Irina Akulenko is a New York City-based performer, teacher and choreographer, with a burning passion for arts of all genres. Although she discovered Middle Eastern dance purely by chance, her interest in expression started at an early age and was channeled into ballet training, in addition to piano and voice lessons as well as drawing. However, belly dance became her main addiction which she sustained by seeking instruction with numerous local teachers as well as visiting master performers. Since 2001, Irina explored both Egyptian Cabaret and American Tribal style belly dance, Odissi and Flamenco and now enjoys fusing these art forms as well as everything in between. Today, Irina performs on various New York stages and tours nationally and internationally as a soloist and as member of various stellar projects. To view more information or learn about her class visit http://www.danceirina.com/home.aspx.
What would you define as your style of dance?
My style of dance really depends on what projects I am working on, what state of mind I am in, and the music that is inspiring me at the moment. There is no style of dance that is my absolute favorite. I have a very short attention span, so when I work intensely on one style – for example, something dark and introspective, the next thing I would want to do would be the opposite – something joyus, bubbly and light. I study and love everything from Oriental, to Tribal, to Classical Indian and Flamenco. I am lucky to be choreographing and performing for several theatrical productions, where I am called to do all of the above styles, and then also portray diverse characters. This has lead me to really love storytelling through dance. When I dance for myself, the style is dictated by the music I choose. Because I train in so many different art forms, what I do when the music starts to play, is a kind of mixture of all of the things that I like and have in my body. So I would say that I am a theatrical Fusion dancer. Not Tribal fusion – just Fusion.
How and when did you start dancing?
I started taking ballet classes at a very young age. Some of my earliest memories are of me putting on dance shows at home, for my parents. They clearly saw my infatuation with movement and took me to a ballet school. I spent a few years taking classes regularly, until my whole family moved to the United States. Overall, the arts are valued and respected in Eastern Europe so it is not unusual for children to have musical (and for girls, also dance) education – it is considered an important part of being a well-rounded individual.
When did you start teaching and where?
My first experience teaching was in my University, over a decade ago, by now. We had a Middle Eastern dance club, directed by a very charismatic and well connected dancer – Naraya. She introduced me to the larger belly dance community in New York City. At the time, I was already taking classes consistently from an instructor who used to teach at Serena Studios – she goes by both “Salome” and “Diamond”. After a few years, Naraya graduated, but all the members of the club wanted it to continue. We started taking turns teaching and choreographing for group.
When did you start Odissi?
That is really hard to pinpoint. I took workshops in Odissi, with various instructors, as early as 2006 (I remember that one clearly, because it was with Colleena Shakti at an event called Tribal Cafe, in California). Since then, I took random workshops because Odissi is quite rare and not a lot of instructors teach it, in New York. I started taking classes regularly over 5 year ago when I found a reliable instructor and went to India to study with my favorite teachers, 2 years ago.
Any tips for dancers looking to explore different styles of Indian dance?
It is your responsibility to prepare your body for very intense work. I think all styles of Indian Classical dance are incredibly rich in valuable information that is beneficial to dancers of all styles. There are eight Classical styles (think of them like you would of ballet) – Bharatanatyam being the most accessible (it is the national dance of India and thusly is most popular and frequently taught) and they all incorporate your body, mind and soul fully. You will be using your feet, your legs, torso, arms, hands, head and eyes – and on top of all of that you will have to learn to really emote, because much of these dances is about dramatic and nuanced storytelling.
I would say that if you would like to try an Indian Classical dance style, make sure you are healthy and/or are aware of your physical weaknesses. In my experience (and I fully admit that I’ve taken classes with just a few dozen instructors, so I could be wrong on the grand scale… but this is my experience), when learning from Indian teachers, you will not experience what you may be used to, in Western classes. There is less preparation of the body, how we do it in the West, with warm ups that gently prepare the body for work, while preventing injury. Classical warm ups for the class, although beneficial to building strength for the dance at hand, can be dangerous, if you push yourself too hard, and are not prepared. Often, a lot of pressure is put on the feet, knees and especially on the lower back. However, if you do yoga or personal stretches, warm yourself up in preparation for class, and know your limits – you will learn and grow a lot, as an artist.
Can you talk about some of the troupe you teach, specifically Kiaroscuro?
