A season of change at Pennsylvania Ballet will be topped off by one more: Zachary Hench and Julie Diana are leaving.
The married couple, beloved principal dancers-turned-ballet masters, are moving to Juneau, Alaska, after Pennsylvania Ballet's season ends June 14 to run the state capital's only ballet school, Juneau Dance Theatre.
"It will be a really incredible adventure for our family, and for Julie and I to run an organization together," said Hench. He'll be artistic director, Diana executive director. Company veterans since 2004 - he proposed to her onstage after they starred in Romeo and Juliet in 2005 - they taught a master class in Juneau in March and were enchanted. "It's absolutely majestic," he said.
While this means that little staff is left from former artistic director Roy Kaiser's era, the departures were hardly something Kaiser's successor, Angel Corella, wanted. He said Thursday that he was "completely devastated when they told me - they were friends from a long time ago."
"I used to have a group of dancers from [American Ballet Theatre] come to Spain to do a gala I put together. Two dancers got injured and within four days I had to call someone in," he said. Hench and Diana were dancing with San Francisco Ballet when choreographer Christopher Wheeldon recommended them to Corella. He hired them again and again, dancing the pas de deux from Don Quixote with Diana and sharing the stage with both.
"It will be very sad for the dancers," Corella said, noting that both quickly took to coaching after retiring last year. But he understood. "I told him, 'It would be completely crazy if you don't take it. I would kick you in the butt, I will fire you.' "
Pennsylvania Ballet's year of changes began in April 2014 with the announcement that Kaiser was leaving. By July, executive director Michael Scolomiero was gone, too, and the company had selected Corella as Kaiser's replacement. He started in September, but even before then the rest of the artistic staff had been removed, including longtime dancers-turned-ballet masters Tamara Hadley, William DeGregory, and Jeffrey Gribler.
Over the course of the season, Corella hired dancers Mayara Pineiro, Oksana Maslova, and Russell Drucker. He built the artistic staff back up, appointing Hench and Diana, among others. In March, David Gray was named executive director. His wife, former New York City Ballet star Kyra Nichols, has coached the dancers this season in Balanchine ballets, and Corella says she will take on further coaching responsibilities in the 2015-16 season.
Meanwhile, the Last Frontier awaits Hench and Diana, both of whom grew up within a few hours of Philadelphia. But Hench said his upbringing made Alaska even more appealing.
"I was raised in central Pennsylvania in the middle of nowhere, and I loved it. I am very much a nature person and so are the children," daughter Riley, 7 in June, and son Lukas, 3. As for Diana, "she's more of an 'I'll appreciate it outside my window.' "
Their new school has 200 students but is growing, and a new building is planned. Juneau is accessible only by plane or boat, and has about 32,000 permanent residents but one million or more tourists in the warmer months. With people looking for indoor activities during the off-season, the city has a vibrant arts community.
Hench said they wanted to raise the level of training at Juneau Dance Theatre, upgrade an arts festival the theater runs, and start a summer intensive. They are sad to leave Philadelphia, he said, but they're thinking big. Getting there this summer, "is the tip of the iceberg, no pun intended."