Photo Top: Xuan Cheng and Brian Simcoe. Photo by Tatiana Wills.



Holly Tolbert & Jon Drake


BY LINDA BESANT, February 2008


What were your early dance experiences like?

I started ballet when I was four with my older sister at a very small school. We would put on performances for our parents in the living room where I would usually end up doing some huge ballet solo at the end. When I was seven my sister and I both started taking ballet classes at a much better school, the Long Beach Ballet Arts Center, which was the school for the Los Angeles Classical Ballet. I really liked my teachers there and I loved watching the company rehearse after my classes. I would sit and watch them for as long as my mom would let me. She would have to drag me out. I had my favorite dancers that I wanted to be like. I was always trying to copy them.  

It was really fun growing up in the LA area because a lot of companies would tour there. I did children’s roles for American Ballet Theater, Pacific Northwest Ballet, New York City Ballet, The National Ballet of Cuba, as well as the LA Classical Ballet.  When I was Clara in the Nutcracker, I delivered the Headlines on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. That was so awesome! I had my own dressing room and Jay brought me cookies. I also had every child’s dream job. I got to work at Disneyland as Jane Banks from Mary Poppins in the Very Merry Christmas Parade. I would dance with the chimney sweeps down Main Street every night. It was amazing. I loved being out there, I don't think I ever stopped smiling. Another thing I did as a kid was perform with Long Beach Ballet Theater. We did local performances and Regional Dance America festivals. I guess you could say I performed a lot as a kid.

I had wonderful teachers. My favorite, Tatiana, used to tie a skirt around my shoulders and back to get me to keep my back straight. She would always say, ”No no no, Holly, you need skirt!” My other teacher Victor used to make me stretch in the splits between two chairs so I would have good extension. My character dance teacher Alexander used to teach us Gypsy dances and would have us turn on “trick shoes,” which were these wooden shoes with a slick sole. We could do 12 turns, he could do 20. When I went away to summer programs at Houston Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, I thought, “This is NOT character class,” because I was so used to jumping around and learning tricks.

What motivated you to make a commitment to ballet?

When I was 16 my mom let me stay for the year at the Houston Ballet Academy. After that year, I applied for the Los Angeles Spotlight Awards Competition. I danced Diana and Acteon and I won first place. I was also a finalist in the Emerging Young Artists Awards Competition. I really made my decision to dance professionally when Patricia Barker guest taught at my school and she sent Ms. Russell my Spotlight Awards video. I was accepted into the Pacific Northwest Ballet Professional Division program. At that same time, I had a college scholarship to the University of Arizona. It was a tough decision to make, whether to go to PNB or to college. I chose PNB. It was very different from the schools I had been studying with; I had virtually no training in Balanchine technique. It was a hard transition for me, a very hard year, but well worth it. Don Quixote was my first company performance; it felt so incredible to be on stage with the corps de ballet. From then on, I was determined to make it.

I ended up getting a contract with the Kansas City Ballet. I stayed for two years, and totally loved the company. We did works by Nacho Duato, Twyla Tharp and Merce Cunningham. I performed a principal role in Alonzo King’s Handel Trio my first year in the company. That was really exciting. The repetiteur, Summer Lee Rhadigan, got me to do things I didn't think I was capable of doing. I loved working with her and I loved the contemporary movement. I then did the Lines Ballet summer workshop, which was hours of improv and insane choreography. I just loved it. I'm so glad I did that program because it made me a lot stronger with contemporary work and gave me more confidence. I miss KCB a lot, but I didn't really like living in the Midwest; being a California girl, it was kind of hard. After two years, I did a round of auditions, and when I got the opportunity to come here and work with Christopher, the choice for me was obvious.

It seems that you're happier here in Portland.

I met my husband about three weeks after I moved here, that made me happy! I love being married. My husband is amazing—he’s my prince charming. We got married last summer on Cannon Beach in the middle of a storm. My veil blew off, and the sand was coming in waves it was so windy. There was nobody on the beach. We were out there shivering in the wind and rain. I thought my wedding was ruined, but now I laugh about it. Not many people have a wedding like that! They say it’s good luck for it to rain on your wedding day!

Dancing here has been great too, I've been fortunate to get to work with Trey McIntyre, Helgi Tommasson, and Nicolo Fonte and I've been given lots of performing opportunities I might not have had in another company.  
What do you like to do when you're not dancing?

