Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with D.C. Council Member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large)
Septime Webre took over as artistic director of the Washington Ballet in 1999, and has since transformed the once-traditional institution into one of the country’s most innovative ballet companies. By mixing a formal ballet vocabulary with elements of pop culture, Webre’s edgy choreography draws sell-out crowds. He discusses his latest production, an eye-popping version of “Alice (in Wonderland).”
- Septime Webre Artistic Director, The Washington Ballet
The Washington Ballet’s “Alice In Wonderland”
All photos courtesy of The Washington Ballet. Costume design by Liz Vandal
Alice In Wonderland: Clips From Rehearsal
All footage courtesy The Washington Ballet and Scott Nurmi
MR. KOJO NNAMDISome might find it hard to imagine a ballet of "Alice in Wonderland." But it shouldn't really surprise you when you learn it's by Septime Webre. The artistic director of The Washington Ballet has never felt limited by the formal elements of ballet. Instead, he freely marries them with references to movies, television and other elements of pop culture. Since taking over The Washington Ballet in 1999, Webre has made that blend of traditional dance and contemporary style his signature.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWith "Alice in Wonderland," Webre saw the artistic possibilities in the tale's dream-like mood and crazy cast of characters -- the result, an eye-popping production that's anything but stuffy. Septime Webre joins us in studio. He is, as I mentioned earlier, the artistic director of The Washington Ballet. His latest production, "Alice in Wonderland," which he choreographed, opens April 11 at the Kennedy Center. Septime, good to see you again.
MR. SEPTIME WEBREIt's great to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIWhy did you choose to adapt "Alice in Wonderland" to a ballet?
WEBREWell, I guess the beginnings of this production can be found in my childhood. I come from a big family, eight brothers and one sister. And somehow the zany cast of characters just really -- we had a crazy childhood. It was wonderful and nuts and very theatrical with lots of different characters. And it just seemed, as a kid, I connected to that -- to the book and particularly Tweedledee and Tweedledum. That sense of fraternity was certainly -- I felt it with particularly my younger brother who's about a year younger than I. We were dressed alike by my mother until I was about -- we were about 12.
NNAMDIThat drives you -- that drove you crazy.
WEBREYeah. Then about two years ago, I was working on a production of "The Great Gatsby," and it was really a lot of fun and quite successful. And I was looking for an antidote to the serious theme and just "Alice in Wonderland" -- I reread the book on the beach in Hawaii about a summer and a half ago, and it just seemed like it was crying for some kind of crazy treatment.
NNAMDIHow do you begin to turn a classic novel into a ballet?
WEBREWell, I read it about 17 times in a row, literally on a couple planes.
NNAMDIThat's a good start.
WEBREYeah. And just sort of -- since he created a structure in libretto, I wanted to follow the structure of the first book, but there were elements of the second book, "Through the Looking Glass," I really wanted to include, including the jabberwocky and Tweedledee and Tweedledum, which appear in the second -- in Lewis Carroll's second book. But at the same time, I was also reading a lot about the real Lewis Carroll and the real Alice Liddell and their family.
NNAMDIThere's a lot of research about Lewis Carroll and the real Alice, huh?
WEBREYeah. Well, he's quite an interesting and quirky guy, and I thought he should be present. And I created a prologue for the real Alice and her nutty family, and...
NNAMDIAnd that prologue includes Lewis Carroll.
WEBREYeah, Lewis Carroll and the queen -- her overbearing mother becomes the evil Queen of Hearts. Her henpecked dad becomes the ineffectual King of Hearts, et cetera.
NNAMDILewis Carroll becomes the Mad Hatter.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. What would you imagine a contemporary ballet of "Alice in Wonderland" would be like? Are you a fan of dance or ballet in particular? Call us, 800-433-8850. Our guest is Septime Webre, artistic director of The Washington Ballet. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, where you will see some of the remarkable costumes in "Alice in Wonderland." This ballet is particularly striking visually. Tell us about the design of those costumes.
