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The Washington Ballet Laces Up and Reaches Out

Septime Webre designs a season to attract new audiences and to reflect Washington

On an early-February evening in a studio tucked away at the back of the Washington Ballet’s Northwest DC home, a crowd shuffles into the rehearsal space that has become a makeshift theater. Company members stretch their limbs on body rollers and warm up at the barre, while the 9-to-5ers congregate in clusters, chatting as if it’s happy hour. The scene is much more casual than a typical night at the ballet—and at Beer and Ballet, a regular Washington Ballet event, that’s the point.

Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre, steps casually into the center of the floor and introduces the two pieces the dancers will run through: Christopher Bruce’s “Rooster,” set to the music of the Rolling Stones, and a revival of Webre’s own “Fluctuating Hemlines.” The two pieces, along with Trey McIntyre’s “High Lonesome,” make up the production Rock & Roll, which debuted at Sidney Harman Hall earlier this month. The ballet fuses rock music and ballet—two genres generally considered to be at odds—into a triple bill meant to test the boundaries of classical movement.

“It’s about beer; it’s also about making new friends,” Webre says to the crowd. “I’d like everyone to introduce themselves to someone they don’t know. Go!”

Exclusivity has never been Webre’s style. During his 12 years at the helm of the company, his endeavors have focused on connecting dancers to the city they call home. The company constantly strives to reach a broader fan base by finding ways to incorporate itself into “the social fabric of the city.”

An infusion of contemporary choreography into a repertoire balanced with a broad range of classical ballets is part of that formula. Webre’s aim is to make the performances relatable to audience members’ own lives.

“I believe in classical ballet as a great foundation and a beautiful language,” Webre says. “Because we have one foot firmly planted in classical ballet, it allows our contemporary work to push the boundaries a little more thoroughly.”

In a contemporary show such as Rock & Roll, the choreography is designed to encourage a dancer to let loose and make a part their own, rather than simply reiterating steps that have been performed by others hundreds of times. At the show’s opening, lead Jared Nelson slinks across the stage bobbing his head, aloof and bird-like, to the Rolling Stone’s “Little Red Rooster.” Later, in “Fluctuating Hemlines,” dancers leap into the air unexpectedly and at full force.

“He always has athletic dances, lots of rolling and tumbling,” Angela Desmond, a Washington Ballet supporter for the past 12 years, says. “He’s done classics and they show well, but this is his true love.”

And contemporary dance isn’t the only place Webre likes to push boundaries—his productions often revamp the classics. The next performance in the aptly named 2011 “Untamed” season, the 19th-century ballet Le Corsaire, debuts in April. Webre’s rendition will feature changes from the original that include less pantomiming and more dynamic dancing as well as more comedic moments. Perhaps the biggest difference will be the significantly expanded men’s roles, which highlight the modern male dancer’s technical ability and athleticism.

“It’s almost a competition of male classical prowess now,” Webre says about his reworking.

But the Washington Ballet isn’t letting the dancers do all the work to lure a younger audience. Last year’s release of the photography book Wonderland, a collaboration between the local firm Design Army and photographer Cade Martin—whose clients range from Cadillac to the US Army—features dancers in fairy-tale scenes in locations throughout Washington. In one whimsical shot, four tutu-clad ballerinas traipsing across a downtown DC boulevard in front of the Capitol resemble the Beatles on the cover of Abbey Road.

And the company isn’t just reaching out to wealthy, sophisticated audiences. It has two signature educational programs, Dance DC, a partnership with District public schools that integrates dance into second- and third-grade curriculums, and the Washington Ballet at THEARC, a serious classical-ballet conservatory in Anacostia.

With the “Untamed” season well underway, Webre looks to the future and a vision that follows much the same formula, including a revival of last year’s hit The Great Gatsby and a Latin-inspired ballet he hopes will attract another new audience that may be unfamiliar with the company’s work.

“One of the ways we can distinguish ourselves is that we are of the city, and our repertoire looks like the city,” Webre says. “The work we are doing is just a little more pertinent to today and the audience’s lives.

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