Has the sun ever risen on a busier ballet?
Consider Ernest Hemingway’s grim treatise on wounds of flesh and spirit, “The Sun Also Rises,” with its famously arid, unembellished, plainspoken style.
When it hits the stage, it may feel just a tiny bit different.
On a recent afternoon, there’s a party going on in one of the Washington Ballet’s studios on Wisconsin Avenue NW. Well, it’s not technically a party. It just looks like one. Crowded. Messy. Beautiful swimsuit-ready young people lounging around half-dressed. Chatter and laughter. The stereo in the corner is playing hot jazz. There’s lots of dancing.
“Guys, you have to drink at least two drinks before the end of the song. So get to the cafe right away and start drinking.”
It’s an order from the boss.
This is one of the great challenges facing Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, as he turns Hemingway’s 1926 novel into a ballet. How can he get his dancers to down enough booze?
Alcohol is a central player in Hemingway’s book. The tormented hero, Jake Barnes, lost the family jewels in World War I. He drowns that pain and his unconsummatable love for Lady Brett Ashley in buckets of booze as he and his expat buddies slosh their way from Paris to Pamplona. (If you haven’t read it, shame on your English curriculum. But at a taut 250 pages, it’s easily digested before seeing the ballet, which runs Wednesday through next Sunday at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.)
Webre and librettist Karen Zacarias boiled the story down to scenes with the most emotion and atmosphere, and the Left Bank bars figure heavily.
“I want Jake to have 12 drinks — literally — before Brett arrives,” Webre says.
So as the music in the studio shifts to bouncy ragtime, dancers leap into the center of the room, where there’s a makeshift bar. They gulp from imaginary glasses and bound away. The bar is wheeled to the side; tables and chairs appear in its place. Dancers hop on and off the furniture. Someone cartwheels off a table, catapulting into thin air like a human firework — and he’s caught by half a dozen waiting arms.
It’s stunning. The crowd in the room gets quiet for a few seconds. “Guys, I am shocked at how good that was,” Webre says.
The hustle resumes. A bed is shoved to the center for a quick scene in Jake’s room. Off it goes, pushed away to the wall under one of the ballet barres. A few dancers with nothing to do at the moment take advantage. They stretch out on it, overlapping like kittens.
Next, a jaunty kazoo tune. (Billy Novick wrote and arranged the music, drawn from the 1920s; it will be performed live.) Luis Torres, as Count Mippipopolous, a fellow war veteran and gentlemanly sophisticate, slinks through his solo, sliding backward, shrugging his shoulders and rolling his hips. Watching him, Webre arcs his neck in a dreamy little roll of his own.
“Bring on the chandelier,” he says.
Turns out, it’s a woman — Aurora Dickie, who is lifted overhead by four men and carried toward the wall of mirrors as if she’s a roast leg of lamb. In costume, she’ll look like a platinum-plated Ziegfield Girl, with a headdress of arcing wire and crystals, topped with a fountain of feathers.
“Guys,” Webre says, “that mountain of men that’s carrying her, that’s gotta go quickly here. Let’s pick it up from the new wonderful lift.”
Choreography isn’t all that is on Webre’s mind. This ballet is a multimedia production. Lighting and projection designers sit facing the action, laptops open, conferring about set cues. (Video projections will include snippets of cabaret performer Josephine Baker; excerpts of Hemingway’s prose, which will appear typewritten across the stage before our very eyes; and oh, yes, bulls. Lots of bulls.)
Off to the side, production manager Edward Cucurello is taking notes with an assistant. Next to him, ballet master Elaine Kudo, stopping and starting the CD player, is trying to keep up with Webre as he speeds through the scenes.
They’ve all got questions for him. With one eye on the clock, Webre threads through several conversations at once. Clearly, he can tolerate a lot of distractions.
And the dancers?
“Sometimes it’s hard to stay focused when all that’s going on,” says Jared Nelson, who plays Jake. Wearing a gray T-shirt and sweat pants, he has a mop of blond hair and the beginnings of a beard. “But we’re used to a little bit of chaos here.”