WEBREWell, my -- I really assembled a dream team of designers. Liz Vandal from Montreal designed the costumes, and they're -- she was originally a fashion designer, went into dance and, in the last few years, has been designing for Cirque du Soleil. It was actually after seeing her work in "OVO," Cirque du Soleil's most recent production that performed here about a year and a half ago at National Harbor -- she just is an outlandish thinker.
WEBREAnd the costumes are both sort of fanciful and quite chic. The Queen of Hearts particularly is -- I've been calling her the "Barbarella" of queens. She's got this dominatrix picture. You may have seen, Kojo, her -- we got Metro bus stops all around town with her picture really plastered everywhere.
NNAMDII haven't seen those, but I did see "Barbarella" with Jane Fonda.
WEBRESona Kharatian one-ups Jane Fonda for sure.
NNAMDI"Alice in Wonderland" is often done in period costumes, and there are recognizable elements in this production. But these costumes are far from traditional. You said Liz Vandal comes from Montreal. She's done stuff for Cirque du Soleil. She brings a certain, very bold characters in the visual elements that I've been seeing (word?).
WEBRESure. Actually, ballet generally is an art form. We're better at distilling -- we're intrinsically abstract form. We distill things to its -- their essentials. And Liz, likewise, distilled these ideas of period silhouettes with some really crazy contemporary concepts. Some of the side bar characters are particularly effective. There are a pair of footmen. The fish and the frog were the footmen of the Queen of Hearts and the Duchess respectively.
WEBREAnd I asked Alice to envision the footmen, fish and frog footmen, as Mick Jagger and David Bowie meeting in 1982. And to my chagrin, she actually gave me David Bowie and Elton John.
NNAMDIShe does what she wants to do.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Septime Webre. He is the artistic director of The Washington Ballet. His latest production, "Alice in Wonderland," which he choreographed, it opens April 11 at the Kennedy Center. Questions or comments, 800-433-8850. You love the formalism of ballet, but you're also attracted to pop culture. They seem mutually exclusive. How do you bring them together in the performances that you choreograph?
WEBREYou know, ballet is really a language. It's like English. It's a language, which is fluid and fluent and pliable, so English language is the same language that -- used by Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson and Truman Capote and Mad magazine. Likewise, ballet is flexible.
NNAMDIYou're bringing up all my favorites: "Barbarella," Mad magazine.
WEBREExactly, exactly. Yeah, I see of stack of Mad magazines right next to you, right now, Kojo. But as such, the language is pliable, and I think it's most compelling if somehow audiences can see themselves in the work. So if audiences, sitting in the audience, can see themselves on stage, I think it's most powerful, and so I really endeavor to use this language to reflect the world around me.
WEBREAnd, certainly, in my -- when I was developing my voice as a choreographer in my 20s, I was living in New York. And I was this very club kid in the '80s and was looking for ways to combine all these pop sort of elements and elements from visual arts that I was really taking in as a regular diet into the language of classical ballet. And "Alice" is, to some degree, about that.
NNAMDIYou play with perspective in the ballet. In the novel, as we know, Alice grows and shrinks and, of course, there's the rabbit hole. You used a very old opera technique to pull that off. Tell us about that.
WEBRESure. Really simple. You know, Alice needs to get bigger than everyone else, so we just have old-fashioned flying techniques. She is attached to wires, and she slowly flies up. When Matthew Pierce's funny violin is dripping with this sort of ascending scales that make her sound like she's growing, and her skirt is kind of like an accordion and just becomes quite long. So, at the end, she's about 18-feet high with a long skirt.
WEBREThe skirt doesn't quite hit the ground, and so another dancer in the company who happens to have very beautiful insteps is doing some steps with her fake legs. And the doors around her -- the doors have been played by adult men. She encounters this hall of doors, and they're placed by young boys in ours -- from our school, in our Dance DC program, in our program with THEARC, who then become the dancing doors at a very small scale. So it's a lot of fun and just a ton of old-fashioned theatrical trickery.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones, here is Jason in Washington, D.C. Jason, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JASONHi, Kojo, I'm a huge fan. I can't believe I'm on the air. I just wanted to pass on a little bit of information. I'm originally from Frederick, Md. And my mother happens to own a dance studio there, Dance Unlimited. And they've been doing a "Alice in Wonderland" show for 16 years. It happens to be this weekend. It's for Easter weekend, and I just thought I'd pass it along to your audience.
