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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the April 17, 2002
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
A Notable Journey Home
It’s pure coincidence that Septime Webre, former
director of American Repertory Ballet, is on tour with his new company
— Washington Ballet — and a brand-new ballet called
Home." But as he speaks on his cell phone from an Amtrak train
making its way from Washington, D.C., to a tour date in New York,
our conversation is interrupted by a glimpse of "home."
crossing the Raritan River," Webre exclaims, "and I’m looking
at my old home in Highland Park as we speak!"
Webre spent 12 years in New Jersey before leaving in 1999 to lead
the Washington Ballet. He joined Princeton Ballet in 1987 as a dancer
under director Dermot Burke, became its artistic director in 1993,
and renamed it American Repertory Ballet. Terms like
"high-energy," and "exuberant" are invariably linked
with both Webre the man and Webre’s choreography. During his six-year
leadership of ARB, he helped raise its profile to regional
"Professionally speaking, New Jersey will always be my first home
and the place where I grew up," says the Texas-born artist of
Cuban descent. "I started there in my mid-20s, and cut my teeth
there as an adult. It’s the place where I can always return, either
in triumph or defeat."
It looks a lot more like triumph than its alternative when Webre
to show off Washington Ballet, a company of 24 dancers celebrating
its 25th anniversary year. Washington Ballet performs "Journey
Home," to recorded music by Sweet Honey in the Rock, at College
of New Jersey’s Kendall Theater, Tuesday, April 23, at 8 p.m. The
program includes "Blue Until June" by Trey McIntyre, danced
to songs by blues diva Etta James, and "Three Preludes,"
by Ben Stevenson, featuring a live performance of Rachmaninoff’s piano
Mary Day, who founded the Washington Ballet in 1976, became known
as the "Grand Dame of Ballet in the Nation’s Capital." Webre
says taking the reins from such a highly regarded founder was no small
"Mary Day is one of the great luminaries in 20th century dance,
so hers were immense shoes to fill," he says. "She is known
as founder of Washington Ballet, and known for her talent as a great
teacher — Kevin Mackenzie, Amanda McKerrow, and Virginia Johnson
are just a few of the great dancers she taught. Her vision was of
a fairly small company of highly trained classical technicians
new works that would be made on them. The fact that I felt such a
kinship to Mary’s premise for the founding of the company was one
of the most compelling reasons I accepted the job."
The new job came with "fairly significant expectations" from
the dance world, dance audiences, and his new community.
"We perform at Kennedy Center, so the bar is quite high. Our peers
are operating at a very high level — ABT, Bolshoi, Kirov, Dance
Theater of Harlem, and many other great American ballet companies
all perform here. They also bring lavish productions of the major
classical repertory. This provides a very interesting place for us.
We are the creative mavericks among this peer group, and that’s
that I feel comfortable doing."
The impact of Webre’s arrival on Washington Ballet has been no less
impressive than the one he had on Princeton Ballet. Since his arrival,
Washington’s budget has grown from $3.2 million to its current $6
million level and the subscriber base has grown from 750 to 3,000.
Webre says that despite September 11 and its related woes, Washington
is doing well economically. Surprisingly, last October, 2001, was
the company’s largest selling show since his arrival.
"Journey Home" is the second new work Webre has made on his
new company, where about one-fourth of the repertoire is comprised
of his ballets. His debut was "Juanita y Alicia," a ballet
based on family memories of Havana, Cuba, in the 1920s and ’30s. The
work was well received at home in 2000, and also enthusiastically
welcomed in Havana when the company took it there.
"When I first moved to Washington I was looking for ideas for
projects for myself, but I also wanted to connect to the city of
as fast as I could," he explains. "So I made `Juanita y
— a work about me — with the new dancers, as a way to help
get to know my dancers and my new audience."
"Journey Home" is similarly motivated by Webre’s desire to
build bridges to all parts of the Washington arts community.
One year in the making, it began with a proposal to Bernice Johnson
Reagon, founder and artistic director of the a cappella ensemble,
Sweet Honey in the Rock. For almost 30 years, Sweet Honey in the Rock
has been a vital presence in music and American culture. Deeply rooted
in African-American traditions, the Grammy Award-winning, six-woman
group captures the complex sounds of blues, spirituals, traditional
gospel hymns, rap, and reggae.
"Sweet Honey appeals to me as an artist, the music is so
and suggests movement," he says. "And Sweet Honey, in concert,
dances — you can’t attend one of their shows without moving your
"I feel such kinship with the messages of their songs. They bring
out the best of me as a person — the spiritual side of their songs
do that particularly. They also help me wrestle with the sense of
myself as a `Motherless Child.’ Everyone experiences this to some
extent. But I think my own sense of outsiderness or otherness, of
needing to understand how I might belong is especially strong. I hear
the description of it in their song `Motherless Child’ so clearly.