They are a semi-professional group that I choreograph for, and direct. I called this group “Kiaroscuro” – a slightly misspelled Art History term from the Italian Renaissance, which means “dramatic interplay between light and shadow”. I have a long love-affair with Art History and I felt that the work I do with this group, fits that term. In this particular project, I focus on fusion of Tribal style bellydance, and Odissi/ Indian Classical dance. We do not necessarily do Odissi, but more “Odissi-inspired”, or Odissi-informed movement. Odissi is a very beautiful, but incredibly complicated and structured art form and for many, it is still very much a devotional, religious practice. For fusion, I look at just a few very interesting foundational principles of movement, that are used in Odissi. Exploring just a few basic rules is enough material for very interesting fusion. This has been my obsession for quite a few years now (I started to fuse these styles about 5 years ago, immediately when I began more consistent studies with my teacher), and I’m very happy that I have talented students who are interested in what I create. I teach this type of fusion in New York, on regular basis. I also just released an instructional DVD, called “Sculpted Blossom” that is focused on this style – available through my website: www.DanceIrina.com.
Any tips for students in your classes or workshops?
I would say – pay close attention to all corrections that are given, even when they are not addressed to you. There is always something to learn when the instructor is making a point of explaining something… don’t relax. I talk endlessly during my workshops, because I think a lot about the technique and the dances I create. There is usually a very logical reason why a, b and c is happening and often there is a clear (at least to me) thought that inspires the sequences. In a workshop, we are usually together just for two or three hours – that is very little time. So I cram a lot of information into these sessions. I think that if you come to a workshop and don’t try on everything that is offered by the instructor… you are wasting your own time and opportunity to grow. So listen, watch the instructor and each other, take lots of notes. I think anytime a group of people come together to dance, is very special, so enjoy it. Oh and start with the feet. Always start learning everything from the footwork
Anything exciting coming up?
Aside from lots of local shows and workshops, and regular classes (I teach public classes three days a week), designing and creating my own costuming, choreographing, researching and editing music, directing two student troupes and working with two large theatrical dance and music companies, I also released the Indian Fusion instructional DVD I mentioned earlier – the Sculpted Blossom. Mid January through mid March I spent on tour in Australia and New Zealand (first month tour with Bellyqueen – I am one of the principal dancers and choreographers for that company, under the direction of Kaeshi Chai, and the second month touring solo). In June, I had a whirlwind tour of China and Milan, Italy, with a really intense, crazy travel schedule. Coming up, I have about seven or eight really exciting and really diverse performance projects, all happening locally in the Tristate area – all up on my website. I am very happy to be home for a few months, so I am gearing up for collaborative projects in the area, ready to be part of, and support the New York dance scene. Oh and I’m working on some really fun merchandise – that’s in the works and hopefully will be ready soon!
Favorite class to teach?
At the moment: fan-fusion. That is my Thursday evening, intermediate level bellydance class. I use Chinese-style fans, but I experiment with them a lot, and have come up with very interesting vocabulary. I find them incredibly dynamic and lyrical. They are my current obsession.
Favorite workshop topic to teach?
Oh I can’t pick! I spend so much time researching the music, and creating sequences… I adore all the topics! I am happy to teach anything that the dancers want to learn.
I think my favorite performance is of one piece that is not posted online. It is a piece I get to do in the Journeys Along the Silkroad show, by Bellyqueen. This is a show we have been working on, for many years; it is a large collaborative project, and this choreography, albeit not very difficult, technically, is one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever made.
The show is a beautiful, theatrical production about a young Chinese Princess that has to go on a difficult journey, in order to save her dying mother. On her journey, she encounters many magical creatures and various characters. In one scene, she naively enters a forest, where she encounters a group of bandits. I am the head of that group. I don’t want to give away what happens to her in that scene, but I have to say that I enjoy the character and most of all, I enjoy seeing other dancers become bandits. In order to choreograph this dance, I had to create a backstory for these people – why are they in the forest, how do they feel, what is their motivation. When working on this, I did not want to create just another cool scary Tribal piece – I wanted to put meaning into every gesture, so that I could believe in it myself. They are hungry, uncomfortable, cold, rejected. They have no one and nothing, but each other. And here comes a rosy-cheeked Princes, skipping through the forest, never working for anything in her life. By creating very clear story in my head, I get to experience this character – it’s not just meaningless aggression. It changes my posture, how I breathe and where I initiate movement. And the best part is that this is always a group piece and I get to train and guide other dancers through this process. It is an amazing experience, and it’s also incredibly therapeutic.
Favorite song to dance to right now?
Ah! I can’t share that – you can come and find out yourself when I’ll be performing at Rakkasah, this upcoming October.