"Fairy tale" romance, partnership for Juneau dance teachers

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JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — About 15 years ago, the San Francisco Ballet was touring Spain when principal dancer Julie Diana's partner fell and broke his foot. A dancer who had recently joined the company, Zachary "Zak" Hench, stepped in and learned the part in just three days.

It was the start of long-lasting partnership that has, most recently, brought the two to Juneau. Diana is the new executive director of Juneau Dance Theatre, and Hench is the new artistic director.

"We've worked together from the start of our relationship," Diana said. "Dancing together, partnering together, ballet mastering together — it's something we wanted to continue doing."

Their partnership doesn't end on the stage.

Five years after they first partnered as dancers, they just finished up one of their best ballet performances as the stars of "Romeo and Juliet."

"Everything felt so natural," Diana said. "It's a full-length production — there's a lot of dancing, and emotion, and tricky sections. . For artists, when everything comes together, for dance especially, as such an ephemeral art form, you just live for those moments. It was one of those shows, for me, where everything was going so well."

After Romeo and Juliet's untimely death, the curtain went down. Then, as is usual, it came back up. Hench's friend — a man with a purpose — fought his way onstage, past performers trying to stop him, as it wasn't yet his time to take a bow. Diana was a little confused.

Then the friend handed over a ring and Hench got down on one knee and proposed.

The audience wasn't sure what was going on. But when she put the ring on and held up her hand, "they started going nuts, like a football game."

"I was thinking to myself all these years we'd been together, how am I going to (propose)?" Hench recalled. "I knew I wanted it to be really special; I had wanted to propose to her for a long time before I did . I am not huge on public displays of affection. I thought that would say a lot if I did that."

"In front of 3,000 people? Yes, it did," Diana said.

Years later, Dove Chocolate found out about the couple's engagement story and filmed a commercial based on it for their "Love less ordinary" campaign.

After they got married, the two danced in the Pennsylvania Ballet as principle dancers for about 11 years. Most recently, they gave classes as ballet masters for a year with the same company — but they wanted something more hands on, and they wanted to work with kids.

"We realized our love was for teaching students and children, and not as much working with professionals," Hench said.

"I love the energy and the imagination, and watching their progress, and really being able to nurture their artistic development," Diana said of teaching kids. "We really enjoy youth development, and seeing what we can cultivate. And it's inspiring to us, too — their imaginations, the way they do things. Teaching also informs, I think, us as well — our process, and how we look at things."

Now their daughter Riley is 7, Lukas, their son, is 3, and they've brought their partnership and their family of four to Juneau and Juneau Dance Theatre.

When they visited Juneau this spring, "We just loved the students, and how they reacted to us, and us to them," Hench said. "We were impressed with their respectfulness, and their hunger for learning — they're already a talented bunch."

They began working with students Aug. 24.

They also hope to collaborate with other members of Juneau's artistic community.

When they visited, "We said 'Wow, they've got it going on,'" Hench said. "We're really big in community engagement, and getting everyone involved in the arts."

Some of their ideas are for local artists, puppeteers, set designers, musicians and others to get involved in the theatre's productions.

"Not making each art form so exclusive," Diana added.

They also hope to "increase and elevate the level of training" for ballet. The theatre's classes in other forms of dance — hip hop, zumba, modern — will continue. There are classes for kids and adults, a ballet class for especially for athletes, and offerings for advanced ballet dancers — and they'll have a choreography workshop.

"Basically, we're going to let the students create their own ballets," Hench said. "As dancers, we're artists, but a lot of the time we're the paint, and not necessarily the painter. That's the idea behind the choreography workshop - letting them come up with an idea and, together, turn it into structured movement."

Diana, who writes on ballet and health trends, wants to talk with students about nutrition and positive body image, and they'd like to do more outreach in Juneau's schools.

"We're trying to pack a lot in," Hench said. "There's a lot that we can't do, that we would like to. We would love to incorporate tap, and jazz, and some other stuff, too — we have high hopes and aspirations."

Non-dancers can check out their work the first weekend in December, when the theatre will be performing a reworked version of "The Nutcracker."

People can drop into classes, as well.

"We can work with both (male and female roles), because we've been both," Diana said. "It's a nice marriage to bring into a studio where you have men and women, boys and girls learning the art."

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