Has the sun ever risen on a busier ballet?
Consider Ernest Hemingway’s grim treatise on wounds of flesh and spirit, “The Sun Also Rises,” with its famously arid, unembellished, plainspoken style.
When it hits the stage, it may feel just a tiny bit different.
On a recent afternoon, there’s a party going on in one of the Washington Ballet’s studios on Wisconsin Avenue NW. Well, it’s not technically a party. It just looks like one. Crowded. Messy. Beautiful swimsuit-ready young people lounging around half-dressed. Chatter and laughter. The stereo in the corner is playing hot jazz. There’s lots of dancing.
“Guys, you have to drink at least two drinks before the end of the song. So get to the cafe right away and start drinking.”
It’s an order from the boss.
This is one of the great challenges facing Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, as he turns Hemingway’s 1926 novel into a ballet. How can he get his dancers to down enough booze?
Alcohol is a central player in Hemingway’s book. The tormented hero, Jake Barnes, lost the family jewels in World War I. He drowns that pain and his unconsummatable love for Lady Brett Ashley in buckets of booze as he and his expat buddies slosh their way from Paris to Pamplona. (If you haven’t read it, shame on your English curriculum. But at a taut 250 pages, it’s easily digested before seeing the ballet, which runs Wednesday through next Sunday at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.)
Webre and librettist Karen Zacarias boiled the story down to scenes with the most emotion and atmosphere, and the Left Bank bars figure heavily.
“I want Jake to have 12 drinks — literally — before Brett arrives,” Webre says.
So as the music in the studio shifts to bouncy ragtime, dancers leap into the center of the room, where there’s a makeshift bar. They gulp from imaginary glasses and bound away. The bar is wheeled to the side; tables and chairs appear in its place. Dancers hop on and off the furniture. Someone cartwheels off a table, catapulting into thin air like a human firework — and he’s caught by half a dozen waiting arms.
It’s stunning. The crowd in the room gets quiet for a few seconds. “Guys, I am shocked at how good that was,” Webre says.
The hustle resumes. A bed is shoved to the center for a quick scene in Jake’s room. Off it goes, pushed away to the wall under one of the ballet barres. A few dancers with nothing to do at the moment take advantage. They stretch out on it, overlapping like kittens.
Next, a jaunty kazoo tune. (Billy Novick wrote and arranged the music, drawn from the 1920s; it will be performed live.) Luis Torres, as Count Mippipopolous, a fellow war veteran and gentlemanly sophisticate, slinks through his solo, sliding backward, shrugging his shoulders and rolling his hips. Watching him, Webre arcs his neck in a dreamy little roll of his own.
“Bring on the chandelier,” he says.
Turns out, it’s a woman — Aurora Dickie, who is lifted overhead by four men and carried toward the wall of mirrors as if she’s a roast leg of lamb. In costume, she’ll look like a platinum-plated Ziegfield Girl, with a headdress of arcing wire and crystals, topped with a fountain of feathers.
“Guys,” Webre says, “that mountain of men that’s carrying her, that’s gotta go quickly here. Let’s pick it up from the new wonderful lift.”
Choreography isn’t all that is on Webre’s mind. This ballet is a multimedia production. Lighting and projection designers sit facing the action, laptops open, conferring about set cues. (Video projections will include snippets of cabaret performer Josephine Baker; excerpts of Hemingway’s prose, which will appear typewritten across the stage before our very eyes; and oh, yes, bulls. Lots of bulls.)
Off to the side, production manager Edward Cucurello is taking notes with an assistant. Next to him, ballet master Elaine Kudo, stopping and starting the CD player, is trying to keep up with Webre as he speeds through the scenes.
They’ve all got questions for him. With one eye on the clock, Webre threads through several conversations at once. Clearly, he can tolerate a lot of distractions.
And the dancers?
“Sometimes it’s hard to stay focused when all that’s going on,” says Jared Nelson, who plays Jake. Wearing a gray T-shirt and sweat pants, he has a mop of blond hair and the beginnings of a beard. “But we’re used to a little bit of chaos here.”
For the past several years, Webre has been steadily producing full-length works for the Washington Ballet, among them “The Great Gatsby” and, last year, “Alice (in Wonderland).”
But this one, which he’s called “Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises,” is the most complicated. In addition to his team of designers, he’s relying on a mix of performers beyond his company, such as flamenco dancer Edwin Aparicio, singer E. Faye Butler and NPR reporter and sometime-crooner Ari Shapiro.