Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet for the past 17 years, whose high energy, charisma and large-scale balletmaking spurred the company to unprecedented financial and artistic growth, will step down at the end of June, when his contract ends, he announced Friday.
The surprise announcement came just hours before the world premiere of Webre’s work “Carmen in Havana,” a mix of opera, ballet and song that opened at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on Friday, with the young dancers of the Washington Ballet’s Studio Company, a trainee group.
“I’m excited and scared,” Webre, 54, said by phone Friday afternoon. “I’m so proud of all that we’ve accomplished at the Washington Ballet for the past 17 years, and to all that the company has ahead, but I’m also looking to my next adventure.”
He has decided to spend more time in the studio, making new ballets and working with dancers, he said.
“Over the last few years, many of my works have been performed outside the Washington Ballet, and I’ve been turning down projects,” he said. “I’ve been spending a lot more time doing administrative work, fundraising and marketing. I wanted to devote some years focusing on my work with dancers.
“I love it — not just choreographing, but coaching and teaching and mentoring, and I’m a kid person, too. I love to work with young people.”
Webre said he spoke in December with the board about his decision to leave. “It’s not sudden at all,” he said.
“I had been thinking about it for a couple of years, actually. . . . The board needed time to plan for a search, and I needed to get used to my own decision,” he added with a laugh.
He and board chair Sylvia de Leon broke the news to the dancers in a meeting Friday. “There was complete surprise and silence, and some tears, and a lot of hugs,” said de Leon. She added that Webre’s decision “means that we’re moving forward. I think Septime deserves enormous credit for bringing the company where it is today. . . . It’s very bittersweet. But we have an opportunity to reach for strong candidates” to replace him. She said the board will “proceed really quickly” with finding a new director.
Webre pointed to many successes in his regime: When he arrived in 1999, taking over from Washington Ballet founder Mary Day, the company’s budget was $2.8 million. Now, he said, it is $12 million. He brought dance programs to D.C. public school students through the DanceDC program; he established TWB@THEARC, providing ballet instruction in Anacostia. Enrollment in the affiliated Washington School of Ballet has quadrupled during his tenure. He has brought in works by George Balanchine, William Forsythe, Jiri Kylian, Mark Morris, Twyla Tharp, Christopher Wheeldon and others, and he has created such original full-length works as “The Great Gatsby” and “Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises.”
His Washington-centric production of “The Nutcracker” has been a highly popular addition to the repertoire, which the company performs for nearly a month at the Warner Theatre. That will continue, he said; the company has a long-term contract to perform it, and he plans to return to stage it this year.
That “Nutcracker” also represents one of the disappointments of Webre’s tenure: the loss of a live orchestra. Despite the budget increases, the ballet switched to taped Tchaikovsky some years ago. Other challenges included a bruising labor dispute in 2005, which caused the company to shut down for four months. Four executive directors have come and gone under Webre, along with several interim executive directors.
“That’s just a trend in the field,” Webre said. Asked whether the strains of such issues contributed to his decision to leave, he paraphrased late congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who spoke to his graduating class at the University of Texas at Austin: “Ain’t nothing worth nothing that ain’t no trouble.”
“The challenges have never overshadowed the positives of growing our art and developing something unique,” he said. “For sure, the collective weight of administrative duties have taken me away from the studio more than I would like, and left me a little disconnected from that aspect of who I am. None of those problems have led to this decision, but a desire to focus more on the art part was certainly a motivating factor.”
Over the next 18 months, he said, he will be staging his existing works or creating new ballets for such troupes as the Colorado Ballet, Milwaukee Ballet, Ballet San Jose and Ballet Austin, and he is pursuing commissions from other American and European companies.
Webre said he feels the Washington Ballet is well poised for more achievements. “Sometimes a change in leadership can lead to a new growth spurt,” Webre said. “It certainly did when I arrived here.”