- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Elton John’s music is a no-show at the Washington Ballet’s final performances of the season, which begin tonight at the Sidney Harman Hall.

His “Rocketman” was scheduled a year ago to be the rock score for a ballet Septime Webre was creating to celebrate his 10th anniversary as director of the Washington company, a decade that saw the troupe vault into a major place among America’s midsize companies.

At the last minute, the Washington Ballet was unable to reach an agreement with the John establishment and is turning instead to the first ballet Mr. Webre created for the company, “Juanita y Alicia.”

Although there was an agreement in principle that Mr. John’s music could be used, the devil was in the details, and a year later, despite lengthy negotiations and what sounds like a bureaucratic mix-up, a signed agreement had not been reached for the troupe to dance to his music.

Mr. Webre decided time was too short to take a chance on the disagreement being resolved quickly.

“Elton himself, I’m sure, has never known anything about the project,” Mr. Webre says. “I’ve never met him, and I couldn’t find a connection to reach him. I wrote him twice, but he gets thousands of letters, so we could only deal with a functionary in his management company.

“Elton married a man a couple of years ago who had an apartment in Atlanta, and I know a lot of people in Atlanta, so I tried that route. But Elton left Atlanta to start his Las Vegas show. Maybe there’s something I don’t know; maybe there’s a reason they weren’t speedy with the contract.”

Faced with this crisis, Mr. Webre considered his options and developed a kind of gallows humor about the situation.

“I remembered Eliot Feld, when his company was having long seasons at the Joyce Theater in New York, choreographed a new ballet to Richard Strauss’ ‘Four Last Songs.’ And the day before the premiere, the Strauss estate denied the musical rights. So Eliot premiered it in silence, and it was a big hit,” Mr. Webre says with a grin. “But I thought I cannot find out the day before and have to perform it in silence. We joked about giving all the audience members iPods so they could listen while watching the show …

“But in the end, I thought, this is the end of my tenth year; what ballet would make the most sense to celebrate that?”

And so was born the revival of “Juanita y Alicia.” A program called “Rocketman” has been retitled “PastFORWARD.”

“Juanita y Alicia” is the most personal ballet Mr. Webre has created. Six Webres were born in Cuba before the Castro regime, and Mr. Webre (the seventh, hence the name) was born after his family fled Cuba.

“I grew up in the Bahamas till I was 12. Every Saturday night, my older brothers would push back the sofas, and we’d listen to Cuban music and dance. We didn’t have any television; the family was like this tribe, and I learned to dance from my dad, who was a great social dancer.

“I grew up hearing these songs and stories about my mother’s family in Havana in the 1920s. So these are not my memories; they’re my family’s memories, inherited memories.

“The backdrop is a photo-realist painting of a photograph I have of my mother’s family in Havana in 1921, everyone dressed in white linen - the costumes for the dancers are drawn from that.”

As the company has grown under Mr. Webre’s imaginative direction, he has grown himself; his natural exuberance is complemented by greater depth in planning the company’s path. He has brought his dancers works by today’s leading choreographers - Twyla Tharp, Christopher Wheeldon, Mark Morris and Trey McIntyre, for example - given them major challenges (the early romantic style of the 1836 “La Sylphide” and George Balanchine’s neoclassic “Rubies”) and brought in world-renowned experts to coach them.

“Rubies,” given a final polishing by the brilliant first interpreters of the roles, Edward Villella and Patricia McBride, is on this week’s program.

Also on the program is a world premiere by rising star Edwaard Liang, set to the music of Philip Glass.

WHAT: The Washington Ballet in “PastFORWARD”

WHERE: Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. May 13 through May 16; also 1 and 6 p.m. May 17

TICKETS: $20 to $83

PHONE: 202/547-1122

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