Passionate Partnerships

July 24, 2007

Five couples who span the dance world from ballet to hip hop to modern share studio time, performances, and their love for dance – along with household chores and a deep commitment to each other. Each has a unique story about how dance brought them together and keeps their marriage strong.

ABT’s Soul Mates: Stella Abrera and Sascha Radetsky

She is an exotic beauty of Philippine descent; he’s as likeable and all-American as it gets. Stella Abrera, who was on the January 2004 cover as one of Dance Magazine‘s “25 to Watch,” and Sascha Radetsky, who had a lead role in the feature film Center Stage, are among the most visible of the distinguished cadre of soloists at American Ballet Theatre. The two native Californians married last summer after a nine-year courtship.

The couple’s life at ABT has paralleled their romantic relationship from the outset. Radetsky was 18 and a member of the studio company when Abrera, then 17, auditioned. He noticed her in the audition. “I remember trying to flirt a little bit,” Radetsky says. But he says it took him “a couple of years” to persuade her to be interested in him.


The two dancers often appear onstage at the same time but not always as partners. They did Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier together in last year’s Nutcracker, and among the pas de deux they especially enjoy doing together is Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort, one of their favorite ballets. Radetsky clearly relished partnering his wife in Tharp’s In the Upper Room last fall at City Center. “She’s such a pleasure to partner, so easy,” he says. “She’s super light, she’s flexible, she’s strong, learns quickly, is considerate of her partner. She applies herself to every role 100 percent, so she’s willing to work to make things better or to change when necessary.”


“The same goes for you,” Abrera says, and Radetsky responds with a pleased, “Aw, shucks.” Abrera adds, “I put my full trust in my partner that he’s going to support me at all times. It’s even easier with Sascha. There’s an even higher level of trust.”

Are they helpful to one another? “Sure, in so many different ways,” Radetsky says. “In a very literal sense, correcting each other’s dancing, in very constructive ways, obviously. We’re lucky we understand what each other does so we can always offer a different perspective on things.” Abrera adds that their support of one another extends to helping each other through injuries and tough times at the studio.

Though sharing the stage with her life partner “is a joy,” Abrera says, “it can be harder, because you’re worried about yourself and you’re anxious about his performance at the same time. [Yet] you can’t really concentrate on his performance.”


“Sometimes it’s nice to just be a spectator and watch your counterpart do her thing,” Radetsky observes.


Issues surrounding roles and promotions – Abrera was promoted to soloist in 2001, Radetsky two years later – have not affected their relationship. “I only got support. There was never any weird tension,” says Abrera about her promotion. Radetsky adds, “I was so happy for her.”


Now in their late 20s, the couple thinks about what might lie ahead for them. Radetsky considers the possibility of leaving dancing altogether. “There are so many things that life has to offer,” he says. “I’d like to work outdoors and do something that would have a positive effect on the environment. We honeymooned in Alaska and had a wonderful adventure there, camping, rafting.”


If Radetsky is an outdoor enthusiast, then Abrera is a budding one. “I’m his apprentice,” she says, adding that she has always wanted to go to culinary school. “I feel like I can use that anywhere, any time.”

“She’s a wonderful cook,” Radetsky says.


Abrera remarks that they have talked about one day having children, then slips out the door, off to a rehearsal. Radetsky watches her go, then says, “I lucked out.”


So did she. —Amanda Smith

Perpetual Motion: Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sands

Uri Sands and Toni Pierce-Sands first met in a revolving door, and their lives have been in almost constant motion ever since. As co-artistic directors of and performers in TU Dance, they balance running their St. Paul-based company with managing a house and family, his guest choreography, and her teaching – while also planning a dance school in St. Paul.


But dancing together? They keep that to a minimum – even though audiences relish seeing the charismatic Sands, 32, and lithe Pierce-Sands, 44, in duets like
High Heel Blues.
“As the choreographer, I need to direct Toni, but here’s the problem: No one tells Toni what to do,” says Sands. “Rehearsals? They’re usually a disaster. There’s this tug of war between who is leader and follower. It’s because we established our careers separately.”