But this one, which he’s called “Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises,” is the most complicated. In addition to his team of designers, he’s relying on a mix of performers beyond his company, such as flamenco dancer Edwin Aparicio, singer E. Faye Butler and NPR reporter and sometime-crooner Ari Shapiro.
“It’s an interesting challenge,” Webre says. “The locales were really good; they add some glamour and drama. They’re very theatrical places.”
Webre and Hemingway go way back. Webre’s parents had known the writer, his fourth wife and their cats in Cuba, where Webre’s American father ran a sugar factory and had married a Cuban woman.
“My mom talked to Mary Hemingway about cats all the time,” Webre says. Growing up in Texas, he heard stories about his parents going to Hemingway’s Finca Vigia home for parties.
But he didn’t consider the writer’s work for a ballet until a copy of “The Sun Also Rises” was handed to him by William Lilley, husband of a Washington Ballet board member and a former history professor. It was at a party after the 2010 premiere of “The Great Gatsby.” This would be a perfect follow-up, Lilley told him. And, he added, dancer Sona Kharatian would make the perfect Lady Brett Ashley.
Webre agreed on both points. Kharatian, tall and pretty with a knowing air, is the ballerina version of Brett. “I’m basically being manhandled a lot,” Kharatian says with a laugh.
Jake is the most difficult character to choreograph, Webre says on his lunch break, nibbling takeout bread and cheese from Starbucks in his office.
“The solo dance phrases for Jake are in short bursts,” he says. “I’m trying to encode the movement phrases a little bit with how Hemingway wrote. I don’t want to put myself on Hemingway’s level, but I’ve tried to encode the steps for Jake so they have a feeling of how you live with your emotions. . . . Jake needs to be depicted in a way that’s very emotional but he expresses it in a very masculine and minimal way.
“The opening solo is a bit too physical,” Webre says, editing it in his mind. “It turned out not to be entirely successful, so I need to trim back. . . . Clearly he wants to deaden things — that’s what all the drinking is about — and those moments when he’s alone are when he’s not fully dead.”
Webre understands that some people may think that ballet and Hemingway are a strange match. Hemingway kept his soft side well concealed; he is known to the world as an enthusiast of big-game hunting, bullfighting and blood sports of all kinds.
“If Hemingway had a stereotype that ballet was an effete art form, well, the joke’s on him,” Webre says. He laughs a dry laugh. “Tough luck.”
Webre, after all, champions a fast-paced, athletic kind of ballet — the artistic echo of an energetic, outgoing spirit who sweeps people into his orbit. He is sympathetic to the struggles of the book’s “lost generation,” those who had fought and suffered in World War I, then had to reconcile what he describes as “the harsh realities of modernity and the optimism of the heartland.”
But Webre is more action-oriented than the book’s unmoored group of characters, who ultimately end up lonelier than they began. He wishes Jake shared his own belief in the restorative power of an active life surrounded by family and friends.
“At the end of the day, I’m living my journey alone. On that level, I certainly wrestle with my demons as Jake does,” Webre says. “But when I think that way, I value more and more those people around me. Jake hasn’t figured that out.
“Life is a process of nursing the wounds and healing,” he says as he moves toward the door. “Finding solace in community and love and the people who help you heal.”
As he leaves his office to go back to rehearsal, one of those people, an office assistant, hands him a salad.
“This is great!” Webre says, seizing the plastic container. “I’ll have it for dinner, because I don’t have a break until 10 at night.”
“Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises,” choreographed by Septime Webre, original music and arrangements by Billy Novick, set design by Hugh Landwehr, costumes by Helen Q. Huang, lighting by Clifton Taylor, projections by Aaron Rhyne, puppet design by Eric Van Wyk. Performed by the Washington Ballet on Wednesday (preview), Thursday through next Sunday at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. $25-$125. www.washingtonballet.org, www.kennedy-center.org or 202-467-4600.