Q&A: Craig Salstein and Roman Zhurbin

As the hilarious Stepsisters in Cinderella, the American Ballet Theatre dancers find their inner women

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Aren’t you learning how to dance in the first act?
Zhurbin:
The dance master comes in, and we have a lesson. We play around with the dresses.
Salstein: And we have to hold the dress. [He mimics daintily picking up the folds of an imaginary skirt.] Women pick up their skirts a lot in ballets, like in Giselle. That’s something that we should also try to put in there: As much femininity as possible.
Zhurbin: Would you make her a woman, or play her as a man playing a woman? A little butch?
Salstein: I’m trying to be as feminine as possible.
Zhurbin: And by my frame—there’s no mistaking. Everyone is going to be like, “That’s a man.” So I have little nuances here and there.
Salstein: Absolutely. To remind the audience that we’re feminine.
Zhurbin: I am going to try to play her as a woman. A big girl. But I want to make her real. I don’t see her like a man dressed as a woman. She is big and she’s clumsy and she has manly things about her—she’s big boned—but she doesn’t have to be a man. I’m going to try to make her as believable as possible. That’s my goal. Do a little Tootsie. Not to copy that character, but to see what great actors thought was important in a woman. It’s all about details. The greats fill in the blanks.

I know you have to play this by the book—
Salstein:
And the book is pretty good! It’s like receiving an Aaron Sorkin script or a Woody Allen script. It’s a finished, nice, polished product. There isn’t some sort of rule or law or idea that these people should be funny or their actions are funny. This is what these two sisters are trying to accomplish.

Which is?
Salstein:
Magic in the making at first. At least not drawing attention to the fact that we can’t pull it off for the next act. We have to accomplish a few things. We can’t be total screwups. I think Ashton and Helpmann would never play it like that.
Zhurbin: They’re not over the top. They’re very understated.
Salstein: We’ve received the instruction—
Zhurbin: Not to exaggerate, right? Don’t get carried away because the choreography’s there.

What’s an example of that?
Zhurbin:
Me being mad at her. In one scene, the way we cross tells how I’m feeling. I don’t really need to act or project.
Salstein: We don’t need to scream it out, although we bear this burden of an idea that at the Metropolitan—even the first ten rows have low seating. We are in a habit of selling it: the bigger the better. You want the audience to look at you. You don’t want to scream what your lines are. It’s not a monologue, it’s a dialogue between the two of us really, and as long as we keep it between the two of us, it works. It’s a risk, though. Oh my God, it’s a risk not to say, “Hey, is everyone looking at this?” Because people miss a lot of things. It’s run-on sentences and then when the pages turn, the pages turn. You can’t regress. Not a good idea. I think the fact that we both take it as seriously as any other role that requires this type of grandeur—I think doing it correctly would be number one, right? Don’t look to kill it. Just look to get on base.
Zhurbin: Just don’t miss anything.

You don’t literally speak of course, but what is the unspoken dialogue between the two of you?
Salstein:
He speaks. Go ahead [Claps his hands for Zhurbin to speak]. Hats come out!
Zhurbin: Yeah. Hats come out. I get my hat, I don’t like it. I get her to change the hat by telling her that hers doesn’t look good. So we switch. When the jewelry comes out, I grab all the jewelry. She gets none. Dance master comes out; I get jealous because he spends more time with her. Same with the father—every time she’s with the father, I get jealous so I break it up.
Salstein: I would say you are certainly the bossy figure.
Zhurbin: I’m the alpha dog.
Salstein: It’s a good role for you. I don’t think I’ve had more fun working with Roman. This is a stretch. I don’t think anybody’s born to do this.
Zhurbin: It’s challenging for me because it’s so exact, and Craig is so good with music and characters. There are accents, and I tend to get a little carried away with a character.

So it’s a good balance and you learn from each other?
Salstein:
Absolutely.
Zhurbin: Onstage I’m in charge, but he keeps me in check. It works perfectly. The balance between the two sisters is what makes it hilarious. In real life, I’m not like the big sister—I’m more like the little sister. Quieter. Craig is more like, “Let’s go! Let’s do this! On three!” and I’m like [Meekly], “Okay.” We feed from each other. It’s perfect.
Salstein: When you do Ashton, your line is finished—usually through the hands—and the mime is a vocabulary. They’re writing a book through dance. You don’t have to look for it. You don’t have to paint the mustache on this Mona Lisa.
Zhurbin: The flow of actions is very natural.
Salstein: Lead us into second act. Go.
Zhurbin: Second act—
Salstein: Is the magic.
Zhurbin:
Bigger dresses. Fans.
Salstein:
Classy looking. Gloves. Oh, the fans! [Gravely serious] One fan’s gotta point up; one fan’s gotta point down.
Zhurbin: Flirting. We have escorts, and they’re all our friends, so that gets a little weird.
Salstein: After the magic in the making, I think these two ugly beings experience love. We’re ready to be in love.
Zhurbin: We’re looking for love.
Salstein: [Sighs] Which is—not easy. Where in God’s name could it be?
Zhurbin: We’re looking everywhere.
Salstein: In every possible corner. Grab a little guy, grab a tall guy. I don’t think anybody really takes us seriously as contenders, which is always the most pathetic thing—because we’re so serious in contending for this.
Zhurbin: We’re there to win.
Salstein: [Sadly] And certainly a loss it will be.

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