NNAMDIYou got in a commercial, didn't you?
JASONYes, I did. Yes, I did.
NNAMDIIt is -- it's the 17th year in a row that she's been doing "Alice in Wonderland" in Frederick?
NNAMDIDid you perform...
JASONAnd it's a fabulous show...
NNAMDIDid you perform that when you were a kid?
JASONNo, actually -- I didn't. My brother, if memory is correct, he was the Nutcracker a few years ago, many, many, many years ago. But it's been a wonderful experience. I've grown up in the theatre because of my mother, of course, and it's just been a wonderful opportunity to see the different kids develop into this program.
NNAMDIWhat's your mom's name?
NNAMDIWhat's your mom's name?
JASONOh, Donna Grim.
NNAMDIOK. Good. Thank you very much for sharing that with us.
NNAMDIYou, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Would you enjoy a contemporary spin on classical ballet? 800-433-8850. Septime, we mentioned earlier your penchant for bringing classical elements together with pop culture, and that's evident in the musical score for "Alice in Wonderland." Tell us about that.
WEBREWell, Matthew Pierce is a New York-based composer, classical composer with a really great sense of humor. And he's made a chamber work for nine strings and two percussionists. And it starts very purely with really pure innocence, almost a Gaelic song for Alice, and then goes into these crazy, crazy reverences. One of them is for the Cheshire Cat, and...
NNAMDIWe have that one.
NNAMDIOne that's from the -- for the Cheshire Cat. Here's some of that music from the Cheshire Cat.
NNAMDII can see it.
WEBREYeah, you can hear it. Actually, this is really a great example. It started with the sound of the cat purring. And then I asked him if it could be -- it needed to be a little bit sleazy, actually, 'cause he was like an alley cat, and asked him to rethink early-'60s-TV-crime-show jazz as an inspiration. And I think he did a great job.
NNAMDIWell, we'll get back to early-TV-crime-show jazz in a minute. But first, we've got to take a break. We're having a conversation with Septime Webre. He is the artistic director of the Washington Ballet. His latest production opens April 11 at the Kennedy Center. It's "Alice in Wonderland," and Septime Webre choreographed that himself. If you have questions or comments about the future of Washington Ballet, you can call us at 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Septime Webre. He is the artistic director of the Washington Ballet. The latest production of the Washington Ballet, "Alice in Wonderland," which was choreographed by Septime Webre, opens April 11 at the Kennedy Center. If you have questions or comments, we'll take them at 800-433-8850. Are you a fan of dance or ballet in particular?
NNAMDIAny comment on where you see ballet going in the Washington area or with the Washington Ballet in particular? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. We got an email from Janice in Silver Spring, who said, "I've seen the ads for 'Alice in Wonderland,' and I love the costumes. I can't wait to see it. Do you have any idea what your next project might be?"
WEBREI'm glad you asked. Actually, we close "Alice" on April 15. And April 16, we start working on "Noche Latina," really exciting project, runs mid-May at the Kennedy Center, I think, May 9 through 13. It's a program that celebrates Latin-American music, culture and dance. And we have...
NNAMDI'Cause you have roots in Cuba.
WEBREYeah, I'm half-Cuban. My mother's Cuban. My six older brothers were born there. And the theme -- the subtheme of "Noche Latina" is the Latin diva. So there's music by Astrud Gilberto, Celia Cruz, Lila Downs, three world premieres by three of the hottest choreographers working in the ballet world today: Trey McIntyre, Edwaard Liang and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who's Colombian and working in Belgium, and just a really fantastic evening with beautiful -- wonderful Colombian folkloric superstar musician Toto playing with us. It's going to be an amazing evening.
