“A great, glorious mashup” is how Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre introduced a program called “Latin Heat” to his audience last fall. Patrons walking into the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater were greeted by a mariachi band, and after Webre spoke, a series of bright, bounding dances followed.
It was a wild, frenetic clash of styles and taste, but the energy of the whole evening was infectious. You left wanting to salsa out the doors.
Webre’s 17 years as director have been like that. A great mashup, with glories here and there, leaving audiences and frequently even a seen-it-all critic exhilarated. Webre ’s announcement Friday that he plans to step down when his contract expires in June came as a surprise. But looking back at his time here, it’s a wonder he could operate at such a pitch for so long.
He took over a sleepy, lackluster troupe in 1999 and reshaped it into his own image, as an outgoing, all-embracing and at times disordered entity that nevertheless sported terrific audience appeal. The dancing was good enough, but excellence on every level was never the point. There was just too much going on, it seemed, and Webre was heavily involved in every aspect, particularly the fundraising needs. The Washington Ballet became known for its glamorous social events, and somehow Webre also found the time to create lavishly produced if overstuffed ballets with a strong emphasis on entertainment, such as his Washington-themed “Nutcracker,” created in 2004.
Webre also brought in gems from many of today’s most prized choreographers: Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor, Christopher Wheeldon, Mark Morris, Nacho Duato and others. This is a practice to continue, and build upon.
Webre’s wide-ranging appetites often led to odd choices. In one evening in 2009, for instance, we saw the delicately wrought, romantic-era ballet “La Sylphide,” with a transcendent performance by guest star David Hallberg of American Ballet Theatre. It was paired with Lila York’s bouncy paean to Irish dance called “Celts.” “Celts” was fluff, but “La Sylphide” was an artistic pinnacle.
That program also underscored the company’s prevailing inconsistency. Under top-notch coaches, such as those from the Royal Danish Ballet who taught the nuances of “La Sylphide,” the result was gold. But when too many high-octane works were crammed onto a program, and rehearsal time was short, the result was ragged, with some gasp-inducing mechanics but little style or individual expression.
This approach wasn’t bad for the ballet’s bottom line. There were no modest Lisner Auditorium or Terrace Theater showings for the Washington Ballet as there had been under Mary Day, the company founder whom Webre replaced. Webre’s audiences fill larger spaces such as the Eisenhower, or Sidney Harman Hall, a reflection of the sellout programming that has helped the organization up its budget from $2.8 million when Webre arrived to its current $12 million.
With a strong financial position, the Washington Ballet has an opportunity to shoot for the top. It should focus on the very highest quality, not just the short-term buzz of exhilaration. Why shouldn’t it be the nation’s premier chamber-size ballet company? It’s in a city with a well-educated, monied public with an appetite for art. This is the time to bring in a leader who can pick a few goals rather than 10, and closely attend to them.
It’s difficult to imagine a new director matching Webre’s magnetism, room-brightening cheer and go-go output. But a new hire doesn’t need to. There is room for a more studied, long-term approach to building a troupe of the utmost quality, with a repertoire of distinction.
Start with the dancers: A new director needs to draw out their individual abilities, to discover what each has to say that is unique. What we see now is explosive technique, rather than finesse. Talented dancers such as Maki Onuki and Brooklyn Mack may rocket from one end of the stage to the other, but they don’t progress as artists that way.
During the Kennedy Center’s occasional Ballet Across America series, in which various regional companies share programs, the Washington Ballet’s shortcomings are made clear. It doesn’t compare to similar-size companies in Oregon, Kansas City and Memphis, where I’ve spotted more interesting interpretive skills and more attention to the finish of a movement and to evoking feeling.
A new director should aim for a higher national profile for the organization, which despite its large budget has stayed put. It wasn’t always this way. In 2000, Webre led the Washington Ballet to become the first U.S. ballet troupe to perform at the International Ballet Festival in Havana. The trip was a personal homecoming for Webre; his mother was Cuban and his older siblings were born on the island. (The family left just after the 1959 revolution in which Fidel Castro seized power.)
In subsequent years, Cuban dancers joined the Washington Ballet as guest artists, among them American Ballet Theatre star Xiomara Reyes, who danced last year in Webre’s “Sleepy Hollow.” One cannot underestimate the value of Webre’s winning personality and wide net of contacts, which enable him to lure the biggest stars to join him.
That ballet also encapsulated his polar artistic abilities: the grand reach, in this case, to make a full-evening ballet out of Washington Irving’s classic short story, but the shorter grasp. The spectacle was bright and often charming, but the choreography fell short, with a rushed, slapdash effect.
Webre quickly moved on to a greater triumph. Misty Copeland, one of the most famous ballerinas in the world even before she became ABT’s first African American principal ballerina, made history here last spring. At Webre’s invitation, she made her first American appearance in the leading role of “Swan Lake” with the Washington Ballet — an incredible coup.
Copeland’s performances here with Brooklyn Mack, one of several dancers of color at the Washington Ballet, was the capstone of one of Webre’s most significant successes: diversifying the company. Not only has he hired dancers of color, Webre has launched programs to teach ballet through the District’s public schools, and he opened a campus of the Washington School of Ballet in Southeast Washington.
Webre’s outgoingness and generosity to members of the arts community and to anyone, it seems fair to say, in his wide orbit is cherished, and for good reason. His great personal charm, sense of humor, creative mind and optimism have spilled over into the art he puts onstage. But he’s right to move on and indulge in his creative side. In truth, his split attention here no doubt affected his output; he’ll most likely be a better choreographer without meetings and hirings and firings to deal with.
Is it only wishful thinking to hope for cultivating a connection to the African American community through Copeland’s continued presence? The Washington Ballet should bring her in as a regular guest artist, and offer her the space to coach and mentor students and act as a magnet for potential audience members.
Alicia Graf Mack, the standout former star of Dance Theatre of Harlem and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, is from Ellicott City and is another potential resource who could be approached to lend her input here, to attract more students and audiences of color.
The ballet doesn’t need a radical change, but a firm hand to fine-tune, streamline, and aim for high points not yet reached.