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‘Jumping for joy’: Can Washington Ballet dancers inspire people to shop at CityCenter?

Washington Ballet dancers in the “District of Joy” video. (Courtesy of Design Army)

Washington doesn’t exactly have a reputation as a style capital. But with the help of some game dancers and choreography that riffs on vintage movie musicals, a new video ad pokes fun at the city’s colorless rep and shows the limbering-up effects of a little retail therapy.

The 1960s-inspired video was posted Wednesday on the website of the downtown shopping and dining development CityCenterDC. The dancers are from the Washington Ballet, and the video was choreographed by Septime Webre, the company’s former artistic director. Design Army, a D.C.-based design firm, approached Webre last summer about conveying the ad’s tagline “District of Joy.”

“The perception is that D.C. is not stylish, that D.C. is so stuffy and boring,” says Pum Lefebure, one of Design Army’s founders. “But we wanted to take a very brave approach. How can you take the mundane — eating noodles or sipping wine — and be much more expressive? We wanted to interpret it through dance.”

“We thought of using a fun dialogue,” she adds. “But I like the mystique that dance gives you. There’s a certain mystery to it.”

Lefebure and Webre had worked together before, on a photo book promoting the ballet company and a trailer for one of Webre’s ballets. For this project, Lefebure sought a retro feel to evoke the Kennedy era, when D.C.-based department stores Woodward & Lothrop and Garfinckel’s drew shoppers downtown, before the suburban migration.

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For ideas about dancing through the cityscape, Webre turned to “West Side Story” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” the gorgeous 1967 French musical with Catherine Deneuve and George Chakiris (Bernardo, from “West Side Story”), filmed largely outdoors in a seaside town. Cue the mod eyeliner, candy-colored clothing and snappy exuberance.

Filming took place in the early morning hours of a blustery October weekend. “We started at 4 a.m.,” says Lefebure. “It was freezing cold, but we wanted to shoot before the leaves were off the trees. The finale was so windy for the dancers — they were such troopers.”

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Webre and the dancers gave thanks for the trendiness of white sneakers, enabling safer gyrations on pavement. Despite the early hours and the cold, “there was hilarity all the time,” Webre says. It wasn’t just the juggling flubs or the slipperiness of 13 scoops of gelato. One of the biggest headaches was at the beginning, where leading dancer Daniel Roberge drinks a blue cocktail that touches off an explosion of dance.

“Oh, my God, that took hours,” Webre says with a laugh. “Getting the right amount of fog, and getting all the guys to hide behind Dan and then pop out.” In other words, there’s no CGI here. Just good, old-fashioned repetition — a special effect, the dancers’ way.

That both “West Side Story” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort” also helped inspire the Emma Stone-Ryan Gosling dance film “La La Land” is a happy coincidence, Webre says. “Maybe it’s a reflection of the need for a feeling of unbridled joy and optimism at a time that’s so uncertain. Something about what was happening in the world suggested the need for a release through bright colors and exuberance.

“There’s a time,” he adds, “for just jumping for joy.”

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