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Profiles of Summer: Leading Ladies

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  • | 4:00 a.m. September 2, 2009
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For Sarasota Ballet dancers, summertime usually spells downtime. After months of rigorous rehearsals and back-to-back performances, dancers usually decompress in the off-season, take on temporary work, teach a couple of ballet classes and rest their toes.

Company dancers Kate Walsh Honea and Victoria Hulland have done all of this while battling butterflies.

Promoted to principal dancers earlier this summer following Lauren Strongin’s resignation and Kyoko Takeichi’s retirement, Honea and Hulland have spent a good chunk of their summer psychologically preparing for the spotlight. Not that either is unaccustomed to, or uncomfortable with, taking center stage.

“Honestly,” says Honea, 27, who will start her eighth year with the company this fall. “It’s a lot of weight on my shoulders.”

Hulland nods her head.

“I’m excited, but I’m 10 times more scared,” Hulland echoes quietly.

Six years younger than Honea, Hulland, 21, joined the company in 2007, at the same time that longtime Artistic Director Robert de Warren turned the reins over to Englishman Iain Webb.

“Obviously, you never think you’ll get to this level so fast,” Hulland says. “When I was in school training, I was happy just to get into a company.”

Honea, on the other hand, has paid her dues. Like Strongin, she joined the company in 2002, over time garnering critical acclaim for dancing edgy, plucky or comical roles. Unlike Strongin, however, who was promoted to principal within two years of joining the company, Honea seemed better adept at hamming it up in non-traditional solos — a natural fit for a ballerina with a big smile, girlish voice and the kind of trendy fashion sense few women can pull off.

“I’m used to being the girl who dances next to the principal,” Honea says. “I like to be fast and flirty. I like to do crazy stuff.”

At first glance, Honea and Hulland could be sisters. Blonde, blue-eyed, fine-boned and lithe. The two are like ballerina bookends with alabaster skin. But where Honea is sprightly, Hulland is demure.

“I think it’s good that we’re both principals,” Hulland says. “Kate has all the qualities I’d like to work on.
She’s got that extra pizzazz.”

“And Tori is such an elegant, beautifully controlled dancer,” Honea adds.

“We feed off each other,” says Hulland.

Honea grew up on Longboat Key, where she began her training with the Sarasota Ballet School and later moved to Pennsylvania to attend Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s graduate program.

Hulland grew up outside of Syracuse, N.Y., where she began her training at the United Academy of the Performing Arts and later moved to New York City to attend Ellison Ballet’s Professional Training Program, followed by Boston Ballet School.

Hulland auditioned for Webb when she was 19 at the urging of one of her teachers in Boston — the mother of Sandra Jennings, a former New York City principal dancer and George Balanchine student.

Despite a stress facture in her foot, Hulland jumped at the opportunity to dance for Webb, whose decision to helm Sarasota Ballet had piqued the interests of ballet teachers and choreographers all over the world.

There was something about Hulland that grabbed Webb immediately.

“She had a quietness about her dancing,” Webb says. “A subtleness that you could see for sure that she was talented, but she wasn’t pushy.”

Prior to Strongin’s departure, Webb had discussed promoting Honea to principal, praising her for her roles in Matthew Bourne’s “Infernal Galop” and Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s “Elite Syncopations.” He told her he wanted to see her dance one more year as a soloist, that she was a mere year away from getting a promotion. And then Strongin resigned, forcing Webb to find a replacement.

“If you look back at the last two years, Kate has really developed into a wonderful dancer,” Webb says.

“She’s a very intelligent worker and she’s got this amazingly bubbly personality.”

Yet when Webb gave Honea the good news, she was uncharacteristically blasé.

It’s been a tough summer for Honea. Strongin was not only the company’s prima ballerina, she and Honea were best friends. When Strongin and husband, Adrian Ciobanu, the company’s assistant ballet master, announced they were moving to Houston in July, Honea was crushed.

“I think Iain was kind of shocked by my reaction when he told me I’d been promoted,” Honea says. “But I had a lot going through my head. It was kind of like ‘man, my best friend moves away and now I get her job.’ I was really looking forward to challenging and proving myself this year.”

Still, Honea is grateful for the opportunity, and she is thrilled to share the experience with Hulland.

“I definitely feel like I’ll never be able to fill Lauren and Kyoko’s shoes,” Honea says.

“It’s almost scary being promoted,” Hulland laughs.

Almost on cue, Honea’s cell phone rings. It’s Strongin, checking in from Houston.

“It’s going to be tough, stepping into her shoes,” Honea says, silencing the ringer on her phone. “I’ve been here such a long time. I just don’t want the audience to get bored of me. I guess the only thing I can do is to keep growing and challenging myself, dancing roles the audience doesn’t expect.”


• If Victoria Hulland dances especially well in a pair of pointe shoes, she’ll continue to use those shoes for as long as they hold up. 

• Rather than rehearsing backstage last minute before a show, the usually talkative Kate Walsh Honea gets quiet and works through choreography in her head. 

• Iain Webb keeps a candy bowl backstage during big performances to keep energy levels high. He and his wife, Margaret Barbieri, love Swedish Fish. 

• During intense performances, Honea repeats the mantra, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” “It’s not like I’m jumping out of an airplane or anything,” Honea says, “but the adrenaline rush is the same.”

• Never wish a ballerina good luck by telling her to “break a leg.” Instead, say “merde,” the ballet equivalent of good luck and a colorful French cuss word.

• Honea usually pounds a can of Red Bull — or a capful of Pepto-Bismol — before shows.



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