The Big Read Blog (Archive)

The Ballet, Gatsby Style

A scene from The Washington Ballet's The Great Gatsby. Photo by Carol Pratt

In popular imagination, the Jazz Age has come to symbolize excess, hedonism, and a brash sort of glamour. Ballet on the other hand, is the pinnacle of discipline, precision, and self-possessed grace. Yet in the hands of Septime Webre, artistic director of The Washington Ballet, ballet becomes the perfect vehicle for showcasing the razzle dazzle of the Roaring Twenties. From November 2 through 6, the company will be performing its second year of The Great Gatsby, a production dreamed up and choreographed by Webre. I spoke with the ballet mastermind about the show, the process of translating literature to dance, and his current Hemingway read-a-thon.

NEA: How did you become inspired to stage a ballet of The Great Gatsby?

SEPTIME WEBRE: Great Gatsby's always been one of my favorite books. The music is so strong and the book so muscular and the characters just suggest dance. You have these images of the bustling New York City streets, and images of those wild Gatsby parties that were all about dance. Dance just seemed to be perfect for it, particularly the principal characters. [They] are all so different, but they seem to all have dance intrinsic to what the characters are about: Daisy's bubbly, almost artificiality; Nick's poetic introspection; Myrtle's almost raunchiness; and Tom's brusque brutishness. All of these characters seem imminently danceable.

NEA: Do you remember the first time you read Gatsby?

WEBRE: I read it when I was perhaps 17 for the first time. But before that, the [Mia Farrow/Robert Redford] film came out. I saw that when I was probably in fifth or sixth grade, and the story captured my imagination and really sparked an interest in the 1920s. I was just fascinated with the period, and its exuberance and expansiveness.

NEA: Does your favorite scene from the book correspond with your favorite scene from the ballet?

WEBRE: Not quite. The book has such a strong sense of doom sort of intrinsic to the tone. In the ballet, I worked with a composer from Boston, Billy Novick. Together we chose jazz songs from the era. About 50 percent of it is jazz songs from the 1920s, and about 50 percent is new music that Billy wrote in the style of those [1920s] songs. And honestly, the music is so exuberant, and so fresh and bright, that I think the ballet is a little brighter than the book.

NEA: Can you tell me what the process is like when you're translating literature into dance?

WEBRE: This is not the first book I've adapted, so I've kind of gotten this system together. It starts with me reading the source maybe three or four times. So I read Gatsby maybe three or four times, and each time I made notes. George Balanchine famously said, "There are no mother-in-laws in ballet." This is a kind of funny line, meaning that the characters need to be central in order to make it into the ballet. So I distilled, I combined some scenes together, I cut out some minor characters. I took away a lot of elements and tried to essentially distill the story to its basis. And then I went back and put back in some details, just moments.

For example, there's a whole scene when Gatsby introduces Tom to Wolfsheim. [In the ballet,] the scene takes place in about 16 counts of music during a cityscape scene. This whole big scene in the book is collapsed into about 20 seconds, and it's kind of a reference for people who are familiar with the story and looking for those kinds of details, but it's designed in a way that doesn't distract if someone's not absolutely familiar with the story. The main plot points are all very present, and I didn't want to confuse them with secondary plot twists.

NEA: How long has it taken you to create Gatsby?

WEBRE: Well, I've been thinking about it for about ten years. I started working with the composer about a year before the premiere [in 2010]. We worked together intensely for about six months, and during that six months, we developed a rough draft score. I then worked with dancers intermittently over the next several months and at the end, the last five weeks before the production, I worked full-time with the dancers.

NEA: This is not a traditional story ballet. You have a tap dancer, a singer, and spoken passages from the book. Can you tell me a little bit about your philosophy toward innovation in ballet and in the arts in general?

WEBRE: We live in a world where so many different elements collide and these collisions create interesting new forms. And this is certainly true of the ballet world. I'm primarily a classical artist, however I've always been interested in visual arts. I use ideas from visual arts, from theater, from music. Gatsby, the quintessential American novel, seemed an appropriate space for innovation. [It's] the story of Americans in the 20th century, the story of innovation. I certainly intentionally thought to break some bounds with this ballet. In the past, I've also used other dance forms in other ballets, anywhere from martial arts to yoga to flamenco to country mountain clogging. I have an eclectic approach to life in general, and to aesthetics, and that certainly works its way into my interests as a choreographer.

NEA: In addition to Gatsby, you've also adapted Peter Pan, Where the Wild Things Are, and Cinderella, and are currently working on The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and Alice in Wonderland. Are there any unique pressures when working with stories that are so well-known and beloved by audiences?

WEBRE: Ironically, Gatsby's probably the hardest, the most daunting because save for the Robert Redford/Mia Farrow film, there aren't really many examples of what Gatsby should be like. Most Americans read The Great Gatsby in their teens or twenties, in high school or college, but they themselves have developed an image of what it should look like, what it should be like. So that's a potential danger. Furthermore, F. Scott Fitzgerald?s writing, particularly about color and light, is so very specific that he sets up the audience's imagination in a very particular way. In some cases, I sought to be true to that particular depiction, or what I imagined most of us think of at a particular moment. But I also didn't want to be inside the box for the whole ballet, so I broke through the mold as much as I thought I could. I wanted audiences to really come with me on the journey, and that meant sometimes what they see has to be what they expect to see, at least in initial images.

NEA: Are there any books that have changed your life?

WEBRE: Books in general have been central to my development. Certainly as a kid, Where the Wild Things Are just captured my imagination so vividly. Probably every book I've ever read has changed my life in some way. Right now I'm doing a Hemingway read-a-thon. I actually just started The Sun Also Rises last night, which I read in my early twenties, but haven't read since, and will read For Whom the Bell Tolls next. I'm having a great time. Every book I've ever read lives inside of me some way.

 

 

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