All across their repertoire I find connections of that sort."
Webre presented his idea to Reagon over dinner. "I had a sketchy
idea that the work would be about the journey of an individual. At
the same time I knew Sam Gilliam’s art, and I knew he was from
so I suggested him as the visual artist."
Gilliam is known for his large, colorful drape paintings that are
gathered and hung like curtains from ceilings and walls. His work
has been shown in such major venues at the Metropolitan, Whitney,
and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and at the Musee d’Arte
Moderne in Paris.
Webre arranged for Reagon to meet with Gilliam and see his work. He
received a "Yes" from her within a week.
In retrospect, that was the simplest part of the project. Once Webre
began to pore through Sweet Honey’s complete collection, numbering
some 20 albums, he was slightly overwhelmed by how to select songs
that would tell the "Journey" story.
"A good song has a logic, it’s complete in and of itself, a short
work of art. So the integrity of each song has to be respected. And
Reagon’s songs have a lot of specificity — some are about the
human condition generally, about love, the need to take responsibility
for our actions. Other songs come out of the social and political
world — songs about greed or vanity. The content of each of the
songs was significant and complete, and I was looking for a play list
that would have an arc, a journey that would flow from these
For help developing this narrative arc, Webre turned
to a third collaborator, Washington playwright Norman Allen. Allen,
who has served as playwright in residence for the Signature Theater,
has written plays that include "Nijinsky’s Last Dance,"
Slept Here," and "In the Garden." Completing the creative
team are lighting designer Kevin Meek, and costume designers Fontella
Boone and Liz Vandal.
The resulting work is a suite of dances that trace a journey through
life. It embodies the collective vision of its creators in their
of spirituality and the relationships between individuals and
It evokes life’s twists and turns, confrontations and reconciliation,
loves, friendships, and challenges.
"`Journey Home’ is an abstract work. It doesn’t have specific
plot points the way Romeo & Juliet does — although in a more
way, it’s certainly autobiography," says Webre. The work is
to be performed live with Sweet Honey in the Rock, with music and
movement integrated into the show, but not all tour dates include
the music ensemble. At College of New Jersey, "Journey Home"
will be performed to taped music.
Although many associate the music of Sweet Honey in the Rock with
an African-American sensibility, Webre says his intentions for this
work are much broader. "I’m a mongrel with a Latino background,
and the company is 40 percent minority. So it’s no longer a Sweet
Honey experience, nor is it a Sam Gilliam experience, nor even a
Ballet experience — it’s something greater than any of us."
Webre says the collaborative nature of "Journey Home" still
posed a significant challenge.
"Usually I’m firmly in the driver’s seat, spearheading the
and setting the goals," he says. "But this was a true
in the sense that we set the goals together, and realized the goals
together. The dance material is my work, developed collaboratively
with the dancers."
"Working on the piece has certainly helped evolve my people
There are so many people to engage, a lot of people making decisions,
and I learned tremendously from it."
"The six members of Sweet Honey each have such a sense of personal
power. They are so completely present, they have urged the dancers
to run with them at a break-neck speed — to match their level
of commitment. The dancers and singers have become very close. They
learned from them about commitment to the performance moment. Art
making also gives important life lessons."
— Nicole Plett
Hall Theater, Ewing, 609-771-2775. Septime Webre, former artistic
director of American Repertory Ballet, shows off his new company with
a program featuring "Journey Home," to music by Sweet Honey
in the Rock, "Blue Until June" by Trey McIntyre, and
Preludes," choreographed by Ben Stevenson to a live performance
of Rachmaninoff’s piano score. $10 to $30. Tuesday, April 23, 8
and female actors, 20s to 50s, speaking and non-speaking parts.
hands also needed. By appointment Friday and Saturday, April 26 and
27, and Friday, May 3 through Saturday, May 18. Call 609-443-5598.
for seniors planning to major in classical piano or organ. The Bart
Pitman Memorial Music Scholarship auditions will be held in
on April 27. Call 609-397-3174.
for students in first grade through adults for archery. Call
from Monday, June 24 to Friday, June 28 for students enrolled in 4th
to 8th grade in the fall. The program takes place on Douglass College
Campus in New Brunswick. Cost is $200. Register by June 19.
and cross county camps in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Call 908-416-6436.
students who agree to work at the Medical Center of Princeton after
graduation. Call 609-586-4800, ext. 3337.
a multimedia exhibit that focuses on the impact of tobacco use in
the display case in the municipal building. Smoking cessation
are available at the West Windsor Health Department. Call
the one-day celebration of the arts held on Friday, May 17, at Mercer
County College in West Windsor. Call 609-324-7383.
care to children and young adults at MDA summer camp in Worchester,
Pennsylvania, from June 8 to 22. Call 877-MDA-9270.
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