The Bold Intensity of Ballet West's Christopher Ruud

The World Dances recently spoke with talented and forthcoming Christopher Ruud, Principal Artist with Ballet West and former cast member of the CW’s Breaking Pointe, about his dancing and choreography, recovering from injury, plans for the future, life after the  TV show and much more! 

You have created several works in the past few years.  How did you get started with your choreography and what are you working on now? 

I’ve been dancing with Ballet West for 16 years now. When [Ballet West Artistic Director] Adam Sklute came into the company, he introduced a late spring program for us called Innovations. The program offers the chance for company members to submit an idea for choreography, workshop it, and then — if your piece is selected — to present your choreography in one of Ballet West’s professional shows. I chose to try it the first year, and that was my first foray into choreography. Since then I’ve created a few more works for Ballet West.  Now I’m working on a brand new piece called Great Souls. It’s going to be presented in this year’s Innovation program.  That’s going to be in May, so I have to get in gear! I’ve gotten tons done already, but it’s quite a process.

Can you tell us about Great Souls, or will it be a surprise?

Wow, I should have been prepared to say yes or no to that question. Well, no time like the present! In my life, I have had the privilege to know and love people who stand out and above, in my mind, as great souls in many different ways. The unfortunate thing is that I’ve also had to say goodbye to these great souls in one way or another, whether they’ve died, moved away, or moved on. The ballet is about loving these people and saying goodbye.  The music is Beethoven.  For me, Bach was God’s voice, Mozart was God’s beauty, and Beethoven was God’s fire. And for me, fire is love. Love burns. Your passion and intensity is something that can be hot, intense, or sometimes burn out.  The Beethoven pieces that I chose have a beauty to them, but also a deep and desperate longing. I hear the melodies and the notes and the key it’s written in, and it makes me think of what it was like to know these people and what it was like to deal with having to say goodbye.

Christiana Bennett and Christopher Ruud as The

Sugar Plum Fairy and Her Cavalier

Speaking of fire and intensity, your choreography seems to have a very physical, powerful quality to it. Would you
characterize your work that way generally?

Yes, I would say that I try to approach and infuse my work with athleticism and dynamism. I’ve always been an athlete. I was a gymnast when I was younger, and throughout my career my best roles have required a great deal of athleticism. I want to put that into what I make, and for the audience to feel it as well. I tend to ask for a lot of reach and a lot of stretch from my dancers. I always want my dancers to reach farther, but it has to be with an athleticism that comes from within — a kind of reaching, stretching, yearning power. Also, throughout my career, what I’ve been known for is partnering. With the partnering that I like to give and try, I hope that it’s challenging, different, and maybe a little bit dangerous at times. 

You’ve set your choreography on Ballet West dancers so far. Does it help, when asking for such boldness from your dancers, that you’ve known them for so long?

Yes, I have to admit that really knowing the dancers you’re working with plays a huge part in the outcome of the choreography. When I sat down to cast this ballet, I really took into account who in the company is what kind of dancer and how I would use everyone and in what parts. The strengths of the dancers, how they dance, and who they are drives much of the emotion and steps in the choreography — whether they know it or not. It’s a daunting task to walk into a room of professional dancers and have to lead them. It’s a huge plus to get to work with a group of people I know so well, some of whom I’ve known and worked with for a decade!

You’re healing from knee surgery now. Could you please talk about your injury and how you’re dealing with it?

I’ve been a professional dancer for 18 years. The injury wasn’t anything in particular, just a lot of miles on the engine. Most of the cartilage in my left knee was destroyed. I danced so hard this season that my knee just sort of quit. I started loosing vastus medialis oblique quadriceps muscle in my left leg. I finally had to go to Adam and say, “I can’t jump or do my job. I have to get surgery.” We’d known it was coming for a while, and it finally happened. So they went in and did arthroscopic surgery eight weeks ago. I’m up walking around, trying to get muscle strength back now.  I’ll be 37 this month. I’ve had two ankle surgeries and this is my second knee surgery, so it takes a while to come back. I know I’m not done dancing, though. I always tell students who want to be professionals that it takes discipline, class after class after class. It takes mastery of technique and strength. But in the end, it takes the will power and desire to do anything it takes. I have all my will power in this and I’ll be back.

Ballet West's Emily Adams & 

Christopher Ruud in

Vall Caniparoli's "THE LOTTERY"

Did your choice to start focusing on choreography have anything to do with the knowledge that your knee would be an issue?

I’ve been interested in choreography ever since I wanted to be a dancer. I love movement and being part of its creation, so this isn’t necessarily about getting on in my career and realizing that there will be an end to my ability to be a professional dancer. At the same time, though, it’s a natural progression for some of us to move through the ranks of being a professional dancer and eventually reach a point where you’re creating instead of dancing. The timing was also about sheer opportunity. When I started, I thought, “Adam’s offering this opportunity now, so why not? It’s something I love to do.” One of my favorite parts is working with other people — creating movement and watching the other dancers play with and master it. The process is ALMOST better than the result. Almost….Put “almost” in caps!

