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Swan Song: Ballet West's Christopher Ruud to spread his wings after final 'Swan Lake' performance

SALT LAKE CITY — As Ballet West’s Christopher Ruud prepares to step onto the Capitol Theatre stage for the last time as a dancer, he describes “bittersweet” feelings over the changing rubric of his identity.

“It’s strange to think in terms of not performing. Anyone who knows me will tell you I give 1,000 percent to every role,” Ruud said in a recent interview. “That’s how I plan to approach whatever lies ahead.”

As a principal dancer with Ballet West, Ruud will cap a 21-year career with the company by dancing the lead male role of Prince Siegfried in the company's upcoming production of “Swan Lake," running at Capitol Theatre from Feb. 8-23. His intensity isn’t diminished by the fact that he has danced the role many times before.

“There is always this feeling that I am never done perfecting it,” Ruud said, “so there’s always more to do and more to give to the role.”

The tragic tale of “Swan Lake” fixes on Siegfried, a prince who falls in love with Odile, a woman-turned-swan who enjoys her human form for only a few hours each night. Thwarting their love is the evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart, who disguises his scheming daughter, Odette, to resemble Odile and trick Siegfried into swearing allegiance to her, and not his true love.

With a masterful score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the ballet’s patchwork of iconic scenes and memorable choreography has become synonymous with classical ballet.

Ruud’s role as Siegfried, according to artistic director and “Swan Lake” producer Adam Sklute, requires strong technique, serious acting chops and precise and generous partnering — along with something that's harder to find.

“It also requires that a dancer possess that ‘star quality’ about them, an ability to just light up a stage,” Sklute said. “Chris has been the gold standard of what I look for in a leading man.”

Principal Dancer Katherine Lawrence, who will perform the equally demanding, multi-personality roles of Odette/Odile, said Ruud is an ideal partner.

“He is very intuitive; he can really read his partners,” she said, recalling the first time she danced with him in Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” and dozens of times since. “He can adjust and he knows exactly what to do. Plus, he’s so invested in his characters, it makes it easy for me to play off that.”

The family business

Principals Christopher Ruud and Beckanne Sisk in Ballet West's "Swan Lake."
Principals Christopher Ruud and Beckanne Sisk in Ballet West's "Swan Lake."
Luke Isley

While Ruud said he “grew up backstage” as the son of San Francisco Ballet dancers Tomm Ruud and Mary Wood, he wasn’t certain dance was his calling. As a child, he trained with the San Francisco Ballet School, but gave it up for sports and friends early in high school.

“When my dad died my junior year, I had this overwhelming desire to reconnect with his memory,” Ruud said. His father, like his mother, trained at the University of Utah and performed with Ballet West in its early years. “I found my way to the U. and fate took over.”

Ruud described enrolling in the university’s theater program initially, but was persuaded to switch majors by professors in the ballet department, whom, he said, saw in him a younger, “rough-around-the-edges” version of their talented late colleague and friend.

“They danced with my folks and they knew I had trained with San Francisco Ballet,” he said. “They wanted to guide me, which was good because I needed plenty of guidance.”

Soon, the son of two ballet stars began recognizing the intoxicating draw of the stage.

“I can’t fully describe what it feels like to dance onstage, to reach that transcendent moment when my partner and I look at each other in mutual wonder as if to say, ‘This is really happening,’” he said, his voice tinged with emotion. “I never want that feeling to end — so it’s hard to give that up and put that away because I’ve made a life out of it.”

'Time to move on'

Ruud, 41, said he could dance professionally forever, “but my body is telling me differently,” he said, adding, “I also feel there comes a point in which it’s time to move on and watch other dancers perform our craft and help them. I’m excited to show others how to find those moments on stage.”

Sklute, whom Ruud calls his mentor, knows the feeling of leaving performing behind. Not only has he experienced it himself, he’s also watched many colleagues and plenty of his own dancers confront changing roles halfway through their adult life.

“Change has to come to everyone, we know, but in the dance world it can be particularly brutal because it’s so connected to the physicality of what you can produce,” Sklute said. “Chris always wants to be at his best when he performs, so he’s ending on a high note — and what better high note than performing the ultimate classical male role of Siegfried?”

Ruud reflected on his long career at Ballet West with pride. His highlight reel includes dancing as Ferdinand in Michael Smuin's “The Tempest” — a role his father danced 28 years earlier. Ruud danced the same choreography and even wore his father’s original costume.

Dancing lead roles during the company’s tour to the Chicago Dancing Festival and multiple tours to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., has also left an indelible mark — as did starring in a 2013 reality TV show, “Breaking Pointe,” which he describes as memorable, but painful.

“It was not my favorite time; in fact, it was a miserable experience,” Ruud said of the CW network production that followed a handful of Ballet West dancers and seemed especially fixated on the storyline of his ending marriage with principal dancer, Christiana Bennett, who retired in 2015. “Although it was hard on us, it was important for the company because it thrust us into the national spotlight. It pushed us forward, gave us more donations, more touring opportunities, more attention.”

Principals Beckanne Sisk and Christopher Ruud in Ballet West's "Swan Lake."
Principals Beckanne Sisk and Christopher Ruud in Ballet West's "Swan Lake."
Luke Isley

Ruud said it also became the catalyst for later meeting Loren Threet, whom he married this past September.

“She introduced herself to me because she recognized me from the show,” he said, calling the financial planner and former dancer “his great happiness.”

'There will be a lot to miss'

As Ruud faces an as-yet-to-be-determined future, he feels certain that dance will continue to play a major role in his life. He seems set up to do so, having choreographed several pieces for Ballet West and for his own dance company, RUUDDANCES, as well as directing Ballet West II and teaching extensively.

But still, leaving his role as a principle dancer will be difficult, especially since it means he won't work daily with his Ballet West family.

Sklute shares similar sentiments, saying Ruud’s departure will leave a hole in the company not easily filled.

“There will be a lot to miss, including his big, strong personality — which can be a handful," he said with a smile. "But that strong personality is part and parcel with being a consummate artist and instant leader among the dancers. Whatever he does, my opinion is that the sky’s the limit for Chris.”

If you go …

What: Ballet West presents “Swan Lake”

When: February 8-23, 7:30 p.m.; matinées on Feb. 9, 16 and 23, 2 p.m.

Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South

How much: $20-$112

Phone: 801-869-6900