Corrections or additions?
Septime Webre’s Wild Things
This article by Nicole Plett was published
in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 18, 1998. All rights reserved.
The night Max put on his wolf suit — and
Maurice Sendak and Septime Webre brought his voyage to "Where
the Wild Things Are" to the ballet stage — was a night of
uncommon theatrical magic. American Repertory Ballet’s production
that combined the efforts of renowned author, illustrator, librettist,
and designer Sendak with the choreography of Webre, recreated the
modern children’s classic with extravagant beauty and impeccable
Now this "Where the Wild Things Are" makes a second debut
at the State Theater with a brand-new score by New York composer Randy
Woolf. Performances are at the State Theater, Saturday, February 21,
at 8 p.m., and Sunday, February 22, at 2 p.m. Sharing the concert
program is the world premiere of an as-yet-untitled ballet by
Proia, visiting ballet master to ARB and former New York City Ballet
soloist, and "Sleep Study," a comic pajama ballet by David
Parsons. The performances herald the ascendant company’s 11-city
tour of "Where the Wild Things Are."
Since the prize-winning debut of Sendak’s storybook in 1963,
the Wild Things Are" has become one of the top 10 children’s
of all time. The ballet was the brainchild of Penny Wiggins of Ballet
South in Savannah who helped the avuncular Sendak and the
choreographer Webre find each other.
Webre explains how the libretto that he and Sendak developed for the
ballet was expanded from the original story. "The story’s text
is very sparse and poetic and simple," he says. "I felt very
strongly that the choreography had not only to tell the story, but,
more importantly, it had to abstract the energy inherent in Maurice’s
The spectacle opens on a 20-foot-high stage curtain featuring the
massive visage of a single Wild Thing. In a magical mastery of scale,
the boy Max, danced by the 5-foot 10-inch Stephen Shropshire, emerges
in his wolf suit from a homemade tent and everything else expands
accordingly. In one of the many acts of verisimilitude that makes
this work a success, the production exactly mimics the storybook’s
scale. From the elegant forest that rises up out of Max’s bedroom,
to his lonely voyage "through night and day and in and out of
weeks and almost over a year," to the marvelous sight of the
Wild Things, this a rare experience for bedtime readers of all ages.
The movements Webre creates for the little-big hero Max mirror the
awkward vernacular of any six-year-old: he raises his arms and
imaginary claws like a threatening animal, or tucks them impatiently
into his armpits. And his recurrent, accelerating sequences of five
pirouettes nicely conjures a small boy’s targeted fury.
Among the ballet’s extra scenes are Max’s fat aunts,
uncles, and cousins who sweep into Max’s play space, smothering and
all but devouring him. Max’s mother appears twice, first in a comic
Martha Graham, modern dance parody, performed in travesty (with vacuum
cleaner) by one of the company’s men. A more tame, but uncannily
Mama, danced by a woman, appears as part of Max’s reverie at his
tent. There is also a dance interlude for the two sinuous sea
encountered by Max each time he sails his little boat from his bedroom
to where the Wild Things are.
Demanding pride of place in this story, of course, are the five
Wild Things, transmogrified from their storybook pages into
to "gnash their terrible teeth and roll their terrible eyes and
show their terrible claws." These 10-foot monsters are a joy to
behold, although, in the debut production, their very virtue of scale
seemed to limit movement. Rather than the complicated antics
in Sendak’s evocative illustrations, Webre had to settle for a parade
effect of striding steps and hops in place.
For the new production, however, Webre announces that the original
giant Wild Things puppet forms have been replaced with
models designed and constructed by Andrew Beneppe Studios in Brooklyn,
the house that built many of the major characters for Disney’s
King" on Broadway.
"Our original puppets were spectacular, but because of the sheer
bulk of the machines, they had only lugubrious movement
he explains. The old puppets weighed 50 pounds, with limbs operated
by adapted bicycle gears that sometimes malfunctioned. The new puppets
weigh only 10 pounds, and have an arm’s reach of up to 12 feet, all
powered by up-to-the-minute technology.
Max’s new loathsome relations have been added to the story to show
how the young Max might have fallen into such a bad temper.
"When Maurice was working on the book in the early 1960s, he took
memories of his recent immigrant Eastern European aunts and uncles
as his inspiration," says Webre. "They only spoke Yiddish
and he found them very big and loud and grotesque. So these relatives
make an entrance in this ballet. And their entrance is what really
stirs Max up. His frustration with them taunting and almost devouring
him is what initiates the ballet’s action."
For the 1996 debut production, Sendak and Webre re-used for their
ballet a modern opera score, based on the book, by British composer
Oliver Knussen. Webre says that although he became fond of the music,
in the weeks leading up to premiere he and Sendak "both felt that
while the score worked as a musical piece, it was not particularly
suitable for dancing. "We agreed that the complex rhythms of the
Knussen score made it not very danceable. It seemed to created an
atmosphere of austerity, rather than the excited buoyancy that I had
tried to create in the dancing," says Webre. The duo began looking
for a new composer. "Maurice and I had gone through a year-long
process of adapting the book to a new ballet libretto, so the
and the dramatic intent of the scenes have remained intact. But I
wanted it to become a bit more dance-oriented."
Woolf, who was recommended by one of his teachers,
David Del Tredici, works in an eclectic blend of the serious and the
pop. "He’s a serious classicist, but throughout his college years
he composed for rock bands," says Webre. Woolf’s recent
include works for the Seattle Symphony, the Kronos Quartet, and the
Dogs of Desire Orchestra. A new score also meant a new round of
"For Maurice there were many musical criteria, but another
criteria was that Maurice like him — and that there be some
energy between the three of us," says Webre. Creating the score
was a new venture, "a bit like the one that drove Tchaikovsky
mad," says Webre, referring to the way the 19th-century Russian
choreographer Marius Petipa kept ordering up four more measures of
this or that mood music for his now-mythic ballet
"Essentially it’s very eclectic, a serious pop score," says
Webre. A variation on a Bach cello invention section has, at Webre’s
request, become the work’s leitmotif. There is also a klezmer-inspired
section for Max’s stifling relatives, and a blues section for a new
dance for Max’s bedraggled toys. The ballet score includes a few
at crucial moments in the story. Because the score includes a lot
of produced elements, it has been created as a performance tape that
the company will also use on tour.
Webre says that Sendak, at age 70, is "very lively and boisterous,
and generous, too. And we’re not just collaborators, we’re good
now. He’s a self-admitted workaholic, still working actively, and
involved in theater and opera." Sendak’s focus on the performing
arts has included designs for the operas "The Magic Flute"
and "Idomeneo," and ballets "The Nutcracker" and
and Gretel." He is artistic director of his own theater company,
the Night Kitchen.
Webre, who grew up with "Where the Wild Things Are," would
like to see this collaborative effort become a classic in another
genre. "I see Max and the story as a strong metaphor for something
that we all experience. That is that Max — and any of us —
are sometimes faced with frustration and anger, our own personal
And, like Max, we need to look to ourselves and confront them."
— Nicole Plett
State Theater, New Brunswick, 732-246-7469. $14-$28. Saturday,
February 21, 8 p.m., and Sunday February 22, 2 p.m.
The Forrestal at Princeton, 609-921-7758. The benefit for ARB and
Princeton Ballet takes the ballet as its theme. $125-$250.
March 7, 7:30 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.