In 1993 Pierce-Sands, then a dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, entered a hotel to visit a friend with Philadanco, which had just hired a hot young dancer. As she stepped into the revolving door, a handsome, muscular man entered from the other side. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s him!’ ” she says. “I said, ‘Hey, congratulations.’ But he was sort of cold and aloof.” Retorts Sands, with a laugh, “I was just so young. I was a scaredy-cat.”


Two years later, at age 21, Sands joined AAADT. Pierce-Sands was 33 and a divorced mother of a 6-year-old son. They quickly found ways to “separate ourselves from the other dancers,” Sands says. “We’d stay at the bar for one more drink, talking into the early morning about our mothers and Toni being a mother, her growing up in Minnesota and my upbringing in Miami, her time in Europe dancing with Companie Rick Odums. Honestly, I just wanted to get to know her.”


Pierce-Sands says, “Uri has an old soul that doesn’t go with his young age. He would [write in a] journal all the time; he is an observer and a thinker. I’m a doer. That’s why Uri attracted me.”


A test of their devotion came in 1998, when Pierce-Sands and her son returned to St. Paul to be close to family. She joined the dance faculties of Minnesota Dance Theatre School (MDTS) and University of Minnesota, while Sands stayed with Ailey for two more years. After enduring six-month separations, Sands decided to give dancing in the Twin Cities a go, first performing with James Sewell Ballet. In 2000 he joined Minnesota Dance Theatre as a dancer and resident choreographer. When he began creating choreography for MDTS, he and Pierce-Sands fell into roles – choreographer and rehearsal director, respectively – that would serve them well at TU Dance, which they co-founded in 2005.


In 2001 the couple married, settling in St. Paul. But Sands was restless. When North Carolina Dance Theatre offered him a 20- to 25-week contract and the opportunity to choreograph, he took the job.


Pierce-Sands struggled with his choice. “It signified a critical moment,” she says. “Suddenly I realized we were on different career paths. While I was reluctant to change my life again, Uri didn’t want to stop for anything. I knew he had to go and supported his decision. But I envied [his] will and freedom to get up and go.”


Sands’ choreographic career continues to evolve. Last year he was the first choreographer given the Princess Grace Award. In 2006 the Ailey company premiered his Existence Without Form. The couple’s TU Dance continues to win critical and popular acclaim. Nonetheless, with two strong, creative personalities, conflict is inevitable.


“We don’t try to hide it or pretend it doesn’t exist,” says Pierce-Sands. “Professionalism is our default setting,” she says. “When we’re dancing together, the ground becomes level, because we respect each other and know we can trust each other as dancers.” —Camille LeFevre

Star-Bless’d Lovers: Molly Smolen and Tiit Helimets

What could be more romantic than falling in love while dancing Juliet to your future husband’s Romeo? That’s how Molly Smolen fell for the love of her life. She and Tiit Helimets, now both principals with San Francisco Ballet, were cast in one romantic partnership after another at Estonian National Ballet, and it took only about a month for the onstage passion to ignite offstage as well.


Smolen, a Philadelphian and former American Ballet Theatre dancer, headed to Estonia for a six-month guesting gig (principal dancer Helimets needed a partner) in 1997. Faced with rehearsals for five classical roles and a huge language barrier, she was near tears one day when Helimets gently took her aside and hugged her. Until then, Smolen says, “I [had been] terrified of him. He’s so tall, and blond, and good looking. And he didn’t speak very much English, and I didn’t speak any Estonian or Russian. But he was very sweet to me.” A dinner invitation that night quickly became a ritual, then a life completely shared. After living together for five years, the couple married in 2003.


The pleasures of life offstage quickly trumped their time in the studio as Smolen and Helimets discovered the challenges of working together. It took them a year to “work out the kinks,” Smolen says.


“We used to fight in rehearsals. You know each other, so you don’t make an effort to be nice,” says Helimets. “But when you’re working with different people you treat them nice. You have to ask yourself, ‘Would I say this to someone else?’ And if the answer’s no, then it doesn’t belong in the studio. It’s a conscious effort, and it pays off in day-to-day life.”


