Why ABT-Star-Turned-Actress Irina Dvorovenko Likes Playing Real People over Princesses

Irina Dvorovenko's latest role: Playing Elizaveta Grushinskaya in Grand Hotel at New York City Center. Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy New York City Center.

Whether playing a saucy soubrette or an imperious swan, Irina Dvorovenko was always a formidable presence on the American Ballet Theatre stage. Since her 2013 retirement at 39, after 16 seasons, she's been bringing that intensity to an acting career in roles ranging from, well, Russian ballerinas to the Soviet-era newcomer she plays in the FX spy series "The Americans."

We caught up with her after tech rehearsal for the Encores! presentation of the musical Grand Hotel, directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes and running March 21–25 at New York City Center. It's another tempestuous ballerina role for Dvorovenko—Elizaveta Grushinskaya, on her seventh farewell tour, resentfully checks into the Berlin hostelry of the title with her entourage, only to fall for a handsome young baron and sing "Bonjour, Amour."

Dvorovenko (left), as Evgheniya Morozov, and Keri Russell in "The Americans." Photo FX Networks.

Was it always your plan to move from ballet to acting?

All my life I've been acting, living through each character onstage. So I enjoyed this very, very much—for myself, in my head. The year of my retirement, I auditioned for On Your Toes, also for Encores! at City Center. One hour after the audition, I got the mail—"You got the part." It was the first time I opened my mouth onstage and started to acknowledge my voice. And people enjoyed me speaking out, performing, dancing and talking. That was really a great feeling for me. After that, little by little, I got the Broadway bug.

In On Your Toes, Dvorovenko played Vera Baronova, the Russian ballerina who dances the famous "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy New York City Center.

What elements from ballet go into your acting performances? How is theater the same, and how is it different?

Dancing a character onstage, you need to have very strong charisma and stage presence. You give really all your energy for the spotlight, to hold the attention onstage. That's very, very important for every art form—singer, dancer and just actor in a play. So this is pretty much the same.

Dvorovenko with James Snyder in Grand Hotel. Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy New York City Center.

But compared to dancing, acting is much less painful physically, and of course it's not super exhausting. It's more pleasurable and satisfying just to be onstage and be a human being, not a princess but a real person—a woman acting and moving without restriction. In a ballet, you need to hold the line, control the position, the leg, the pointes—too many concerns in a ballet. When you're stage-acting, it isn't as stressful.

What about singing? In Grand Hotel, you have that big solo number.

I was working with Susan Stroman on the lab of The Beast in the Jungle, and someone kept calling and calling. When I picked it up, it was the casting director for City Center. He said, "Irina, we're doing an Encore with Grand Hotel, with a wonderful, beautiful starring role for you. Can you sing?"

I was like, "I dunno. I may try." He wanted me to prepare "Bonjour, Amour," and he said, "I give you a coach, you practice, and when you are ready, you audition. Then we'll see." And I said, "Sure, why not?" I never sang in my life—my natural voice is very low. But they found the right key for the song, and I was able to manage. Now it's a new chapter of my life.

How do you juggle being a mom to your daughter, running ballet intensives with your husband Maxim and an acting career?

I'm also a designer, designing a collection with my husband for Bloch. We're doing booties, sweatpants, jackets, sweats, unitards, jumpsuits, so that's another side. In this country, when you stop dancing, you're not gonna receive the pension, you're not gonna have the apartment and you're not gonna have the insurance. So you need to be creative and move in a couple of different directions to be secure, especially if you have a family. It's an enormous responsibility.

And acting is just something I really, really desire. I started from scratch—I didn't have any talking experience, and it's not my language, so it's much harder. With me having an accent, it's not easy for me to get roles. So step by step I'm trying. And it's really what's exciting me—it's an absolutely fantastic feeling, and I want to do more. I'm always hungry, looking for more and more.

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