Lauren Strongin and Adrian Ciobanu’s house is in disarray. The kitchen table is littered with Tchaikovsky CDs, papers and wine glasses.
Dishes and glass tumblers fill almost every square inch of the countertop and Ciobanu, dressed in an old T-shirt covered in paint flecks, is teasing his wife about her obsession with searching the Internet for houses to rent in Houston.
“She has spent more time looking for houses than packing,” Ciobanu says, laughing.
Strongin, in a button-up yellow dress and ballet flats, smiles guiltily. She’s frazzled — or as frazzled as a prima ballerina gets — apologizing for the state of her home and for the dog hair she was in the middle of vacuuming.
Moving is grimy and unglamorous, even for ballet dancers.
“I’m addicted to looking at houses,” she says. “Our dogs are so big, it’s so hard to pick a place. We have a friend in Houston willing to check things out, but I keep procrastinating, thinking I’ll find something better.”
Almost on cue, Alfie, the couple’s Bernese mountain dog starts barking. Sadie, the chocolate Lab, chimes in.
“I finally had to set a deadline for myself,” Strongin says, her doll-like features softening. “I’m picking a house by the end of this week. That’s my deadline.”
The 25-year-old ballerina is as dainty as they come. Brunette, with almost breakable bone structure and porcelain skin, Strongin is the Sarasota Ballet’s resident Audrey Hepburn — its biggest star.
The company’s principal ballerina for five years, Strongin has danced title roles in “Elite Syncopations,” “Lilac Garden,” “Pineapple Poll,” “Checkmate,” “Swan Lake,” “Giselle,” “Coppélia” and, of course, “The Nutcracker.”
When famed choreographer André Prokovsky arrived in Sarasota this spring to stage his “Anna Karenina,” it was Strongin whom Artistic Director Iain Webb envisioned as Anna. There was no question about it.
So, when Strongin announced last month that she had signed a corps de ballet contract with Houston Ballet, the company was devastated. Not only was it losing Strongin, but Ciobanu, the company’s assistant ballet master, was going, too.
Seated beside his wife on their living room sofa, Ciobanu, a loveable mop-topped dancer from Romania, is 10 years Strongin’s senior and more matter-of-fact about the situation.
“I think it’s a huge deal,” he says. “I’d never get a job at the Houston Ballet. People from all over the world are trying to get in there. Lauren is 25 years old and has been with the same company for eight years. It’s nothing personal. We’re not moving because we’ve had enough, we’re moving because we want to experience other challenges.”
Ciobanu joined Sarasota’s corps de ballet 13 years ago under the direction of then-Artistic Director Robert de Warren. By the time Strongin signed on, he was retired and working as a teacher in the company’s dance school.
The couple started dating during Strongin’s second season and four years later purchased a home off Fruitville Road in a sleepy subdivision near the interstate. In July 2007, they were married at a Greek Orthodox church off Lockwood Ridge Road.
Like many young couples, they flirted with the idea of picking up and moving out of state. As Strongin’s star began to rise, the couple started weighing their options. Neither one has family in Sarasota. Strongin’s family still lives in her hometown of Scottsdale, Ariz., and Ciobanu has only returned to Romania a handful of times.
Yet every time they discussed leaving, they’d find a reason to stay. Separated from their families and rehearsing six days a week, the couple formed a close bond with the other dancers. There were Easter dinners and Thanksgiving Day feasts, New Year’s Eve parties and summer barbecues.
“It was always in the back of my mind,” Strongin says. “It’s pretty rare for a dancer to spend an entire career with one company. I thought, if we don’t leave now, we never will.”
Accepting a position in Houston’s corps de ballet after dancing principal roles for five years might seem dicey to an outsider, but to Strongin, it was a calculated risk.
The Houston Ballet is larger. The pay is better. It has a 44-week season — 10 weeks longer than Sarasota.
The company is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, which means blockbuster productions such as the world premiere of Artistic Director Stanton Welch’s “La Bayadère,” a full-length Bollywood ballet.
Webb understands that these things are compelling. He says he’s sad to see Strongin go, but he’s excited to showcase other dancers in the company, particularly Kate Honea and Victoria Hulland, both of whom were promoted to principal after Strongin resigned.
“The company’s profile has had national and international recognition over the last two years,” Webb says.
“Lauren has been a big part of that journey, and I would love for her to stay, but I understand she has to do this for herself. I wish her the best.”
Strongin and Ciobanu plan to leave Sarasota the Fourth of July weekend, a date they say crept up on them way too fast.
“This is the longest either of us has lived in one place,” Strongin says. “I can tell just by packing how long
I’ve lived here. You start going through the boxes of memories. It’s difficult. ”
She trails off, leaving Ciobanu to fill in the bittersweet silence.
“She’s done an amazing job in Sarasota,” Ciobanu says. “I really believe she’s going to get to Houston and kick some tushie.”
“Tushie?” Strongin asks, giggling.
“Yeah,” Ciobanu replies. “‘Tushie’ is a word, right?”
“Sure,” she replies. “You can say ‘tushie’ if you want.”