NNAMDIWe talked earlier about your being a fan of 1970s crime shows like "Charlie's Angels." How does that come through in the music in "Alice in Wonderland?"
WEBREWell, we heard a little bit of Cheshire Cat. Also, there's another section that -- for Tweedledee and Tweedledum. It appears near the end of the ballet, and we've gone through, you know, quite a number of jazz iterations and what not. For example, the fish and the frog are a hipster hoedown. For Tweedledee and Tweedledum, I wanted -- I envisioned them as Starsky and Hutch, and so I asked him if he could do some riff on the theme of "Starsky & Hutch." And we got a little of that, and so it's pretty fun.
NNAMDIWell, let's listen to another piece called Pig and Pepper.
NNAMDIIt's got a country Western flavor to it.
MR. ANDREW A. GREENYeah, that's the hipster hoedown, and, as a matter of fact, it's danced by Elton John and David Bowie, fish and frog in their country and Western mode.
NNAMDIIt's a hoedown.
WEBREIt's just really dancy -- music that moves. You know, you just can't help but bob your head or tap your foot, and it's just great to dance to.
NNAMDIHere is Joanna in Washington, D.C. Joanna, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOANNAAnd hi, Septime. I would just like to say I am a subscriber to the Washington Ballet. I used to take adult classes there until arthritis got me. And I have seen -- in "The Washington Post," I saw pictures of the costumes for "Alice in Wonderland," and they look fabulous. So I'm really looking forward to the performance.
NNAMDIYou can also see some of those pictures at our website, kojoshow.org, where they look even more fabulous.
WEBREYeah. Well, you imagine them in person. They're really a knockout.
NNAMDIJoanna, thank you very much for your call.
JOANNAYou're welcome. Bye.
NNAMDIYou, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Septime, there are a number of children in this performance, like in other productions you've done. What is it that you enjoy about working with children? You seem to do it so well.
WEBREI happen to be a kid person. You know, I'm not a father, but I probably should have been. I mean, I just really connect with kids, connect with their joyful approach to the work and with their sense of focus. And that's one of the things that ballet does, is give them focus. And we've expanded over the years our educational program so significantly. It's been really a important part of what we've done, both at our two main campuses in the District in Northwest and at THEARC in Anacostia, and in our DanceDC program in the D.C. Public School Systems.
WEBRESo we have about 100 kids in the ballet, over two casts, and they're from every cross-section of this city, and a number of -- particularly some boys from our DanceDC program, which is a program for kids in the public schools who are doing amazing job. And I've tried to deal with them as adults, really, not deal with them -- deal with them in a pretty straightforward way, choreographically, and it's been really successful.
NNAMDIYou also, apparently, deal with them as adults in a pretty straightforward way in a lot of ways. You invited me to perform in "The Nutcracker" a couple of years ago...
WEBREYou did a good job.
NNAMDI...and I had a conversations -- or conversations with a couple of the kids who were performing in that. They had more mature questions for me than I get most days on this during the course of this broadcast. They were really engaged. Some of them actually listen to the show. I was in total shock and awe of some of those kids.
WEBREWell, discipline and focus are really prerequisites. In a way, we are really one of the last bastions of old-school education as in there's expectations of kids which are very, very high. And the kids rise to it. And because dancing is involved, it's just so much damn fun that it combines those two things really well.
NNAMDIWe got a question from Vida (sp?) in Washington, D.C., who couldn't stay on the phone. "What is the recommended age race -- age range for this ballet? I have a 9-year-old." Yeah, a 9-year-old would enjoy "Alice in Wonderland."
WEBREActually, I purposefully designed the ballet for two different demographics. One is families with kids, so kids as young as 5-years-old to 13 are going to love it. And I think nine is especially perfect, actually. But it's also designed for adults who don't have kids and are -- and maybe not interested for work -- on work that is designed for kids. You know, like, you know, Liz's work with Cirque du Soleil, it was certainly an inspiration in that regard.
