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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
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
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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