Q&A: Craig Salstein and Roman Zhurbin

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

Craig Salstein and Roman Zhurbin rehearse Cinderella

Craig Salstein and Roman Zhurbin rehearse Cinderella Photo: Gene Schiavone

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo isn't the only troupe to do it: When ABT offers its company premiere of Frederick Ashton's Cinderella as part of its spring season at the Met, Craig Salstein and Roman Zhurbin will play the ugly stepsisters. In anticipation, the two talk about the Ashton legacy and the trick to playing women for the stage.

Playing an ugly stepsister is no walk in the park—especially for a man. The wig, the makeup, the bra, the corset, the skirt… Roman Zhurbin, cast alongside Craig Salstein in American Ballet Theatre’s highly anticipated staging of Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella, is certain of one thing: “I’m going to be a sweaty mess.” In this exceptional 1948 ballet, Zhurbin is the imperious sister, originated by Robert Helpmann; Salstein, in Ashton’s role, is on the meek side. “Craig is a little lady,” Zhurbin says. “I try to give mine some hips—just because I think I’m very sexy.” The trick, as both know, is not to overdo it. Playing a woman as a woman is delicate business.

What is your approach here?
Craig Salstein:
Doing a lot of Ashton, especially early Ashton, I’m impressed—it’s a complete product. There’s no word like vague in it. He’s very clear and specific. And for me to determine the quality of the product is to know its origin. With Ashton’s sensitivity to music, especially the idea of condensing music, and Helpmann’s sensitivity to scenes, you don’t have to be funny, you just have to be able to connect these scenes, which of course are very important for this three-act role. Once you feel those two people and what they’re about, you know what the role is, and it’s new stuff: You gotta hold a skirt; you gotta put on high heels. It’s very new, but it’s no different from what I’m about to do right now, which is rehearse the Bronze Idol [in La Bayadère]. This requires the same amount of attention, if not more. The ballet starts with the two of us onstage, and you don’t even know who the characters are, but that beginning sets the tone. Roman is the broader and bigger [stepsister].
Roman Zhurbin: Taller.
Salstein: And Ashton’s stepsister is quiet and sensitive and the follower to the leader. 
Zhurbin: I’m the muscle.
Salstein: And I would guess that Ashton really relied on Helpmann’s acting experience, because he did many movies, with putting a scene together. And of course Roman knows, because he’s done The Merry Widow, which Helpmann helped [choreographer] Ronald Hynd put together. It’s all about connecting these scenes. You want to talk about how specific these counts are?
Zhurbin: There are a lot of counts.
Salstein: You have to marry the music with these actions. Ashton is known for condensing—with Mendelssohn and The Dream, and of course La fille mal gardée, which runs under two hours. I think Ashton sets the pace, and you don’t have time to reflect. It taints the experience when you reflect. Once the gun goes off, you’re on.

You don’t have any time to comment on anything as performers.
Absolutely right. It goes on. It’s as natural as it can be, but it’s so cerebral at the same time because the sensitivity to the accents of Prokofiev are so exact. You look at his Symphonic Variations, and you’re aware that he’s not wishy-washy. It’s pretty clear. I love that.

Do you like that too?
Zhurbin: Yeah, I do. It’s hard. It’s very challenging for me, because I’m used to having a lot of freedom [as a character dancer] and here it’s very exact. There are a lot of props.
Salstein: Tell her about the bunion. Sometimes he can’t put the high heel on because of this bunion.
Zhurbin: It’s actually okay, because then I will be uncomfortable and my posture will show that I’m not used to walking in heels. Yet I think I’m fabulous.

How high are they?
For a woman, they’d be considered wedges. But that extra forward…
Zhurbin: It’s complicated! And a little slippery, too, if you catch a wrong angle.

Could you break Cinderella down act by act?
Yes! Act one is magic in the making. Ashton sets the tone of who we are as characters.
Zhurbin: Our personalities.
Salstein: Through commands by other actors—like the father asks the younger stepsister to kiss and make up. Because he’s, in no way, going to ask the harsh and abrasive sister, which he is [Nods to Zhurbin]. No, no, no. He doesn’t apologize. I apologize. Upon finding out that you’re going to this ball, that you’re learning how to dance, you then realize that you’re going to be doing it for something. This is like a stepsister rehearsal.
Zhurbin: The first act is about becoming formal. You get your wig on, you put on the makeup. It’s like a gradual progression.
Salstein: In the context of two eights and a twelve. These accents are so clear.

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