Dancers in Love: Meet Four of Ballet's Most Romantic Partnerships, Onstage and Off
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2016 issue of Pointe.
Murphy and Stiefel. Ogden and Côté. Osipova and Polunin. Ballet inspires as many thrilling partnerships offstage as on. Company romances are so common, in fact, you might say they’re a perk of the job. “You’re with each other all day—it happens a lot,” says San Francisco Ballet soloist Lauren Strongin, who is married to SFB principal Joseph Walsh. Chemistry flourishes in the hothouse of a rehearsal studio, and choreographed embraces have a way of breaking the ice—who could resist? In celebration of Valentine’s Day, four company couples share the ups and downs of love at the office, and some of their sweetest moments, with Pointe.
Sisk and O’Connell.
Ballet West principal Beckanne Sisk and soloist Chase O’Connell
Ballet romances typically develop under the watchful eyes of other company members, but Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell’s also played out on TV. Filmed two months into their relationship, the 2013 season of “Breaking Pointe,” a reality show about life at Ballet West, exposed their tribulations to the world: Would he get into the main company from Ballet West II? Could they last if he didn’t? “It was really awkward,” recalls Sisk, now 23. “Awful,” says O’Connell, 22. “The show was pushing us to talk about this situation that we didn’t want to discuss yet.”
But three years after meeting in company class, they’ve mastered the art of living and dancing together. “I try to treat him like I would treat my other partners and not say, ‘I can’t stand it when you do that,’ ” Sisk says with a laugh. Negotiating in the studio has actually helped their communication in all areas. “When we were rehearsing In the middle, somewhat elevated, it was awesome to learn how to tell each other what we wanted,” she says.
Performing William Forsythe’s iconic ballet was a different story. Sisk missed her entrance for the pas de deux, and their timing never recovered. “We were fighting onstage the whole time,” she says. How do they recommend cooling off after a dance disaster? “Don’t talk about it,” O’Connell says. Sisk concurs: “Ignore each other for a little bit!”
Easygoing and affectionate, they’d rather complement each other than dwell on mistakes. “He gives me feedback not everyone would, corrections that others miss,” says Sisk. O’Connell takes it a step further: “We understand each other completely.”
Breeden and Marshall. Photo courtesy MCB.
Miami City Ballet corps dancers Michael Sean Breeden and Neil Marshall
When you find the perfect partner, you just know—even if the rest of the company isn’t so sure. “We moved in together a month after we started dating,” recalls Neil Marshall, 32, of his relationship with Michael Sean Breeden, 28. “Everyone told us that was the worst thing we could do. Obviously, that hasn’t been true!”
The couple of eight years spends “every waking moment” together, from daily class through performances of favorite works like Balanchine’s Square Dance and Allegro Brillante. Though they both trained under Peter Boal at the School of American Ballet—Breeden started the month after Marshall graduated—Marshall’s danseur noble quality and Breeden’s fleet, sprightly style mean they rarely compete against each other for roles.
Breeden admits that living and dancing together makes it easy to take each other for granted. But otherwise, pre-performance warm-up seems to be their only point of conflict. “Michael is almost ritualistic with what he needs to do,” Marshall says of Breeden, who confesses to doing “seven barres a day” and occasionally teasing his more laid-back partner. In contrast, Marshall says, “On a show day, I know what to do. So I spend a lot more time on my makeup.”
They’re certainly in complete agreement about their next steps: getting married after MCB’s April tour to New York City, and sharing the stage as much as possible. As Breeden says, “When we’re not in something together, I miss him onstage.”
Walsh and Strongin in James Kudelka’s Passion. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet.
San Francisco Ballet soloist Lauren Strongin and principal Joseph Walsh
Joseph Walsh and Lauren Strongin know that absence makes the heart grow fonder. After four years as a couple at Houston Ballet, they spent the 2014–15 season apart while he started a new job at SFB and she stayed behind. Used to rehearsing and rehashing every day, they were tested by repertoire, colleagues and lifestyles that were no longer in sync. “He was having experiences that I didn’t really understand,” says Strongin, 32. “It was hard to be as involved day-to-day.”
After all, dancing together had kindled their relationship. “Romantic things like Madame Butterfly pushed things along,” she says. “The occasional forced kiss in rehearsal helped!” adds Walsh, 26.
Ultimately, the separation solidified their commitment. Walsh proposed on a New Year’s vacation to the Yucatán Peninsula (he’d secretly packed an engagement ring), and they married in a Mayan ceremony two days later. And when Strongin finished her Houston season, a soloist position at SFB was waiting for her. The couple is philosophical about having different ranks. “Now and again one is doing better and the other is feeling down,” Strongin admits. “But having someone who understands your situation gets you out of that.”
In their first shared SFB season, they’re excited to dance in world premieres by Liam Scarlett and Justin Peck. They’re also delighted to live in the same city. “We’re back to our old ways,” Walsh says. “It makes me feel more whole.”
Coomer proposed to Oliveira before a performance of Romeo and Juliet. Photo Courtesy Texas Ballet Theater.
Texas Ballet Theater principal Leticia Oliveira and Carl Coomer
“We’re both very passionate about what we do, so we want it to be the best,” says Carl Coomer of dancing with his wife of four years, Leticia Oliveira. The two have performed together in everything from Sleeping Beauty to Dracula.
That shared drive for perfection enhances their artistry but can also create tension, even after 12 years as a couple. “You forgo the pleasantries sometimes,” Coomer confesses. They agree that refocusing on the work, rather than blaming your significant other, is the key to preserving trust. “We give each other feedback in a constructive way, without putting up a defense.”
The 34-year-old native of Liverpool, England, and his Brazilian wife, 38, met at Houston Ballet and moved together to Texas Ballet Theater in 2007. Coomer proposed before a performance of Romeo and Juliet, and the stage manager announced their engagement just before the curtain rose. “Everyone in the audience was there with us,” Oliveira remembers. “It was really special.”
These days, they have a built-in distraction from studio stress: their 3-year-old son, Tiago. “Before him,” Oliveira says, “it was a lot easier to take stuff home. Now when I’m not at work, it’s his time.” Will they encourage him to dance? “Everyone says he has beautiful feet,” she reports proudly. But Coomer jokes that they have other ideas for their firstborn: to be a professional soccer player in England or Brazil.
Between Tiago’s soccer drills, they’ll continue to pursue their passion for ballet. “It’s really special to share something you love with somebody you love,” Coomer says. “Not many people get to do that.”