Septime Webre was appointed Artistic Director of The Washington Ballet (TWB) in June 1999 after six years as artistic director of American Repertory Ballet in New Jersey. Much in demand as a choreographer, he has created works that appear in the repertoires of many companies in North America, including Pacific Northwest Ballet, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, North Carolina Dance Theatre, Ballet Austin, Atlanta Ballet, Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet and Colorado Ballet, among others. As a dancer, Mr. Webre was featured in works by George Balanchine, Paul Taylor, Antony Tudor, Alvin Ailey, and Merce Cunningham as well as in principal and solo roles from the classical repertoire. A former member of the board of directors of Dance/USA, Mr. Webre sits on the board of the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington, and has been honored by Young Audiences of the District of Columbia and has received a number of fellowships for his choreography. Mr. Webre is the seventh son in a large Cuban-American family. He graduated from the University of Texas with a B.A. in History/Pre-Law.
Peter Branch, TWB Executive Director and most recently Head of Georgetown Day School, has 34-years experience as the leader of independent schools in New York City, Long Island, Oklahoma and Washington, DC. He has extensive experience in administrative management, institutional advancement, and program development and promotion in a nonprofit environment. In three of the schools he headed, Mr. Branch established dance programs and oversaw the funding and construction of dance studios at Woodmere Academy in Woodmere, NY; Holland Hall School in Tulsa, OK; and Georgetown Day School. At Holland Hall, he also oversaw the construction of a 70,000 square-foot performing arts center. As a result, in 1992 th International Network of Performing and Visual Arts Schools recognized him as Arts Administrator of the year. In 1996, the Holland Hall Board honored Mr. Branch by naming the 1,200-seat theatre, The Peter M. Branch Theatre.
By Alyssa Porambo
Recently, I was able to sit down with Peter M. Branch, TWB’s newly-appointed executive director. While our official announcement told you that Peter has years of experience as the leader of independent schools in New York City, Long Island, Oklahoma and Washington, DC and has extensive experience in administrative management, institutional advancement, program development and promotion in non-profit environments, inquiring minds want to know his plans for TWB, what he’s looking forward to next season, and what he likes to do in his free time.
Alyssa Porambo:What prompted you to become the head of a professional ballet company and school at this point in your career?
Peter Branch: It was really serendipitous for me – it’s not like one morning I woke up and decided I wanted to be the executive director of a ballet company. After a year of semi-retirement from being a headmaster of schools for 34 years, I came to the realization that I wasn’t a very good retiree. I wanted to do something that would allow me to take advantage of my skills with people, education and culture. I had tried educational consulting, which I enjoyed, but it’s peripatetic and travel-heavy. Beside, I like DC and the Washington area which has been my home for 15 years. When I was approached about this role, it seemed to have a lot of challenges and opportunities which excited me. The differences intrigued me. Ultimately, I didn’t want to get stale – working here has been rejuvenating for me. I’m learning a lot and hopefully I can bring a fresh perspective to the organization.
AP: What do you see ahead for TWB, TWSB and/or ballet in general in the next five years?
PB: The Washington Ballet is at an important juncture in its history; it has an internationally recognized company and school, as well as a regionally well-recognized community engagement initiative. But, like many not-for-profit performing arts organizations, it is competing for philanthropic funding in an environment where government money has decreased precipitously. To be all it can be, the Ballet needs to have the financial, operational and physical structure that can support its quality of programs going forward. It is my hope in the short, medium and long run, that we can establish the capital support to secure the Ballet’s financial future.
AP:With that said, do you see a building project in TWB’s future?
PB: Ultimately, yes. The question is, when is ultimately? The Ballet has to be on firm financial grounds before it makes any steps toward strategic growth. The first priority is to ensure the financial stability of the institution.
AP:How have the arts impacted your professional career?
PB:They have impacted me personally and professionally. As an educator, I believe strong visual and performing arts programs are essential. They are critical to cultural, societal and individual growth, and are a matter of spirit. I believe we are not fully human without developing our creative side. The Washington Ballet plays a large role in nurturing the creativity of the DC community.
AP: You have been involved with schools most of your professional career, what about The Washington School of Ballet will be of special interest to you?
PB: First of all, I need to acknowledge the school’s level of success – TWSB is internationally recognized for the quality of its training. Secondly, I am interested in the challenge of balancing the needs and interests of students who persist and rise to the highest level, and those who will not ultimately move to that point. We want to find the best way to serve both those groups that does not diminish the quality of the education, but honors the interest of all, and teaches the community the value of all educational levels.
AP: What do you consider to be TWB’s most important assets? Strengths? Weaknesses?
PB: I see the strengths of The Washington Ballet to be the quality of its programming, the creativity of its art, the compelling vision of Septime and outside choreographers and the talent of our dancers. Additionally, I value the excellence reflected in the school and the company’s commitment to community engagement and educational programs. The biggest challenge I see is in confronting American society, which, unfortunately in recent years has been anti, or at best, non-intellectual and non-artistic in its priorities. The fact is that we don’t compensate artists, dancers or teachers well enough, and are not prepared to pay the same amount of money for tickets to a fine arts event as to the Super Bowl. We need to better recognize that the athletes of ballet are as talented and well-trained as any other athletes, and the values they hold up to society are unique and need all the support we can give.
AP: What performance are you most looking forward to seeing this upcoming season?
PB: I am very excited about ALICE (in wonderland) and what Septime is going to do with that classic tale. I think there’s an interesting literary quality to this season, with ALICE, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Great Gatsby and Once Upon a Time... It’s an interesting issue, how you render a book into a ballet. When you look at them all together in that respect – how you remain true to the story but interpret it into a ballet – they all offer fascinating possibilities.
AP: What are your hobbies?
PB: I am a sailor – it is something that I have done since I was a kid. There is a similarity with dance in that the challenge and grace of a good sail is very comparable to a good ballet.