Back in December, when the Obama administration announced it would be normalizing relations with Fidel Castro’s Cuba after 50 years of severed relations, the news sparked a renewed interest in All Things Cuba—cigars, music, tourism, food, baseball, history, culture—as well as flashes of old political battles.
For one Washington cultural leader, it could mean the fulfillment of a journey that began before he was born.
The son of an American sugar planter and his Cuban wife, Septime Webre has been the artistic director of the Washington Ballet for 15 years. Throughout his life, Cuba has been at the root of his coming to terms with a complex personal identity.
Sometimes, he seemed to imagine it in his head, even as he grew up in multicultural, often exotic, places: New Orleans (briefly), where he was born; the Bahamas, where his father conducted business; and Brownsville, in South Texas, just across the border from Mexico.
“I was the seventh son in the family. When my parents had to leave in 1959, all their property, including a sugar mill, their family home and all their financial assets, were taken after Fidel Castro toppled the dictator Fulgencio Batista.
“For a long time, I’d often wondered who I was in terms of my culture, because, growing up, I’d had all of these different influences, long before I got interested in dance in a serious way. Mexican food and music, the rhythms of the Islands and all those stories I would hear from my family, my mother and father, my sisters and brothers, cousins, about Cuba: the music, the land, the big ocean wall at Havana.”
To Webre, Cuba was part of his dreams, part of the way he thought and created.
“Some of my relatives in Miami, my brothers, cousins, they would say I had this Mexican way about me, from growing up in school in Texas,” he said. “And I’d think about the ocean in the islands and the music.”
By the time Webre had come to New York to begin a career in ballet, first as a dancer, then as a choreographer, he’d had plenty of time to think about it. When he became artistic director in Washington, he had his first opportunity to visit the country he thought of, in some sense, as home.
In 1999, he traveled to Cuba and met Alicia Alonso, the legendary cofounder of Ballet Nacional de Cuba. The meeting resulted in a historic trip to Cuba in 2000 by Webre and the Washington Ballet to appear in Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s 17th International Festival.
Webre brought the whole company, as well as then Mayor Anthony Williams and other officials, local arts leaders (including theater directors Molly Smith of Arena Stage and Joy Zinoman of Studio Theatre) and Washington Ballet founder Mary Day, who was in her nineties.
“That trip, that experience of performing there, bringing my company, that was a big thing for me,” he said. “It wasn’t until then that I really discovered how Cuban I really was, how much everything about Cuba was in my soul, in what I did, how I approached dance and ballet.
“It was a moment, a true moment—not just for me, but it was also a time were people were taking an interest in Cuba again. . . . This was the time when ‘The Buena Vista Social Club,’ which was about a number of great Cuban musicians, was very popular.”
Everywhere he went, he took in the sights, the sounds “and the smells. Cuban music is very lively and colorful, it’s soaked in all sorts of traditions: salsa, island rhythms, Latin American strains, the Spanish guitar and the music of Africa from the days of slavery here. But always, it’s about movement, everywhere.
“They say a Cuban child learns to dance before they can walk,” he said. “It’s in the soul of people, they walk in a very musical, stylized way.”
He recalled the strong visual impact. “I loved seeing the city and the countryside in detail for the first time. In those days, economically, things had been stale for a long time. You saw and still do a lot of old American cars, there was rust and decay, rusted old Chevrolets and Cadillacs, that sort of thing, those colors on the side of buildings. I love the colors of rust, what rust does to material.”
Cuba, said Webre, is “in the blood and soul. You listen to that music, the languages, the style.” He remembers the palm trees, the experience and sound of the ocean and how the sounds of the oceans infiltrate the music. “Some of that style, I think, has crept into my choreography, into my identity as an artist, no question about it.”
“To me, in spite of years under the economic and political hardship of Communism, the island, the people had retained their soul, their culture, their hearts. That’s what I responded to.”
During his tenure with the Washington Ballet, Webre has had several Cuban dancers in the company. This past year, two new members arrived, under quite different circumstances.
Gian Carlo Perez, from Havana, a member of Ballet Nacional, toured Spain with the company on its 70th anniversary. Emigrating legally with a work visa, he is now a member of the Washington Ballet.
Miguel Anaya, also a Ballet Nacional dancer, came to the U.S. and the Washington Ballet the hard way. Touring with the company in Mexico City, he took a bus to the Laredo border and walked across the bridge, seeking political asylum.
“They’ve certainly added a lot to the company, a rich flavor,” said Webre. “You saw that in how male dancers in Cuba perform. They have some of those classic moves you see in matadors. Both of them will be dancing leading roles for us, in the upcoming ‘Sleepy Hollow,’ for instance.”