- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2006

The Washington Ballet, after its long winter of discontent, assembled yesterday for the first time since the abrupt cancellation of “The Nutcracker” midway through its December run, the fallout of a prolonged and fractious labor dispute.

More than 100 dancers, board members and patrons gathered at the company’s studios on Wisconsin Avenue to celebrate the conclusion of the ballet’s first union contract and hear artistic director Septime Webre outline plans for the 2006-07 season.

Mr. Webre emphasized the positive while admitting there still is work to be done to make for healthier relations with his dancers. This year the director is focusing on works newly commissioned or new to the company.

The season opens on a high note with Twyla Tharp’s stunning “In the Upper Room” and the company’s first Jerome Robbins piece, the rapturous “In the Night.”

Also on the program Sept. 27 through Oct. 1 will be a still-to-be commissioned work. It has a title, “Diva,” and will feature songs performed live by Karen Aikers. All it lacks is a choreographer, who will be announced soon.

“Nutcracker” returns for three weeks at the Warner Theatre rather than the four weeks planned last year, but a fourth week will take place in early December at the Arc, the handsome new center in Anacostia.

The company opens 2007 with the splash of “Noche Latina!” Mr. Webre draws on his Cuban heritage Jan. 31 through Feb. 4 to bring Latin rhythms to the stage. His “Juanita y Alicia,” a nostalgic tribute to his background, is scheduled.

No one has captured the gritty, sensual spirit of the tango better than Paul Taylor in his imaginative “Piazzola Caldera.” Mr. Webre expects the troupe to do it in this Latin program; he’s negotiating with the Taylor company for the sizzling work.

For the first time in years, the company will not produce a full-length ballet. The closest will be Mr. Webre’s dramatic hourlong staging of “Carmina Burana.” Preceding it will be a piece by Christopher Wheeldon, either “There Where She Loved,” which the company danced last spring, or another work of Mr. Wheeldon’s. The program will run March 28 through April 1.

The season concludes with what has become a Washington Ballet signature program — “7x7,” seven ballets each lasting (approximately) seven minutes, showcasing the company at its most innovative. Next year, the topic will be Shakespeare, and Mr. Webre is assembling an impressive roster of choreographers, including Karole Armitage and Stephen Petronio. The show runs May 1 through 20, 2007, in the company’s intimate England Studio.

The Washington Ballet programs are the most visible part of the action, but Mr. Webre also plans other innovative projects. He will produce three residencies at the Arc next season. In addition to a week of “The Nutcracker,” he will bring his “Latina” program and a festival that will include his students at the Arc.

The director also will expand the work of his Studio Company. Alexander Proia is choreographing “The Little Prince,” which will have its world premiere next February.

Mr. Webre also intends to stage “Sleeping Beauty” with students from the Washington School of Ballet at the Lincoln Theatre in June of next year. By seizing control of the school’s agenda, Mr. Webre seems to signal that he intends to run the school himself, although a search committee is in place for a new school director.

In spite of yesterday’s air of bonhomie, Mr. Webre acknowledges that work is needed to set the company on a healthier path. The federal mediation process was so helpful that he will continue with its services.

“The centerpiece of our five-day mediation process was a meeting we had with seven dancers — me, Jeff Edwards and our mediator — with no lawyers present,” Mr. Webre says. “It was there that the breakthrough really happened.

“I think we were all surprised at how much we got done, having open communication. We asked the mediators for suggestions how to build on this, and they said they could offer some facilitated dialogue — ‘appreciative inquiry,’ they call it. We have two sessions with them next month. I personally am determined to learn from this and to make the Washington Ballet a very special place to work.”

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