What’s at stake instead is the direction that the Ballet and other performing arts groups will take should musicians be seen as a nonessential expense. The Washington Ballet seems to be gambling that after a few years, people will get used to canned music and keep coming, with the days of pit orchestras fading to a distant memory. But they may not get away with it: Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post critic Sarah Kaufman eviscerated the company’s production of Romeo + Juliet last month for timing mistakes she attributed to the use of recorded music.
But for a company on the rise like The Washington Ballet, this is a step backward. The Ballet’s rise from dance school to the area’s leading ballet reflects a history of outsized ambitions. Its founder, “Grande Dame of Dance” Mary Day, was a local legend, establishing the Washington School of Ballet in 1944. Within a decade, her amateur troupe was touring internationally with Alicia Alonso. In 1976, it became a full-fledged dance company, with salaried musicians and dancers, winning competitions and accolades from D.C. to Moscow.
The Ballet’s prominence has increased significantly since Septime Webre took the artistic helm in 1999. The Cuban-American brought The Washington Ballet to Havana in 2000, the first U.S. ballet company to visit since 1960. At home, he instituted DanceDC, The Washington Ballet’s arts education program with area schools, which aims to cultivate a local talent pool of young dancers. He has staged large-scale interpretations of classic works, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to this year’s Great Gatsby, typically bounding on stage before performances to introduce the Ballet’s latest production with the wide-eyed excitement of a child or a religious zealot.
The plaudits have fed ever more lavish stage shows and education programs: This year’s Nutcracker involves more than 400 dancers; under director Kee Juan Han, Ballet school enrollment increased from 50 to 650 since 2007. These gains make the budget woes all the more troubling for audiences and students alike. At best, The Washington Ballet will continue to make painful cuts while it struggles to get back in the black. At worst, their trajectory could look like that of area choruses, among them the Master Chorale, which weathered the recession by transforming from fully professional to semiprofessional or semi- to all-volunteer groups.
For Webre, the Ballet’s retreat to canned music is unpleasant—and, he hopes, temporary. “I want to perform to live music,” he says, adding “it’s quite admirable that the message of the musicians is for audiences to support the Ballet.”
But with no leverage over a company that has already deemed them expendable, the musicians can do little more than busk for the Ballet. What remains to be seen is if the layoffs are a sign of things to come for The Washington Ballet in other areas, and if they set a precedent for other performing arts groups.
Ceo recalls playing Nutcrackers with then-Washington School of Ballet and the National Symphony Orchestra at Constitution Hall in the 1960s, back when D.C. was a cultural backwater. “From the beginning, Mary Day always insisted on live music, that was the tradition. And I’m sure she didn’t have lots of money.”
As Webre acknowledged with a show-of-hands at the Warner Theatre on Friday, The Nutcracker is many people’s first and only exposure to ballet. For Ceo, the holiday performance is a unique opportunity to connect with audiences, especially young children who venture to the orchestra pit after performances.
However, it’s difficult to predict whether audiences will place the same importance on live orchestras as the critics and musicians. In the end, time may prove that for regional ballets, the future is on CD.
“The Ballet has improved tremendously over the years, and is definitely headed in the right direction,” Ceo says. “But let’s face it, it can never be more than a regional company without live music.” >