Every morning during rehearsal periods, OBT convenes for Company Class, designed to perfect dancers’ technique and physical and artistic qualities, in one of the dance studios at its current headquarters in South Portland. And every morning, Irina Golberg is at the piano.
Irina never formally trained to be a ballet accompanist while studying piano at the music conservatory in her native Uzbekistan, a fact that will astonish the 25 years’ worth of OBT dancers whose classes and rehearsals have been graced with Irina’s music. Arriving in Portland in 1995 with two small children, Irina temporarily put music aside as she found her footing in her new country. But it wasn’t long before a neighbor, an OBT accompanist, came knocking at her door. Haydee Gutierrez, former OBT School director, needed another pianist. Could Irina fill in? “I was so scared— I had no clue about ballet class!” Irina recalls. After a crash course in basic ballet terminology, class structure, and how to choose appropriate music for each exercise, Irina agreed to try one class— after which she was offered a full time job. Since then, legions of dancers, teachers and repetiteurs have savored Irina’s sensitive, intuitive, and passionate playing. Many have remarked on how she seems to know instinctively not just what rhythm or meter is right for any given step, but how to subtly accent in just the right way, always infusing what could otherwise be a dry exercise with heartfelt passion. It’s as if she’d been a dancer herself. “I do special things for the dancers, like suspend the music for grand allegro to help them jump higher,” she says when asked what makes a good accompanist and why she feels it’s her calling. “It’s so good to play with the dancers, not just faster or slower, but to give them breath and air. I feel nirvana when my music matches the movement. I can say something emotionally, but be off to the side. It’s pure happiness.”
Former OBT principal dancer Gavin Larsen is the author of Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life (University Press of Florida)