A “beloved friend” and artistic partner on six “crazy collaborations.” That’s how Carla Hübner introduced Septime Webre on Friday night at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Ostensibly, her occasion for gushing was the premiere of “Carmen in Havana,” a dance-theater work that paired singers from Hübner’s chamber opera group, the In Series, with young dancers from the Washington Ballet’s studio and trainee companies. But as most audience members knew, the premiere became more auspicious after Webre’s surprise Friday afternoon announcement that he will step down in June after 17 years of running the dance company.
If Webre intended to highlight the hallmarks of his tenure, the timing was perfect. The company has grown tremendously under his leadership: 30 dancers were onstage in “Carmen,” including 10 from the studio troupe and 20 trainees. By one count, the Washington Ballet is the nation’s 11th-largest. Webre, who is half Cuban, has smartly courted local Latino donors and artists, including Hübner, who is Chilean.
Collaborating on “Carmen in Havana” proved a pragmatic choice. Webre first choreographed Bizet’s opera in 2001, the year after the company premiered “Juanita y Alicia,” a piece inspired by Webre’s familial roots. Much of the choreography was recycled from those two ballets, with additional songs and transitions choreographed by David Palmer, who recently resigned as Webre’s associate artistic director to run the Rochester City Ballet in New York.
The best pieces on the program featured the dancers “echoing” the sentiments of singers through movement. Regrettably, the story of Carmen was not well served by the production, although several arias from the opera were staged cleverly. One was the tarot-card scene, where the future love lives of two ensemble singers (Randa Rouweyha and Erin Passmore) were cheekily predicted by two couples from the ballet.
Palmer created those pas de deux, and he proved the stronger choreographer when it came to developing characters. Webre’s “Habanera,” for example, was far too fast and chaotic to be sultry. More than a dozen dancers surrounded the sassy mezzo-soprano Anamer Castrello, although it must be said that she appeared to be having the time of her life, strutting around and singing about a rebellious bird while girls in white fluttered around her. Three ballerinas took turns donning a red brocade vest similar to the singer’s to dance the role of Carmen. Technically, Ao Wang was the strongest, but it was Kyra Wendelken who best managed to emote while writhing through the awkward series of turns and lifts in a duet that depicted the gypsy’s death.
In the sung role of wayward soldier Don José, tenor Peter Burroughs proved a weak link, slurring his French and sounding rather nasal. It didn’t help musical matters that Carlos C. Rodriguez — the hardest-working man onstage — had to make do with an out-of-tune piano as he banged out a reduction of Bizet’s score. Yet for all of the flaws in “Carmen,” patrons had to leave hoping these collaborations continue despite Webre’s and Palmer’s departures. “The bird you hoped to catch flew away,” Carmen sings in her “Habanera,” but she ends the aria on a hopeful note: “It comes, goes, then it returns.”
Ritzel is a freelance writer.