WEBREA show like that is really designed for both sets of audience members. And so there's a lot of amazingly physical dancing. Like the book itself, the book is certainly appealing to kids, but, as we all know, it's so very layered with subtext and symbols and themes. So I think everyone is going to enjoy it.
NNAMDIYou also started dance programs, as you pointed out, for youth here in D.C., but I wanted to talk specifically about the program at THEARC in Ward 8.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding it's always been important for you to bring dance to a wider audience. And tell us a little bit about the dance program at THEARC, which is one of my favorite places in the city.
WEBREWell, it's really amazing. We have about 300 kids who are enrolled in a -- what is essentially a classical ballet conservatory at THEARC in Anacostia. And the building also houses a 350-seat theater that was built essentially to our specifications. It was built with the same proscenium arch opening as the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center so that we could occasionally perform there some of the work that we're performing elsewhere as a company.
WEBREAnd, as a matter of fact, every year we do "The Nutcracker" there for a week before opening at the Warner Theatre. So the kids in that neighborhood are getting amazing, professionally-oriented ballet training and also theatrical opportunities. And we're -- in fact, we're doing a program in May there called "Once Upon a Time." It's five world premieres about fairy tales from all around the globe. So, please, catch it. It's on our website.
NNAMDITHEARC summer dance program consists of four weeks of study, starting June 25 and ending July 20, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., total of 75 students accepted into the program. It not only draws students from the neighborhood. It brings students to the neighborhood. A few years ago, we were doing a Kojo in Your Community at THEARC, and one of the members of the audience in the Kojo in Your Community looked strangely familiar -- turned out to be Sen. Chris Dodd at the time. I said, what are you doing here? He said, I brought my daughter here for the dance class.
WEBREYeah, she's a committed -- very committed student. And, as a matter of fact, probably a third of the -- our student body there is from PG County, from Capitol Hill, from other parts of the city.
NNAMDIYou have an interesting background. You mentioned that your mother is Cuban. You're half-Cuban. And with your family, you've lived all over the world. You've mentioned having a kind of outsider status for a lot of your youth. How did that influence your work?
WEBREWell, I think artists in general seek to hold a mirror up to the world and reflect some view of the world back to itself. And we in ballet -- I mean, our -- in the classical arts, particularly, I think we are the -- we're a metaphor for the audience members' idealized self. You know, Kojo, when you go to see "Alice in Wonderland," you see our dancers on stage. You see your idealized self. We tell you what you could be.
WEBREAnd in order to do that, I think the artist has to be somewhat -- somehow a voyeur, to some degree. And I think just living a life that's a bit different than other Americans, you know, really having traveled quite a bit, it certainly catapulted me into adulthood, viewing myself, to some degree, as an outsider. And I think that's probably been an asset as an artist.
NNAMDIYou discovered ballet through your sister. Tell us about that.
WEBREYou know what? She went to ballet school like every little Cuban girl, and she stunk. She was really, honestly -- she sang the -- she swung the same arm as leg when she walked. I mean, really, honestly.
NNAMDINo, she didn't.
WEBREAnd -- but, you know -- but I -- but she's quite beautiful, but she just couldn't dance. And I followed her, and I was good at it, and I got a lot of support there. And I was naturally drawn -- I came from a family that stressed the professions, but I was naturally drawn to theatrical and wrote plays for her as my muse. Her -- the first play I wrote for her was called "The Case of the Recurring Ennui."
NNAMDIYou wrote it for her?
WEBREIt was for her. She was the lead...
NNAMDI"The Case of the Recurring" what?
WEBREEnnui. And I heard the word ennui, the French word, and I knew it meant something like bored.
NNAMDIOh, sure. Ennui, yeah.
WEBREAnd she was lying on a chaise made of suitcases and a red crushed velvet bedspread. And her first line was, oh, I've never been so ennui in all my life. So I started pretty young.
NNAMDIIt's Septime Webre. He is the artistic director of the Washington Ballet. If you have comments or questions for him, you can call at 800-433-8850. You went to college. You were preparing to go to law school, which would have been perfect in this town. But you took a detour that turned into a career in the performing arts. What happened?
WEBREWell, honestly, when I -- I graduated from undergrad, University of Texas at Austin, and actually worked for Ann Richards, the former -- the beehive-bedecked, formerly...
NNAMDISure. Former governor.
WEBRE...former governor, for a year. I worked for her for a year. And as I was preparing to go to law school, I got a job offer, dancing at Ballet Austin. And I thought, well, which one's less boring, law school or dancing? And on my fifth day on the job, I decided it felt right, and I moved to New York at the end of my contract. And I did, and there you go.
NNAMDIWhich one is less boring? I don't think you would describe dance for your students as less boring.
WEBREThat's true, but I was -- yeah, I was a smug 22-year old, so...
NNAMDIHow did your parents at the time feel about your choice?
WEBREWell, you know, they were -- I was the seventh son, so I was -- somehow could get away with a lot that others didn't, but, eventually, when I told them -- I didn't tell them right away -- they were bit horrified. Eventually, I went on to direct the ballet company in Princeton before coming to Washington, D.C., and on the -- in my 30s. And on those Sunday night calls to my mother, my Cuban mother would say, ah, yes, darling. You know, congratulations. I saw the article in New York Times. But, you know, you could still go to law school at night at Princeton.
NNAMDIGet a real job.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from somebody, who says, "I am not a big ballet fan, but that Cheshire Cat piece that you played was great." I think you just got another fan.
NNAMDIWe got an email that says, "The show is sold out, Septime. Any plans for more performances?"
WEBREWell, yes. The good news, it's sold out, and the bad is it's sold out, guys. But I think there's a lot of interest in it, and I'm sure it'll be coming back to Washington, D.C. in future seasons. We also have actually some -- if you really want to see it and you have missed it this time, it will be performed in Honolulu in August and Cincinnati in October. So buy your tickets.
NNAMDIYou lived in Hawaii at some point in your lifetime, right?
WEBREI didn't live in Hawaii -- in the Bahamas, but I worked in Hawaii a few times.
NNAMDISo, well, if you can afford it, you can go to see it in Honolulu, Hawaii. I can't think of a better place. This email we got from Roxanne in Chevy Chase, Md.: "So wonderful to choreograph the ballet of 'Alice in Wonderland.' Which came first, the choreography or the music? Did Mr. Webre have a vision of the dances in his head before developing the score?"
WEBREThe music came first, for sure. I had views of the structure, so I wrote a libretto from the book. And then with Matthew Pierce, the composer, he created the music. The dance is just -- we really served the music, and I happen to be just a guy who's really inspired by great music. And so I did have some steps in mind and gave Matthew some requests, but the music came first, always.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Ed, who wants to know, "Does the Washington Ballet have YouTube videos for the production for those of us now in the metro area?"
WEBREWe've got a really great preview, kind of the making of Alice that -- just go to YouTube and type in Washington Ballet Alice, and you'll see just about really clever spots Scott Nurmi made for us.
NNAMDIIt's the so-called B-roll of "Alice in Wonderland" rehearsals that you can find at the website.
WEBREThat's right. Yeah. And I think we'll have another -- a preview -- highlights preview maybe next Friday posted, so -- the night after our opening, so check that.
NNAMDIHow do you feel in general about making videos of your work?
WEBREWell, I like -- small little teasers give people a visual, particularly with Alice. It was important to show the costumes and the designs. The small little bits are really great. I think that the live -- the experience in the live theater is so compelling and so visceral. Nothing can take its place.
NNAMDISeptime Webre, he is the artistic director of the Washington Ballet. You can see his latest production, "Alice in Wonderland," if you've got tickets already because it's apparently been sold out. He choreographed it. It opens April 11 at the Kennedy Center. Septime, always a pleasure to see you. Good luck to you.
WEBREThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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