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Webre’s ARB Swan Song

This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 24, 1999. All rights reserved.

The studio of American Repertory Ballet on Albany

Street in New Brunswick is typically ascetic: resilient floor, diffused

natural light entering through large uncurtained windows, fluorescent

overhead illumination, paint peeling from the walls. It is the generic

ballet studio. But here artistic director Septime Webre is choreographing

a piece that he recognizes as a milestone in his career. "I’ve

done a lot of baroque and post-minimalist pieces," he says as

four couples come to terms with the movements for Carl Orff’s "Carmina

Burana." "In the past I dealt with romantic scores in a cheeky

way. I was brash and ironic. Here I’m dealing with a serious romantic

score on its own terms. I’m dealing with it in a romantic way. I’m

coming into my adulthood."

Webre’s "Carmina Burana" has its world premiere on Saturday,

March 27, at 8 p.m. in New Brunswick’s State Theater. American Repertory

Ballet collaborates with Princeton Pro Musica in the performance.

The 120 members of Princeton Pro Musica, conducted by its founder

and music director, Frances Fowler Slade, perform on stage for the

entire ballet. The 25-member Princeton Girlchoir also appears in the


The program includes a second world premiere, "Opposites Distract,"

a pas de quatre choreographed by ARB’s Ballet Mistress, Elaine Kudo,

to music by Ottmar Liebert. Webre’s "And So It Goes," with

music by George Frederick Handel, completes the program, which will

be repeated on Sunday, March 28, at 2 p.m.

In rehearsal roughly three weeks before the performance, Webre molds

"Carmina" into shape, working with four couples who move without

music. Webre is a participant in a working group, rather than an issuer

of orders. He asks the dancers questions. Which foot comes down first

after a lift, he wants to know, for instance. The dancers, engaged,

ask questions to enhance their understanding of the trajectories Webre

envisions. Webre has eyes in the back of his head. He focuses on details.

"Look directly back, not to the left," he advises. "The

gentlemen have to cheat to get to the right diagonal," he says

at one moment. "Feel the pectoral muscles." "Lead with

the pelvis." "You’ve got to be aggressive, not tentative for

this last part to work."

Recognizing that different choreographers work in different

ways, Webre notes that he is "very collaborative with dancers.

I give them a lot of decision-making power. I provide the structure.

The dancers find the connecting ideas. I view the dancers as collaborators,

not as empty vessels to fill." For the section of his "Carmina"

where Webre uses the ballroom dance of the 1920s, he turned to members

of ARB particularly familiar with the idiom. "Ballroom dance technique

is remarkably different from classical ballet," says Webre. Dancer

Will Turner, who taught ballroom for four years, helped Webre choreograph

the section, as did ballet mistress Elaine Kudo, who, along with all

the other members of Twyla Tharp’s company, took ballroom dance lessons

in order to perform Tharp’s sensationally successful "Sinatra


With the fine-tuning of "Carmina" left in abeyance, Webre

flies off to Montreal for the March 11 premiere of his "Chez la

Duchesse," which he was invited to create for Les Grands Ballets

Canadiens. Based on Stefan Zweig’s biography of Marie Antoinette,

with a contemporary score by Richard Einhorn, the piece was choreographed

in three weeks in August. Since then it has been kept in rehearsal

by the ballet masters in Montreal. Webre was in Montreal in January

"to take a look at it and tweak it," he says. He returned

to Montreal just days before the premiere of the piece to put the

finishing touches on it.

By telephone I catch up with Webre in Montreal. He is pleased with

the premiere of "Chez la Duchesse" and with its dancers. His

collaborative approach to choreography shows through as he praises

the dancers for their imagination, wit, and energy. "In the three

pas de deux which portray different sides of Marie Antoinette,"

he says, "each dancer made it their own." With "Chez la

Duchesse" having made its debut, he is ready to focus completely

on "Carmina."

Webre’s new "Carmina" consists of 25 sections. It combines

themes from the text and music of Orff with the conception of Virginia

Woolf in her novel "Orlando," where a 16th-century youth passes

through time, switches from the male to the female sex, and ceases

to age until she falls in love in the 1930s. "The point,"

says Webre, "is that the journey to find love is protracted. Seeking,

finding, and celebrating love are the themes of Carmina Burana."

Before he began work on the piece, Webre was familiar with, he estimates,

five or six different "Carminas," including the Pennsylvania

Ballet’s esteemed version by John Butler. "Butler’s was a master

work," says Webre. "He was a Martha Graham student. His movement

technique and its energy speak much of Butler as a Graham dancer.

It’s a different energy from mine. I’m seeking a timeless version

that reflects the ideas of contemporary America." Webre was also

familiar with the 1992 version of "Carmina" presented by Princeton

Pro Musica primarily as a musical work enhanced by 10 ARB dancers.

"I was originally interested in the text because it’s so beautiful,"

Webre says. "It’s not just songs of wayward monks and peripatetic

grad students. More often than not, I came to believe that the music

is about yearning for love, rather than songs which are only about

lust and drinking and springtime. The ballet is about taking on the

search for love, which we need to keep us from the precipice. We seek

love as evidence of the divine in us. This experience has been shared

throughout the history of mankind. It’s one of the sure things that

continues from generation to generation."

