It's Not You. It's Me.

January 30, 2016

Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin broke the ballet internet in November when they confirmed their relationship to the press. She, one of ballet’s most explosive performers, and he, its high-profile bad boy, declared their offstage partnership, and juicily alleged that directors were trying to stifle their creative one. But what perhaps made it even more gossip-worthy was the fact that before Polunin, Osipova had another very public relationship—and very public breakup—with Ivan Vasiliev.

Dancers dating dancers isn’t uncommon. Some will even date multiple co-workers over their career. Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute guesses that out of his company’s 40 members, about one-third are romantically involved with each other. Dancers get together for some obvious reasons: It can be difficult to meet other people, they have a mutual devotion to their work, they’re together all the time, and the physical act of partnering (in leotards and tights, no less) is a natural gateway to flirtation.

But for every happily-ever-after there are just as many examples of love stories gone sour. What happens when you’re dealing with a real-life drama with a former significant other, and then have to dance an imagined one with them onstage?

Ballet Idaho’s Megan Hearn says she will think twice before dating another co-worker. Photo by Mike Reid, courtesy Ballet Idaho.

Unlike some jobs, most dance companies don’t have policies about dating, Sklute’s Ballet West included. He believes his dancers’ personal lives are exactly that, as long as their working relationships remain professional. Most of the time, they do. “Some are so professional you would never know they’re dating. Some have such a great connection that having them partner can be a wonderful, positive thing,” he says. But, “sometimes it’s like oil and water. You can feel their energy for the negative.”

Yet no matter how much you may come to loathe an ex, seeing them is an unavoidable part of your paycheck. “You’re in class together, you’re rehearsing together, you used to room together on tour and now you don’t,” says Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s Kevin Shannon, who had a two-year relationship with Jonathan Fredrickson, who danced with the company at the time. Standing in the studio with an ex right after the split can be exhausting. “It’s challenging. You feel drained. Dancers are emotional people; we’re artists. And that can create volatility. It took so much energy to stay calm and focused at work.”

A lot of that energy goes towards keeping your composure, and showing the former significant other that you’re doing just fine. “There’s a certain amount of ego involved,” says Charlotte Ballet’s Alessandra Ball James, who has dated two fellow company dancers. “You want to come in looking good and dancing good. And it’s hard to keep your emotions in check because you’re already physically exhausted from dancing.” There’s also jealousy. It bubbles up during what used to be everyday moments, like how well the other is dancing in class, the praise they’re getting or casting. “We were doing Mats Ek’s Casi-Casa and he got the lead role,” says Shannon. “I was excited for him, but at the same, here he is doing this role I wish I could have done.”

Then, there’s the added pressure of gossip among co-workers and shared friends, which James counts among the most terrible parts of breaking up with a colleague. People may show loyalties to one person and pick sides. “There was a breakup that actually pulled dancers into different camps,” says Sklute of a particularly difficult experience. “I had to bring in our HR depart­ment to have a conversation with the dancers about keeping their issues out of the studio.”

Dancers who used to date may try to put as much physical distance between each other in the studio as possible. But eventually, the job will force them to interact, or even partner. “As the director is partnering people off in rep, he’s getting to the end of the list and you realize, Oh no!” says James, who admits the awkwardness can become paralyzing enough to get in the way of the work. “It’s easy to be quick to say what they’re doing wrong—you want to get your little jab in. Or sometimes it’s the opposite: You don’t want to say anything because you just want to get through it. But in the end, maybe it’s good. You are forced to dance together and forced to just move forward.”

Shannon says it took about a year for interactions to feel completely relaxed between him and Fredrickson at work. Then, Fredrickson started dating another dancer in the company. “You think you’re over it, and then you see him with someone else,” says Shannon. In James’ case, she was the one to move on to another dancer. “It was very awkward starting the second relationship,” she says. “You have to find a good balance of being happy and sensitive to the situation.”

Alessandra Ball James says gossip makes at-work breakups difficult. Photo by Peter Zay, courtesy Charlotte Ballet.

So is there a best way to break up with a co-worker? It’s different for everyone, says Ballet Idaho’s Megan Hearn, who dated fellow company dancer Daniel Ojeda for a few months. “Looking back, we should have had a discussion about how we would deal with each other in the studio” if forced to interact or partner. “But really, we just kind of figured it out as we went along.”

The top priority is not letting heartbreak come between you and your dancing. “When it comes to personal things, I try to keep the directors out,” says James. “I also don’t want to mess with someone else’s position in the company. But if a director asked me, I would let them know about the situation.” Sklute confirms: “I’ve had people tell me they’d rather not dance with someone. I don’t have a problem with them telling me, but I tell them that I can’t make any promises.”

Her experience dating Ojeda has made Hearn think she wouldn’t mix romance and work again. “Dating someone in the company, you don’t get any personal time. I needed more of my own space,” she says. But if you do find yourself in a relationship with your colleague, and then suddenly out of one, take James’ advice, served with both sarcasm and sincerity: “Summer layoff is the prime time to break up.”

Kristin Schwab is
Dance Magazine‘s associate editor.