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Ever since Septime Webre arrived seven years ago to become artistic director of the Washington Ballet, he has been a riveting — some would say polarizing — figure onstage and off. He bounds in front of the curtain before almost every performance, dark hair flying. Knees bent, body cantilevered at an angle, he welcomes the audience with a rapid-fire description of the evening’s program before dashing into the wings. After the show, he’s onstage again, returning snappy retorts to audience questions.
He’s a regular on the social circuit, often showing up with Kay Kendall, president of the ballet board. Together the two have been a formidable money-raising team and, not coincidentally, they have initiated dozens of balls and parties — some elegant, some geared to a young crowd attended by a who’s who of the Washington social scene.
Glossy publicity brochures announcing the ballet’s season begin with colorful shots of the artistic director caught in a leap midair.
More than most directors, Septime Webre is the face of his company.
Mr. Webre’s ambitious projects have led him and his board to one bold achievement after another. As he is quick to point out, the company’s budget has shot up from $3 million to $7.5 million since he arrived; the number of subscribers has quadrupled. He has introduced an outreach program for inner-city children and spearheaded development of the Arc, the promising new arts center in Anacostia.
When he arrived, the Washington Ballet was a modest, well-regarded chamber group, founded by Mary Day. Mr. Webre dramatically remade it into a glamorous, newsmaking player on the city’s cultural scene.
Recently, however, the newsmaking has focused on the company’s troubles.
A year ago, the dancers voted, 18-2, to join a union, the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA). By December, the two sides still were negotiating a first contract — and making scant progress, in the dancers’ view. In the middle of the holiday run of “The Nutcracker,” they refused to perform without an interim agreement. The impasse led to what management calls a strike and the union calls a lockout.
By whatever name, the deadlock made headlines around the country, prompted cancellation of half of the troupe’s lucrative “Nutcracker” season and plunged the company into a financial crisis.
Currently, the company has suspended operations, canceling a week’s engagement at the Joyce Theater in New York and another at the Kennedy Center — a sharp reversal of its forward thrust.
As the very visible face of the Washington Ballet, Mr. Webre stands squarely in the center of the imbroglio.
He is the seventh child of nine born into a warm, exuberant Cuban-American family. (His mother was Cuban, his father French-American.) His older siblings spent their childhood in Cuba, where his father and grandfather both had sugar plantations. By the time Mr. Webre was born, his family had left Cuba, but his childhood was filled with family tales of life on the island.
The first ballet he created for the Washington Ballet was based on his childhood impressions of a country he had never seen; it featured a sepia-painted backdrop of Cuban family scenes.
The following year, Mr. Webre arranged for the company to appear at an international dance festival in Havana. He brought his dancers; a large number of the company’s board; and a collection of choreographers, artists and theater directors from around the country to interact with their Cuban counterparts — an example of his talent for dreaming big dreams and seeing them to fruition.
By John R. Bolton
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