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Retirement beckons for Sarasota Ballet's Victoria Hulland

Victoria Hulland captured the heart of Iain Webb and Margaret Barbieri in one fateful audition, and she's spent her career doing the same to Sarasota.

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  • | 5:00 a.m. April 27, 2022
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There are two images of Victoria Hulland that will always remain emblazoned in Margaret Barbieri’s mind.

In one, she’s a young ingenue standing out from dozens of other dancers at an audition, and in another, she’s a mother rehearsing for her final performance in front of her 2-year-old daughter.

That first memory occurred 15 years ago, and the second one happened last week.

In between, Hulland became a principal dancer and the perfect embodiment of what Barbieri was looking for in a leading lady, and now it’s become hard for her to imagine staging her ballets with anyone else in the role. Barbieri and Hulland recently joined the Observer on a conference call to discuss "Serendipitous Movement," the final Sarasota Ballet event of the season, and Barbieri was effusive in her praise. Hulland might be retiring at the close of the season, but she’ll always be close to Barbieri’s heart.

“Many dancers have done them and there will be many more who will do them. But I have to say I’m going to always have your picture in my brain when I see these ballets,” says Barbieri to Hulland.

“As a mother, I totally understand. But as an assistant director, I never want her to leave.”

Hulland’s retirement marks the end of an era for Sarasota Ballet, an era that began right when Iain Webb and Barbieri were getting ready to take over the organization. Barbieri recalls that they staged an audition in New York, and they received a much bigger turnout than they had expected. Hulland was still a trainee at the Boston Ballet at the time, but she immediately stood out.

Barbieri says she can’t quite put her finger on what “star quality” means, but Hulland had it from the beginning.

“There’s something in there you see,” she says. “I have said in the past that I can walk into a room and see them warming up, and I can tell you who I’m going to like. It’s the way they’re warming up. The way they’re working. Their determination. I already know who I should be looking at even before they’ve done one step.

"When there’s 100 in a room, you’re less likely to spot that talent straight away. But you do hone in on people and see their potential. It’s funny because Iain always says, ‘Who are you looking at?’ Then I give him my numbers; he gives me his and they’re identical.”

Webb and Barbieri didn’t just hire Hulland from that audition.

They also hired Ricardo Rhodes, who had been Hulland’s friend and fellow trainee at Boston Ballet. They also hired Danielle Brown and Amy Wood from that audition, and that quartet all spent more than a decade with the company.

Now, with Hulland retiring, only Brown and Rhodes will remain as dancers next season.

“I’m so blessed and fortunate that I came upon Sarasota Ballet and that they brought me into their company,” says Hulland. “I felt like I fit here and it became my family. I was happy to stay for 15 years.”

“You feel blessed, but we feel blessed,” says Barbieri. “There were a lot of people there; we didn’t expect so many people. And I remember at one point, I couldn’t see the wood from the trees. But we did hone in on you and the other three dancers. And you all had a very special quality. I don’t think we thought then that you had the special qualities that would be perfect for the Ashton ballets and the Balanchines and everything else. But we saw something very special. There was a radiance. There was a look. There was the way you danced and how much you loved it. You could see that. Iain and I instantly at the same time said, ‘We’ve got to have that girl.’”


Roots in dance

Hulland, for her part, says she had an inauspicious beginning to her ballet career.

Her parents first enrolled her in ballet when she was 2 years old, and she spent the whole class crying. She later tried again when she was 4 years old, and ballet really clicked for her when she was 12.

Prior to that point, she had tried tap and jazz and many other forms of dance.

But Hulland credits her teacher, Nicole Nasto, for really stoking her appreciation for the craft that became her career.

“She was just wonderful. She was so good to me,” says Hulland. “Instead of saying, ‘Do these steps,’ she would explain why we did them. I really liked the knowledge behind it; not just doing it but knowing why I’m doing it and what I should be thinking about with the technique. Ballet became more of a mental thing for me than just a physical thing. That’s when I really fell in love with it.”

She fell in love with it, and she rapidly found that she may have a future in it.

Hulland started seriously training at age 12, and she says she moved away from home to study ballet full-time at age 17.

A year later, she was dancing at the Boston Ballet as a trainee alongside Rhodes when she attended the fateful audition that ultimately brought her to Sarasota. And that’s where she’s been ever since.

Hulland says that while the future is the great unknown, she's not planning on becoming a totally different person in retirement.

“Everybody’s like, ‘Are you going to go skiing now?’" she jokes. "I’m still too scared to go skiing.”

Hulland has been the center of attention for Sarasota Ballet for much of her career. (Courtesy photo: Frank Atura)
Hulland has been the center of attention for Sarasota Ballet for much of her career. (Courtesy photo: Frank Atura)

The thoughts of retirement first began to pop into her head when her daughter Thea was born.

But then came the COVID pandemic, which forced her to re-evaluate. Hulland says that she’s so happy she had a chance to return to the stage and have a normal season, but she knows beyond any doubt that it’s time to move on.

“I’ve been thinking about it kind of all year to make sure I was sure about the decision,” she says. “I’ve been doing it my whole life. If not professionally, working toward becoming a professional.

"It’s a big change. If you’re going to be a professional ballet dancer, you have to be so dedicated. It takes so much time and energy and passion. And not just physically, mentally too. And emotionally. Because you put your whole self into it. I’ve actually been thinking about that a lot lately because I’m getting closer to the end; I think it’s going to be a challenge figuring out how to function as not a ballet dancer. I think I’ll still want to take ballet classes to keep in shape; it’s all I’ve really known as an adult.”


The next chapter

Hulland says she’d like to take some time off to concentrate on being a mother, but ultimately she would like to contribute her knowledge to the next generation. Barbieri, who made the same transition decades ago, can relate.

Barbieri says she had some fanciful ideas about what she wanted to do in retirement before she decided she wanted to stay around ballet.

“I had this idea where we’d get a house in the country,” she says. “I was going to grow my own vegetables and have a restaurant so I could use all those vegetables. And then I was going to have an antique shop. I was combining all my hobbies into one. I was going to have this place where all my friends would come for lunch and dinner and to buy their antiques. But when it came time to the actual crunch, I realized I had absolutely nil experience in this and I’d better do something that I knew about.”

The final program of Hulland’s career is part of her full circle.

She performed in Elite Syncopations — the final act of the "Serendipitous Movement" program — during her first season with Sarasota Ballet. She was a member of the corps de ballet then, but now she’s a leading lady for the final time.

And so there she was, just last week, touched by her final rehearsals with Rhodes, with whom she’s spent her entire career.

And there was her daughter, just days ago, watching as she danced.

“I’m dancing with my friend and partner for many years,” she says. “We didn’t even start dancing yet. The music started playing and I was tearing up. This has been such a huge part of my life and so many amazing memories. My best friends. That’s why I keep saying the company has become my family. I’m going to miss the dancing and the performing, but I’m going to miss the people so much.”

For Barbieri, looking on, it was an out-of-body experience.

Here she was, watching her dancers prepare, and she couldn’t take her eyes of Hulland’s daughter. Barbieri just wanted to savor the moment; she wanted it to last forever, and she doesn’t want to ever let go of the affection she has for Hulland.

“I get a bit tearful when I talk about this; yesterday Victoria brought in her daughter to watch and that was so adorable,” she says. “She was mesmerized watching her mom do this pas de deux which was very moving. We were all in tears.

"I wasn’t even watching you in that second run. I was watching her.”



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