This son of a large Cuban-American family seems perpetually in motion. Septime Webre, a former dancer who’s led The Washington Ballet (TWB) since 1999, bounds from one project to the next, whether making history on a performance tour to Havana in 2000 or choreographing new work like "Peter Pan," "The Great Gatsby" and a D.C.-set "Nutcracker" that’s become a local holiday tradition. As Webre prepared to showcase "The British Invasion: The Beatles and The Rolling Stones" at the Kennedy Center March 5 through 9, he chatted with Where about stepping out—on stage and on the town.
TWB dances an eclectic repertory. What drives your choices of choreography?
We’re a classical ballet company, and we certainly do the classics—with a kind of youthful energy. But what makes us special is we do works created on the company. Classical ballet is a beautiful language that can be used in different ways, just like the English language can be used in Shakespearean theater and by Emily Dickinson or "Family Guy"! We’re trying to shake things up.
How do you pick dancers for the company?
We audition in New York and D.C., but I’m also a judge in international ballet competitions, and I recruit from those—super-talented, young artists from all around the world who are ready to enter the profession and maybe need a year or two to work intensely in an American style. Perhaps they come with a strong classical technique but have no experience dancing Balanchine or contemporary choreographers of the sort we work with. So they might spend a year or two at our school or dancing with our studio company, and then they’re ready for the main company. The male technique is very high level right now. The fact that the men are so strong is really unusual, particularly outside of the New York City companies.
Is there a story behind your name?
Yes, I’m named after my French great-grandfather. I happen to be the seventh son in a family of eight brothers and one sister. “Septime” is from “seven” in French. My great-grandfather was the seventh son in his family, and my mother was the seventh daughter in her family.
How does your family background affect your work?
Being a Cuban refugee and living in places [Bahamas, Texas] that weren’t quite home definitely gave me a sense of “otherness,” an outsider status. On some level that fueled my interest in artistic expression, that on top of a natural theatrical bent.
Tell us about the special guest who visited your studios recently.
Yes, Shirley MacLaine, one of The Washington School of Ballet’s illustrious alumni. She took the bus in every day from Arlington, Virginia. My predecessor Mary Day, who cofounded the school in 1944 and founded the company in 1976, used to tell a story about Shirley. Mary pulled her into an office and told her that she probably wouldn’t have a career as a classical ballet dancer. But she should pursue theater and musicals. Within six months, Shirley was performing on Broadway.
What sets the D.C. dance scene apart from that of other big cities?
We have longtime dance organizations like TWB, Dance Place and Joy of Motion, and the Kennedy Center presents some of the best classical ballet and contemporary dance from all over the world. So audiences are used to seeing really fine dance. And D.C.’s filled with well-educated people, so expectations are quite high.
How do you keep in shape?
I’m a big yoga head. I’m a yoga evangelist, let’s put it that way. I try to drag as many people as I can to take ashtanga with me at Flow Yoga Center or Yoga District. This summer I’m planning to study in Mysore, India, where ashtanga was founded. I’ll be there for about 10 days and then go to Goa and Rajasthan. My partner lived in a cave in the Himalayas for two months at one point. So we want to go trekking in the Himalayas. It’ll be a fun, whirlwind month.
What’s your favorite D.C. vista?
In the summer, I love standing on the parapet at the top of Meridian Hill Park during the Sunday evening drumming circles and looking down at the cascading water terraces. Another favorite view is from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial looking toward the Washington Monument. The grandeur of the historical scope of our country is palpable.
Read about Septime's perfect day in Washington.