It’s been a good year for Richard Rodgers fans. After a hit revival of Carousel at the New York Philharmonic and New York City Ballet’s recent all-Rodgers triple-bill, New York City Center’s Encores! series presents the beloved Broadway composer’s On Your Toes — a blend of vaudeville and classical ballet — from May 8-12. The production, directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, boasts a cast of seasoned Broadway performers alongside top ballet dancers, as well as George Balanchine’s original 1939 staging of the gangster ballet “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.”
I sat down with NYCB principal Joaquin De Luz, who plays egomaniacal Russian danseur Konstantine Morrosine in the show, during his break from rehearsal to discuss the challenges of the role, how it differs from performing at NYCB, and what it’s like to speak onstage for the first time.
You’ve never done anything like On Your Toes before. How did you first get involved with this production?
I was on our tour with New York City Ballet in Denmark and received a message from the casting agency. I’d heard that this show was coming around — a couple girls in the company had been called — and I’ve always loved acting. My favorite times onstage are in the ballets when I play someone, but I’ve never had a speaking role. I came in and read lines, and I had to have a Russian accent, which was kind of funny. I’ve been playing for years with a Russian accent with another guy in the company, even when ordering delivery pretending to be this “Mikhail” character. It came in handy. When I auditioned for Warren, he gave me notes and said, “You dance very big. You need to do the same thing with your voice.” I tried it again and didn’t think I got it, but they called me an hour or two later and made an offer. I was really in shock.
Were you a musical theater fan already?
Yeah, but I can’t call myself a true fan. I’ve probably seen about 15, and I’ve been here [in New York] for 16, almost 17 years. Some musicals nowadays are too all over the place. I like to see the pure art of it, and that’s what I like about this show. It comes from an idea — the Russian ballet — and it’s very simple. I understand blockbuster musicals can work as well, but my favorites are the pure ones.
How difficult was it to play this character in On Your Toes?
Not so much, because I’ve been around these characters my whole life. [Both laugh] They do exist. The most difficult part is putting it all together — and the timing. Comedic actors have great timing. I’ve just been watching these incredible artists: Walter Bobbie, Christine Baranski, Karen Ziemba, Shonn Wiley. It’s amazing to me how talented they are. I sit in the room and just try to take it in. The little details can do a lot. I’m trying to take it from them, and they’ve been very helpful.
How does dancing in On Your Toes differ from dancing at NYCB?
My character here is a bit over the top: the quintessential Russian superstar, on and offstage. He represents that big “all about me” attitude. I hope I don’t dance like that at City Ballet — where I enjoy being out there, but it’s not all about me. There are these beautiful things called the music and the choreography. This show is fun because I get to really sell it. I can’t be afraid to be too over the top, because that’s what Warren wants. The audience meets the character speaking first, and they know he has a big ego, and that has to translate to the dancing.
Tell me about the infamous number you dance in On Your Toes.
The “Princess Zenobia Ballet” is the part Irina Dvorevenko and I are in. Warren captures something that the Russian ballet did very well, recreating this kind of “Arabian Nights” atmosphere. It’s like a mini full-length done in 13 minutes, but with funny stuff happening, things going wrong. He nails it. The Russian pieces in the past, it’s all about the stars, about the couple, who’s dancing that night. This is perfect because they all have their entrance. She’s very commanding, and has slaves, and he enters and … [Pushes out chest and growls]
Did you know already know Dvorovenko from your six years with American Ballet Theatre?
I performed with her during my first year at ABT. It’s actually the last time we danced together, but I’ve never lost contact with her. She nails the part. She has this perfume when she dances. She’s a true ballerina, even when she’s walking down the street. It’s amazing to share the stage with that. She’s magnetic. She pulls you in, and you forget that there’s anything around you.
Was it hard to get back into narrative mode after 10 years with NYCB?
I did do more acting at ABT than at City Ballet, but I have a story going in my head no matter what I dance. Obviously, when you do Robbins, for example, you’re playing a character. Balanchine, not so much, but I do get to do some of the more classical Balanchine works, and you do play somebody. For example, in Theme in Variations, it feels to me like Imperial Russia, like I’m in a palace. Even though I don’t have to play a character per se, I like to relate the music to how I portray the role to the audience. I don’t think I could do any movement, no matter how modern, without projecting some kind of relationship to the music.
Has it been difficult juggling the demands of the show with NYCB?
Yeah, but everyone has been very understanding. It’s a beautiful thing when worlds collide, but it’s been hard. This week I have four shows, and it’s been pretty hard stuff. This week I’m doing Tarantella and Fancy Free, which I could do every day of my life. Well, not every day of my life — of my career. I don’t think I’ll be doing double-splits forever. Thankfully, these aren’t premieres at City Ballet that I’m performing. But doing this show puts me in a good mood for the rest of the day, so matter what I have to dance, I can’t complain that I’m tired.
Would you consider doing another musical after this?
I would love to, but I can’t really sing. [Both laugh] So I’m very limited in that department. I see a lot of dance musicals. Movin’ Out was great, and if that came back I’d love to do it. Who knows?