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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Have you run the entire ballet?
Salstein:
Absolutely. We even run it on the side, because the tighter we stay, the better. In many ways, it’s better to blend in within the scene so that you don’t stick out. 
Zhurbin: They always tell us, “Just be calm. Do the steps.”
Salstein: Make it sensitive to the music.
Zhurbin: And then there are more props, and we juggle the props. We throw them.
Salstein: It’s Prokofiev’s way and not Ashton’s way of [referencing the 1919] opera The Love of Three Oranges. I’m sure it’s a way of replacing pumpkins or something like that, but now you’re dancing and now you’re throwing things in the air. That adds another challenge. It’s like driving on the highway in Florida. There’s so much to look at. You just have to trim off all the fat and serve the people who are watching it a nice, clean product.

I realize that you have pretty strict guidelines about your characters, but are you instilling your stepsister with a feminine flavor from someone in particular?
Salstein:
Who is it for you?
Zhurbin: Some Like it Hot. Jack Lemmon. [Dreamily] Daphne. She’s a little sassy and bossy—and a little classy.
Salstein: I’m going to go with my grandmother: Grandma Lily. She used to shuffle around playing gin rummy with her husband with a cigarette in hand. I wouldn’t be a jealous sister on my own—I come from a multiple birth anyway. I’m a triplet, so I’m usually listening to brothers.
Zhurbin: I’m an only child so it’s perfect to play a spoiled little brat. [Glances at Salstein]  She’s a mistake. [Laughs]
Salstein: Shut up. We’re going to have an amazing time.

Have you spent so many hours in rehearsals together?
Salstein:
Yes! In [Twyla Tharp’s] Brahms-Haydn [Variations]. We were both the demis. We were in the hotel right before opening night in D.C. at the Kennedy Center—I said, “Sit down. We are going to go through this.”
Zhurbin: He knows my weaknesses.
Salstein: Well, you can just tell when somebody is a little unsure, and who wants to be unsure at this moment of 8pm–lights up? 
Zhurbin: We do Gamache and Lorenzo in Don Q. We play around a lot in that.
Salstein: In working with each other, we try to be better than what we were before, and that’s a fun journey to take with Roman. He’s a good partner for that.
Zhurbin: You can’t just wander off.
Salstein: In Cinderella, I’m shy. I’m involved just because I’m tagging along. I wouldn’t do this on my own, but I’m doing it because the person I love the most—my sister—is taking me on this journey. And in that experience, we have a good time. It’s like going on Space Mountain. You don’t want to do it at first. And then it’s like, “Let’s do it again!” But first you go kicking and screaming.

What happens in the third act?
Salstein:
You’re a little hungover. You realize something didn’t go right. I guess you assume automatically that there’s a shoe issue. I don’t think it’s a given that the stepsisters know what’s happening with the shoe.
Zhurbin: When we come in, you can tell we had a blast, we had a good night out. We’re still high on it.
Salstein: We experienced a lot of things. New loves. Good gags.
Zhurbin: We’re a little tipsy. We thought we were stars of the show. And when the prince comes in…
Salstein: Big deal. Big deal.
Zhurbin: We think, this is it.
Salstein: Bow thy head. Here he is. Yet again! Run to him. Go to him. Even if your dress falls off. These two people—Ashton and Helpmann—this is what they did. And well. And we only see the ’68 [recorded] version, which is 20 years from the original. They cut out a few things, but the commitment stays the same, the joy that it seems like these two men are having. I know I’m grateful to assume that as my responsibility. It’s an honor. [Salstein throws up his arms in a flourish and leaves the interview for a rehearsal.]
Zhurbin: In the third act, we come in from the ball. We tell Cinderella what went on, who we danced with, what happened. Then the Prince comes in. There are a lot of counts; a lot to think about. It’s very challenging for me. I mean I count—don’t get me wrong, but there are accents, and it’s so specific. It’s very nice to have Craig just drilling me and staying very compact and sharp, not to get even one count behind. There’s a structure to it, there’s the blueprint. Ashton is very musical. The claps are on the music. With character roles, there’s usually room to get somewhere slower or faster. I can find my way to get there. But here, there is a set way of doing things. You have to add being a woman on top of it, which is tough. I’m having a hard time being a girl.

Why?
Zhurbin:
I don’t know. It’s challenging! There are so many things I want to do, and I have to stay in control. I want to be fabulous. I feel like the tall sister is one of those drag queens almost. She thinks she’s pretty, and she’s a good dancer, and she does everything better than everyone. I will add my touch to it. I play around, and then they’ll tell me if it’s too much.

What did you think when you were cast? Did you imagine that you would be?
Zhurbin:
No, I didn’t. I really wanted it. Like Craig said, it’s a great honor to fill those shoes and a great responsibility to do it right. That’s our most important concern—not to go over the top, which is so easy to do. We want to keep it what it was. Ashton and Helpmann are so quiet. They’re not tacky. They’re not screaming. You watch Ballet West, and the sisters are a little over the top for my taste. They’re just a little too loud, a little too draggy, and it just draws my attention to them. But with Helpmann and Ashton, they’re understated. The sentence is there; you don’t have to add more. You don’t have to try to be funny. You just are because the scene is funny. That’s what we’re trying to do: to not add anything extra.
American Ballet Theatre is at the Metropolitan Opera House (at Lincoln Center) through July 5

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