Backstage with Atlanta Ballet duo whose real-life romance lit up shows



Presented by Atlanta Ballet. 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $20-$115 plus fees. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-892-3303,

Christine Winkler, retiring after 19 years with the company, will perform in Helen Pickett’s “The Exiled” during the 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. performances on Saturday. Winkler will be honored following the 8 p.m. program with a video tribute and special performance with husband John Welker of Diane Coburn Bruning’s “Berceuse.”

The curtain will come down on one of Atlanta’s greatest onstage love affairs on Saturday night.

Christine Winkler will conclude her 19-year Atlanta Ballet career by dancing a romantic duet with the partner who brought the highly regarded ballerina to Atlanta, her husband and fellow company artist John Welker.

Winkler and Welker will perform Diane Coburn Bruning’s “Berceuse” at the end of the contemporary mixed-repertory program “Mayhem” at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, following a video tribute to her. It’s a fitting finale, as the two have been paired dozens of times over the past two decades.

The chemistry between the dancers, who joined Atlanta Ballet in 1995 after meeting and falling in love during their first and only year at Ballet West in Salt Lake City, was soon evident.

“We all stand around backstage and cry when they dance together,” Robert Chumbley, the Atlanta company’s then-executive director, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1999. That was during a run of “Cinderella,” during which Winkler and Welker, playing the title character and her Prince, married onstage — and shortly before they tied the knot in real life.

Now 40, Winkler is retiring after a career in which she inhabited many major roles, including Odette in “Swan Lake,” Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet,” Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty,” Kitri in “Don Quixote” and Mina in Michael Pink’s “Dracula.” She will concentrate on raising 1-year-old Lucas, her latest collaboration with Welker, and on teaching part time at Kennesaw State University.

Before her finale, the AJC asked the native Californian and her Ohio-raised husband, 37, to detail their long-running creative bond.

John on his miscue-filled first date with Christine in Salt Lake City: "I turned 18 when I was there, was a young pup, really. On our first date, I asked her over and cooked dinner for her.

“She was like, ‘Can I help?’

“‘Here, chop some onions.’

“I did all sorts of wrong things. I was wearing some turquoise and purple vertical-striped shorts and a turquoise and blue-striped horizontal shirt. Maybe I was charming, I dunno … .”

Christine on another key detail: "He had Rocky and Bullwinkle socks on!"

John on why they clicked: "The conversation came so easily. I loved her sense of humor, so right up the same alley (as mine). We laughed so much, even in the studio when we first met. And her smile, it's just magnetic. It was crazy. It was like instantly, 'Wow, who is this?'"

Christine on why she wouldn't give John a birthday kiss when he turned 18 like all the other female dancers: "I figured he needed to work for it. He liked me."

John on how Christine's decision to not kiss him clearly revealed her romantic interest: "She thought she was being cool, but I was like, 'Uh-uh.'"

John on how her talent attracted him: "Oh, man, she was powerful. That hasn't changed. Her stage presence is beyond her physical size. … She was so musical, she was powerful, she was quick, she could turn, she could jump. She had it all.

“She was a force, and everyone saw it too. It was a hierarchy company … and, of course (as the newest and among the youngest), we were the peons. Still, she got to do some soloist roles right off the bat, so they obviously really liked her.”

Christine on how John has been an ongoing inspiration: "He's the person I look to, to be inspired to learn new things.

“I love the way he works. It’s the focus, it’s the integrity that he gives to all the movement. It’s so clear. It’s like, frame by frame, you can see the technique and the beauty and the work that goes into it. And then he takes that away and makes it movement to dance. If you were to take snapshots, it would be the right technique. But then you watch the whole and it’s artistry.”

John on what he feels when paired with Christine: "Dancing with Christine has meant everything to me. Certainly Christine is my partner on stage, but, more so, she is my wife, my son's mother, my best friend and my reason for inspiration. …

“When we take the stage together, there is a feeling of dancing, not as two individuals sharing a moment, but as a single whole.”

Read our Personal Journeys profile of Christine Winkler, detailing her challenging return to the stage after having a baby and the unexpected incident that led to her decision to retire: