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Septime Webre, son of a large Cuban-American family, is an internationally recognized ballet director and choreographer. He currently serves as Artistic Director of Hong Kong Ballet as it celebrates its 40th-anniversary season. Septime’s love of narrative comes to light in his adaptations of popular American novels and children’s tales, which are imbued with imaginative details, vivid designs and smart winks to the past. ICONS spoke with Septime about his choreographic process, which includes deep collaboration and cold IPA beer.
Dance ICONS: You’re the seventh son in a family of eight brothers and one sister in a household filled with music and dance. How did you start?
Septime Webre: There’s an old saying: “Cubans dance before they can walk.” In my household, there was dance all the time and I was naturally directorially oriented as a kid. I wrote my first play when I was 10 years old. When I was 11, I wrote my first musical; there were dances in it. That started it all. The musical was called Fruta Bomba, the Cuban word for papaya, and it was set on a deserted island in the Caribbean. I played the romantic lead and my sister played Fruta Bomba, a sexy woman, in a coconut bra that I made. I wooed her with dramatic poetry and the old calypso song “Yellow Bird.”
After my family moved from the Bahamas to South Texas, I took my first ballet class when I was around 12. I followed my sister. I turned out to be pretty good, but I thought I was going to be a lawyer. It turns out she’s the lawyer and I became a dancer.
The training was quite spotty in South Texas at the time, but I loved it. I was interested in all things performative, but I was too young to discern between high art and low art. For me, ballet dancing and the marching band and the Christmas midnight pageant were all performative expressions. I didn’t distinguish that one was superior to the other.
Dance ICONS: In recent years, your choreography has focused on large-scale narrative works. It’s clear you had an interest in storytelling from your childhood exploits. As you began your ballet career, abstract ballets were trending. Why the shift to narrative ballets?
SW: It came about organically. I grew up in a generation of choreographers who grew up with Balanchine and Cunningham. Serious choreographers of my generation, and actually right before and after, weren’t making narratives any more than painters were painting portraits. Serious work was modernist work in the late 20th century. My early works didn’t have narrative content. There was subtext, of course, but they were largely abstract works.
As a young director, at age 30, I became the director of the American Repertory Ballet in Princeton, NJ -- suddenly I was a steward of an institution and one of my responsibilities was to grow that institution. My choreography was, of course, free to the company and I had to make work to grow the audiences. I started with Romeo and Juliet, to Prokofiev’s score. It was a chamber version with 14 dancers and the storytelling came naturally to me.
In retrospect, what I do now is connected to that first play and my first musical I wrote as a child. As I realized that narrative was my natural lingua franca, I started creating these works to scores that already existed. The composer was, in essence, the librettist. Prokofiev already distilled Shakespeare’s play into a structure. There was no need for a librettist because Prokofiev had done the work.
I did about five full-length ballets where a full score was already attached. That gave me the experience to, after some time, start from scratch. I happen to be a reader of literature and I’ve always read a lot. Naturally, I gravitated to what I know. The Great Gatsby was the first production that I created with no score attached. Since then almost all of my productions have started with a great novel, whether for adults like Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Washington Irving, or stories for young audiences like Lewis Carroll’s Alice (in Wonderland) or my most recent Wizard of Oz ballet. There’s been a natural evolution in my theatricality.
I’m part of that generation returning to narrative -- the era after modernism and postmodernism.
Dance ICONS: What are some of the challenges you have faced in your career as a choreographer -- the thorns or hard parts?
SW: One of the biggest challenges has been that, unlike most choreographers, for my entire career I’ve also been an artistic director while being a choreographer. The two roles are in opposition to each other. My initial impulses as a choreographer were my own artistic interests. Yet suddenly my role as an artistic director outweighed my artistic interests as a choreographer. I had the responsibility to the institution, to the public, and to the dancers to ensure their careers were filled with different opportunities to grow their technique and grow their artistry. Initially, as a young director, I was interested in making sure the show -- a particular ballet or a particular series -- was great. Ultimately, I was responsible to ensure that the company did well at the box office. So there was some pressure to make work that would sell tickets. I have welcomed that challenge.
Dance ICONS: And what about the roses -- the parts you love about your role as a choreographer?
SW: Working with dancers is the best! That’s the fun part. It’s so collaborative and I especially like working one-on-one with very small groups more than with big groups. I also love the free flow of ideas when the dancers and I are real colleagues in the studio. That’s exciting.
Second, I love music, so I love the process of working with a composer to form sections of ballets and edit back and forth. And I love pushing dancers to make them more musical and respond more to the music. That is super rewarding.
I also love the discovery process. Because I’ve been making large-scale, full-length work for several years now, I’ve had the great fortune to work with collaborating artists -- the costume designers, set designers, projection artists, lighting designers -- on a larger scale than in the past. I’ve learned how to assemble a team and work in a collaborative way that hopefully pushes us to come up with new ideas collectively. That’s been really exciting, and as I get more experience, I am freer and have learned to be more trusting of other collaborators.
The act of collaborating is actually one of ceding personal authority for decision-making, usually retained for yourself. Earlier I was very controlling. I’ve learned to open up a little more -- to be less prepared going into every rehearsal so that I can respond to what’s right in front of me. That’s definitely a change. I’m less prepared for the dancers because I create more spontaneously on the dancers now. I used to come in with almost every step prepared. Now I try to respond to the energy of the dancers and make-up as I go.
The design process happens a solid year or more before the first step is choreographed. That allows me to hone the storytelling and decision-making, which I do with the designers even before I meet with the dancers. That’s been a cool part of the process.
Dance ICONS: How do you prepare for a rehearsal?
SW: I think every choreographer has a different process. Many years ago, maybe 20, somehow my process got tied to cold Mexican beer. Now I’ve moved up to craft beer – I’m an IPA kinda guy. I used to spend about 30 minutes of preparation for every hour of creation. So I spend about three hours a night for six hours of rehearsal the next day. Because we work with a five-minute break [every hour] during the day in rehearsal, I’m pretty disciplined about it. I usually start at 8 o’clock in the evening and I’ll work until 11. I’ll drink one beer every 55 minutes. I’ll take a five-minute break; then I’ll do another 55 minutes and take another break. By the end of the evening, it’s time to wind down and go to bed. That process is systematic and as a serious yoga person, it has helped me organize and edit out the unnecessary.
One of the most interesting dance books I’ve read was Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. It’s kind of a self-help book and I found it inspiring. She’s much starker than I ever would be, but her advice about getting things organized and clear and having a set schedule and having the table cleared and the dishes are done allows me to feel calm so the ideas can flow in a chaotic way. I thrive on chaos idealized, but usually, if things are a little orderly around me, it feels a little bit more manageable.
Dance ICONS: Have you faced any pressures from the Chinese government on what you can produce or what stories you can explore?
SW: I feel a pressure to provide excellence and to lead the institution to greater heights. I don’t feel specific pressure to produce one kind of work or another, but I work in the ballet context. Ballet is an appropriate medium for some topics, but really not for others.
What I do feel is support for ballet and the arts by the government, which is much stronger than that in the United States. In fact, 65 percent of our annual budget at the Hong Kong Ballet comes from a single check from the government every year. Funding is so secure and there is so much support for the arts there. I feel it is an environment that nurtures creativity and the arts, while in the States we’re much more entrepreneurial, with more reliance on the box office and on fundraising. While certainly ticket sales are important in Hong Kong, the presence of state funding makes everything feel much more secure.
Dance ICONS: What are you up to now? Are we going to see a new story ballet homegrown in Hong Kong?
SW: My first couple of seasons at the Hong Kong Ballet, I staged some work that I’ve staged already in the States just so the dancers could get used to my style and I could get to know them better. I knew these works would be successful and challenge the dancers. This past season, we did both my Great Gatsby and my Alice (in Wonderland).
Now I’m working right on a new adaptation of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, set in Hong Kong in the early 1960s, among the great wealthy families of Hong Kong. It is influenced by a film called In the Mood for Love by Director Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong’s highly acclaimed independent filmmaker. The movie is generally considered the most important Hong Kong film that doesn’t feature martial arts. I’m going to use visual elements of the early 1960s, which was an interesting period in Hong Kong because of an influx of wealthy Shanghainese people immigrating to Hong Kong during that era.
Dance ICONS: You have some solid advice to a young person who is interested in exploring choreography.
SW: One of the most important things is to grab your friends, pull them into a studio and start to make work. That’s what I did. There was no real place to train as a ballet choreographer. There are places to train if you’re a contemporary dance choreographer, but there’s not really a place that’s serious for ballet. Just starting is really important.