The couple’s on- and offstage partnership continued when they joined Birmingham Royal Ballet in 1999. And though for the first year there Smolen struggled with watching Helimets dance lead after lead without her, as he covered for injured principals, that was nothing compared to the emotional battering they both took when Helimets signed on with SFB in 2005. Smolen based herself in New York City as a freelancer, and the separation was unthinkably hard.


“I thought, “We’ll be fine; we’re a strong couple,’ ” says Helimets. “But the fact that you’re going to be away six months, and you’re not going to see your wife – I just couldn’t make myself walk out of the apartment.” Although they managed a visit every few weeks, a continued bicoastal existence was out of the question. Serendipity struck when SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson offered Smolen a contract.


Whether the couple will spend as much time together onstage as off is immaterial to them now, although they are each other’s favorite partner. Smolen considers her husband’s partnering skills unsurpassable; Helimets says that once he got past his wife’s obvious attributes – “those big eyes, the lips, the hair” – he discovered that her talent was “over-boiling.” Although dancing with someone else can be great, he says, “it will never live up to the feel of being so connected.”


“If we get to dance together, that’s wonderful,” Smolen adds. “But there are so many great dancers here, it really doesn’t matter. We’re working in the same place and that’s enough.”


Those who can’t make it to San Francisco to catch this couple in performance can search the Discovery Channel for a show called Wedding Secrets. Captured on film is the Smolen/Helimets wedding, along with footage of them dancing The Sleeping Beauty with Birmingham Royal Ballet. If you tune in, bring a hankie. Says Smolen, “His wedding vows made everyone cry.” —Cheryl Ossola

Rokafella and Kwikstep: An Unbreakable Bond

Break-dancers were uprocking down the aisle of Saint Cecilia’s Church in Spanish Harlem on June 17, 2000, the day that Anita “Rokafella” Garcia and Gabriel “Kwikstep” Dionisio were married. Members of their crew carried the Puerto Rican flag to celebrate their shared heritage and the couple recited their vows in rhyme. A salsa band played at the reception until a break-dance battle ensued. “We live hip hop culture every day,” Kwikstep declares. “It’s not something that we do at work and then go home and leave behind.”


The two New Yorkers first met 14 years ago at a street dance festival on the Upper West Side, where each performed with a separate crew but shared the same spot on the sidewalk. Two years later they ran into each other on the subway. Kwikstep invited Rokafella to an audition that afternoon for GhettOriginal Productions Dance Company, a group he was dancing with. “She didn’t even have her sneakers with her. But she did the audition barefoot and made it into the company that day,” Kwikstep says proudly. “We started working together the next week.”


Rokafella was intrigued by Kwikstep’s expansive knowledge of hip hop. “He continued to speak to me about the culture and the dance. I had no idea that there was a culture. I had just grown up doing the dance,” she says. Rehearsal conversation soon led to romance and the couple eventually left GhettOriginal to found their own venture, Full Circle Productions, in 1996. Three years later, at the end of a performance at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, Kwikstep proposed to Rokafella onstage in front of an audience of 800 delighted fans. Under the guise of handing out awards to his staff, Kwikstep summoned the unsuspecting Rokafella (who had received puzzling pre-performance congratulations from the company) onstage and popped the question.


Full Circle Productions normally involves an ensemble, but last year the couple decided to make a duet together for the first time. “It was difficult because we have polarized methods of creating. We’re complete opposites. Kwik feels it and lets the moment catch it. I’m much more calculated. I’m always thinking about how many eights I have and what kind of monologue I should start off with,” says Rokafella. “Without question, you bring those arguments into the home. Then you have issues of dishes and laundry and you wind up saying, ‘Well, you won the last one in the studio, so I gotta win this one at home!’ ”


Working and living together requires constant communication, Kwikstep notes. “A company is different when it’s run by partners. As a married couple we’re already in a partnership with rings and a commitment. That shows in our company too. We’re equal partners, though we switch roles. Sometimes I’m the backbone and sometimes she is. Sometimes both hands hold the weight,” he says. “And just when you thought communication couldn’t get any more complicated, you’re forced to analyze the dynamic of who you are as work partners against who you are as a married couple. How do you separate those roles?”


