The Washington Ballet was always a hometown favorite. Under Septime Webre, now it’s also a top national troupe.
An all-Tharp program. World premieres by Edwaard Liang and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. A new ALICE (in wonderland). The Washington Ballet’s last season was full of creativity and virtuoso performances. It’s a long way from the 1970s troupe Mary Day began as an outlet for her students. Under the ebullient artistic direction of Septime Webre, the company now holds its own in a city that’s accustomed to regular visits from the Bolshoi Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.
Webre, who grew up in Texas, was supposed to become a lawyer. But he followed his sister to ballet school, and when he got a job dancing for Ballet Austin after college, he deferred law school and never looked back. Webre later danced with American Repertory Ballet, where he served as resident choreographer during the late 1980s and early ‘90s, then became the company’s artistic director in 1993. He also apprenticed with Merce Cunningham.
When TWB’s board of directors approached him in 1999, Webre says, “I knew of the company by reputation, knew of Mary Day’s great influence on the ballet world. And I knew that TWB had grown to be a very interesting company.”
Pioneering teacher Mary Day co-founded The Washington School of Ballet with Lisa Gardiner in 1944. Day trained many great dancers, including Amanda McKerrow, Kevin McKenzie and Virginia Johnson. TWB made the shift from student troupe to professional company in 1976, and its reputation grew during the late 1970s and ‘80s with Singaporean neoclassical choreographer Choo-San Goh as artist-in-residence.
The organization has blossomed since Webre took the helm. The company’s annual budget has grown from about $2.8 million to approximately $9.5 million. Webre has cherry-picked some top dancers, such as Brooklyn Mack and Maki Onuki, from the ballet competition circuit where he’s often a judge. The school has expanded from one location with 350 students to three locations and a total of around 900 students.
“What I’ve tried to do is grow the organization with the partnership of the board, staff and dancers,” says Webre. “Mary Day’s concept was a very fine school, and a company of classical dancers who cherished creativity. She always produced a lot of new work, so it was a real incubation place. I try to retain that central DNA.”
Webre, however, has greatly expanded the repertoire. While Day avoided the traditional full-lengths because the Kennedy Center has long booked world-famous companies that bring the classics to DC, Webre has brought in such ballets as Anna-Marie Holmes’Don Quixote and Bournonville’s La Sylphide. He feels that the Kennedy Center’s big productions, rather than overshadowing the dance scene in DC, have enlivened it. “I think our audiences are smarter, better educated, have higher expectations here. They view us as a stronger company as a result of seeing that we can tackle this kind of repertoire with credibility.”
The company’s growth has not come without pain. The dancers decided to unionize in 2004, and a labor dispute over the initial union contract in 2005 resulted in program cancellations (including the lucrative Nutcracker) that cost the company well over $700,000. “We grew so quickly in my first five years here. I think the infrastructure around the dancers and the company and how we do business didn’t grow as quickly as our activity did,” Webre says. “Their decision to unionize was a logical one, and in retrospect a very good one. Our organization is much healthier now.” Webre feels healing from the dispute came about through returning to work. “Once the contract was signed, we really came back together in cooperation and collaboration. And I think the bonds were rebuilt in the studio.”
During the recent economic downturn, city funding of TWB has dropped 90 percent—from about $1 million pre-recession to $100,000 in 2009. Fortunately, ticket sales have increased and philanthropy has held steady. Webre has steered TWB away from cutting dancers or programming, instead focusing on streamlining company administration. “We do a lot with a little, and take an entrepreneurial approach,” he says. “We’ve got to be scrappy, and it’s really working.”
Looking ahead, Webre is excited about a new addition to the repertoire: the American Experience, a series of ballets based on great works of American literature. It started with Webre’s The Great Gatsby in 2010, and the spring of 2013 will bring his adaptation of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Other choreographers will be brought in to create future ballets for the project.
In addition to the growing repertoire, the company has blossomed through the organization’s commitment to community engagement, fulfilled by a partnership with DC public schools, and the school’s studios at the Town Hall Education Arts and Recreation Center (THEARC) in southeast Washington, a historically underserved community. The success of both programs, says Webre, has bolstered TWB’s audience, student and donor populations. “The community of Washington, DC, cares about TWB not just because of our performances onstage, but because we’re contributing to the social fabric of the city.”
At A Glance
The Washington Ballet
Location: Washington, DC
Size: 23 dancers in the main company, 11 in the studio company
Height/body type: There are no expressed limitations, but Webre prefers a “lean, athletic look.”
Starting salary: $810.90/week for the first year, $926.72/week second year
Length of contract: 34 weeks
Touring: Occasional international tours
“Check your insecurities at the door. You’ve got to take command of the studio, even if there are 80 other dancers around you. Ballet is best executed when dancers have a sense of authority. You’ve got to approach your day like a ballerina or a danseur noble in order to be one.” —Septime Webre