A Conversation with Septime Webre of The Washington Ballet

Before he choreographed sweeping narrative ballets like The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises as artistic director of The Washington Ballet, before he directed New Jersey’s American Repertory Ballet for six years, even before he danced with Ballet Austin, Septime Webre was convinced he’d become a lawyer, like his parents wanted. But when he happened to follow his sister to ballet class one day, everything changed. “I was the seventh child, so there was only so much attention my parents could give me,” he says. “I don’t think anyone realized just how serious I was about ballet.”

Lucky for the dance world (and much to his parents’ chagrin), Webre gave up the lawyer idea and firmly ensconced himself in ballet. His 1882 Georgetown version of The Nutcracker turns 10 this month and promises a few guest appearances by DC notables.

Convincing his parents “When I became the artistic director of the American Repertory Ballet in New Jersey, I would talk to my mother every Sunday night. She would say, in her cute Cuban accent, ‘Ah, yes, darling. I read that article about you in The New York Times—that’s so nice—but you know, you could still go to law school at Princeton University at night.’”

How he chooses the subject matter of his ballets “I’ve got to love the story or it won’t work. It has to have a sense of theatrical and kinetic potential and suggest movement. The writing style itself—Hemingway’s short bursts of masculine prose—I try to emulate with my movement vocabulary. I have to consider the balance of our repertoire. And of course you want a ballet to sell tickets.”

Translating a novel into a ballet “It’s a process of editing a story down to its essentials, because there’s too much detail in a novel to include onstage. I’ve had to distill multiple characters into a single character. I’ve changed the order of scenes for dramatic effect or to make sure we alternate group scenes with solos or duets for flow. I don’t know if I could’ve found success with these works if I hadn’t previously developed full-length ballets with existing scores.” DT

Education: BA in history/pre-law from The University of Texas

Performance: danced with Ballet Austin 1986–87; American Repertory Ballet 1987–93

Leadership: artistic director of American Repertory Ballet 1993–1999; artistic director of The Washington Ballet since 1999

Photo by Dean Alexander, courtesy of The Washington Ballet

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