AuthorRobert Bettmann

With Webre’s Exit, Washington Ballet Faces Challenges

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.”

Septime Weber (Photo: Dean Alexander)

Septime Webre (Photo: Dean Alexander)

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.

This article was published in DC Theater Scene.com. Read it on their site here.

Hey Parents – Free Books for Your Kids!

D.C. is an expensive city, making it a hard place for young families to thrive. Just last week MarketWatch reported that Washington is the most expensive city for a family of four in the entire United States. The city’s free Pre-K-3 is a boon for local families and while a new program from the DC Public Library won’t have the same impact as free child care, it’s a pretty great perk for families making it work in the District.

Launching in February, you can sign up now to receive one free children’s book a month from the DC Public Library. The Books from Birth program is open to all children 4 years and 11 months old or younger, and the offer is per child in your household.

The Books from Birth program is designed to encourage reading among, and to, DC’s youngest residents. Research shows that children that live in households where they are read to on a daily basis show up to Kindergarten with more advanced vocabularies. As described in an article by Tina Rosenberg, a landmark 1995 study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that, “Children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour. Working-class children heard 1,200 words per hour, and children from professional families heard 2,100 words.” It’s not entirely clear why the word gap exists, but research has shown that access to books in the home affects the likelihood that parents will read to their children. The Books from Birth program will allow all children in-home access to high-quality, age-appropriate books.

DC’s book donation program may draw inspiration from a related policy initiative in Providence, Rhode Island. Providence Talks was the 2014 winner of Bloomberg Philanthropies $5 million dollar Mayors Challenge, and a recent article summarized, “After decades of failed educational reforms, few policymakers are naïve enough to believe that a single social intervention could fully transform disadvantaged children’s lives. The growing economic inequality in America is too entrenched, too structural. But that’s hardly an argument for doing nothing.”

Kudos are due to Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen for putting this initiative on the agenda, and the Mayor and members of the DC City Council for supporting it.

Over time we’ll see what impact the program has on school readiness and student achievement. In the meantime: hey parents — free books for your kids! Don’t forget to sign up here.

This post was written for Urban Scrawl. You can read it on the Urban Scrawl website here.

Impersonation of Minorities by White People: an Abridged Literary Guide

The 2015 edition of the Best American Poetry book series was recently published by Simon and Schuster including the poem, “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” by Yi-Fen Chou.

The poem’s inclusion was the subject of immediate controversy because the author is actually a white man from Indiana named Michael Hudson, and he admits to having selected the Asian pen name to increase his chances for publication.

In an author note published with the poem Hudson explains, “After a poem of mine has been rejected a multitude of times under my real name, I put Yi-Fen’s name on it and send it out again. As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems this has been quite successful for me.” Hudson’s actions infuriated many readers who saw his methodology as an insult to Asian authors and an abuse of white privilege.

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