Septime Webre on the grace of ‘Gatsby’
Septime Webre is fresh.
Celebrated, influential and exceptionally charismatic, Webre has been the Artistic Director of the Washington Ballet since 1999. Whether talking about Balanchine or the weather, everything he says seems fresh, in the moment, right now. He may have a spiel, but if he does, it is surely of his own immediate invention.
Walking through the halls and mirrored classrooms of the ballet school on Wisconsin Avenue, you get the sense that Webre’s mind is a restless one. He is thinking ahead and remembering all at the same time, while somehow maintaining total focused.
No questions about it, he’s got the charisma, a star quality that is also down-to-earth and earthy. You’re likely to end up talking about anything at all, not just the subject at hand.
The subject at hand is the return of “The Great Gatsby,” Webre’s spectacular dance version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, an unforgettable take on the grand theme of the American dream.
“That’s exactly it,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about. The idea, the imagining of the American dream. I loved that movie version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, which seems to be an ideal visualization of the book. It was just, I don’t know, enthralling.”
This is the second go around for Webre’s “Gatsby,” but if you listen to Webre, it’s as if he just thought about doing it a minute ago—and for a lifetime too.
“Two years ago, it was a huge success, no question about it,” he says. “But we had no idea that’s what was going to happen. I thought it was a risky thing, adapting a great American novel and making a ballet out of it. There was another version of it in Pittsburgh, but that’s the extent of it to my knowledge. And what I saw was something that transcended classical ballet and modern pieces. It was a dance based on a novel, a modern story ballet.
“I knew this would require new ideas, new ways of doing things, different sorts of music. It would be very American in spirit, look, tempo, movement and sound. We tried to get the sound of the times—the roaring twenties—into it. That up-beat, Charleston music, the blues, beginning jazz and ragtime. It had a certain tempo and I knew it would be very different than what audiences were used to. It goes against the grain of classical story ballet but it is a story ballet.”
Sitting behind his desk, Webre still looks lanky and casual, his hair dark and loose as if spent the morning dancing and was still shaking it off. He is the type that wants to share what’s on his mind, the kind of stuff he dreams or hears in music. The late and strange jazz singer Chet Baker is a strong favorite of his and you could see how his music might work its way into the background of a dance piece. “Baker was an original,” he says. “We didn’t use his music, but we incorporated narration, blues singing, tap dancing .
“We didn’t know what to expect,” he says of his first production of Gatsby. “We had no idea how it would be received, or if anyone would come.”
They did. While critical reaction was sometimes mixed, Webre was applauded for creating something different, new and original, and audiences came in droves. “In attendance terms, it was our best production outside of ‘Nutcracker’,” he says.
“But that’s not the only reason to do it and see it,” he goes on, trailing evermore into the winding pathways of his thoughts. “Two years ago we were in a recession, and we’re still in hard times—look what’s happening out there. There’s this vast divide economically. People on the outside looking in. And that’s what Gatsby is, an outsider. That’s what drew me to the project. I understand that feeling. I’m an immigrant. And it’s the central tragedy of Gatsby.”
But his motives reach beyond the immediate present. “I also wanted to make it big, sprawling, entertaining,” he says. “I wanted to capture a time when the American Dream seemed possible for anybody, not just the moneyed class that Daisy Buchanan comes from. There is a tremendous amount of energy in this production. We’ve done more than try to get at the essence of a novel. It’s about the spirit of an age in American history where anything was possible.”
That’s why you have E. Faye Butler, one of Washington’s finest singers and actresses, fresh off two big successes at Arena stage, singing in the production. And there’s tap dancer Quynn Johnson and actor Will Gartshore. The music—a distillation of jazz age works by Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey and original music by Billy Novick—is performed by Novick’s Blue Syncopators. Webre’s description of specific sequences—a dance set on a golf course, one of Jay Gatsby’s gin-driven parties, a solo focusing on the plight of the anguished and betrayed George Wilson—puts you almost right into the production before you even see it.
Jared Nelson will again perform the role of Jay Gatsby, and Jonathan Jordan is returning as Nick Caraway. Emily Ellis and Maki Onuki will share the role of Daisy Buchanan.
Webre says this production is not the same as the one performed two years ago. “We have different cast members, for one thing. But we’ve also refined it, tightened things up. I see it a little more clearly now, “ Webre said.
In the future, Webre hopes to venture more often into modern literature as a source for choreography and dance. “I think about Tennessee Williams’ work,” he says. “’Streetcar,’ for one. It’s an opportunity to stretch boundary, to meet new challenges.” Frankly, that’s exactly what Webre has achieved with “The Great Gatsby.”
“The Great Gatsby” will be performed at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater Nov. 2 through 6. For more information visit Kennedy-Center.org.