When Ballet West presents "The Nutcracker" beginning Dec. 4 at the Capitol Theatre, many Salt Lake residents will already be familiar with the legendary choreography and music, glittering sets and costumes, and, of course, the well-known love story between Clara and her handsome prince.
But some might not realize Ballet West will be drawing on a few love stories of its own.
Six dancers within the company are couples on and off the stage and have landed "plum" roles together in this year's production.
For artistic director Adam Sklute, the decision to pair the "pairs" is sometimes a difficult one.
"Dancers who are romantically involved obviously know each other better and more intimately," Sklute said. "This can bring amazing results artistically as passion, artistry and similar purpose come out in ways that are generally impossible with people who don't know each other as well."
But there are also downsides. "It can create discord when couples think the other person should be able to read their mind, not to mention that sometimes I feel like an outsider in the process when I can't get a word in edgewise."
The couples of Ballet West recently discussed their relationships — and how they feel about dancing as one during this Nutcracker season.
When Easton Smith showed up at a San Jose Ballet gala without a date, he was dreading a solo evening — especially since he was a new dancer with the company.
That is, until co-worker Haley Henderson also showed up alone. Both had recently broken up with their significant others and got to talking … and laughing … and talking some more.
Ten weeks later Smith, proposed. They have been married 3½ years.
"He said 'I love you and I know it's awful quick, but I want to spend the rest of my life with you … but don't answer yet,' " Henderson-Smith said.
For an hour, he wouldn't let her respond until he could calm his nerves enough to bear whatever she might say to him in return.
"I told him 'yes' and then we were both so excited, we went to lunch and ate nothing," she said, laughing.
Since leaving San Jose Ballet, the couple temporarily shifted gears to tour with productions like "Billy Elliot" and "Dirty Dancing" before arriving in Salt Lake City, where they signed on as soloists with Ballet West earlier this year and will be dancing the Snow Pas de Deux during "The Nutcracker."
"It's so much fun dancing with Easton. We love each other so much and he knows me so well," said Henderson-Smith, who affirms that with some serious lifting and throwing in the Snow choreography, it's nice to also have such a strong level of trust.
"Because I'm so tall, I usually don't get thrown too high. But Easton can throw me really high and I'm always comfortable with it."
"I would complain that I didn't know her sooner, but I'm glad she didn't know me when I was younger," Smith said. "I think I've changed a lot for the better."
Christopher Ruud knew he was in trouble the first time he laid eyes on Christianna Bennett. So, like any good love story, he started things off on the wrong foot.
"He walked up to me at class and said, 'You're in my barre spot.' Naturally, I stayed right where I was," said Bennett, who insists that Ruud even tugged at her long red braids.
The problem was, they had onstage chemistry, and were constantly paired together.
Finally, when cast as Helena and Demetrius in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," they realized they were fighting offstage chemistry as well.
"And the rest is history," said Ruud, who describes getting engaged and then married to his sweetheart in the swell of Moab's red rocks as "magical." They have been married 5½ years.
As company veterans who seem to headline more productions than anyone else, Ruud and Bennett are embarking on their 11th "Nutcracker" season together.
"We danced the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier our first season, and we've done it every year since," said Ruud, who estimates that with nearly back-to-back performances through the month of December each year, they've danced the role literally hundreds of times.
"It's still extremely difficult, and a challenge for our bodies," Bennett said. But dancing with her husband is always a highlight. "When you trust someone that much, you can push yourself more and extend the possibilities."
Those who are treated to their Grand Pas de Deux in Act II will observe the precision, skill and grace developed from years of pushing the limits. But how do they keep it fresh year after year?
"I'll never forget the advice of a fellow dancer when I was new and a little exasperated by it all," Bennett said.
"She reminded me: it's always someone's first 'Nutcracker.' "
One of the best things about working at Ballet West with the woman you love, according to Christopher Anderson, is that you get to spend your downtime with her.
With varying rehearsal schedules, Ballet West dancers spend what sometimes feels like their life at the studio. But they're not always dancing. "We do a lot of waiting, resting, eating and stretching at work," Anderson said. "I love that I get to do that with Elizabeth."
Being paired together also has its share of advantages.
"Obviously, that's even more time together," said Elizabeth McGrath, who joined Ballet West the same year as Anderson.
However, the first time they were cast as partners, she was nervous.
"I wondered if it would prove to be too much together-time," she admitted with a laugh. To their delight, it only added to their comfort and confidence.
Of dancing as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, Anderson said, "We hope the audience can sense our emotional connection. It always feels better to do it together."
If you go...
What: "The Nutcracker," Ballet West
Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South
When: Dec. 4-29, 7 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m.; Dec. 24, noon
Dec. 30, 31: "The Nutty Nutcracker," Ballet West (a comical twist on the original)
Phone: 801-355-2787, 888-451-2787Comment on this story
Peter Christie's farewell performance
After 25 years performing the role of the mysterious toymaker Drosselmeyer, Ballet West's Peter Christie will bid farewell to the beloved role by dancing it one final time during the Christmas Eve performance of "The Nutcracker." As Ballet West Academy director and director of outreach programs for the ballet, Christie says even though he's very busy, he will miss the role.
Ballet West Artistic Director Adam Sklute tributes Christie with "investing himself 100 percent in his character each and every time he performed it."