As the Houston Ballet’s beloved seasonal production of "The Nutcracker" gets into full swing, it is without principal ballerina Sara Webb, who retired in July of this year after 21 years with the company.
This is the story of how a mom, a temple-loving member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a successful professional ballet dancer, managed to rise to the top of this extraordinarily competitive craft and stay focused on faith and a love of God.
Extolled by The Houston Chronicle as: “a shimmering presence”; by PointeMagazine: “Exquisite technique, gorgeous lines”; by Dance Europe: “A Principal Dancer of International Standard”, Webb said that it was 'The Nutcracker" that started her long and storied career when she was 8 years old in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“I was that little girl watching, wanting to be on stage. I wanted to be Clara. So as soon as we could my mom signed up my sister and I for classes. My sister was naturally talented and I was uncoordinated, but I worked hard. It started with one time per week, then grew to six days per week (at the Academy of Nevada Dance Theater)."
At age 12, Webb started going away to summer programs. At age 14, she attended HARID Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida, for high school with a studio on campus. "At 17, I had my heart set on going to Boston. I really wanted to dance in Boston, but they told me I was too short and that I wasn’t ready," she recalled.
The Houston Ballet Academy offered her a scholarship, and she begrudgingly went. "It turned out to be a huge blessing because the director took an interest in me and down the road, I met my husband.”
After a year at the academy and high school graduation, Webb continued at the Houston Ballet with one year as an apprentice, three years in the corps, two and a half years as a soloist and then principal for 14 years. She has performed throughout the world as guest principal dancer and her biography on The Houston Ballet website is replete with accomplishments and accolades. “I never thought I’d be a principal,” Webb said. “When someone tells me I can’t, it motivates me even more. I wasn’t the best dancer in my class. I struggled learning the combinations. I had to work really hard.
“To do one ballet I would prepare for six months in advance, practicing over and over to get it perfected, for just two shows. Even as a principal dancer there were times I wanted to quit."
The same was true spiritually, Webb said. "You have the potential to be the greatest but you have to put in the work, you can’t just expect it to happen. You have to go to church, read the scriptures, find it in yourself to work on an aspect of testimony that needs work.”
Choosing to believe
“Faith is a choice," said Webb, a member of the Silver Pines Ward, Klein Texas Stake in Houston. "You can choose to believe or not. Our faith is always tested. When I choose faith, I have peace."
Because Webb left home when she was 14, she had to decide to participate in church or not. "Around age 15-16 I made the decision. That was the ‘why’ that would get me to my scriptures or get me to my knees, or get me out of bed when I was too tired. Going to church every Sunday would give me perspective and humble me down.”
Other dancers saw that she would pray over sprained ankles, and friends would buy her shirts that conformed to her standards.
But there were times when she was punished for sticking to her choices and was passed over for a part. “It is not an easy world … inside the ballet world can be very ugly. There is politicking, there is a lot of competition, people clawing to get ahead. You can spend years and years trying to correct something in your body, and then they don’t like your personality, or your looks. It’s hard to take.”
Webb refers to her “life of highs and lows” as faith building. “I can definitely see the Lord’s hand in all things,” she said.
The Lord’s hand
While faithfully attending church activities in Houston, Sara met a handsome young man who was attending West Point, the Army’s military academy. Because cadets aren’t allowed to marry until after graduation, Sara and Ryan Bardo were finally married in 2001 after a two-year engagement. Though his military training would not normally have placed him in overseas active duty deployments, because of 9/11 Ryan completed two tours of duty in Iraq.
“That is the hardest thing I’d done, but I got a blessing and felt peace. While I struggled, I learned to trust that it’s going to be OK even if its not the way I want it to be,” Webb said.
They sacrificed together. After his active duty with the Army, Bardo was accepted to Yale Law School but felt guided to attend law school in Houston. While he was in law school, she had their first baby and continued dancing. With the birth of each of their four children, Sara had to be back in full dance form within six weeks and prepare for the next performance.
Around that time Bardo was called as bishop of their ward. His firm asked him to postpone accepting the Church calling because of work load, so he found a position at another firm and then other positions presented themselves. This past year, Bardo was in Australia for Webb’s fourth pregnancy while she was still dancing, and then his company asked him to take a position in another city. Following their pattern of prayer, temple attendance and putting family first, they decided to stay.
“Even though when you are going through it, it is so stressful, it all works out. (Heavenly Father) is watching over you, and He’ll take care of you. Now looking back everything fell into place. Each time something happens you feel a little bit stronger because you learn, you remember the lesson a little better. I put my trust in the Lord and felt His peace,” Webb said.
“My husband and the gospel have kept me grounded through the whole experience. I couldn’t have had this career without him. He made me want to be a better person. Just like the gospel, being in the gospel helps me to be a better person. That’s why I have never given up on it. I had two dreams, to be a ballet dancer and to be a wife and mother.”
“I found something I loved more than ballet and I set those goals. Most dancers retire (after having children) but I wasn’t done dancing. I wanted to be fulfilled in my career, prove to the dance world that you can be a mom and still be a ballerina. You can be both. I have a lot of friends who said, 'You showed us how to do it so we will try.' It’s the best thing you’ll ever do. It makes dancing better. It gives you more perspective and keeps you stronger. I wanted to show my kids if you work really hard, you can fulfill your dreams,” said Webb.