Ballerina Irina Dvorovenko talks about American Ballet Theatre and On Your Toes

Ballerina Irina Dvorovenko talks about starring in Encores! On Your Toes and her career at American Ballet Theatre

Irina Dvorovenko, On Your ToesNew York City Center

Irina Dvorovenko, On Your ToesNew York City Center Photograph:

This month, the ballerina Irina Dvorovenko stars in the Encores! presentation of On Your Toes and steps down as a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre in Onegin. In On Your Toes, which features choreography by George Balanchine (Slaughter on Tenth Avenue) and Warren Carlyle, she is dances with Joaquin De Luz; Cory Stearns is her partner in Onegin. Here, she talks about her career at ABT, the challenge of On Your Toes and why she's grateful for her deep voice.

For Irina Dvorovenko, May is quite a month. Not only will she retire from American Ballet Theatre in Onegin, she’s starring as Vera Baronova in the Encores! presentation of Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes, which is at City Center through May 12. Revered in ballet circles for George Balanchine’s choreography, the musical features Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, which has been restaged for the occasion by Susan Pilarre. (There is additional choreography by director Warren Carlyle.) This is new territory. The lively and lovely Dvorovenko has neither spoken onstage before nor performed Slaughter, but no matter: Dvorovenko will give it her all. That’s just her style.

Time Out New York: How did this happen?
Irina Dvorovenko:
It was so funny. John Epperson is a pianist for the company. And he also had his own show as Lypsinka. You know? He transformed into a woman. Somehow, he was so fascinated by my low voice. He said, “You really sound sexy. You should be on Broadway.” We were laughing and laughing. When I was a child, I was, like, albino blond. My natural hair is lighter. And I had blue eyes and people were like, “Kootchie kootchie coo”and “What’s your name?” [Speaking in a deep voice] “Ir-eena.” It’s my natural low voice. When I was six, seven years old in the classroom, there was a chorus. Everyone was singing, and I would just lip-synch. They called my mom and said, “Your daughter, she’s participating in the classes, but she never sings—she just pretends.” My mom said, “Irina, why don’t you sing in the classes?” I said, “Mom, if I sing, I’m going to ruin the whole chorus!” And then when I turned 13, 14, they said that I have naturally thickened ligaments. [She touches her throat.] It’s natural. They said, “We could do surgery to shave it or thin it out so you’ll have a higher voice,” and I said, “I’m not going to be a singer. I don’t care. I want to keep my voice.” So far, it’s okay. But it’s funny: If I sing, I either sing very low or soprano. A year ago, John said, “Irina, you wouldn’t believe it—I heard that they’re going to do a revival of On Your Toes. You certainly must audition—you would be perfect for it.” I said, “Okay, I would love to—just keep me posted. When, what, where should I go? What should I do?” A year was passing. By the middle of February, I got the e-mail that they were inviting me to audition. In three days, I auditioned.

Time Out New York: Oh my God.
Irina Dvorovenko:
I was in shock. First of all, I couldn’t find the script. I wanted to read it, but I had no material to prepare. What do I do? I called Valentina Kozlova.