I’m kind of a homebody. I love just being at home with my husband. I love my animals too. We have the cutest dog and cat in the world, a German Shepard/collie puppy named Linus and a little caramel kitty named Annabelle. I love to cook and bake, whenever my husband wants cookies I get really excited. There are always baked goods in the house when I’m on layoff, I like playing around with ingredients and creating new recipes when I have the time. I’m also an outdoorsy girl. I like to go hiking and camping. And I'm a beach bum, I love going to the beach.  Portland is great because there are so many beautiful places.  

I enjoy doing massage whenever I have the opportunity.  Last year I became a nationally certified licensed massage therapist. I've always wanted to learn more about the human body, how it moves and connects, it’s so fascinating. I started going to school almost every night, after dancing all day, to complete the training. It was brutal. I was tired all the time, but it has definitely paid off.
Do you have favorite roles?  

My dream is to be Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. If I could ever accomplish that I would be happy with my career. I love passionate, romantic pas de deux, I am all about that. I loved dancing Blue Rose and In the Night. I like to go somewhere when I'm dancing. I have a hard time just being a figure in space—I like to put my personality into a role. In Company B, I was the “Rum and Coke Girl,” and that was just fun. The principal role I did in Eyes on You was great too; I got to be a total ham. But throughout my career Lambarena has been my favorite. I loved the movement and the connection I had with the other dancers on stage; you see each other and you smile because everyone is having so much fun dancing that ballet. My part was exhausting, but I never wanted it to end. Everyday I strive to be versatile. I want to be able to do any choreography that comes my way whether it’s contemporary, classical in a tutu, or portraying a character.

How do you prepare to perform a big role?

I'd say I get more nervous than a lot of the other dancers in the company, I typically have a hard time sleeping the night before. I'm really sensitive about what I eat the day of a show, I usually have no appetite. I get to the theater early, at least two hours before curtain. When I have a tough role, I like to do a full barre, I have to be dripping with sweat. Before The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, I pretty much did the whole ballet before the curtain went up to make sure I was really warm and everything felt on. That was such a hard ballet!

What would you like to tell the audience about ballet that they might not realize?

We don't have much rehearsal time on stage; we're in the theater only a few days before we open. Lighting can be extremely disorienting. You could be very comfortable with choreography in the studio, and then you get on stage and your balance is completely thrown; you have to be so grounded. I have a lot of respect for dancers who have to go on for a hard role as second cast because they have even less stage time than the first cast. Second cast doesn't usually get a rehearsal with the orchestra, which is quite a bit different from what we rehearse with in the studios.


How did you start dancing?

I started in Hattiesburg, Missippi. Gymnastics was my main activity as a young person. I started at the age of seven. We were required to have one hour of ballet a month, which made no sense to the team, and of course, coming from the south, we weren’t exactly excited about it. But it did open my eyes to the world of the stage, which was intriguing to me. After the growth spurts and all the things that you go through in childhood, I found myself too tall and not quite heavy enough to be an adequate gymnast, although I got quite far in terms of levels. I quit when I was sixteen years old.

At that time, I had been doing some recitals with Yvonne Bergeron at Pine Belt Youth Ballet École de Danse. Usually just being the guy in the back lifting, nothing much as far as dance steps. Then I met Henry Danton, I would have to say one of the oldest living ballet masters, and for sure one of the leading ballet scholars on the planet. He’s worked all over the world. He came down to teach a young girl in our group, and I was asked to come in and be the muscle. I took it more seriously than she did, and he stayed on to teach me. Within six to eight months of that time, things took off for me. Several schools and companies (Dusseldorf Ballet, Ballet Oklahoma, Ballet Idaho/Eugene Ballet) later I ended up here at OBT.

What was it that motivated you to get serious about ballet?

In gymnastics, there’s no artistry. As bravado as I tend to be in my nature, I also have an artistic side. Working with Henry, learning the physical part of it, understanding the body’s ability and how to manipulate it to get what you want—that was all very interesting to the gymnast within me. Once we started working on artistry—how you come across to the audience; how you live inside the fourth wall or open the fourth wall up; how you react to other people on stage—those types of things were fascinating to me. I had no idea that those things were actually considerations when I watched anything on stage. At the same time, I was lucky enough to have my senior year in high school with a gifted drama teacher who opened my eyes as well. I felt like I got a crash course in “stage.”

What’s the most fun you ever had dancing?

