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What's New on the Rialto

Interview with Irina Dvorovenko
by Michael Portantiere

Irina Dvorovenko
Photo by Vital Agibalow
Irina Dvorovenko has followed in the elegant ballet steps of such legends as Tamara Geva, Vera Zorina, Natalia Makarova, and Liliane Montevecchi in moving from ballet stardom to theatrical roles. A leading light of the National Opera Ballet of Kiev and later the American Ballet Theater (for 14 years), Irina has triumphed in two New York City Center Encores! presentations—in the Geva/Zorina role of Vera Barnova On Your Toes and the Montevecchi role of Elizaveta Grushinskaya in Grand Hotel—as well as appearing Off-Broadway in the John Kander-David Thompson-Susan Stroman dance musical The Beast in the Jungle and also moving into TV work as an actress. Now, she's headlining a new piece, Shadows: A Dance Musical, November 29 through December 15 at The Connelly Theater. I recently got a chance to speak with her about all this excitement.

Michael Portantiere:  Irina, would you say that you're modeling your theatrical career after some of the greats who came before you?

Irina Dvorovenko:  Well, I worked with Makarova for many years in American Ballet Theatre, and of course I know that, after she stopped dancing, she did On Your Toes on Broadway and then some Russian plays. When I did On Your Toes at City Center, that was my first theatrical work. Natasha said, "Oh, you'd be perrrfect for theater, just get a voice coach if you need to sing!" She was so funny. I didn't need to sing for On Your Toes, but then later on, they asked me to do Grand Hotel. They said, "You don't need to audition, but there's one little thing: Can you sing?" I said, "You call this a little thing? Let me try." While I was preparing this one song, "Bonjour, Amour," I was watching Montevecchi do it on the computer. I was learning the song from her with videos, and it came kind of naturally to me. So I challenged myself and sang onstage for the first time in my life. I love it! With age, dancers have so much wisdom and experience. There are certain things that typically you can't keep doing because they overpower your body, seven hours of a rehearsal a day. But you still have the desire to express yourself emotionally. So doing a little less dancing but more theatrical work or TV is something I love and want to do more and more.

MP:  Shadows sounds like a wonderful, unusual project. Tell me about it.

ID:  There are the two main characters—the woman, Claire, and the man. They're both married, but they fall in love. Claire lives in an apartment where previously four murders happened. So four spirits are trapped in the apartment, and one of the spirits is Claire's grandmother, Valentina—the lady in red, a ballerina. I play Valentina. Claire knows the apartment is haunted, people in her family joked about it four years, but she never saw or heard anything or got any messages. Then she falls in love with a married man, and books start to fall from the shelves, other things start happening. And she's, like, "Really, grandma? Now you're sending me a message?" I don't want to reveal too much of the plot, but it's like a closed circle with these spirits trapped in the apartment.

MP:  You will be dancing but not speaking or singing in this show, correct?

ID:  Yes. I originally turned the project down because I said, "Well, if it's only dancing for me, I don't want to do it." But then I talked with [director-choreographer] Joey McKneely to learn more about the show. I said, "I can't commit to something if I don't know what it is, because I'm responsible for my body and to deliver a performance of the best caliber." So I worked on it with a partner and with Joey until I felt comfortable with it, and then I said yes. Of course, it's exciting because it's a new project. It's not mostly dancing-dancing, it's telling a story through movement. It's really intense and dramatic, and I think this whole plot by Randall David Cook is really interesting and twisted, but there's a lot of connecting aspects for the audience to relate to. It's also a little spooky, because it's about shadows and spirits. A lot of things happen in life that are hard to explain.

MP:  The show has a musical score by Edison Woods and Maxim Moston, and songs by Karen Bishko. How is that working?

ID:  I think the two main main actors and singers (Janine DiVita and John Arthur Greene) sound really wonderful together, and the songs are beautifully done. When you throw yourself into a new project, it's always very scary and exciting and unknown. The director and choreographer has something in his mind, but how is it going to be realized, and will it be understandable? It's always a big risk—but if you don't take a risk, you're not going to drink champagne after and celebrate!

MP:  Are you still studying singing, and do you hope to do more of that in shows?

ID:  Yes, it just depends if it's going to be an appropriate role for me. Even John Kander, who was the composer for The Beast in the Jungle, came to see me in Grand Hotel and he said, "Irina, you need to continue singing, because you do have a lovely voice." My voice is very low, but it's strong and I have a good ear, and if a song is in a comfortable zone, I can deliver it well. I'm still looking for parts and roles, and I'm doing some coaching and auditions. But I have a 13-year-old daughter, so my hands are full.

MP:  Your Russian accent is still quite heavy, but I would say less so than when I first heard you speak on stage.

ID:  Yes, I've been working with a dialect coach. For The Beast in the Jungle, for example, I was playing Russian, but when somebody helped me with pronunciation, it was a British person—so I sounded British, and then I had to work to sound less British.

MP:  Some of your ballet roles have theater equivalents: Anastasia, the fairy godmother in Cinderella, Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew. Would you like to play any of those roles in the theater?

ID:  I would love to try a lot of things! I just need to have the idea of what to do. I'm willing to work hard, and I never close the door to anything. I'm very open for Broadway musicals or plays, and for TV or movies. I love to challenge myself, and if I fall down, I'll get up and move on. It's good experience for me. I need to have professional people tell me to my face, "No, this is not your department, forget about it," or "We love it!"

Shadows: A Dance Musical runs November 29 through December 15, 2018, at The Connelly Theater, 220 E 4th St, New York NY. For more information, visit