The second is to study ballets. You’ve got to look at the works and understand how they’re made. I grew up, markedly, in the developing world, first in the Bahamas and then in South Texas, which certainly had no professional ballet. We actually spent much of each year in Africa where my dad worked, so I didn’t have access to see a professional ballet. That’s why I couldn’t envision myself as a professional ballet dancer. I just didn’t know it was a good option.
When I went to the University of Texas at Austin, I was studying to go to law school. I found the performing arts library and there were some videotapes. I probably watched Balanchine’s Four Temperaments from the old PBS Dance in America series 20 to 30 times. Edward Villella narrated it and he broke down the sections to explain the idea of theme and variation and how Balanchine constructed the entire ballet as an exercise in that. In some ways that taught me how to structure a ballet.
Being a dancer helped me learn how to make movement vocabulary, but making vocabulary, and the act of making a dance is quite different. For dance, you have to have a structure and move groups of people. So my other piece of advice is to watch good work and study it to understand what others have done. In music, you’ve got hundreds of years of music composition theory. Our discourse on dance making is quite unevolved compared to other art forms. The best thing I think a young person who wants to choreograph can do is to start and to watch work.
Finally, I believe in technique. I love the great technique and I love physical feats. They’re an important part of our dance language, particularly as a ballet choreographer. Our language is a metaphor and what we do when we’re dancing is to show the audience their idealized selves, particularly in those 19th-century ballets. We’re sending a message about the world as it can be. Therefore, we want our tool - the body - as honed as possible. If your technique is strong, you have an understanding of your body and how it moves. That’s a path to being a more facile choreographer.
Video Sample of Septime Webre’s New Artistic Branding of Hong Kong Ballet:
Creative Team: Design Army | Director: Dean Alexander | Courtesy of Hong Kong Ballet
More About Septime Webre…
Septime Webre is an internationally recognized ballet director, choreographer, educator, and advocate. He assumed the artistic directorship of the Hong Kong Ballet in July 2017. Prior to that, he led the Washington Ballet for 17 years and the American Repertory Ballet from 1993-1999. In addition, Septime is the Artistic Director of Halcyon, an annual international festival for creativity in Washington, DC. As a choreographer, he has worked with Pacific Northwest Ballet, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Colorado Ballet, Ballet West, and many others, and he has worked frequently in theater and opera. As a dancer, Septime danced solo and principal roles from the classical repertoire as well as in contemporary works by Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor, and Merce Cunningham. He has served on the juries of international ballet competitions in Varna, New York, Seoul, and elsewhere. He has served on the board of Dance/USA. He holds a degree in History/Pre-Law from the University of Texas and is the 7th son in a Cuban-American family.
Septime portrait by photographer Calvin Sit | Courtesy of Hong Kong Ballet
ALICE (in wonderland) | Dancers: Ye Feifei and Hong Kong Ballet Dancers | Photographer: Conrad Dy-Liacco | Courtesy of Hong Kong Ballet
ALICE (in wonderland) | Dancers (from left): Lin Chang-yuan Kyle, Dong Ruixue, Li Jiabo, Venus Villa, Shen Jie | Photographer: Conrad Dy-Liacco | Courtesy of Hong Kong Ballet
ALICE (in wonderland) | Dancers: Venus Villa and Hong Kong Ballet Dancers | Photographer: Conrad Dy-Liacco | Courtesy of Hong Kong Ballet
The Great Gatsby | Hong Kong Ballet Dancers | Photographer: Conrad Dy-Liacco | Courtesy of Hong Kong Ballet
The Great Gatsby | Hong Kong Ballet Dancers | Photographer: Conrad Dy-Liacco | Courtesy of Hong Kong Ballet
The Great Gatsby | Dancers (from left): Chen Zhiyao, Garry Corpuz | Photographer: Conrad
Dy-Liacco | Courtesy of Hong Kong Ballet
The Great Gatsby | Dancers (from top, clockwise): Chen Zhiyao, Luis Cabrera, Jonathan Spigner, Shunsuke Arimizu, Forrest Rain Oliveros | Photographer: Conrad Dy-Liacco | Courtesy of Hong Kong Ballet
Interviewer: Lisa Traiger
Content Editor-in-Chief: Camilla Acquista
Dance ICONS, Inc. November 2019 © All rights reserved.