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Sugar House Journal

Ballet star on sabbatical enjoys being in the moment

Oct 30, 2019 15h49 ● By Jennifer J Johnson

Ballet West soloist and Ballet West Academy star grad Lucas Horns wants to make the world less divided. His picturesque grand jeté downtown inspires all to step up and live in the moment. (Walker Boyes)

By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected] 

This August, members of the Ballet West dance company were going through their usual nine hours a day, plié-ing and grand jeté-ing and performing many of the less sexy aspects of forging art and endurance.

Meanwhile, three miles away and a few hundred feet higher in elevation, famed dancer Lucas Horns was packing a book bag, navigating his way across the University of Utah campus.

The soloist had become a sophomore, trading tights and toe pads for comfortable clothing and Converse.

Comfortable clothing, comfortable shoes and comfortable skin—as in comfort in his own skin—define this young man, this 25-year-old ballerino, who, arguably, in his prime, if not the very peak of a finite dancing prime, has elected to take a break from what has been his regular grind for almost two decades.

Horns insists that this break from ballet will be brief and that he intends to be back to the barre in short order. (He has signed a contract to rejoin the company in January.)

For the past few months, Horns has been going to college where he is pursuing a degree in urban ecology.

He has also served in numerous volunteer roles during the semester, ranging from aiding with the United Nations Conference which was in Salt Lake City in August; to rallying volunteers and personally placing multicolored flags in yards statewide as part of the Project Rainbow in September; to flying to Washington, D.C., to participate in a Human Rights Coalition national event in October.

All of this, says Horns, represents the longest “vacation” he has had, since formally pursuing ballet as a youngster.

The beginnings of the ballerino

A ballerino is a male ballet dancer.

The fact that the word needs to be explained gives insight into what life may have been like for young Horns.

“People teased me as a boy,” he recalls, speaking of growing up near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon.

The “people” he is referencing were not just children or, later, adolescent peers.

“From a young age, I could tell if adults thought it was silly.”

Horns began dancing in preschool, but quickly found he wanted to dance with more boys in the midst. He found that this resulted in infinitely less teasing and more enjoyment.

His parents enrolled him in an all-boys class at Ballet West.

The mid-career non-crisis and flash forward: Utah’s Ballet West en pointe in giving dancers more choice

Horns is, somewhat, the poster child for Ballet West and for the Ballet West Academy, one of the premier dance-education institutions in the country.

He is the first person to have attended the Ballet West Academy—“an academy of 200 kids”—as an amateur and then earn and maintain a spot within the Ballet West company as a professional dancer.

Ballet West has promoted this joint accomplishment—of their instruction and Horns’ skill, artistry and dedication—in articles and on social media.

“They like using me as an example,” he says. “I feel obligated to the teachers. I want them to feel their work was appreciated.”

This elevated stature seems to escalate the pressure on Horns to succeed, and would have, seemingly, made asking for a sabbatical to attend college for a term, a dicey matter.

However, Horns found Ballet West to be remarkably progressive in their point of view to let him take some time off.

Ballet West has an international reputation as a high-quality regional dance company. So, like professional sports teams who scout and contract with talent, the organization annually negotiates with members of the dance company.

Horns says he decided—mid-March—that he “wanted to take a break.”

When he, in-between drills and dance exercises, talked about the idea with dance colleagues, the vote was near-unanimous: A sabbatical from the company—or even asking for a sabbatical—was akin to a “death sentence.”

“You’re going to lose so much ground!” were the astonished whispers.

Exploring new opportunities

Horns remained committed to his conscience: He needed a break and felt confident he would come back mentally stronger, and that this, in turn, would further inform his dance.

He said that, since 2015, he has been thinking about life beyond dance and what career options would be available to him. He began “knocking out” general-education classes online, and dreamed for the opportunity to explore his creativity in academic and workplace environments.

Committed, he approached Ballet West’s long-term artistic director Adam Sklute.

Sklute and Horns reviewed the fall program, both realizing it “was not for me,” says Horns.

And the concept of Horns—who had been dancing in Ballet West’s annual “Nutcracker” tradition since age 10—missing out by not participating in that program was an artistic-decision-making no brainer.

Sklute shocked a delighted Horns and greenlighted the decision. 

“I was surprised they were open to it,” he admits.

While Ballet West did not pressure Horns about his “semester abroad” from the company, he says he does feel pressure—“to come back strong.”

When Horns announced his temporary departure from stage, arts curator and former Senator Jim Dabakis credited the break but chided Horns to “get back” right away.

Horns says he is staying in shape, and he has the ultimate workout buddy—company dancer Josh Shutkind is not only Horns’ live-in boyfriend, but his partner in taking a sabbatical.

Sklute granted both men a semester abroad in their own city.

Horns says that the break has already been “very clarifying” and has already given him a healthier mindset.