Sara Webb and artists of Houston Ballet in Ben Stevenson’s The Sleeping Beauty.
Photos by Amitava Sarkar.
Houston Ballet celebrates Ben Stevenson’s 80th year with six performances of his lavish The Sleeping Beauty, Feb. 25-March 5. The ballet, set to Tchaikovsky’s glorious score, also has one of the most coveted roles in the ballet canon, Princess Aurora. A + C editor in chief Nancy Wozny visited with Houston Ballet principal and Dallas native Sara Webb about Stevenson’s beloved ballet and the challenges and joys of the role.
How do you see Stevenson’s Sleeping Beauty as distinct?
Ben Stevenson has always been a great storyteller. Most of us are pretty familiar with Sleeping Beauty’s tale, but I think Ben has a unique way of making the audience feel like they are a part of the ballet. He makes every character an important player in telling the story—each from his or her own perspective—and choreographs emotion into every step he creates. The sets and costumes are lavish and beautiful, like you are stepping into a picture book.
How do you see the role of Aurora as a milestone in a ballerina’s career?
Sleeping Beauty is equivalent to ballets like Swan Lake and Don Quixote, “classics” that require the ballerina to carry the ballet technically and emotionally for three complete acts. Anytime a dancer has the opportunity to perform one of the “classics” is a milestone in their career.
Do you remember your first Aurora?
It was September 2003, and my partner was Zdenek Konvalina. We were supposed to dance on Sunday, but because of injuries in another cast, we went on Saturday night. We found out that morning before class. I didn’t have as much time to stress about it all, which was probably a good thing. I remember the Rose Adagio being my favorite part; it was a really fun and memorable experience. I also danced with Dominic Walsh in that run. They were very different shows with each partner, but I enjoyed every step and fell in love with this very challenging and wonderful ballet.
How have you grown in the role over the years?
The style for Sleeping Beauty is really important; that is what makes it so unique. Some may think it appears old fashioned, but if done well, it becomes elegant, regal, and almost ethereal. Each time I have been challenged with this role, I have tried to perfect this style more and make it look different from the other “classics.” Aurora is not a very complicated character, but I have tried to differentiate better how she changes from girl to woman throughout the ballet, stylistically and emotionally.
What are the general challenges both technically and artistically?
The First Act is the hardest. Most full-length ballets seem to get more difficult as the night goes on, but for Aurora the ballet starts off more difficult and gets a little easier as you move through Acts 2 and 3. Stamina-wise, you have to pace yourself so you don’t burn out after Act 1—it is a long ballet! The steps are simple in Beauty, which can often be the hardest to perform well because mistakes are obvious. It is not a complicated story, but artistically you want to have chemistry with the Prince that you don’t really meet until you are asleep. And, as I mentioned, you want to be able to show how Aurora grows from a young sweet 16 to a woman. There is not a lot of mime to do this with, so it has to be done with the way you dance the steps, which is a huge challenge.
How about that Rose Adagio?
The Rose Adagio is one of the hardest parts of the ballet because you can’t feel your feet by the end, when you need them the most to do those attitude promenades and balances, but it is my favorite part of the ballet. The music fuels you to the end. I find the audience always appreciates the difficulty, and their encouragement helps you power through.
How do you see this ballet as part of what’s in a ballerina’s DNA?
Of all the ballets out there, Sleeping Beauty is the purest classical ballet. It is the ballet every girl grows up learning, without realizing she is learning it, because it embodies everything she has been doing since her first ballet class.