Washington was abuzz this past weekend with the announcement Friday afternoon that The Washington Ballet’s longtime Artistic Director, Septime Webre, is leaving his post at the end of his current contract.
When asked to respond to the news, Webre’s former Board Chair and one-time Executive Director, Kay Kendall, wrote, “He put The Washington Ballet on the map, not only as a major player in the world of dance, but also as a household name in the world of performing arts entities in our town. One of his many gifts was introducing young people to the world of dance and that has been of immeasurable value. He will be greatly missed.”
Kay Kendall’s sentiment was echoed by Arthur Espinoza, recently Managing Director of The Washington Ballet and now Executive Director of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Mr. Espinoza wrote, “Septime Webre was a longtime colleague of mine at The Washington Ballet, and The Washington Ballet has been a long-standing grantee of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
During his tenure, the Ballet saw a significant level of growth, contributing greatly to the artistic landscape of the District and to the careers of many artists. I wish the best of future successes for both Septime and the Ballet.”
Sarah Kauffman writing on Monday in the Washington Post about what the Ballet should look for in its next artistic director, wrote, “The ballet doesn’t need a radical change, but a firm hand to fine-tune, streamline, and aim for high points not yet reached.”
It’s hard to not agree with her, and the Ballet’s Board of Directors should also look back and consider the challenges Septime Webre faced, as some of the conditions a new Artistic Director will have to address may remain beyond his or her control.
For instance, in 2005 Washington went from being a “one ballet” town to a “two-ballet” town with the Kennedy Center’s underwriting of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. Balanchine repertoire, which had been a strong part of The Washington Ballet’s offerings, nearly disappeared from their concerts in response as suddenly The Washington Ballet had to contend not only with the Ballet companies presented by the major local arts Center, but a Ballet company sponsored by the major local arts center.
The early 2000’s saw a building boom in dance academies competing for students with The Washington Ballet, most notably with the opening of the southern home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the City Dance Center at Strathmore in Rockville. The Strathmore dance center was able to lure away one of the leaders of The Washington Ballet’s dance academy, and suddenly parents in upper northwest and Bethesda had a choice about where to send their children for high quality weekend and after-school classes. In addition to the Strathmore center, the dance academy at the American Dance Institute in Rockville (under the direction of retired Washington Ballet star Runqiao Du), and new dance centers in Arlington and Capitol Hill help explain why one studio (Maryland Youth Ballet) had to briefly close its doors before stabilizing in a large new suite of studios in downtown Silver Spring.
The Washington Ballet’s company and education facility on Wisconsin Ave in upper Northwest D.C. has been far from competitive for some time, and plans for a major upgrade and addition have languished for a decade. While Shakespeare Theatre, Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Studio Theatre, and Arena Stage completed major new buildings, the Washington Ballet remains on an under-sized parcel in Tenleytown, and renting performance space. The school has acquired surrounding parcels but it will require policymaker facilitation (and some zoning exemptions) to get the ballet into the kind of facility able to attract the dancers appropriate for a touring company.
Septime was hired to run The Washington Ballet in part because he had taken a struggling little-known New Jersey-based dance company (the American Repertory Ballet) and turned it into a thriving institution. Taking over from Mary Day in D.C., Septime immediately faced intense competition from closer-in neighbors in an overall smaller market, and yet has done the same thing here. While Washington National Opera was absorbed by the Kennedy Center five years ago, there continues to be active competition between the Washington Ballet and the Kennedy Center. Can a Washington Ballet really thrive without a strong partnership at the largest local arts center?
Congratulations are due to Septime Webre not only for shepherding hundreds of beautiful performances, and educational opportunities, but for the creation of ballets for the Company by modern legends including Trey McIntyre, Christopher Wheeldon, and Edward Liang. It’s interesting to note that following multiple commissions from The Washington Ballet both McIntyre and Wheeldon launched full time touring and performing companies, neither of which made it to a fifth anniversary.