by Carla Hall D’Ambra
Irina Lebedeva is a ballerina. From the top of her head, down to her toes, Irina exudes the poise and beauty of the classical ballet dancer. When Irina enters the room, it’s with graceful, fluid movement, as if she’s floating. Her voice is soft and melodic, and the accent is undeniably Russian.
Irina Lebedeva is one of the North Shore’s treasures. As artistic director of Long Island Ballet Academy in Sea Cliff, Irina shares her vast talent, experience and art with her students, both children and adults, teaching Vaganova method of classical ballet. The Vaganova method has become the foremost Russian technique, based on a grading system, and many famous ballet dancers including Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, have trained in this method.
On a sunny, summer afternoon, we sit outside in my garden, and Irina is in awe of the butterflies around us. She notes how beautiful they move and flutter, and as she speaks of the soft yellowness of this flying insect, she moves her hands softly, with a slight twirl from the wrist and for a moment, she becomes the butterfly, and I am in awe.
Irina was born in Siberia and started dancing at five years old. When she was nine she moved away from home to begin training for professional dancing at the Perm Ballet Academy in the city of Perm. In order to study at this prestigious school, an audition was required. For each available spot, 250 children auditioned, 25 were chosen and Irina was one of them. Her first teacher, Antonina, loved Irina, and she told Irina’s parents that Irina was gifted and special.
When she was eleven, Irina was awarded a more than perfect grade score of 5 ½ at Perm Ballet Academy where the highest grade possible was 5. She was the first student to be offered an extra two years of study before moving on to the professional dance company. Because the government paid for the dance education, her parents were thrilled and extremely proud of this honor for their daughter. The professional company was also fighting to bring Irina in, but Irina chose to accept the two additional years of ballet training.
“You fall in love, and it’s a tragedy if you can’t continue,” says Irina, “when you fall in love with performing.” And indeed, Irina was in love with dance, and began performing professionally in Russia and around the world. She danced principal parts early on, skipping the corps de ballet after breaking her toe while dancing with the corps. Irina laughs and admits that she and some of her fellow dancers were known as “spoiled” because they trained hard and they liked the “star” treatment. Her favorite roles are in the ballets Romeo & Juliet and Swan Lake.
As Irina developed as a dancer and artist, she felt she didn’t have the freedom of expression she so longed for while living in Russia. With each trip out into the world, Irina dreamt of being free. On one specific occasion, her dance company was coming to the United States. At first Irina was told she would not be included in the trip, but at the last minute, her director told her to pack her bags and be ready “just in case.” In the final hours, Irina received a call that she would, after all, be going, to the United States. This was the trip that forever changed her life. Irina arrived in America, she danced, and she defected.
Irina was one of the last persons to defect from Russia before the Peristroika and before the Berlin wall came down. When she finally got to New York and felt safe, she began to carve out her new life. In New York, Irina reached out to Mikhail Baryshnikov, and he asked her, “Where do you want to work?” Irina told him, “Anywhere I can stay in shape.” He liked that answer and helped Irina find her classes and eventually get back to work. Irina’s first job in the United States was with a ballet company in Buffalo, New York.
After years of concentrated performing, Irina began teaching as well. While still living in New York City, she and fellow defector and dancer Andrei Bossov opened a cultural center in Waterville, Maine, where the two performed and taught together for fifteen years.
Eight years ago Irina bought a beautiful, spacious studio, LI Ballet Academy, in Sea Cliff, where she now teaches children and adults classical ballet, and where she rehearses her productions. Today, Irina is focused on teaching and giving to her students. With her young students, her philosophy is that “whatever you offer them, they will get it. Ballet is a difficult art, and it is hard, but children are strong.”
As we sit under the patio umbrella on this summer day, Irina tells me, “Children need freedom. When children are free to try things, and not be afraid, they grow.” She mentions that years after her defection, she has seen her fellow dancers from Russia and their response is always, “You are my hero, Irina. I didn’t have the courage to do what you did.” Irina assures me that she never had one moment of thinking she’d done the wrong thing by defecting as she did, and coming to the United States.
Currently, Irina also teaches ballet to adults at her studio, and has found that ballet is therapeutic for adults. “Ballet training gives you everything,” she states, “and it prepares you for the day and it makes you strong. The music and the movements keep your mind sharp.” According to Irina, it is never too late to begin dancing, and enjoy the benefits of adult ballet, even if you have never had dance training. She teaches adult morning classes on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 10:30am – 12noon.
Irina’s ballet students are now winning scholarships and some are dancing professionally. It makes Irina happy to see her students dancing out in the world. One of her students recently said to her, “Miss Irina, you made me stronger.” Irina is looking forward to producing The Nutcracker this winter, and she often has guest artists from the Bolshoi, Kremlin, and Moscow Ballets during the summer months teaching master classes at her Sea Cliff studio.
As we take a walk through my garden after our interview, Irina says, “I want to take off my shoes and feel the grass.” We remove our shoes and the lush, thick grass feels heavenly on our bare feet. She tells me she was always running and dancing in barefoot as a child back home in Siberia. She says in her beautiful Russian accent, “The grass is wonderful. There’s so much energy coming up from the earth. It’s good for us, you know?”
For more information: LIBalletAcademy@aol.com 516-801-4393
First published in 25A Magazine, 2015