Ballet Book Club: Turning Hemingway into Dance

The Washington Ballet's Septime Webre turns another page by adapting Hemingway this season.

By: Sophie Gilbert

While considering how to adapt Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre kept in mind a quote from choreographer George Balanchine: “There are no mothers-in-law in ballet.” As Webre explains, “One of the challenges is to distill the story so the audience isn’t dealing with secondary plot issues. In our art form, what we do best is make the feelings foremost.”

Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises is the second work based on a classic American novel Webre has choreographed as the company’s director. After the success of The Great Gatsby in 2010, a friend suggested he look to more literature. The result is a ten-year project, The American Experience, in which the Washington Ballet plans to develop a new dance based on a great American novel every two to three years. Says Webre: “Just as English can be used by Emily Dickinson and Mad magazine and still be the same language, ballet can be used to express rarefied ideas while being pertinent to today’s audience.”

This year the company is also launching its first book club to complement its performances of Dracula, Dangerous Liaisons, and The Sun Also Rises. (Details will be at in early October.) But while the season might have a literary flavor, its official theme is seduction. Webre sees choreographer Michael Pink’s Dracula in particular as a game changer: “It’s scintillating and sensual and quite chilling.”

Overall, Webre hopes to challenge preconceptions: “Most people think of ballet as a 19th-century art form. It’s a glorious language, but we’re hoping to mix things up and take them up a notch.”