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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the April 17, 2002

edition of

U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

A Notable Journey Home

It’s pure coincidence that Septime Webre, former

artistic

director of American Repertory Ballet, is on tour with his new company

— Washington Ballet — and a brand-new ballet called

"Journey

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."

"We’re

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

"dynamic,"

"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

significance.

"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

returns

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,"

choreographed

by Ben Stevenson, featuring a live performance of Rachmaninoff’s piano

score.

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

challenge.

"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

performing

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

something

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

Washington

as fast as I could," he explains. "So I made `Juanita y

Alicia’

— 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

dance-able

and suggests movement," he says. "And Sweet Honey, in concert,

dances — you can’t attend one of their shows without moving your

body."

"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

Washington,

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

songs."

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,"

"McArthur

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

interpretations

of spirituality and the relationships between individuals and

community.

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

generalized

way, it’s certainly autobiography," says Webre. The work is

designed

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

Washington

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

operation,

and setting the goals," he says. "But this was a true

collaboration

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

skills.

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

The Washington Ballet, College of New Jersey,

Kendall

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

"Three

Preludes," choreographed by Ben Stevenson to a live performance

of Rachmaninoff’s piano score. $10 to $30. Tuesday, April 23, 8

p.m.

Top Of Page
Auditions

Omicron Theater Productions has open auditions for male

and female actors, 20s to 50s, speaking and non-speaking parts.

Backstage

hands also needed. By appointment Friday and Saturday, April 26 and

27, and Friday, May 3 through Saturday, May 18. Call 609-443-5598.

Top Of Page
For Kids

Delaware Valley Music Club offers a $1,000 keyboard

scholarship

for seniors planning to major in classical piano or organ. The Bart

Pitman Memorial Music Scholarship auditions will be held in

Lambertville

on April 27. Call 609-397-3174.

X-Ring Archers in Lambertville, is taking registration

for students in first grade through adults for archery. Call

609-773-0099.

Shoestring Players offers a week-long acting workshop

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.

Warrior Sports Camps offer wrestling, soccer, field

hockey,

and cross county camps in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Call 908-416-6436.

Mercer County College offers scholarships to radiography

students who agree to work at the Medical Center of Princeton after

graduation. Call 609-586-4800, ext. 3337.

West Windsor Township Department of Human Services

features

a multimedia exhibit that focuses on the impact of tobacco use in

the display case in the municipal building. Smoking cessation

resources

are available at the West Windsor Health Department. Call

609-936-8400.

Top Of Page
Volunteer Call

Mercer County Teen Arts Festival seeks volunteers for

the one-day celebration of the arts held on Friday, May 17, at Mercer

County College in West Windsor. Call 609-324-7383.

Muscular Dystrophy Association seeks 150 volunteers to

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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