My mom tells me that the first time I performed, I came running off stage after a 30 second role and told her I was just so happy that everyone was clapping for me. I tend to have a really good time every time I go out there.

What the most difficult role you ever danced?

Without a doubt, it was Just. The hardest part about Just is maintaining the level of energy it takes to achieve the look that the choreographer, Trey McIntyre, really wants. It was set on us, so it’s not about how well we can take the material and make it our own. It’s already ours. It’s how well we can take what we did and make it better. Can we be in better shape, in all respects, physically, emotionally, everything.

Do you have a preference for classical or contemporary ballet?

I prefer classical, the older storybook ballets. That’s where it all started, and they have evolved to bigger, grander masterpieces. I appreciate the new work coming out, which is what gives us a pulse in the artistic world, but it’s nice to see that some things stand the test of time because they are excellent.

How do you prepare for a difficult role?

I start in an odd fashion that a gentleman totally outside of ballet explained to me. It’s the idea that you begin at zero each day. If you go lower than zero, it would be pretty sad, so you have to keep getting better. Each morning, and especially before I go on stage, I get low. By that I mean on my knees or even flat to the floor. I kind of humble my nature. In essence, start by picking yourself up off the ground and see how far you can go today. This is new for me. I have a fairly big ego, and humility is something I have to work on.

What are your favorite roles?

By far, Romeo. Who wouldn’t want to be Romeo, one of the greatest lovers of all time? Besides that role, some of the most brilliant dancing I’ve actually witnessed and wish I could have been part of was in Spartacus. I think that’s a fantastic story ballet when it’s done well. The most fun I’ve had in a role was Bluebird in The Sleeping Beauty, Act III last year—very demanding. I think Gavin Larsen and I got an excellent response out of our very hard work. I have to give the credit for that to Gavin. She’s a fantastic motivator, which is something I lack. She brings the best out of her partners.

You’re very generous about interacting with OBT’s audience members. Do you enjoy talking with people about dancing?

I do. Where I come from in the south, niceties are pretty much what make the world go round, so it’s natural for me. And you have to realize that not everybody knows what they’re seeing when they see ballet, or understands that this is a full time job for us. It motivates me to help people understand more about what we’re doing.

How do you like Portland?

I’m from a completely different cultural aspect of the United States, and the south probably has the most unique cultural climate in the nation. I like that Portland is green, and I don’t mean just green outside. I like that people are environmentally conscious. I like it that Portland is a city but we all treat it like it’s a village. If I could change one thing it would definitely be the rain.

What do you like to do when you’re not dancing?

I’m really enjoying the food scene here in Portland—going out to eat, tasting something I like, and trying to make it at home. I’m partial to Cajun food, but I have to say that up here I’m tending to like some of the wilder edge of cuisine. I’ve tried a lot of deer, elk, wild boar and things of that nature. I’m an avid beer fan, so having the many microbreweries here in town is very much to my liking.

I’m starting to find other outlets for my own personal satisfaction. I had done some choreography in Europe, and I’m starting to toy with that idea again. I’m interested in music, so I’m starting to play the guitar and learn music. Southern rock is right up my alley. Lynyrd Skynyrd, B.B. King, Eric Clapton. Perhaps one day I’ll start to compose. A lot of people say that because of music there is dance. In my opinion, music and movement are one and the same idea. Just look at Almost Mozart.

I also work for a graphic design company that is based out of Brooklyn called “Fwis,” and its smaller totally web-based company called “Pistol.” I enjoy the interaction with people in doing sales.

What do you wish audiences understood about ballet?

The biggest thing I wish the population at large would get about ballet is exactly how difficult it is, not only athletically. If people watch us they understand how athletically difficult it is, but not necessarily how emotionally straining it is, or just how much of our lives we have to give away to do this. People often say it’s a passion, not just a job, but I think that’s a fairly shallow explanation. I don’t think people realize how much blood, sweat, tears and emotion we have to part with to get a fraction of that across to the audience.

Also, how very close we all are. That’s something that people don’t know because they don’t see us working day to day. We have emotions—we like each other, we hate each other, we laugh, we cry, we help each other out, we beat each other down occasionally. That’s what makes the process real. If you just dance with a big smile on your face, you aren’t really showing yourself.

Who's Your Dancer? 

OBT / National Endowment for the Arts Oregon Arts Commission Regional Arts & Culture Council Work for Art Portland Monthly Oregon Community Foundation Jerome Robbins Foundation
Work for Art