WL: The Washington Ballet was not previously considered to be a particularly diverse company.
SW: Ensuring that we reflect the face of our city is important to me. Recruiting African-American and Latino dancers and developing a repertoire that reflects diverse cultures has been a priority. It’s one of the reasons we formed Dance D.C., a partnership with the city’s public school system, which brings an integrated dance/literacy program to first- and second-graders. That led to our participation at THEARC, a $27 million facility that houses state-of-the-art studios and a 350-seat theater where we have a thriving dance scene.
WL: The company still does classical as well as contemporary dance, but you’ve become a lot less traditional than before.
SW: We present works by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins as well as classics like Giselle, but we also work with groups like Sweet Honey in the Rock and the Howard University Jazz Ensemble. We are now working on a large-scale gospel music project to be scheduled soon.
WL: You focus on edgier stuff than in the past.
SW: Creativity and invention are our central underlying ethos. We approach our repertoire in an adventuresome manner. While the dancers can tackle La Sylphide with great credibility, it’s the new works by the great living choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon, Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris where dancers can develop an important difference.
WL: You’re choreographing Rocket Man, set to Elton John’s music to help celebrate your anniversary. How did that come about?
SW: His music provided the soundtrack to my childhood, so it’s very personal to me. In an abstract way it’s my own story – the story of a boy becoming a man. It’s not meant merely to pay homage to Elton John, but rather a work that young people can relate to in terms of their challenges, hardships and growing self-awareness.
WL: How is the Washington Ballet perceived in the greater dance world?
SW: Not to overuse the term, but I think we are seen as a “maverick” among the top ten companies in the country. Our artistically youthful and athletic approach is unique and our commitment to doing new works is strong. We do eight or nine world premieres a year. You can’t do that without getting better, especially while simultaneously performing great works like Giselle.
WL: What were the decade’s high points?
SW: Going on tour to Cuba, the new Nutcracker, signing a new collective bargaining agreement with the dancers.
WL: And the low points?
SW: During our labor dispute of 2005-2006, I made the mistake of not letting the dancers know that I cherished their work and also didn’t listen to them closely enough. Afterwards, I worked hard to build a new relationship. As a result, the company has become artistically stronger than ever. I think the dancers would agree that the company has become a really great place to work.
WL: Your numbers have improved as well.
SW: When I arrived we had a $2.8 million endowment; now it is $8.5 million. Our 725 subscribers have grown to 3,000.
WL: You’ve moved the ballet to a whole new dimension.
SW: I like to think our art has really connected to this city, and that we reach out – especially to young people. Having a really terrific board of directors also helps, particularly our past chairwoman, Kay Kendall, and current chairwoman Sylvia de Leon. And we throw darn good parties!