Webre’s "Carmina" starts out in medieval times, pauses in

the Renaissance, moves forward to the French Rococo period in the

18th century, the Empire period, and Edwardian times. "It’s pan-European,"

Webre says. "The Empire period is French-influenced, and the Edwardian

period is English-influenced. Then it goes to the 1920s in America,

has a brief reference to World War II, and becomes contemporary. Virginia

Woolf is present in my `Carmina Burana’ because it moves forward in

time in terms of design, primarily in its costumes."

Webre describes the "Carmina" sets as "industrial design

— bare metal and scaffolding." The stage is surrounded by

three 30-foot scaffoldings, where the Pro Musica singers are positioned,

"except," says Webre, "for a few who requested the floor.

The scaffolding affects entrances and exits, but the dance space is

about what we ordinarily have. I got the idea for the set from seeing

Michael Graves’ scaffolding for the Washington Monument. Graves is

one of my favorite architects." The Princeton architect Graves

designed the scaffolding that shrouds the Washington Monument during

its present, extended renovation.

The music and movement of this "Carmina" are intimately fused,

according to Webre. "`Carmina Burana’ has turned out to be very

musical," he says. "The movement phrases find their genesis

in the musical phrases. From Merce Cunningham I got the idea that

dance and music can coexist without being totally dependent. But here,

the Orff score informs every movement."

"Using this score was a big departure for me," Webre says.

"I was familiar with `Carmina Burana’ before, but I didn’t feel

connected to it. When I began to work on it in earnest about a year

ago, I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of its emotion. Initially,

I had to work through my fighting the emotionalism present. I’ve done

little romantic choreography. I used to consider myself too cheeky

to deal with romanticism in a serious way, and I handled it brashly.

Now I’m feeling more at ease with it."

Webre describes his stratagems for choreographing romantic works in

the past. "What do you do with a cymbal crash?" he asks rhetorically.

"You lift a girl! I set my adaptation of `Swan Lake’ in 1912 and

used John Jacob Astor as the main character. I had a hard time working

with Tchaikovsky. I felt like a 14-year-old boy when I confronted

romanticism. `Nutcracker’ was not much of a problem because it’s more

about presenting technique than about expressing emotionality. `Swan

Lake’ was about presenting emotionality." Incidentally, Webre

declares that he loved the Matthew Bourne version of "Swan Lake,"

recently on Broadway, with the swans played by male dancers.

Webre, 36, has not been a 14-year-old boy for a while. The seventh

son in his family, he was named after his French great grandfather,

who was also a seventh son. Among the nine children in Webre’s family,

he is the only one named after a number. However, he points out that

in addition to him and his great grandfather, his Cuban mother is

also a seventh child.

Webre was born in New Orleans shortly after his family

fled Castro’s revolution in Cuba. His Louisiana-born father, whose

family came from Alsace in eastern France, was working in Cuba as

a sugar engineer. Septime’s six older brothers were born in Cuba.

The family escaped without their possessions. "They fled with

five dollars hidden in my brother’s shoe," he says.

After New Orleans the family lived in the Bahamas. When Septime was

12, they moved to Brownsville, Texas, "the very southern tip of

Texas," Webre calls it. The Texan influence made its mark on Webre.

He occasionally addresses a group of dancers rehearsing as "Y’all."

He majored in history and pre-law at the University of Texas in Austin,

and stayed on in Austin, where he began his formal ballet training

at Austin Ballet Theater. There he choreographed his first piece.

In 1987 Webre joined the Princeton Ballet Company, which renamed itself

American Repertory Ballet in 1991. For several years Webre served

as resident choreographer. In 1993, the year ARB pulled itself back

from the brink of financial disaster, he became its artistic director.

"Carmina" is Webre’s last original ballet for ARB. He leaves

this year to take over as artistic director of the Washington Ballet,

based at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. A search committee

at ARB is seeking a replacement for Webre, who has inspired and revitalized

the company. "Septime mesmerizes everybody," says Jane Factor,

chair of ARB’s board of trustees.

"The Washington, D.C., preparations are bittersweet," Webre

says. "I’m excited about three seasons a year at the Kennedy Center,

and about performing in New York during my first year there. However,

American Repertory Ballet is really my home. It’s where I developed

myself as an artist and it’s the place I feel I can always go back

to. It’s the place I grew up. Leaving is difficult."

The Washington Ballet post is something that befell Webre, rather

than something he sought. "Out of the blue last May," he says,

"I got a call from a headhunter, asking me to apply. I knew the

job was open, and I was not interested in applying. I agreed to talk

to the board, but not to apply. However, as soon as I got there it

was immediate rapport." In the end, Webre accepted the position.

Despite his move to Washington, Webre foresees collaborations with

ARB. ARB has scheduled his "Romeo and Juliet" (U.S. 1, January

10, 1996) for the spring of 2000, and Webre says that he hopes to

work with whomever becomes his successor. In the face of leaving ARB

Webre conceives of benefits both for him and the company. "My

new experiences in Washington will push me to new levels," he

says. "And the new director here will push American Repertory

Ballet to new levels."

— Elaine Strauss

Carmina Burana, American Repertory Ballet, State

Theater, Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7469. ARB and Princeton

Pro Musica. With "Opposites Distract," a new work by Elaine

Kudo, and "And So It Goes" by Webre. $14 to $32. Saturday,

March 27, 8 p.m. ; and Sunday, March 28, 2 p.m.

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