At times, being together in the studio provides the answer. “When we accomplish something in the studio, we’re better able to deal with home issues,” Rokafella says. “Dance can be the solution.”


Spending time on independent projects also alleviates the pressures of constant togetherness. “Kwik and I are two separate people. We have to satisfy our own dreams also,” Rokafella says. She often works with modern-dance choreographers, while Kwikstep judges hip hop contests and teaches workshops.


“It’s good to let space into a relationship, especially when couples work together. Human beings need space; it allows you to rediscover yourself. Then you start thinking about the other person again and appreciating their qualities more,” says Kwikstep. “Being a couple is like being coffee and milk. You love to have them both together, but sometimes you just take it black. It’s all about balance in the end – aiming for those times when the cup tastes just right.” —Darrah Carr

Love Bites: Tucson Ballet’s Jenna Johnson and Daniel Precup

Jenna Johnson turned Daniel Precup’s head three times in three different cities before the pair finally met. The first time was at a Dresden theater. “I was auditioning there,” Precup says. “We were in the lobby at the same time. I saw her and said, ‘Wow! This is a wonderful lady.’ ” The second time was in Bucharest. Johnson was dancing with Romanian National Opera Ballet, and Precup had been invited by colleagues to attend the show. The third time was also in Romania, in the port town of Constanta. There, in 1997, Johnson joined the Oleg Danovski Ballet Theatre, where Precup had spent his entire career. “It was my destiny that I meet this wonderful-face lady,” he said.


Destiny is the short explanation of how the Cincinnati-born Johnson, and Precup, a native Romanian, became on- and offstage partners and wound up in Arizona.


The saga began as Johnson finished her first post-school job, a yearlong stint at Atlanta Ballet, and went to visit her father, who was living in Bucharest at the time. “I was interested in the idea that there were companies who would pay their dancers for a full-year contract,” she said. She found better state funding for dance in Eastern Europe and took work there.


That decision led her to Precup, with whom she was paired initially due to their similar stature. (She’s 5′ 8″ in flats; he’s 6′ 5″.) Once she learned to calculate the increased traveling distance in overhead lifts (an adjustment from shorter partners), Johnson found that having a tall partner was an advantage. They were a good team at work, but she admits that her interest in Precup extended beyond the technical. “He has that Eastern European look: dramatic eyes, high cheekbones.”


Initially paired in Scheherazade, The Miraculous Mandarin, and Swan Lake because of their height, the couple had obvious chemistry, which soon led to conversations outside the studio. Although Precup had studied some English in school, he was charmed by Johnson’s accent when she spoke Romanian. Their sense of cultural connectedness sealed the deal. “My family was always interested in literature and the arts – something I felt I had in common with Daniel,” Johnson says. Precup describes their connection as “the pleasure for everything that is beautiful. We share that.”


And so, late one night, Precup asked Johnson out for a romantic stroll along the seawall. And then? “It was a full moon,” Precup jokes. “I change myself. I become a werewolf – I bite her!” That notable night marked a turning point in their life together.


The couple moved to the United States in 2003 so that Johnson could attend to some family issues. After dancing with the now-defunct Oakland Ballet for two seasons, they joined Ballet Tucson in 2004, where Precup became the company’s first Dracula of Transylvanian heritage. They married in 2005, in a Cincinnati church that reminded Precup of home.


Sharing a professional and personal partnership can be challenging. “You have a higher expectation from your partner, and you’re less inclined to be polite when they fall short,” Johnson says. But there are benefits, too. They have absorbed each other’s schooling and become attuned to each other’s bodies. “I can anticipate what he will do,” she said. “And we also know how to put each other to better advantage.” Johnson hopes to do that some day in Romeo and Juliet, after having danced Giselle with Precup. “That was special,” she said of their romantic ballet pairing. “I felt it.”

Apparently viewers can feel it as well. “They’re audience favorites,” says Tucson’s artistic director, Mary Beth Cabana. “They have a natural chemistry.” —Heather Wisner