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By Miriam Seidel
It was a fairy tale moment, a life-imitates-art moment, a moment for ballet fans to remember. After the Pennsylvania Ballet’s June 11, 2005 performance of Romeo and Juliet, Julie Diana and Zachary Hench, playing the ballet’s lovers, came out for their bow. With just the two of them onstage, Hench knelt on one knee, offered a ring to Diana and, in front of several hundred witnesses, asked her to marry him.
“I was shocked!” Diana recalled recently, sitting and talking in the now-quiet performance hall of Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, where it had happened. “I had no idea he would do it onstage and in front of all those people. I forgot I was onstage. I pretty much threw myself at him, and he’s like, Julie, you’ve got to take your bow.”
The drama continued after the curtain came down: “The dancers came out on stage, and everyone’s really excited. And Zach had this bizarre look on his face.” In her surprise, Diana had never given him an answer to his proposal. “And I said, ‘Well, I assumed you would understand that it was a yes!”
As a dancer, Diana has also been misunderstood, coming across as soft and lyrical, yet over and over proving her capability for much more. “I haven’t found anything she can’t do,” says PAB artistic director Roy Kaiser. “The longer she’s here, I keep discovering new elements of her artistry.”
Diana and Hench joined the Pennsylvania Ballet together in 2004. Both left principal positions at the San Francisco Ballet, where Diana had danced for 11 years, since joining at the age of 16. Hench came to Philadelphia a few months earlier than she did, just in time to dance Siegfried in Christopher Wheeldon’s new Swan Lake, premiering that June. Diana arrived in the fall, giving romance-inclined fans the impression that she had followed her beloved to a different city.
Not so, she insists. “It just seemed like the right time, and the right thing to do,” she says. “I felt like I needed a change.” Both of them had family on the East Coast—Diana in New Jersey and Hench in central Pennsylvania; they knew they wanted to be together. She also welcomed the fact that, in a smaller company such as the Pennsylvania Ballet, she would have the chance to explore leading roles more deeply. As one of only five principal ballerinas in the Philadelphia company, “I can grow into a role and really experience it,” she says.
Born into a non-dancing family, Diana discovered ballet at age 7 when her gymnastics coach suggested she try it to help her with floor routines. At the time she aspired to be the next Mary Lou Retton, but once she started dancing she never looked back. She entered the School of American Ballet at 12, and went directly from there into SFB.
San Francisco Ballet’s ballet mistress Anita Paciotti remembers Diana as a quiet teenager. “She had always a beautiful, relaxed and peaceful quality about her dancing, and easily gave herself up to whatever you wanted her to try.” As Paciotti also became aware, “She has a very steely core. All technical challenges are within her grasp. It seems to be masked by this exquisite fragility that she has.” Part of Diana’s strength as a dancer, Paciotti believes, comes from her “strong amazingly articulate feet,” with toes “like a pianist’s hands” that support clean relevés and leaps, and more expressive movement even from within her toe shoes.
As Helgi Tomasson, SFB’s artistic director, gradually moved Diana into leading roles, her gift for acting emerged. Paciotti recalls being struck by Diana’s first portrayal of Juliet, during a student matinee. “All she did was come out by herself in the ballroom, take a little arabesque and then stand. And just the naturalness of it! It wasn’t like anyone else who was doing the role, and it wasn’t like how Helgi had talked about or coached it. Her interpretation was so genuine. It was Juliet I was looking at.”
Later, at the Pennsylvania Ballet, Kaiser had a similar epiphany when injuries and other circumstances led to Diana’s taking over the lead in the Frederick Ashton ballet La Fille Mal Gardée for its company premier in March 2005. “And she was wonderful,” he says. “I remember sitting in the theater and thinking, sometimes fate deals you a good hand. It was lucky for us and for our audience that we were able to see her dance this role.”
Diana herself recalls the empowering experience of working with the legendary Lynn Seymour, who coached her for the SFB’s company premier of Kenneth McMillan’s The Invitation. “The things she would direct me to focus on,” she says. “I approached acting in a whole new way after that experience.”
Another of Diana’s strengths, Paciotti notes, is in her partnering. “She’s one of the most generous partners I’ve seen,” Paciotti says. “The rapport that she establishes with her partners is really wonderful… It’s like she enjoys the feeling of what two people can do.” In San Francisco, Diana was often paired with Damien Smith, dancing together in Nacho Duato’s Without Words, Christopher Wheeldon’s Continuum (a role Diana originated), and other pieces. In Philadelphia, Kaiser has not gone out of his way to pair Diana and Hench as a dancing couple; they’ve performed opposite each other so far only in Romeo and Juliet, this season’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Nutcracker. Fittingly, though, their own romance began with their first pas de deux. While on tour in Spain with SFB, Hench stepped in for an injured dancer to work with Diana on Balanchine’s Symphony in C. In several intense days of rehearsal, he learned the part, and they learned more about each other, helped by long conversations over sangria.
As those around her have discovered Diana is more than just a pretty, lyrical dancer. She has been able to prove herself in an impressively diverse range of roles, from contemporary work with Wheeldon, Duato, and Tomasson, to leads in Giselle, The Sleeping Beauty and more. For her début performance with PAB, she took the Suzanne Farrell role in Balanchine’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. Since then she’s been the Swan Queen in Wheeldon’s Swan Lake as well as Juliet and Titania. And, having trained in the School of American Ballet, she shines in the Balanchine works that are at the core of the Pennsylvania Ballet’s repertoire.
It’s a very full career for someone who is not yet 30. Speaking in April, Diana called this a “blissfully busy time,” combining her onstage work in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with planning for the couple’s summer wedding, working on their house, and finishing the semester at the University of Pennsylvania, where she takes one course at a time as an English major. They live in a 100-year old farmhouse on an acre of land, perhaps the only one in the Philadelphia suburb where they’ve settled, and they are sharing it with two puppies—a Rottweiler and a Golden Retriever. In a clear-eyed way, Diana has begun looking toward a future beyond ballet, one that may include family and writing. Of course, there will be more achievements for her as a dancer, and more discoveries for her audience. “I’m always trying to reach the next level of artistry,” she says, adding, “I’m sort of at the point right now where I really want to enjoy each moment.”
Miriam Seidel has written on dance for Dance Magazine and the Philadelphia Inquirer.