Imagine you’re watching a movie trailer with an epic battle: Advancing armies darken hills, a hero gives a rousing speech, swords clang as scores of men meet a violent and bloody end. If there’s music playing in your head right now, it’s probably “Carmina Burana.” With hushed Latin chanting that blooms into a full-out musical assault, the choral piece has become the de facto soundtrack for cinematic combat.
Where many people hear war, Septime Webre, the artistic director of The Washington Ballet, heard love.
“When I was thinking about choreographing ‘Carmina Burana,’ I had just read Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando,’ ” Webre says. The novel, about a young Elizabethan man who becomes a woman and ceases to age, is “a magical story about the eternal search for love, and that’s what ‘Carmina Burana’ began to sound like to me,” he says.
Webre’s version of “Carmina Burana,” which had its D.C. premiere at the Kennedy Center in 2000, returned Wednesday. (It’s on a double bill with George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations.”) A huge production, it features the full ballet company dancing amid three tiers of choristers dressed as monks.
In addition to finding inspiration in “Orlando,” Webre took cues from “Carmina Burana’s” lyrics, a series of medieval poems found in a monastery in 1803 and put to music by German composer Carl Orff in the 1930s.
“[The poems] turned out to be drinking songs by wayward monks — songs about love and lust and fate and the cycle of life,” Webre says.
The influence of “Carmina Burana’s” text on Webre’s choreography is clear from the first movement, known as “O Fortuna.” As the chorus likens fortune to a turning wheel, concentric circles of male and female dancers weave and whirl, tearing off their clothes in what appears to be a frenzy of love or lust. Suspended above the fray is a giant wheel, in which a female dancer stands on point, arms spread.
If that sounds familiar, it should: The wheel is an homage to Leonardo da Vinci’s famous “Vitruvian Man,” Webre explains.
Like the book “Orlando,” the ballet covers centuries of human history, with dancers donning Renaissance-era ruffs, close-fitting Colonial coats and, eventually, modern clothes.
Elsewhere in the ballet, the dancers pair off in passionate embraces, wearing nearly nothing — a costume choice that underscores the music’s erotic overtones. As the clothes come off, we eventually get to the core of what it means to be human, Webre says.
“To me, the human experience is more about searching for love than fighting for power,” he says.
Besides, choreographing a battle scene to the propulsive piece has been done to death.
“You’ve already seen that a thousand times,” he says. “I always want to give people a new experience, something contrary to their expectations.”
Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; Thu. & Fri., 7:30 p.m., Sat. & Sun., 1:30 & 7:30 p.m., $32-$130.
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