the Kennedy Center, the Dance Institute of Washington and the D.C. public schools, to offer free ballet training to schoolchildren who couldn't otherwise afford it.
"The only way the Washington Ballet can be successful is by being a meaningful part of the cultural fabric of the city," he says.
He cautions that audiences shouldn't hold their breath for unalloyed accomplishments, however. "What's important is the growth of the company over time. Some new work will be a turkey. But I would expect most people to view the company as moving forward.
"I want the company to have a strong sense of physical attack and abandon, and joy," he continues. "I want them to just go for it. That's the spirit that I have about life--not saving anything for tomorrow."
CAPTION: Septime Webre, rehearsing with his old company, American Repertory Ballet. For his first season with the Washington Ballet, he says, "I wanted to be a little bit audacious."