Time Out New York: Right—she performed it on Broadway in the ’80s.
Irina Dvorovenko:
She did. When I told Natasha Makarova [who won a Tony for that Broadway revival], she said, “Oh, daaarling, you’ll be purrfect—just get the voice coach.” [Laughs] I could have called her as well. We are pretty good friends, but Natasha was away so I left Valentina a message: “I know it’s very sudden, but if you would be so kind to spend a couple of hours with me—at least to give me a glimpse of an idea of what I should do, because I have zero experience of talking. It’s new—absolutely new.” Valentina called me back and said, “Irishka, I would love to help you, of course—I’m going to cancel my plans. Come over to my place.” She started reading [the script] and said, “I cannot believe it—30 years have passed. Everything is coming back.” She said that George Abbott was personally working with her, and she remembered every correction that he told her. And he, at that time, was already 102 or 106 years old. [Laughs] He was very picky, so when she started reading—I have very good ears—I started to memorize where she needed to do a pause, which word to put the accent on. We were practicing for two hours and at the same time there was an open house in the next apartment. I was screaming, “This floozy with the big boobs…!” I could tell that the people were walking and talking and then they stopped and were quiet. I said, “Valentina, you are so going to be out of this apartment soon.” [Laughs] We had a wonderful time, and I’m very grateful to Valentina. I arrived with Maxim [Beloserkovsky, Dvorovenko’s dancer husband], because they asked Maxim to do the Morrosine part. But Maxim and I were both originally committed to a different event on May 8; we are doing the artistic direction for [a performance] at the Beacon Theatre. We are responsible for the artistic side of a charity gala—to find the dancers and schedule and everything—and Maxim said, “We cannot both withdraw ourselves, so let me stay and concentrate and find a lighting designer and dancers from New York City Ballet and ABT and Martha Graham.… It’s enough to have one crazy person in the family.” [Laughs] You know? We have me, Max, the child; my parents are also ballet dancers. Everybody has the big temperaments. It’s crazy! He said, “No, no, no—you started. If I have another opportunity, I’ll do it.”

Time Out New York: What was the audition like?
Irina Dvorovenko:
We’re at the audition, and I see that Ashley Bouder is exiting. And then Maria Kowroski. [Anguished] Everybody was auditioning. I entered the room, and it was a double table and five people sitting there already; there is a lady with a script, and they introduce me to everybody—I’m shaking like a leaf inside, but staying very calm on the outside. We’re talking, and from nothing basically—it’s like as I am talking to you—it starts. I’m sitting because it starts on the bed and [In character], “No, no, no, no I cannot believe it!” I need to put big drama right away. I’m holding the script, but I already memorized it. I did one scene. I’m keeping myself in character, but inside I am shaking like crazy. My legs! But I was just behaving in the part. I see all of them laughing. They are basically peeing in their pants.

Time Out New York: What happened next?
Irina Dvorovenko:
They asked me to read another scene and said, “Can you try it differently—a little bit softer and a little bit different tone for the voice?” I tried to be more sensual; it was an almost sincere scene—not pushy, but very soft. They said, “Thank you so much.” I left, and Maxim said, “How long do we need to wait? How many sleepless nights should we have?” We are all very crazy and excited and very anxious. They said, “Well, we just started auditioning, it’s our first week—it will probably take three or four weeks.” And it’s like, Oh no! Between the drama of Onegin and this? It’s gonna be hard. We left and our energy dropped down; Maxim went to have some acupuncture, and I went to Time Warner to buy some food for dinner because I am cooking all the time. I was exiting Time Warner and it was like 30 or 45 minutes after the audition, and I check my BlackBerry and I see an e-mail from Encores! It said, “On behalf of City Center and Encores! we would like to congratulate you and welcome you to On Your Toes. It was the easiest and fastest decision we ever made.”

Time Out New York: That’s beautiful.
Irina Dvorovenko:
I lost it. I started laughing so hysterically and crying—my tears were pouring like this. [Her hands open like fountains.] I couldn’t believe it. I was so touched. Emotionally, it felt so good. You know, dancers are always working very hard and not always appreciated and not always nourished enough. Artists are very sincere and sensitive inside. Although we’re very strong, we’re also vulnerable and when I got this e-mail, I couldn’t stop. For an hour, I had a hysteric attack. Really one of the brightest and most special moments for me. I am never afraid to challenge myself. I am not a safe person. This is my new challenge.

Time Out New York: Why are you leaving ABT now?
Irina Dvorovenko:
Honestly, I already have had 23 years of my career. It’s a lot. I started my first ballet when I was 17. I hadn’t graduated school yet when I did my first Don Q, and I went as a ballerina with a company on tour in Canada to perform a full-length Cinderella and some other pas de deux. So I have had a long run, and I’ve invested a lot—I’ve done almost everything I want and desire, and I’m getting already to the age where the body is not serving you the way you want it to. You have a great experience, you really love to do it and you wanted to do it, but I cannot last on a schedule of ABT anymore. I prefer to do it in my way that I know that I can deliver.

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