For two people who spend much of their time on stage, it was only fitting that Julie Diana and Zachary Hench officially began their lives together before hundreds of enamored ballet-goers at the gilded Academy of Music. “We were dancing Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet,” says Hench. “I’d been thinking about proposing for a while, and that ballet came up. It is one of Julie’s favorite Shakespeare plays.” So in a life-imitating-art moment (they were playing the ballet’s star-crossed lovers, naturally), when the curtain came up for them to take their first bows, Hench got down on one knee and proposed. “The audience went wild,” he smiles. Diana, of course, said yes. And now these two principal dancers have gone on to become one of ballet’s most lauded duos, helping solidify Pennsylvania Ballet as one of the world’s premier companies, which will feature the pair throughout December in the much-anticipated performance of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. (The Ballet itself is in the process of relocating its headquarters to North Broad Street.)
Both fell in love with dance at an early age—Diana in New Jersey and Hench in central Pennsylvania—and later discovered their love for each other while performing in Barcelona. “We had mutual friends and heard each others’ names over the years, but we never met face to face until Zak joined San Francisco Ballet,” says Diana. “We were on tour in Spain when my partner for Balanchine’s ‘Symphony in C’ got injured. Zak was asked to step in and learn the part at the last minute, so we spent lots of time together in the studio and started to go for sangria after rehearsals.” Fast forward to today, and the pair have created two little masterpieces of their own: three-year-old daughter Riley and their newborn son, Lukas.
Despite the enchantingly intense characters they embody onstage, these two have a decidedly normal existence once the stage lights dim and the slippers are taken off. “We tend to keep our work at the studio and not to bring it home. But they are intertwined, and therein lies the balance,” admits Hench. Adds Diana: “We challenge each other in rehearsals and are very supportive of one another, but when we come home, it is mostly about life outside the ballet, and our children become the focus.” Unlike Romeo and Juliet, their tragic counterparts, it is this roundness of existence that enables them to choreograph their own happily-ever-after ending.