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Love onstage

Published February 10, 2008 12:00 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

No one seems to know why Salt Lake City is such fertile ground for ballet-world romance - but if you sense love in the air during Ballet West performances, it's not just your imagination

Ballet West's production of "Cinderella" ends with the betrothal of a transformed scullery maid to the dashing prince who loved her at first sight - and the promise of "happily ever after" for the fairy-tale pair.

Audiences might notice more than the usual romantic chemistry between Cinderella and her prince on opening night: Christiana Bennett and Christopher Ruud are in love in the real world and understand challenges that begin where fairy tales leave off.

The Ballet West company is rife with couples, a phenomenon that isn't unique among dance companies, said artistic director Adam Sklute. He believes dancers tend to pair off with each other because their careers are so all-consuming, and their ballet world so insular.

Some directors discourage romantic relationships within companies because of tension that can arise over partnering and personnel decisions, Sklute said. But he believes that having married couples at Ballet West is "a wonderful thing" that can help dancers endure the rigors of their profession.

"To me, people's private lives are their private lives," he said. "I treat each dancer as an individual."

Bennett and Ruud met in 1999 as dancers in the Ballet West company, rose through the ranks on a similar trajectory, and married in 2005. Instead of falling in love at first sight, as Cinderella and her prince do, the two tangled on the day they met over who would stand where at the Ballet West rehearsal barre.

"She's stubborn and could match my confidence and stubbornness," said Ruud, whose roguish reputation was known to Bennett before she met him. "I was drawn to her strong personality - and her beautiful blue eyes."

When Bennett and Ruud were paired early on for "The Nutcracker's" sultry Arabian Dance, Bennett's mother made an observation that caught her daughter off guard:

"You two have such chemistry," she said.

Bennett and Ruud were each ending prior relationships when they were partnered as Demetrius and Helena for a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in 2001. A spark of romantic tension, probably always present in their teasing friendship, caught fire. After three years of constant togetherness in the studio, the two held few illusions about each other.

"Ballet companies are incestuous," said Bennett. "We're together all the time, every day, all day."

"You check your social pretensions at the door," said Ruud of life in a ballet studio. "We're standing around in tights all day."

For another Ballet West couple, the storybook love at first sight actually happened. Michael Bearden can point to the spot where he was standing on his first day at Ballet West when Victoria Lock walked through the studio door. The first words he spoke to her were asking her to dance with him during a rehearsal, and the two have been together ever since; they married in 2005.

But living happily ever after requires building a life together outside the ballet studio, Lock and Bearden say. They take classes together, travel and find common ground in their shared faith and love of family.

"We're lucky," said Lock. "Our personalities mesh well, and it's not all based around ballet."

Ballet mistress Pamela Robinson-Harris said casting decisions don't consider dancers' status as couples - it's the look of the dancers together that counts most. She doesn't know why Ballet West is such a hot spot for ballet couples, but she's not surprised: She met her husband, Jeffrey Harris, while both were performing with Ballet West.

"You spend so many hours of the day with these people," Robinson-Harris said. "At the end of the day you are tired. You need to eat, rest and revitalize. Finding the opportunity to get out and meet someone is difficult. Plus, dancers like dancers' bodies, and personalities. In a relationship with another dancer, you don't have to try and explain why it's so important to do this. They just understand."

But love isn't always convenient in the world of ballet. Careers are sometimes sacrificed for marriages.

In 2005, principal ballerina Kristin Hakala retired at the cusp of her ballet career when her husband, principal dancer Tong Wang, left Ballet West to pursue graduate studies in Ohio. All of Ballet West's current couples realize that what affects one will affect the other, too.

Nicholas James Smith and Kira Smith face such a moment. Nicholas just learned that his Ballet West contract will not be renewed next year. Meanwhile, Kira is enjoying increased visibility in the company.

"We had envisioned certain plans, and those will change," Nicholas Smith said. "Dancing is our livelihood, and we have to replace it."

Nicholas Smith has been working toward an MBA degree. The couple hope to remain in Salt Lake City, for now, and will treasure their time together at Ballet West.

"Ballet is what brought us together and gave us some of our best memories," Kira Smith said.

Fairy tales can come true

* BALLET WEST PRESENTS Ben Stevenson's "Cinderella" Feb. 14-16 and 20-23 at Salt Lake City's Capitol Theatre, 50 W. South Temple. Terence Kern will lead the Utah Chamber Orchestra in the Prokofiev score. Evening performances are at 7:30; matinees are at 2 p.m. on Feb. 16 and 23. "Warm Ups" discussions begin one hour before each performance, and are free to ticket holders.

* TICKETS ARE $16-$66 at 801-355-2787 or http://www.arttix.org. Discounts for groups of 10 or more are available at 801-323-6966.

* PERFORMANCES WILL ALSO be March 7-8 at 7 p.m. at Weber State University's Browning Center, Ogden. For pricing, and to reserve tickets, call 801-399-9214. Students with ID can purchase a pair of tickets for $5 in person at the Browning Center box office one week before performance date.

Men in tights - and skirts

Ballet West gave Ben Stevenson's ballet version of "Cinderella" its Utah premiere in 2005.

Stevenson leavens the story of poor, abused Cinderella's rise to royalty by casting male dancers in the roles of the gauche stepsisters. The men in tights - and skirts and pumps - add a swath of broad comedy.

"Men bring humor to it," Stevenson told The Tribune in 2005. "When it's done by ladies, you have two horrible witches going after Cinderella. It doesn't go with the music, which is light and humorous."