- The Washington Times - Friday, February 24, 2006

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.

Big dreams

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.

Mr. Webre has produced ballets strong on dramatic staging — “Carmina Burana,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Carmen” — and revived them in following seasons, giving dancers a chance to grow in their roles.

He also has introduced an impressive list of ballets by Antony Tudor, William Forsythe, George Balanchine, Twyla Tharp and Christopher Wheeldon and three world premieres by Trey McIntyre. They have made less impression because so far almost none of them has been repeated.

As director, he has radically altered the original concept of the company as a chamber group with its own repertoire. His goal is grander: a troupe capable of staging major full-length 19th- and 20th-century ballets as well.

Of course, large dreams carry commensurate costs.

The price of dreams

Mr. Webre’s 20-member company recently danced “Coppelia” and “Giselle.” (Full-length ballets like those usually are programmed by companies not with 20 dancers, but with 40 or up to 80 performers.)

To accomplish this — and it is one source of tension with his dancers — Mr. Webre instituted a Studio Company that performs in outreach programs and acts as a corps de ballet. Additionally, he has turned to students in the Washington School of Ballet to supplement this corps.

The company dancers consider this cheap labor.

Mr. Webre sees these decisions as his to make as artistic director, in consultation with the board.

“It is not what a union leader thinks — or even what a dancer thinks,” he says. “I must find a balance between the desire to have the best product onstage and fulfilling the mission of the institution, which has three components: the school, the company and our outreach program.

“I have to imagine what the company might be like in three years and make the decisions to get us there,” he says. “A specific example: Three years before we did ‘Giselle,’ I knew we first had to prepare by tackling some more challenging repertoire like Balanchine’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Second, I knew that the corps was going to be almost exclusively students from our school so we had to prepare the kids to be up to snuff. And third, the institution had to mature a bit in the production and support areas.”

In striving to realize his ambitious plans for the company, the dancers say, Mr. Webre has cut corners in ways that endanger them.

“Everything stems from the lack of organization,” says ballerina Michele Jimenez, who starred in three vastly different, demanding ballets in early November. Since then, she has been sidelined by her injuries and is drawing workers’ compensation. With the dancers out of work and no firm plans in place for their return (March 27 is the hoped-for date), she is having to move to a cheaper apartment.

“Our lives have become so unstable; they’ve been significantly altered,” Miss Jimenez says.

“Things grew with the ballet,” she continues, “but the dancers were always third or fourth on the list of priorities. We brought our problems to Septime on many occasions.

“At TWB, we’re exposed to a lot of different work, which is wonderful, but our bodies are taken to many different extremes. We end up working so hard that maybe you twist your ankle. But you keep working at a very stressful level till it becomes a more serious injury, and then dancers have to stop for a while, or need surgery.

“Septime says he’s in favor of our decision [to join AGMA], but I don’t think he feels a need for it — he’s comfortable with the way the company has been running. What frustrates me is they’ve been pretty clear about not wanting to discuss issues that are of particular interest to the dancers, like the size of the company and job security.”

Stalemate

Kay Kendall, the board president, says she was blindsided last year by the dancers’ decision to join the union. She had no idea of their dissatisfaction then and is baffled by complaints she has heard describing Mr. Webre as disorganized.

“I have not ever found that to be true,” she says. “Whether it’s making arrangements to go someplace, information he’s posted for board meetings, his participation in a committee meeting, I find him responsible. He delivers; he’s completely organized. How disorganized can Septime be with that one group when he isn’t in any other aspect of his life?”

The dancers claim Mr. Webre’s history of cutting corners with them has continued during the year of negotiations.

Dancer Jason Hartley says the dancers want there to be penalties for overtime. “Not because we want the extra money,” he insists, but because “working when tired risks injuries. And our careers are short enough. We’re aware of the consequences, and we want to hold them accountable for our safety.”

Miss Kendall, however, seems unable to shake off a sense of betrayal. “I don’t even want to say how angry some of the board is or how hurt people are about their lawyers, their tactics, their comments, the news photos of their smiles as they go out on strike and bring down ‘The Nutcracker,’” she says.

“Do they think they are the only ones with feelings, who are suffering?” she demands.

“Despite that,” Miss Kendall acknowledges, “I feel that we have to be the grown-ups, get through our anger, find some healing, bring them back and relaunch the company.”

The dancers’ litany of complaints extends beyond details that could be written into a contract. There is an undercurrent of distrust, with dancers citing promises made and broken, a lack of straight shooting, of currying favor with the board at their expense.

Fallout

Both sides have begun to realize that too big a price has been paid for this stalemate.

For his part, Mr. Webre admits to a role, if a limited one, in the dancers’ dissatisfaction.

“I actually think that there were unrealistic expectations put on me by the dancers last year,” he says. “The board had asked me to step up to the role of executive director for a year and a half in addition to my duties as artistic director. In retrospect, I think it was an error to have agreed to do it. I didn’t have the resources of time and sensitivity to really listen to the dancers, and I regret that.”

Fed up with continuous personal attacks by the union, Mr. Webre showed up at a negotiating session recently and addressed the dancers directly.

“The union is claiming I have a history of retaliation,” he told them. “This is unfounded, it’s untrue, and it’s outrageous.”

Claiming that “the union is trying to demonize me publicly in a way that drives a wedge between me and the dancers,” Mr. Webre concludes, “It’s labor union management 101 to villainize the boss.”

The dancers were unmoved by what some called “Septime’s Pity Party.”

Dancer Runqiao Du sympathized but told Mr. Webre he is not the only victim.

“The dancers are suffering, truly suffering,” Mr. Du says. “Dancers are broke, they haven’t been paid in over two months, and we were broke before this started. Two have had to give up their apartments; others, though it’s winter, aren’t turning on the heat. A few board members have been kind — we’re never going to forget people reaching out a helping hand.

“Dancers in other companies have gathered money for us out of their own pockets. I’m sure management wants to solve this, but at the end of the day, they get paid, and we don’t.”

Mr. Du looks at what this crisis is doing to the company. “The dancers are not doing what they love to do — be in the studio creating with Septime or a visiting choreographer. The victim becomes the art form we have worked so hard for that we all love.”

Resolution?

Many details of the contract have been reached, but three points remain: the size of the company; its composition (use of studio company and student dancers); and finding a way of dealing with the dancers’ fear they may be fired for voting to unionize.

Both sides have agreed to bring in a federal mediator to try to resolve these final issues. He arrives from San Francisco and has scheduled meetings for three days beginning Wednesday.

With a contract hopefully imminent, the company can anticipate salvaging the rest of the season.

Mr. Webre says navigating this final negotiation is crucial before he can begin to ponder the lessons of the past year.

“The whole situation looks to me like a Tom Wolfe novel where some sort of fatal flaw makes things unravel,” he says. “I’m not wise enough to know yet what that was, but it certainly got bigger than all of us.

“The dancers showed a lot of strength of character to take action on positions they felt strongly about. As a result, I’m forced to recognize their strength and maturity.”

Talking about the rupture in working with his dancers, Mr. Webre says, “We’ve been apart now for quite some time, and it’s led me to evaluate its importance in my life and to appreciate what we accomplish in the studio together.

“I need to improve and invest in real communication with them — and I’ll be more frank with them as well. It’s like a marriage that’s gone awry. It makes both parties more vigilant.”


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