Eagle interview with Park Slope residents and American Ballet Theatre dancers Isadora Loyola and Roman Zhurbin
American Ballet Theatre has an enduring Brooklyn connection: Oliver Smith, one of the company’s founding directors and its longtime scenic designer lived in the borough almost his entire adult life.
In his early twenties Smith lived in February House, an art commune at 7 Middagh St. in Brooklyn Heights. (It was called February House by Anais Nin because so many of the residents had February birthdays.) Among the tenants were W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers and Benjamin Britten. Smith formed friendships with all of them, while designing costumes for Broadway musicals such as “Guys and Dolls,” “The Band Wagon,” Oklahoma” and “Porgy and Bess.”
His American Ballet Theatre association began in 1944 when he collaborated with Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein on the ballet “Fancy Free.” The following year he became co-director of ABT with Lucia Chase. He designed the sets for the theatre’s complete 1967 production of “Swan Lake” and he remained co-director until 1980. Throughout his career he alternated between ballet and Broadway and was nominated for twenty-five Tony awards, winning ten. In 1981 he was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame and in 2011 he was inducted into the National Museum of Dance. He died in Brooklyn in 1994.
Currently, Brooklyn maintains its American Ballet Theatre connections by the fact that, among others, the American Ballet Theatre dancers Isadora Loyola and Roman Zhurbin live in Park Slope. The couple — he’s Russian and she’s Brazilian — have been living in the neighborhood since 2014. Their first Brooklyn apartment was in Gowanus where, despite the neighborhood’s “sketchiness,” they stayed for two years.
But the bleakness of living next door to a U-Haul office and the industrial nature of the neighborhood finally got to them and they moved to “a Brooklyn gem” two blocks away in Park Slope proper. Roman told this reporter, “It’s our third year there and we absolutely love it. The apartment itself is beautiful, it’s close to the train, we have a great landlord who takes excellent care of the building. We’re really happy there.” Although not aware of the Oliver Smith connection, they were pleased to know they were following in such illustrious footsteps.
During an interview at the American Ballet Theatre’s rehearsal studios on Broadway in the Flatiron district, I ask Loyola and Zhurbin how they were recruited by the American Ballet Theatre.
“I came to the United States when I was 13 and went to boarding school in Florida for four years,” Loyola said. “While attending boarding school, every summer I would come to ABT’s New York summer program. And at the end of my fourth season Kevin [McKenzie, ABT’s artistic director] and Wes [Chapman, former director of ABT’s studio company] invited me to join the studio company. That led to my being invited to join the main company.”
Roman tells me: “I took a summer program course. And then there was a final performance, and after that I was asked to join the studio company, as a member of the second company under Clinton Luckett [ABT’s assistant artistic director.] To be honest, it all kind of happened by chance.”
I ask them if they themselves come from artistic families. Isadora tells me that “my grandmother really wanted to dance, but she never did. It was her dream — I guess maybe I’m now living that dream.”
The next week I have the opportunity to see Loyola and Zhurbin dance in “La Bayadere,” one of ABT’s early season full-length ballets. Both dance in character roles: Loyola as Aya, servant to the Princess Gamzatti and Zhurbin as the High Brahmin. They bring colorfully distinctive brio and dynamism to their performances.
And they represent a sublime continuation of Brooklyn’s contribution to American Ballet Theatre.
American Ballet Theatre’s Spring Season Continues Through July 7 For more information go to ABT.org
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