Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, has topped himself with "Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises," his latest production making its world premiere this week at the Kennedy Center.
Three years ago, his company journeyed to the Roaring '20s via his unique choreographing of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," complete with jazz band and vocalist. When a friend who taught American literature at Yale suggested that TWB dancer Sona Kharatian, who was a hit as Myrtle in "The Great Gatsby," would make an amazing Brett Ashley in Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises," Webre leaped into creative mode.
His ballet, based on the novel many regard as the author's greatest work, tells the story of a group of American and British expatriates who meet in Paris and travel to Pamplona, Spain, to watch the running of the bulls and the bullfights. Dancing opposite Kharatian is Jared Nelson as Jake Barnes, the flawed hero of the novel.
"I've choreographed it to mirror the masculinity of Hemingway's writing style in short, punchy phrases," said Webre. "Jared dances with energy in a style that expresses Jake's complexity as he wrestles with demons. The role of Pedro Romero, a celebrated bullfighter, is danced by Brooklyn Mack.
|'Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises'|
|» Where: Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F St. NW|
|» When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday|
|» Info: $25 to $125; 202-467-4600, 800-444-1324; kennedy-center.org|
"The sets and costumes are period, yet stylized. The first act is set in Paris on the Left Bank. We use Paris street scenes representing Picasso collages from 1920 done in French newsprint. Everything is in black and white or shades of gray, because that is when Jake is at his most ambivalent.
"The second act takes place in Pamplona. It's in full, vibrant color, primarily red for blood and roses.
"Both the set and costumes are spectacular. Hugh Landwehr, a resident professor at NYU, is the New York-based set designer. Helen Huang, professor of costume design at the University of Maryland Department of Theatre, has created costumes for flappers and denizens of the streets in Paris, and outfits for Spanish men, women and the bullfighter."
Webre explained the steps involved between conception of the idea and bringing it to fruition. After reading the book, he wrote the libretto, then arranged for Boston-based Billy Novick, composer of the music for "The Great Gatsby," to write the music. Last summer, he traveled to Pamplona and actually ran with the bulls. Once the sets and costumes were underway, he worked with the dancers to create the steps that tell the story.
Having grown up in Texas, he traveled to Mexico frequently to see the Spanish bullfighters in the ring. He will relive those memories through the historical footage of matadors gathered by Aaron Rhyne, a video artist and projectionist whose designs are shown in stage productions worldwide. These will enhance key moments during the show.
Along with Novick's jazz band, classical and flamenco guitarists will provide the live accompaniment. Vocalist E. Faye Butler, who brought the house down in "The Great Gatsby" and recently won this year's Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress ("Pullman Porter's Blues"), will be on hand for more show-stopping turns. Ari Shapiro, NPR White House correspondent and frequent guest vocalist with Pink Martini, will make a cameo appearance as a French crooner of the 1920s.
"This ballet is part of a 10-year project I call the American Experience," Webre said. "After 'Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises,' our next project to celebrate American literature and culture is with the Howard University Jazz Ensemble. My greatest hope is that the Washington audience will remember this production long after they leave the theater. I am proud to have tackled this narrative and others, something that is unique and not done by other choreographers."