BWW Interviews: Sara Webb Talks Houston Ballet's SWAN LAKE
Summer is upon us, and Houston Ballet is helping Houstonians beat the heat by presenting the idyllic classic SWAN LAKE. Featuring choreography by Stanton Welch, this version of SWAN LAKE first premiered in 2006 and this production marks the third time that Houston Ballet dances this crowd-pleasing version. In anticipation of Thursday's opening night, I recently chatted with Sara Webb about SWAN LAKE and dancing the iconic dual roles of the White and Black Swans.
BWW: Houston Ballet is getting ready to close its 2013-2014 season. Looking back, what was one (or some) of your favorite moments of this past season?
Sara Webb: I really enjoyed the last program that we did, the one featuring all of Stanton Welch's work. I think it stands out to me because when I was young in the company, Stanton Welch first started choreographing with Houston Ballet, and I'd always enjoyed dancing his ballets. I thought how appropriate for his ten year to have a program dedicated to just him. I was in all three ballets, and I really enjoyed each one for different reasons.
Of course, I am looking forward to SWAN LAKE. I've always, you know, loved that ballet and any opportunity to dance it is a treat. I had never done MERRY WIDOW before, so it was fun to kind of step out of my comfort zone and jump into Valencienne, the character who is a little more over the top. I had fun doing that.
I have really been looking forward to this next mixed program as well. I danced THE FOUR TEMPERAMENTS like nine years ago or something, and I remember totally falling on stage. It was just, at that time, a very difficult program for me. It's always fun to revisit ballets you've done before to try and improve on them. So, I'm enjoying this experience much more. Also, PETITE MORT, the last time they did it, I was pregnant with my son. It was the one ballet that season that I was sad not to be able to be a part of, so I am really excited that it came back a second time around.
Sara Webb: Sure. SWAN LAKE is an iconic ballet. I think when you ask people about the ballet, they have either seen SWAN LAKE or know of SWAN LAKE or THE NUTCRACKER, of course. Tchaikovsky did the music, so everybody should be familiar with the music. SWAN LAKE is kind of the same story for every choreographer I think. Stanton Welch kind of elaborated a little bit more where she's a maiden by night and a swan by day. So, she falls in love with the prince who is trying to find love, like every prince in every ballet, and, of course, he always finds it in the forest with some maiden. (Laughs) They fall in love, but then he realizes that she has this secret that she is also a swan. Obviously, in White, their love is very vulnerable, but at the same time there is the angst of how can they be together when she is a swan half of the time and a maiden the other half of the time because of this curse on her.
The Black Swan is danced by the same dancer, obviously, and being able to dance both roles, White and Black, is what makes the role so iconic. They are very different personalities. I think that is also what makes the ballet so extremely difficult for the lead ballerina. You're tired from doing White Swan, and then you have to go out with a bang and be very fiery and convince the prince that you are the White Swan with just a little different personality.
BWW: This will be your fourth time dancing as the Swan Queen. What has been your favorite part about preparing for this role, and do you find that you find something new to look forward to each time you take on this part?
Sara Webb: Yeah, it's funny. I think the first time that I did the role I was just scared to death. It's exciting because you're like, "Oh my gosh. I finally get to be the Swan Queen," but then you're like, "Oh my gosh, this is the hardest ballet I've ever danced in my life." I think that the first time that I did it, looking back, that I really felt like a baby swan. You know, I was just learning how to find my wings.
However, each time this ballet comes around, I get to improve and grow from the time before. It's a classical ballet, but there is some freedom in SWAN LAKE. I think there is more freedom where you get to use your body a little more to become more creature-like as the White Swan. So, this time, I am trying to experiment a little more with that as well as making the dynamic of the Black Swan completely different than the White Swan. That way you really see physically the difference between the White Swan and the Black Swan.
BWW: What has been the most challenging aspect in preparing to dance both roles of the Black Swan and White Swan?
Sara Webb: I think the stamina and then also trying to portray the differences between the two. You dance the way you dance, and then you are tired by the time that you get to the Black Swan. It's hard not to give into that I guess, to really show the difference between the White Swan being very vulnerable and the Black Swan being very much in control and powerful
The stamina is challenging for sure, and the White act and the Black acts each have different staminas. The White act is not so much like you feel like you're going to vomit at the end of it, it's that you can't feel your left leg because the whole pas de deux is on that left leg. The Black Swan is more like running a marathon, keeping that strength up until the bitter end. (Laughs) It's a challenge. But that's the beauty of ballet, trying to make it look like it's not difficult at all. (Laughs)
It's funny watching it. I know when I watch the other dancers preparing for it, or when you watch another cast, you're out there enjoying the whole thing like, "Wow, they don't look tired at all," but then when you're up there you're like, "Oh my gosh, I'm dying." Everybody does a wonderful job; everyone that's working hard fights for it.
Sara Webb: This will be the third time that we've done Stanton Welch's version since he premiered it in 2006. In the end there is this dragon [Rothbart], and the last couple of times that we've done it, it has been very hard to kind of see the special effects of that. I think this time they are trying to change the dragon a little bit and make it more dynamic.
Then, I think, with any production that's new, the more you do it, the more you find that the dancers will add to the roles and try to put themselves into it a little bit more. There's that freedom that Stanton gives us. The more we do a ballet, the more he gives you a little more freedom to explore the role even more. I think if you came and saw every single cast, you would see a very different interpretation from each person, but I think that's what's so amazing about it all. That's the beauty of it. It's too bad that people cannot come and see every single cast because I think they would get something different from each person.
BWW: One of the best parts of SWAN LAKE is that you get this classic dual role. Do you find that you share any similarities to the characters that you are bringing life to on stage?
Sara Webb: That's a good question. So, the first time that I ever did the White Swan pas de deux was when I was like sixteen years old. At the Harid Conservatory I actually got to dance it with Marcelo Gomes. I'll always remember what we were told when they coached us. I mean we were young, and the first time trying to do something. He said the White Swan pas de deux is about love, but what is love? It's all of the different emotions in one. It's fear, it's anxiety, and passion. All of those emotions make up that pas de deux, like when you're first experiencing love or love in general. So, I think in that sense everyone can relate to the White Swan pas de deux because they have fallen in love at some point in their life or know what love is. I can definitely relate to that. I'm married and just in love in general with somebody who I want to be with forever. I think that's definitely something that I can relate to.
The Black Swan, I don't know, I think that we all maybe have a sassy side to us. (Laughs) I think that as the Black Swan is kind of fun to be a little sassy and to have the freedom to be something that maybe you're not all the time. I mean I think that everybody has something inside of them that is not on display all of the time. I think that is the beauty of being able to play this role; you get to be able to be free enough to be that one little part of you that you don't get to show to everyone all of the time. I think that my family and the people that I work with here would say that I'm sassy. (Laughs) It's kind of fun to be able to explore that a little more in the role of the Black Swan.
Stanton Welch's SWAN LAKE, produced by Houston Ballet, runs in the Brown Theater at the Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas Avenue, Houston 77002 from June 5 to 15, 2014. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.houstonballet.org or call (800) 828-2787.
Photos courtesy of Houston Ballet. Photos by Amitava Sarkar.