Irina Lebedeva, A Ballerina

by Carla Hall D’Ambra

PasdeDeux

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

The Inconceivability of Motherhood

thumbnail_DSC_0066

Motherhood called to me from a distance. As if standing on a cliff of a canyon, the idea of becoming a mother lived on the far side, across the way. The echo of my calling for it filtered through the vast space and it never seemed to materialize into anything more than a mere concept of something on my To-Do list. Twenty-one adult years living as a single woman in New York City sheltered me from the harsh realities of my ticking clock.

I don’t remember when it was that my doctor stopped saying, “You have time.”     During my annual check-up he’d ask me how life in the Big Apple was going for a girl from Kentucky. In that antiseptic room, in that ten-minute appointment span, with my feet in the stirrups, I’d ramble. I’d given my New York City life an acronym. I called it my WAR – Work. Apartments. Relationships. I’m sure the doctor considered it “same story, different patient.” In perfect timing, as he’d wrap it up with the breast exam, lifting myself up off the exam table, on cue I’d say, “I have to find time to have a baby.” For years, he’d say, “You have plenty of time.” Later it changed to “You have time.” And then there came the time when my doctor said nothing.

Motherhood was always a choice for me some time down the road. I was busy. I was a performing artist, and when I grew weary from that gypsy life, I immersed myself in an advertising career. I became an advertising executive. It was a wonderful life, wall-to-wall, knee-deep in client service in the infancy of the dot-com era. My clients were my babies. Twenty-something-year-old venture capitalists launching brands, and I had to stay young to keep up. Eternal youth was what the brand building advertising experience was all about. At thirty-nine, I made Partner and the New York Times reported that I was thirty-four years old. When I pointed out the error to my boss, the agency’s founder and chief creative director, he informed me that he himself had told the reporter that I was thirty-four. He said that it would be great for business if I were to be younger and he hoped I wasn’t offended. Nothing offended me in those days, as one can hardly be offended and still work in advertising, so I owned it. Right there, I gave myself five more years that I really didn’t have. Call me crazy, but I actually began to believe it.

To get to work, some days I would jump on the Second Avenue bus. On the bus, I met an adorably cute little Chinese girl named Lily. Very talkative, Lily informed me she was three, and for some strange reason, Lily was mesmerized with me. Her eyes were a continuous smile. She told me an expressive story about her stuffed dog and I suppose I was attentive. The next day I took the bus hoping to see Lily again and there she was, again elated to see me. I began to ride the bus every day. Her mom, an American woman, told me she adopted Lily as a single parent. A light bulb went off! I was going to adopt a child! I called my attorney and asked him to look into it.

Soon after that time, though, I met the man who would become my husband. We married three and half years later when I was forty-four and we moved to Long Island. I felt in my heart that it was now too late to have a child and I gave up. My husband has two beautiful daughters from his first marriage and these little darlings appeased my yearning for a time. It soon became clear however, that I could and would be nothing more than a friend to the girls because they have a mother. My youngest stepdaughter, in her six year old innocence, was enchanted and excited with the idea of her daddy “buying us a Chinese baby” when I’d shared with her about my bus rides with Lily, but unfortunately my husband was not so thrilled with our plan to add a Lily to our new family, so I never got my beautiful China doll daughter.

I stopped working for a while after the death of my father, and to combat my grief I went to volunteer at my local Boys & Girls Club. I was told I could come to “Power Hour” and help children with their homework. They said I could come one day a week or five days a week.   I went every day for an entire school year, and I brought snacks for all the children at the club when I noticed that they were all so tired when they arrived off the buses after school. The children called me “Miss Carla” and they sat in my lap, brushed my hair, hugged and kissed me, competed for my attention. Most of the children were in elementary school but there were a few Middle School and High School kids. A ninth grade boy would come around and ask if I needed help with the children. He said his name was Yadiyah (pronounced Yuh-DIE-uh) and he didn’t like sweet snacks, but he liked salty snacks. I started bringing him goldfish crackers and Yadiyah was pleased.

