‘I would do this forever if my body didn’t hurt so much’: Christopher Ruud retiring after 20 years at Ballet West

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Christopher Ruud, veteran dancer at Ballet West, is retiring after this season — with his last major role in the production of "Swan Lake" set for Feb. 8-23. He was photographed during rehearsal at the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City on Thursday Jan. 17, 2019. At left is Sayaka Ohtaki.

Christopher Ruud, like a lot of dancers who have performed for Ballet West, is rather possessive about the Salt Lake City troupe’s longtime home, the Capitol Theatre.

“I call this ‘my house,’” Ruud said Thursday, on a break from rehearsing for Ballet West’s February performances of the classic “Swan Lake.” “It’s really special to perform here for one last time.”

Ruud will dance a familiar role — Siegfried, the melancholy prince who falls in love with a bird who transforms into a woman — in the last two of Ballet West’s 11 shows. They will be his final performances on the Capitol stage: The 41-year-old dancer is retiring at the end of this season from Ballet West, where he has danced since 1998.

“To be perfectly honest, I would do this forever if my body didn’t hurt so much,” Ruud said with a laugh. “There is a point — and it’s much longer after you probably should have realized it — at which you can’t do the things you’ve been able to do without even thinking as well as you used to.”

Like any veteran athlete, Ruud can list the body parts that pain him these days, from his toes up. He has had two operations on his left ankle, major surgery on his left knee and two procedures on his right knee. He credits Andrew Cooper, the orthopedic surgeon who treats the U.S. Ski and Snowboard team and Real Salt Lake, for prolonging his career.

Performing Siegfried in “Swan Lake” — which rivals “The Nutcracker” as the most iconic of the classic ballets — is a perfect way for Ruud to bow out, said Adam Sklute, Ballet West’s artistic director. He noted that Ruud played Siegfried when Sklute’s predecessor, Jonas Kåge, staged the work and when Sklute mounted his version in 2010 and 2014.

“It’s wonderfully poetic that his last performances at the Capitol Theatre will be as the prince,” Sklute said.

“Swan Lake,” Ruud said, “is the most famous, the most sought-after, example of classical ballet. The music is just perfect. It’s divine. For me, I think it’s the most basic and common theme of life, which is overcoming evil and adversity in the name of love.”

The story of “Swan Lake” is a love triangle, with some magic thrown in. Siegfried falls in love with Odette, a swan who is turned into a beautiful woman by the sorcerer Rothbart. But their love is thwarted when Rothbart casts an evil spell to draw Odette back to the lake. Rothbart then disguises his daughter, Odile, to resemble Odette, to woo Siegfried. (In the movie “Black Swan,” Natalie Portman’s ballerina character goes mad switching from Odette to Odile.)

Since its premiere in 1876, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s classic tale “has been crafted and redrafted and changed and altered,” Ruud said. “There’s almost infinite versions now."

Sklute "has done an incredible job of staying true to the roots of the ballet itself, while updating everything about the style and how the story is told,” Ruud said. “To me, it’s the perfect ‘Swan Lake.’”

Unlike most ballets in the classical canon, Sklute said, “Swan Lake” focuses as much on the male lead as on the prima ballerina. The prince “doesn’t want just to marry. He has an ideal in mind," Sklute said. "And he is duped into undying love to the wrong woman.”

Ruud grew up around “Swan Lake” as the son of ballet dancers Tomm Ruud and Mary Bird, who both danced for Ballet West in the 1960s and 1970s. Tomm became a principal dancer at the San Francisco Ballet in 1975; Christopher was born in the Bay Area in 1977 and grew up backstage.

(Luke Isley | courtesy Ballet West) Christopher Ruud performs "Bolero" in 2011 for Ballet West.

Christopher Ruud first danced at age 9, but quit in high school. He enrolled at the University of Utah as a drama major, in part “to take advantage of the glorious snow they have here,” he said.

After a few months at the U., professors in the dance department who knew Ruud’s parents urged him to switch majors. He started dancing again, and by his second year of college, “I fell back in love with dancing, and I wanted to do it professionally while I was young,” he said.

He auditioned for Ballet West after a short stint at Utah Contemporary Dance Theatre (now Odyssey Dance Theatre). He wasn’t selected, he said, but “the next day, I got a phone call on my 21st birthday, and they said, ‘Someone didn’t turn in their contract, and we have a place for you.’”

Ruud toiled in the troupe’s lower ranks for a couple of years before being promoted to soloist in his third season, and to one of the principal dancers in 2004.

When Sklute arrived at Ballet West in 2007, he saw Ruud was already a leader in the troupe “through his dancing, through his artistry,” Sklute said. “He’s a remarkable artist and a great actor, as well as a great dancer. And he is one of the greatest dance partners I’ve ever seen work in my life.”

Some of being a good partner, Ruud said, is “the nuts and bolts. … You have to be trained well in how to partner, where to put your hands. You have to have at least a minimum amount of strength to be able to hold the girl on her leg, to lift her over your head.”

Beyond that, “you have to be willing to develop complete and utter trust and respect for each other,” he said. “[You must have] the desire and the drive, as a partner, to do everything and anything it takes to make your partner look the best that they possibly can.”

Ruud gushes about his partner offstage, Loren Threet, a financial planner who has a background in dance. The two have been together for five years and married last September.

Ruud said his life with Threet is the start of a third chapter in his life. The first was his childhood, until the death of his father in 1994. The second ended with his divorce from former Ballet West ballerina Christiana Bennett. (The crumbling marriage was one of the plot lines of the reality show “Breaking Pointe,” which ran in 2012 and 2013 on The CW.)

Where that third chapter goes is wide open, Sklute said. “The sky’s the limit for Christopher,” he said. “He’s a great teacher, he’s a great coach. He could be an artistic director anywhere in the world.”

Ruud has been in the running for artistic director at three troupes (he won’t say where). “Not getting it was hard to take,” he said. “The experience itself taught me a whole lot about what I don’t know, and what I need and want to learn, and the notion of possibilities and what’s out there.”

Until something else comes along, Ruud is preparing for performances of a work by choreographer Edward Liang in May at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center and will continue programming the ballet portion of the Utah Arts Festival in June.

“I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire,” he said, joking that “maybe at the bottom of the article, we should print my email address and my phone number, in case anybody has a job offer.”


‘Swan Lake’ at Ballet West

Ballet West’s production of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” conceived and produced by Adam Sklute, with original choreography by Mark Goldweber and Pamela Robinson-Harris.

Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City

When • Feb. 8 to 23, with 11 performances. (Principal dancer Christopher Ruud will perform Prince Siegfried for the final two evening shows, on Feb. 22 and 23.)

Tickets • $35 to $102; arttix.artsaltlake.org