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BWW Interview: Sara Webb Talks Houston Ballet's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM

Houston Ballet's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, choreographed by John Neumeier, is a mix of neo-classical ballet, classical ballet, and the bard's timeless tale. In this interview, BWW had the pleasure of talking to Sara Webb, principal dancer for the Houston Ballet and Hippolyta and Hermia in this classic romantic comedy.

BWW: Can you describe A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM with dance or movement vocabulary only then translate it for the laymen i.e. me?

Sara Webb: It's a mix of neo-classical and classical ballet with a bit of modern/contemporary elements spliced in. In other words, it uses multiple dance vocabularies to set different tones throughout the ballet. For example, the more realistic scenes use classical technique, while the dream-like scenes use contemporary movement.

BWW: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM is my favorite Shakespearean play. I can't wait to see it! What can Houston audiences and I expect from the Houston Ballet's production?

Sara Webb: There are several ballet versions of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, and Houston Ballet is fortunate to be the first American company to perform John Neumeier's version. If you are familiar with the story, I think you will find that his version is a wonderfully creative interpretation of the play that not only tells the story but also pulls you in as an audience member. And, if you are not familiar with the story, you will fall in love with it.

BWW: Houston Ballet's MIDSUMMER is a Shakespearean comedy performed as a ballet, which can be intimidating. How have you all managed to make it modern, accessible, and entertaining? Do you think it needs to be more modern and accessible to be entertaining?

Sara Webb: I think Shakespeare's stories are timeless because their themes and emotions are universal and timeless, so, in many ways, MIDSUMMER is and always will be modern, accessible, and entertaining. Every time we, as dancers, learn a new role, we put a little bit of ourselves into the character, which adds a new, current layer to the story. Relatively speaking, this version is modern, as it was created almost 400 years after the play.

BWW: The Houston Ballet is celebrating the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare's birth with several Shakespearean productions this season. Why do you think Shakespeare's storytelling has been such source of inspiration for such a wide range of art forms for four centuries?

Sara Webb: I think the timelessness of the themes and emotions of Shakespeare's plays make them accessible to every performing art. The fact that his works are so well known and influential in our culture make them attractive to audiences of all ages.

BWW: What do you think ballet brings to the story that other art forms such as theatre, film, or opera may not?

Sara Webb: As the only non-verbal art form of the four, I think it highlights the emotion and physicality of the story because it has to rely on the movement, expression, and music to tell the story.

BWW: Of course. What has been challenging for you in this production?

Sara Webb: The biggest challenge for me has been learning Hippolyta and Hermia (one of the lovers) at the same time, while keeping the steps and characters distinct from each other.

BWW: How did you work through this?

Sara Webb: At first I wasn't able to keep them apart, but as I've gone through the process of learning the steps and developing each character, I have found it easier to keep their identities separate in my mind and in how I dance them. So, I guess the answer is it just takes time.

BWW: How did you prepare mentally and physically for the role?

Sara Webb: I danced a different version of Midsummer a few years ago - Frederick Ashton's THE DREAM - so I was familiar with the story and character. We spent a whole hour during which Neumeier talked about his version and the story before we danced a step of it. That insight made it so much easier to prepare for and develop the role. As far as physical preparation, I take class every day and cross train before class to build stamina. And of course, lots of rehearsal.

BWW: What did Neumeier say?

Sara Webb: Neumeier told us the story from his perspective and explained why he choreographed things the way he did and how he wanted to portray the story. That is a rare opportunity. Anytime you hear from the choreographer's mouth his interpretation of the ballet it puts you that much further ahead in how you develop it. So, it really gave us a head start in developing our respective roles. What I liked most that he said was that he created the ballet on his company but that the Houston version would be different and that was okay. He has really allowed us to make the ballet our own and create a "Houston Ballet" version.

BWW: I'm going to ask you the question that most young and up-and-coming dancers want you to answer. What was the road to principal? What do you think is the key (or were the keys) to your achievement?

Ballet: SWAN LAKE
Choreographer: Stanton Welch
Dancer(s): Sara Webb
and Artists of the Houston Ballet
Photographer: Amitava Sarkar

Sara Webb: It has definitely been a journey that required hard work and not giving up. I think the key for me was that I set the goal to be a professional ballerina at a very young age and at a time when I was being told that I wouldn't ever make it that far. That determination and my love for the art form is what kept me going. Ballet is very subjective, and I have been blessed to have worked for people that liked how I danced and saw my potential.

BWW: What do you say to yourself when you just can't get a step right or you don't feel connected to the piece? How do you get back on track?

Sara Webb: Usually my frustration fuels my desire to get it right, but sometimes I have to take a break from it, if even for a night, and come back to it fresh the next day.

BWW: A lot of artists have been told they couldn't make it for whatever reason. Misty Copeland was told she did not have a dancer's body. What were you told? And what helped you move past the discouragement?

Sara Webb: I was told I was too short - I'm 5'3" - but, by that point, I had come too far to give up. Luckily, I stuck with it long enough to find a company and a director that didn't feel that way. I will be forever grateful to Ben Stevenson and Houston Ballet for giving me a chance.

BWW: You've been very open about the struggle to be a mother and a professional dancer. Tell me, what keeps you going? What inspires you when you're tired or at your wit's end?

Sara Webb: My love of performing and the support of my family keep me going. When I am tired and at my wit's end, coming home to my husband and kids helps me recharge and regain my perspective.

BWW: To end our discussion, I ripped some questions from the Bernard Pivot/Proust Questionnaire just for you! Please tell me: What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Sara Webb: Being with my family.

BWW: What is your greatest extravagance?

Sara Webb: Gymboree.

BWW: Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

Sara Webb: "Pumpkin!" and "That's one..." from 1-2-3 Magic.

BWW: Which talent would you most like to have?

Sara Webb: Being able to function without sleep.

BWW: [Laughs] What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Sara Webb: My marriage and my children.

BWW: If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?

Sara Webb: More than words, I would just want a hug.

BWW: Now that we've talked about God, let's blaspheme. Tell me, what is your favorite swear word or near-swear word?

Sara Webb: I'm partial to Buddy the Elf's "Son of a Nutcracker!"

Well, I just made a principal ballerina near swear. What have you done today?

Houston Ballet will give seven performances of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM From September 4 - 14, 2014 at Wortham Theater Center in downtown Houston. Tickets start at $20, and may be purchased at www.houstonballet.org, or by calling 713-227-2787.

Ballet: A Midsummer Night's Dream
Choreographer: John Neumeier
Dancer(s):Artists of Hamburg Ballet
Photos: Holger Badekow
Images provided courtesy of Hamburg Ballet



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