Houston Ballet principal Sara Webb, now celebrating her 20th season, holds the distinct position of being the only ballerina currently in the company who has worked extensively under two Houston Ballet artistic directors: Ben Stevenson (who left in 2003 and now directs Texas Ballet Theatre) and Stanton Welch. Webb was nurtured under Stevenson, who first saw her potential and promoted her to soloist, and she was the very first dancer that Welch promoted to principal. Having danced most major roles since joining the company in 1997, she carries a considerable amount of Houston Ballet history in her body.
With her exquisite technique, gorgeous lines, and her ability to bounce back from having a baby quicker than most celebrities, Webb has always been an audience favorite. She spoke with Nancy Wozny via email about her lengthy career.
Congratulations on 20 years at Houston Ballet. To what do you credit your artistic longevity?
I credit my artistic longevity to my life experiences. From the difficult ones (my husband being deployed to Iraq) to the joyful ones (having my children), those experiences help me bring a wider range of emotions to the stage. Every time I've revisited a role, I've been in a different place in my life, which has allowed me to approach the role in a different way.
Ben Stevenson was a key mentor for you. Do you have any memories to share?
As a young dancer with Ben, new in the company, when we rehearsed a ballet, especially a full-length, he made sure we knew that every single character was important to him, because they were all required to make the ballet come to life. Even as the washer woman in Don Quixote, where I don't think I danced a single step, he showed me how to really become that character by believing I was a washer woman.
Ben also coached me the first time that I danced Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. He taught me that each step in a ballet should have a reason, every step should say something.
Webb in "Swan Lake." Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.
Was there a ballet in those early years that felt like your turning point?
In my early years of dance training, my goal had been to just make it into a professional company. It wasn't until I danced my first full-length leading role, Swanhilda in Coppélia, that I thought I might be able to achieve more than that.
You were Stanton's first principal promotion after a performance of The Nutcracker. Do you recall that night?
Yes. Being promoted to principal was made all the more memorable by the fact that my parents just happened to be in the audience that night. They hadn't seen me do Nutcracker for a few years, but had come to visit me for the holidays while my husband was in Iraq. It was a sweet moment to share with the two people who took me to my first Nutcracker and supported me every step of the way.
Webb and Luke Ingham in Stanton Welch's "Indigo." Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.
You have been dancing Stanton Welch's work for two decades now, even before he took the helm in 2003. How would you say your precise style of dancing works well with his style of choreography?
Indigo was the first ballet of Stanton's that I danced in 1999. When he came to set that piece, his choreography was different and challenging. It was rewarding to learn and perform it. I have always enjoyed his musicality and I understand his way of moving.
You mentioned that your "one defining moment" was working with Glen Tetley in Voluntaries. It's such a moving piece, and I remember when Tetley came to Houston Ballet shortly before he passed away. Tell us about working with him.
Working with Glen was a wonderful experience because he made sure that I knew that he believed in me. He took the time to encourage me and help me get it right. It was an honor to work with him.
Webb and Connor Walsh in Glenn Tetley's "Voluntaries." Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.
Have you performed every role on your bucket list, or is there a dream ballet you have yet to dance?
After 20 years, I still look forward to dancing something I haven't done before. I'd love to dance another John Neumeier or Christopher Wheeldon ballet.
You've had to balance your dance career with being a mom, first with Josh, then with Lily, and then Lucy. You seem to do it with the same grace you bring to the stage. Any advice for dancer moms out there?
It has been a treat to be able to perform while pregnant with each of my children, including baby number four, who will arrive in May! As for advice, I think being a mom makes you a better dancer, because it gives you more perspective and shows you that your body can do more than you ever thought it could. It does require some compartmentalizing, a few less hours of sleep each day, and a plan for staying in shape up until delivery and getting back in shape after.
Wow! Congratulations. Do you ever think about life beyond the stage? I am guessing that it probably involves more time with your growing family.
I never thought about retirement until I had my son—10 years ago. When I do finish, yes, I do look forward to spending more time with my kids and also going back to school to study occupational therapy.