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Sarasota Ballet loses dancers, gains others before new season

The company recently bid farewell to dancers while bringing on new ones before its 2021-22 season

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Kate Walsh Honea remembers the moment she knew her dream of being a ballet dancer had come true.

Walsh Honea, 38, had joined the Sarasota Ballet as an apprentice in 1997 before returning in 2002, where she became a principal dancer in 2009. It was when she was performing Sir Frederick Ashton's "La fille mal gardée" at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in 2013, being held aloft by three fellow dancers on a massive stage and looking out to a full audience that she realized how far she’d come.

“I remember thinking ‘This is the real deal,’ ” Walsh Honea said. 

After 19 seasons dancing, she’s decided it’s time for a change. Walsh Honea has departed the company to take a position as artistic director for the Colorado Ballet Society in Colorado Springs. There she will trade dancing to her director’s repertoire of programs for designing programs and productions for dancers of her own.

Walsh Honea feels she’s leaving the company in great hands. 

“I kind of felt comforted with this newest group of dancers,” she said. “I knew in my heart and soul that the company is going to be fine without me.”

The Sarasota Ballet company is going through a time of change with much to look forward to as the 2021-22 season is set to begin in October.

Walsh Honea and a few other dancers have departed, leading to a new class of performers to step up. Four dancers have been promoted while six others have joined the company outright. It’s something that excites Walsh Honea — she says a new crop of talent can bring a refreshing and new energy to a company.

As with any healthy arts organization, the ballet company has always been in a steady state of change. Founder Jean Weidner Goldstein remembers the company being much smaller at its inception in 1987. 

At that time visiting companies from neighboring cities and states put on performances at the Sarasota Opera House while Goldstein and staff auditioned dancers to stay on a permanent basis.

Eventually Montreal choreographer Eddy Toussaint joined the group as artistic director and brought several of his dancers, effectively establishing the Sarasota Ballet.

Walsh Honea remembers performing choreographies made by the company's second artistic director Robert de Warren, who she felt taught her an important lesson in dancing to a director’s own choreography. 

When director Iain Webb and assistant director Margaret Barbieri took the reins in the late 2000s, the company started performing a repertoire full of varied works typically seen in Europe. 

“The level of choreography can never be in the beginning what you ultimately want it to be,” Goldstein said. “I’d almost accepted that perhaps we were where we should be and it might never be what I had hoped for until Iain walked through the door.”

It was that variety — with works by Sir Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine and Sir Kenneth MacMillan among others — that Walsh Honea felt improved her and other performers’ dancing. Those productions challenged her to act more in her performances, adapt to three-act ballets and build her overall stamina. 

“We weren’t just doing classical ballet, we were doing modern, contemporary, more theatrical works,” Walsh Honea said. “Having that variety of repertoire forces you to grow.”

Walsh Honea feels the tide changed for the company in terms of reputation when it started traveling and performing tours with other companies. She says that a show at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., in 2013— a performance of Sir Frederick Ashton’s "Les Patineurs" complete with classical costumes and extravagant sets — helped audiences view her company with greater credibility. She said dancers started auditioning for the company in larger numbers soon after.

“I just watched that exponential growth,” Goldstein said. “Day by day, I said ‘My God this is going to absolutely be what I had dreamed of.'”

 The 2021 season set to begin this October will have in-person programming and audiences once more. After a hectic season with digital programs, Webb felt it appropriate to have a season of recognizable programs for Sarasota’s ballet lovers. It’s an introspective time for Webb as well — this will be his 15th season with the company. 

“I said it will take five years to change the company. We did it much quicker than that,” Webb said. “We've just been really lucky with the way that we've gone off and we've flown the flag of Sarasota.”

Walsh Honea has seen dancers come and go in her time and feels particularly good about a group that has been with the company for three seasons now. 

Lauren Ostrander, one of those dancers, was promoted to the coryphée position during the 2020-21 season and has been seeing more time on stage in more featured roles. 

Ostrander, 26, is coming off last season’s swerve where the company danced in a digital season streamed to audiences. She says she and her fellow dancers can feel an excitement in the air at the chance of performing in front of an audience again. She’s excited to keep the momentum going into the new season and ready to see what she and her company can do next. 

“I'm looking forward to those moments that you can't quite capture or recreate on camera,” Ostrander said. “That's the beauty of a live performance …  I’m just thinking about how I can improve as a dancer this year and how I can grow.”