One afternoon Yadiyah told me he would like to go to basketball camp. I’d been told that Yadiyah was one of thirteen children in his family. I told him I’d look into it for him after he told me he’d like to go to either St. Dominic’s or St. John’s. In my naiveté, I enrolled Yadiyah in St. John University’s basketball camp with Coach Steve Lavin. He had meant St. John’s of Lattingtown, a church in our community that was conducting basketball camps. Yadiyah could not believe in his wildest dreams he was really going to a college campus for basketball camp and he was ecstatic. When I asked if he enjoyed it, with a dancing light in his eyes he said, “It makes me want to get there!” From then on, I was his “Blonde Mom,” speaking with his teachers, helping with homework, buying sports gear and whatever he needed for school, signing him up for AAU teams, taking him to games, cheering him on as his “mom,” nourishing him with good food. My house was Yadiyah’s second home and his mother was thrilled that I had become his “guardian” as she called me. She signed the necessary paper at his school for me to talk to his teachers and for a time Glen Cove High School was perplexed because Yadiyah was a student with anger issues. Somehow he had calmed down.

One Sunday afternoon, my husband and I pulled up in front of Yadiyah’s house to take him to a Summer tournament game. Yadiyah came bouncing out of his house with a friend following him. Yadiyah was happy and smiling. They both crawled into the backseat of my husband’s Lexus and Yadiyah introduced his friend, Kewan (pronounced KEY-wan) from Virginia. Kewan was polite and quiet but he did tell us he was a good basketball player. As Frank and I asked questions, Kewan looked at Yadiyah and said, “Did you tell them I’m getting a scholarship?” When we got to the gym, I asked the coach if Kewan could play in this game and the coach said, “Sure.”

Something happened when Kewan walked onto the floor. It was immediately apparent that he was serious about his game. Kewan had this wonderful jump shot and he played well that night. The team won. We took the boys to dinner and we learned that Kewan is very funny. We enjoyed that evening with Kewan very much.

I didn’t know that night that this boy in the backseat of our car, Kewan Beebe, would become my son. I would learn that Kewan’s mother died when he was thirteen, and his biological father who had never lived with his mother, was serving seven years of hard time for drug and gun possession. I also learned that this beautiful boy had been shot by a stray bullet when he was fourteen and had been left to die in a Bronx hospital by his custodial parent, because she up and moved to Virginia and left Kewan there fighting for his life.

I didn’t know that I would take Kewan, just two months away from turning 18 years old, to Glen Cove High School and register him as a Junior with nothing more than a torn photocopy of his social security card that only had his mother’s maiden name on it. I did not know that Kewan would take five New York State Regent’s tests in one school year and pass them all. I did not know that my guest room would become Kewan’s bedroom. I didn’t know that his room would be filled with trophies and that Kewan would be named Most Valuable Player and lead his team to the Conference Championship, and that he would make All County and All Long Island, both highly regarded honors. I didn’t know Kewan would receive several other college scholarships.

I didn’t know that being a mother to Kewan, and to Yadiyah, two boys who’ve never called me anything other than “Mom,” could bring me such joy and happiness. I loved every minute of driving them to school on cold winter mornings, cheering for them at basketball games, caring for them when they were sick, taking them to doctors, going on basketball road trips, helping with homework, picking them up from practice, feeding them good food and watching them grow and develop into strong athletes, buying them clothes and celebrating their good grades and successes. I loved helping them learn coping skills, and guiding them in making wise choices. It was a privilege for me to help them get into colleges where they would become scholar athletes. Kewan graduated from SUNY Purchase College and Yadiyah from Johnson & Wells in Rhode Island.

Sometimes it is sheer will that will get us what we want in life. Kewan missed his mother so much and he wanted and needed a mother. Kewan is a self-proclaimed “mama’s boy” and he found me. Yadiyah had big dreams and needed love and attention and I was his mom and our community knew it.

No matter how inconceivable the concept might be, how vast that canyon of impossibility, we have the ability to create our lives. I created my life of motherhood, was blessed with two sons. The beauty of Motherhood is, once it’s created, Motherhood is forever. Motherhood never dies.