BWW Interviews: Sara Webb Talks U.S. Premiere of ALADDIN Ballet
As Houston Ballet was putting the finishing touches on their production of David Bintley's mesmerizing ALADDIN, I got the opportunity to talk with Houston Ballet Principal Sara Webb. On the night before the production opened at The Wortham Theater Center, we discussed the U.S. Premiere of the ballet and her career.
BWW: How did you first get involved with dance?
Sara Webb: When I was eight years old, my parents took me to see THE NUTCRACKER. I totally fell in love with the ballet and wanted to be just like Clara. So, my mom enrolled me in ballet classes, and a couple of years later, I got to be Clara. After that, I wanted to be the Sugar Plum Fairy. Obviously, that took a lot more work. That's kind of how my story began.
BWW: When did you know you wanted to dance professionally?
Sara Webb: When I was about twelve, I guess, my dance teacher knew that I had some potential. At the time I was living in Las Vegas, and he said, "If you're going to want to do this professionally, you're going to need to go to a more professional place to get some training." He suggested going to The HARID Conservatory, which is in Boca Raton, Florida. My sister and I auditioned. It was about that time I made the decision to pursue this dream of becoming a ballerina.
BWW: For those more familiar with the Disney adaptation of this tale, what differences can Houston audiences expect from this interpretation of the story?
Sara Webb: I actually find that David (Bintley) stayed pretty close to the Disney version. You're not going to see Abu the monkey, but the Genie is blue. He looks very much like the Genie in the Disney version. Also, Aladdin is very much the same character. Jafar is a similar character; in this version, they call him Mahgrib. The music is Disney-esque. It's just not a cartoon. (Laughs) Overall, David stayed pretty true to that version. I don't know if he took from the same version [of the story] as Disney did when they created Aladdin.
For differences, there are a lot of Asian influences in this version. There's a part, kind of towards the end, where there's a dancing dragon. There are other things from the Asian culture that audiences will see. I don't know if that's from the story that David pulled from or the fact that he set it originally on a Japanese company (The National Ballet of Japan). These little elements kind of make it different, and they're unexpected.
BWW: For ALADDIN you're dancing the role of Princess Badr al-Budur on select dates. How did you prepare for this role?
Sara Webb: The gentleman Denis (Bonner), who actually came and set the ballet for us, has actually been working with us since the beginning of January. It's a long ballet. There are a lot of sets and a lot of different choreography to learn. The music, I find, has been the most difficult. Dancers, I think, tend to count evenly. We like even numbers; it's an 8 and a 12, you know. The music for this though is much more difficult. It's a 5, then you have a 6, then you're going to count an 11, and then a 7. It's kind of all over the place. Thankfully, Denis helped us a lot with the counts.
I think, for me, whenever I work on a role, I first want to make sure I know the music and I know the choreography. Then, once I feel comfortable with that, I start to imagine the character more. I think that Badr al-Budur is sweet and feisty. She's strong; she's not not-knowing or anything like that. There's a scene in the beginning of Act II where Aladdin comes and spies on her. In the beginning, we weren't sure if we were supposed to be scared because she sees him spying on her, but David (Bintley) said, "No. You fully know that he's watching you. You want him to come and see you because you have met him before, and you're interested in him. She's not a naïve little princess finding love for the first time. She's looking for love in Aladdin."
BWW: Are you and Princess Badr al-Budur alike in any way?
Sara Webb: [Laughs] It's been interesting. There are three of us that are dancing the princess-Karina Gonzalez, Nozomi (Iijima), and myself. I think that if you watch each of us do it that we all have a little bit of a different interpretation of the princess because we have all put ourselves a little bit into the princess. I think that David (Bintley) has given each of us a little bit of artistic freedom there. We don't all have to be the exact same princess.
For me, I kind of like that she's got a little bit of sassiness to her. She's not just a little, naïve princess. She's a princess who wants what she wants. She changes Aladdin. In fact, we just had a rehearsal with David. With the final pose that we have at the end of our last pas de deux, he said, "I kind of like this moment because it's like she looks at him and says, 'I've changed you. I made you grow up.' She's teaching him how to be more a man and not such a boy." I like that. (Laughs)
BWW: You'll also be the lead principal solo of the Sapphire on select dates in this production. How did you prepare for this role?
Sara Webb: It was funny because on the very first day of rehearsal we weren't rehearsing the princess. All of us had a different role to learn, and we weren't sure what it was all about. The jewel section happens when Aladdin goes into the cave, and I thought it was an interesting interpretation from David (Bintley) where the cave comes to life. Each of us that dance represents a different jewel.
Mine, dancing wise, is a little bit more lyrical. I like it, and I like the part. I have to wear a big, long blue wig, and she's kind of sultry. In preparation for it, again, it was just learning the music and trying to get the right kind of character that they were wanting for that particular part. In a sense, she's kind of a mermaid because we (the sapphires) have seashells on us. I feel like out of all the jewels, we are probably the most different. We've rehearsed quite a lot, so hopefully it's great by opening night.
BWW: As a dancer, what is it like learning different roles for the same production?
Sara Webb: Sometimes it can be challenging, especially when you're learning the lead. The lead tends to have a lot more involvement in a production, so you want to solely concentrate on that and invest all your time in that part. So, then, you find yourself thinking, "Oh my gosh, the princess is on right before that, and now I have to be this other part. So, I can't focus on that; I have to focus on something else." Sometimes it can be a little bit of a juggling act.
At the same time, it's nice to be a different part in the production because no part in a ballet is not important. Every part is very important. It doesn't matter if you're the water seller, a princess, or the person holding up the dragon. Being able to play multiple parts in a ballet definitely brings a lot of support from everyone. As a Sapphire, I will be cheering on the princess. As well, she'll be cheering on all of us to make the production the best it can be. The Sapphire may not be as challenging as the princess; she's only on for one act. So, sometimes it's nice. It's a little bit less stressing, and it kind of warms you up for when you have the more stressful part.
BWW: Are there any dream roles you'd like to dance?
Sara Webb: I think, at this point in my career, I've been very lucky to dance a lot of the parts I always dreamed about dancing as a little girl. I think it's always nice to come back to roles you've done before to try and improve on them. I think, too, it is always nice to do a part that you've never done. What's great about ALADDIN is that none of us have ever done this ballet, so it's kind of nice to see what it's like to be the Princess and to be a Sapphire in ALADDIN. It's always a dream to do new things as well as repeat things you've done before.
BWW: As a Principal at Houston Ballet, what advice do you offer to others hoping to make a career in dance?
Sara Webb: it's funny. The Olympics are going on right now, and to see all these people who have spent all their lives working for their one night is very inspiring and relatable. The lesson is not to give up. I know I was told often, "You're too short to be a dancer," "You're not as coordinated," and all these reasons why I probably wouldn't make it as a dancer. I used that as motivation to keep working hard. I think no matter what people tell you, if you have a dream, you figure out a plan to achieve that dream and just keep going, no matter what people say or what obstacles are thrown in your way.
ALADDIN, produced by Houston Ballet, plays the Brown Theater at the Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas Avenue, Houston 77002 now through March 2, 2014. Performances are Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m., Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Friday, February 28 at 7:30 p.m. Following the four remaining performances in Houston, the Houston Ballet production will tour to Chicago and perform at The Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University from March 22-23, 2014. For more information and tickets to the Houston performances please visit http://houstonballet.org or call (800) 828-2787. For tickets to the Chicago performances, please visit http://www.auditoriumtheatre.org or call (800) 982-ARTS (2787).
Photo courtesy of Houston Ballet.