- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 30, 2002

Septime Webre, the ebullient artistic director of the Washington Ballet, has spent the past year working on his most ambitious project since he joined the company nearly three years ago. His troupe will perform the world premiere of "Journey Home," a collaboration between Mr. Webre and some of Washington's most important artists, on Thursday at the Kennedy Center.

Mr. Webre turned to artists in several disciplines theater, music and the visual arts to create his new ballet. None of them had ever worked with a ballet company.

He was inspired by the singing of Washington-based Sweet Honey in the Rock, a Grammy Award-winning female a cappella group with musical roots in the black church, jazz and blues. Mr. Webre chose such music for the score of "Journey Home" and also asked the singers to appear with his company onstage.

The six members of Sweet Honey (five singers and a sign-language interpreter) will sing live at every performance except the preview Wednesday evening and the matinee next Saturday, when their voices will be heard on a recording.

"The goals for this work have been decidedly lofty," Mr. Webre says. "The work of Sweet Honey in the Rock is wonderfully playful and highly energized, but their themes are always grand in a certain way that challenged me to equal it."

Mr. Webre turned to Norman Allen, an award-winning playwright whose work appears regularly at Signature Theatre in Arlington, to help him create a scenario for his ballet. Mr. Allen is a ballet enthusiast. His one-man play "Nijinsky's Last Dance" has toured South Africa and opens in Budapest in the fall.

"I think Septime looked to me to take an abstract theme and give it structure," Mr. Allen says. "It's always exciting for an artist to have challenges in this case, telling a story about a spiritual journey without using any words of my own.

"We started by listening to Sweet Honey's music," he says. "That's as much fun as work can get. Then to be working with all these creative artists from different fields I can't imagine any playwright turning down that type of opportunity because you're never going to get to do it again."

Also factored into the collaboration were sessions Mr. Allen and Mr. Webre had with members of the audience after the Washington Ballet performed excerpts from the piece in Columbia, Md., as a work in progress.

"We met with them and talked about their spiritual journey," Mr. Allen says. "We thought they might be hesitant, but they were eager to talk about their experiences, what they were looking for in life for simplicity, and a longing for understanding. It was inspiring to bring that kind of resonance to the process and have an entirely new process of working."

The third artist involved in the early phases of shaping the scenario for "Journey Home" was Aisha Kahlil, a member of Sweet Honey in the Rock who also is a dancer. She, Mr. Allen and Mr. Webre met frequently, and she helped illuminate the messages of the songs they chose.

Mr. Webre says those sessions with Miss Kahlil were invaluable.

"I don't know if the members of Sweet Honey know yet how much impact they had on the choreographic process," he says.

The director points out that ordinarily the singers are alone onstage. "They perform in a concert format they design themselves, delivering their message. We have worked hard together to create a message that is not our message or their message, but one we've crafted together, and that's exhilarating," he says.

Another integral member of the initial planning was venerable Washington artist Sam Gilliam. His work has been shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Tate Gallery in London and Washington's major museums. Mr. Gilliam often works with colorfully painted unstretched canvases hanging from ceilings and walls. These forms have found their way into his stage designs for "Journey Home."

He also has designed an abstract horse for the hero's journey on his path of life, which delights Mr. Webre.

"That gives me an opportunity to work with it in the dance," the choreographer says. "Dancing with a piece of sculpture has an honorable history Isamu Noguchi's sets for Martha Graham were very interactive."

Although Mr. Gilliam was not as involved with the actual dance as the other collaborators, a group gathered at his large Adams Morgan studio every month or so for the past six months to discuss ideas. Out of those sessions came large sculptural elements for the set: his signature hanging drapes; red streamers that suggest a tent; and square kitelike objects painted blue, which the dancers manipulate to suggest ocean waves.

With all these creative ideas being developed, Mr. Webre headed for the studio.

The collaborative nature of "Journey Home" extended to the rehearsals.

The director sometimes gave his dancers guided imagery to work with and had them improvise. In one session, they experimented with gestures that expressed warding off danger. Mr. Webre intensified the rhythms or enlarged the movements the dancers devised, and cohesive phrases gradually emerged.

Jason Hartley, a compelling performer who moves with burning intensity, became the protagonist of "Journey Home." Erin Mahoney, a tall dancer with a commanding presence, became an earth-mother figure who serves as his guide and comforter.

In various sections of the dance, the hero of this drama encounters the presence of his ancestors, faces temptations and finds strength in a sense of community. His experiences are sometimes soulful and sometimes rollicking and full of manic energy.

Miss Kahlil says Sweet Honey in the Rock tried out the finished musical score that had been chosen for "Journey Home" on one of its recent tours. The group found it a little too taxing to sing so long without a break and asked Mr. Webre to cut out a couple of numbers.

Other refinements were needed. Mr. Gilliam says with a laugh: "There was a bet about whether or not we don't have too much set. We don't see where the dancers are going to dance."

When costumes by Liz Vandal arrived, the dancers found that some of them did not allow for strenuous tumbling on the floor. Both sides compromised; the costumes were made less cumbersome, and a few of the movements were simplified.

At the conclusion of the ballet, the vibrant colors of Mr. Gilliam's sets are replaced with pale hangings, and the earth tones of Miss Vandal's costumes have given way to shades of white. The voices of Sweet Honey, sometimes husky and guttural in earlier sections, now have a hypnotic, high-pitched keening sound.

The journey draws to a close for the protagonist, and snow begins to fall. Another journeyer, this time a woman, is sent on her way; the cycle of life continues.

The Washington Ballet will dance its popular "Blue Until June" and Ben Stevenson's romantic pas de deux "Three Preludes" at the beginning of the program. "Blue" was created for the company by Trey McIntyre.

Tuesday at 7 p.m., the company, founded by Mary Day, will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a gala performance at the Kennedy Center. Advanced students from the Washington School of Ballet will perform, and members of the Washington Ballet will dance solos and pas de deux as well as excerpts from George Balanchine's "Four Temperaments."

Amanda McKerrow and Ethan Stiefel of American Ballet Theater (Miss McKerrow is also a permanent guest of the Washington Ballet) will appear in the second-act pas de deux from "Giselle." Tickets for the gala performance cost $50.

As for "Journey Home," the performances at the Kennedy Center next weekend are just the beginning of its journey. After that, the Washington Ballet dancers and Sweet Honey in the Rock will set off on a tour that will take them to Texas, Arizona, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York.

"Journey" is partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and was co-commissioned by Arizona State University, New England Foundation for the Arts, Pennsylvania State University and the Columbia Festival of the Arts.

WHAT: The Washington Ballet in "Journey Home"

WHERE: Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (preview) through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

TICKETS: $32 to $55

PHONE: 202/467-4600

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