You directed Ballet West II from 2011 to 2013. Did that experience prepare you for guiding dancers as a choreographer?

I think it did. My time with Ballet West II gave me the tools and confidence to step up in front of the room and be a leader. I think it’s about leadership more than choreography, but as a choreographer you have to be a leader as well. I thank my lucky stars every day to have had the opportunity to do that.

Was it a tough call to step down from your role with Ballet West II?

It was a hard call, but being a principal dancer in a major ballet company, trying to be a successful and cutting edge choreographer, and trying to be the director of a second company was just a little too much. I had to make a choice. Dancing came first, because the clock is ticking. You don’t have it on the forefront of your mind everyday while you’re dancing, but you’re aware that it’s ticking. So for me, that came first. I wanted to make sure I was satisfied as a dancer before I move on. Secondly, if you know you want to be a choreographer, there’s no time like the present. You just have to jump in and try it. You have to get your work out there. Being a director is something I can come to later. Any moment of experience you have in the studio — working with other dancers, choreographing, teaching — is preparing you to be a director. I really don’t feel like I’m wasting time not doing that right now because everything I’m doing will make me better as a director later on.

Is that where you see yourself in the future, directing a company?

That’s a hard question! I would definitely love to be the director of a ballet company. I’d really love to be the director of my own company. Millions of dancers have dreamed about that and it’s a really difficult thing to do.  For some of it, you just have to be in the right place at the right time. Admittedly, I’m not good at sitting at a desk and concentrating. I’m an artist and an athlete. I always want to be up and moving around and thinking about a million things at once. Being a businessman or administrator would be a challenge for me, but having a group of dancers that you’ve selected and with whom you can be free to work is something I definitely desire.  Whether that takes me growing past my dance career and trying to find the space and funding to start my own company, or whether I get my resumé together and become the director of an existing company — who knows! I certainly will at least attempt to be the director of a group of dancers who are willing to create new movement and present one-of-a-kind live art on stage.

What’s it been like moving on from the show Breaking Pointe?

Well, it was an interesting experience overall. It was very good for Ballet West. It exposed the company to the world as a shining example of a professional ballet company. It exposed Ballet West and dance generally to an audience who might not otherwise know about classical ballet, what professional ballet companies are capable of, or what we do. It was difficult, at times, to try to do your job and be on camera. I had a large amount of personal things going at the time that were very hard to deal with and I wasn’t that happy about being on camera during the process. That’s just kind of the breaks I guess.  It was a difficult experience. I will remember it forever. I’m glad that I was a part of it and it was a learning experience, but I’m not entirely sad that it’s over. In the end what it really taught me is that reality TV isn’t necessarily reality. 

Would you like to see more dance getting screen time? 

Well, you never, ever want to create a situation where the audiences stop showing up to watch live art in a theater. There’s no other experience like it and it can never be replaced or duplicated in another way. That said, I think live streaming performances online occasionally is a good idea. PBS airs Great Performances. My father was on a number of them actually. I do believe that if local public TV stations could work with performing arts organizations to have a few live, well-advertised broadcasts of selected shows we might be able to reach a larger or new audience that might not be able to get to the theater.  It could be providing someone with an experience they’ve never had before and may entice them to make the effort to show up and take part in a live performance in the theater. And, I reiterate, there’s nothing else like that. It’s the essence of what we do — to be onstage in front of a live audience.

You mentioned your father (who was a dancer and choreographer with San Francisco Ballet). What does it mean to you to be dedicated to the same art form?

It means everything to me, actually. My father was not only an incredible dancer, but also an incredible human being and father and my best friend until he died when I was just shy of 17. I spent many years, maybe subconsciously, gaining experience in the ballet world to try to retain connection with someone from the ballet world who’s no longer here.  And I have felt that connection with him by taking part in something he was passionate about and very great at doing. I’ve had the chance to perform roles that were created on him — probably one of the most intense things I’ve ever done. Now that I’m closing in on the end of my career — and having many experiences with him in mind and searching for connections with him through something he did — I find myself wanting to finish that journey and hop over to another road. Perhaps it’s time for me to stop following in his footprints and make some of my own. I do that with him in mind, with everything he taught me, and everything the experience of following in his footsteps gave me. But it’s time for me to take a step forward and make my own legacy, having taken part in upholding the legacy that was left for me.

What would you like the footprints you leave behind to mean to those who follow you?

I would like people to look at the footprints that I leave and see in them a pure, true, honest desire to follow your heart — to create something beautiful from your heart, and to do it with the respect, humility, and the goodness of being the best human being you can while trying to leave something that means something to people and inspires them.