Outside it was pouring rain, and the carpet squished as Septime Webre, the Washington Ballet’s artistic director, walked around the low-ceilinged basement of a housing project in Adams Morgan. Water was leaking in through its cracked foundation.
It was 1999, and Webre had just moved to Adams Morgan from New Jersey to start his new job. Beside him stood Rhonda Buckley, founder of the Sitar Arts Center, which ran after-school programs for underserved children in that damp, windowless room. She was nervously hoping that Webre would consider, at some future date, offering ballet classes for little ones at her center, maybe once she had moved it to a better location.
His answer surprised her.
“He said yes, emphatically and without hesitation,” Buckley recalled recently. “I had just met him. My only thought was, I’m going to put this vision out. I was expecting him to say, ‘Let me know when you get the space, and we’ll talk.’ I was not expecting him to say, ‘Yes, let’s start this thing right now. Let’s take up the carpet and put down wood floors, put up mirrors. Here’s how we’re going to do this.’
“It was a magical buy-in,” she added, “to kids.”
After 17 years as director, Webre, 54, steps down from the Washington Ballet next month. He’s leaving, he says, because he wants to work with other companies to stage his ballets and create new ones, and he also wants to work more with kids, without the burden of administrative tasks. But he’s keeping his apartment, not far from Sitar, which he shares with his partner, Marc Cipullo, and some 40 pieces of taxidermy. His favorites: a half-body hyena, snarling, and a white ermine.
“I’m a gatherer, not a hunter,” Webre says with a laugh over lunch recently at Georgetown’s Grill Room. He sweeps a hank of dark hair out of his eyes. Wearing a black leather jacket and jeans, he’s just dashed out of a rehearsal with his Studio Company of young trainees. Somehow he manages to speak at a clip while also downing oysters and lobster salad.
Dead creatures may seem an odd obsession for a man known for his energy. Webre injected high spirits into the Washington Ballet’s social calendar, hosting festivities for donors and “Beerballet&bubbly” soirees for young professionals and audience newcomers. He also juiced the company’s repertoire and spurred the dancers to high-wattage performances, most memorably of his own works. Since its 2004 premiere, his Washington-themed “Nutcracker,” with its bare-chested Anacostia Indians, has been such a smash hit that it greatly changed the ballet’s financial picture.
But Webre’s more enduring legacy is quiet, almost hidden. It is what grew out of Sitar’s waterlogged basement. Webre’s early buy-in to those kids developed into a citywide program to bring ballet training to children where they live. Although Webre’s choreography may eventually be retired after former American Ballet Theatre star Julie Kent takes over from him, the community engagement programs that he was simultaneously building will remain.
Audiences will have a final view of the show-business side of Webre’s Washington Ballet this week at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater (preview Wednesday; series ends Sunday). The program is true to Webre’s upbeat, supercharged nature, featuring two works accompanied by rock music, and created by Washington Ballet regulars: Trey McIntyre’s “Mercury Half-Life,” with music by Queen, and Edwaard Liang’s “Dancing in the Street,” with music by David Bowie.
Webre’s years here have spanned an explosive period of growth in the region, and that spirit of optimism fed his organization. What had been a well-schooled but bland troupe in its last years under aging founder Mary Day woke up when Webre took over. In 2000, trailing funders and arts leaders, the Washington Ballet went to Cuba as the first major American company in 40 years to dance at the Havana International Ballet Festival.
Who’d have thought then that Webre’s reign would be marked by a U.S. president following in his footsteps? President Obama’s historic trip to Havana in March makes a fitting parallel.
By the early 2000s, arts organizations were ramping up around the region. Arena Stage and the Shakespeare, Signature and Studio theaters took on building projects. The Dance Institute of Washington and the Atlas Performing Arts Center opened new spaces. Dance Place began its expansion.
Likewise, the Washington Ballet’s audience grew so much that the company regularly filled the Eisenhower Theater. Webre was developing a vigorous, outgoing style that drew attention from arts enthusiasts of all kinds. The ballet’s budget was $2.8 million when he started. Now it’s $12 million.
“It’s really exciting when there’s someone who’s actively creating work with a generative mind-set, who is charting the future of an institution that is often more associated with existing repertoire,” said Jenny Bilfield, president and chief executive of Washington Performing Arts. She said Webre’s role as a director-choreographer “brings to mind Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic.”
But the new works and the buzz weren’t enough for Webre. The question he kept coming back to, he said, was, “How many different people can we touch and do it in meaningful ways?”
The Washington Ballet’s formal-looking headquarters on Wisconsin Avenue Northwest, housing the company and its training arm, the Washington School of Ballet, “was a white wall to the world,” Webre said. He wanted to turn his operation into a big tent.
Some D.C. schools were already offering dance classes in older grades. “I thought, Let’s develop something that’s pertinent to what we do well,” Webre said. “We train young people in a professional way, and starting in fifth grade is just too late.”
“Septime had a very big vision,” said Katherine Bradley, president of the education nonprofit CityBridge Foundation. As a Washington Ballet board member in Webre’s early years, she helped him shape his plan to train kids for whom the pricey Washington School of Ballet was out of reach. “He wanted it to be exciting, and to do something that hadn’t been done before.
“Dance checks all the boxes for youth development,” Bradley continued. “It’s tremendously physically demanding, it’s mentally demanding and you get to produce art. You learn how to get up in front of people and how to handle a mistake when it happens. And you learn that not by watching dance, but by doing it.”
Bradley advised Webre to build a continuous, immersive ballet program into the school day, rather than offering a workshop every now and then. And so from the partnership with Sitar emerged the Washington Ballet’s DanceDC program, which weaves ballet training into the curriculums of second- and third-graders in eight District schools. Those with the most talent and focus receive scholarships to the Washington School of Ballet.
Timothée Courouble, 19, was one of those kids, dutifully starting ballet with all the other second-graders at John Eaton Elementary. He discovered that he loved it. Webre cast him as Fritz in the world premiere of his “Nutcracker,” and Courouble eventually trained at the main school. He’s now majoring in theater education at Emerson College in Boston.
“It hurts for me to say it,” Courouble said, “but I don’t think I would’ve picked [ballet] up or been willing to try if it hadn’t been imposed on me.”
The after-school training continues at Sitar’s improved location on Kalorama Road NW (Buckley realized her dream of a top-notch studio). In 2005, Webre opened TWB@THEARC in Anacostia, where he also pushed the developers to design a theater big enough for “Nutcracker” performances.
Why did Webre spread himself around the city, when running a company and creating new ballets surely took up enough time?
He looks out the window onto the canal. His inspiration, he said, was his late mother. “Her openness. She really defined mi casa es tu casa.” An elegant and sociable Cuban woman, she had nine children (Webre was the seventh), and she loved to entertain.
Their house in Texas had a big pool, rarely empty. “There were always hordes,” Webre said. “Twenty-five kids sleeping on floors and whatnot.” His mother was also involved with social justice issues, migrant farm workers and famine relief, when Webre’s father, a sugar engineer, moved the family throughout Africa and the Caribbean.
Her inspiration colors how he’d like his impact on Washington life and the Washington Ballet to be remembered.
“I’ve tried to live life in a playful way,” he said, “and in a way that’s welcoming.”