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EuroVancouver Profiles: Youth Watch                      Dynamic Duo

By Malcolm Morgan

Transplanting talents: what Canada means for the work of Natalia Iakovleva and Eugene Grabovy. 

When you prosper in a new place, can your talents do the same?

A formidable pair 

Seventeen-year-old Natalia Iakovleva and her eighteen-year-old boyfriend, Eugene Grabovy, are examples of what every European parent would want in bringing their child to North America: they’re young adults who made the transition successfully, emerging as pleasant, articulate, well-adjusted and promising citizens in the recipient country. 

These criteria would be enough for most parents in any case. 

But let’s imagine, for argument’s sake, that things are more than ideal, and these teens are also redoubtable artists and a mature and balanced couple, equipped with senses of direction supported by a real-world flexibility about the future. 

This idyllic portrait is, in fact, precisely the pair sitting before me in a downtown Vancouver coffee shop. 

Their readiness for the requested interview, and fluid participation during it, was just another point begging the question as to where such impressive youth get their start. 

The dedicated musician 

Iakovleva isn’t shy about turning and firmly correcting her man on the finer points of training to play the domra, a traditional Russian three-string guitar-like instrument, which can be played alone, in a duet or quartet, or as complementary to the balalaika in an orchestra setting. 

The young woman was practically born with one in her hands, so her authority on the matter is understandable. 

Playing domra since age five in her native Kaliningrad, Russia, Iakovleva attended lessons three times a week, with continual examinations and auditions, training for seven years.   

Her teacher was a woman who had “her purpose in life to play and teach” the instrument, says Iakovleva, a degree of musical loyalty she admires and finds to be disappointingly rare. 

Leaving Russia at age 12, just one year short of finishing her formal training, she found Canada an environment of new opportunities, but some sadly stunted opportunities.

On the upside, she was able to participate in a balalaika and domra orchestra for the first time, at Vancouver’s Russian Community Center – a new process that she nevertheless found “really easy, because I was, you know, better than anyone else, because I’d had more experience.” 

Attending RCC concerts, one can see that Iakovleva not only stands out for her youth among the middle-aged to senior group, but for the fact that the orchestra director places her in a position of prominence during performances.  Another of the more experienced players routinely recruits Iakovleva to play support for him at paid festival gigs around BC’s Lower Mainland. 

Prior to RCC involvement, she had only ever performed (to great reception – several first and second place rankings) in a duet with another talented Kaliningrad domra student; together with Iakovleva, the other of the “ones who [her] teacher knew would have a chance of making a career out of it.” 

And this career choice is as much a possibility in Russia as the practice of some more generic European instruments like the guitar would be elsewhere, says Iakovleva. 

The domra and balalaika are time-honored, well-known instruments in the Former East Bloc, and enrolling to study them in music school is as expected a choice as any other instrument, she says.    

In the West, however, few know or care about these instruments, which places the careers of their aspiring players largely on the shelf, unless they happen to be the odd New York-famous Tamara Volskaya, an exception Iakovleva mentions. 

“At some points, I didn’t want to keep it up,” she says about her life with the domra, “because it’s frustrating to come here and see that it’s not so important, and you know that you don’t have a chance of making it big.  ”  She credits her mother for keeping her on track with the instrument, despite moments when she “almost had a breakdown,” just as she attributes much of her positive acculturation to Grabovy’s influence.  

The serious actor 

The Kiev-born Grabovy is as supportive a man as a woman could hope for.  Literally speaking, he supports Iakovleva in the RCC orchestra, playing the contra-bass balalaika, even though he is primarily an actor.  And if one spends more than five minutes with these two, one inevitably notices the quiet emotional encouragements Grabovy regularly supplies. 

Of their birthday-party meeting, him at 16, her 14, Iakovleva says, “he had Canadian friends and I didn’t.  And he helped me to open my mind to the idea that not all Canadians are bad, or closed-minded, and helped me to see them in a different light.”       

Grabovy’s earlier adjustment owes to him having moved a year earlier and a year younger to Vancouver than Iakovleva.   

His theatrical performance history took root at North Vancouver’s Sutherland Secondary, where he participated in school productions, but was disillusioned by a lack of energy and enthusiasm among his Canadian counterparts. 

Now a graduate (with Iakovleva finishing her senior year), Grabovy devotes all of his acting to director Oleg Palme’s Russian-language theater studio in Vancouver.  

Perhaps this is for the best: two Ukrainian countrymen, Palme and Grabovy, a generation apart, but equally serious about their work, and working together. 

Grabovy says Palme puts his actors through their paces, challenging them to experiment in roles that are diverse in nature and size - opportunities Grabovy relishes.    

Even if one’s Russian is modest, Grabovy’s convincing intensity is one of the more memorable parts of a Palme play.   

Since Grabovy aspires to act professionally, Vancouver, with its myriad of theaters and TV/film industry reputation as Hollywood North, is the place to be.  His intense presence, and professional attitude about his craft, will no doubt stand him admirably. 

And like cosmic order, Iakovleva appears in the Palme productions as well, sometimes sharing the stage supportively with the glowering Grabovy, as in Palme’s recent run of the Russian play, The Shadow.  

The future 

The two head into their adulthoods with various career options before them, Iakovleva  

considering journalism or professional translation, using her Russian, English and Spanish skills, Grabovy planning his acting career, mixed for the time-being with part-time work on personal computer maintenance. 

There is a bittersweet quality about their situation: their solid connection to each other, their general social success, Eugene being ‘in the zone’ for his type of career goal, all of this diluted by Iakovleva’s admission that “in Russia, I would make it [the domra] a career – which makes it even sadder, because I moved here…”  

Nevertheless, as with Grabovy, we can be assured that her intelligence and evident various abilities (also plays piano) will carry her very far in this new society – whether or not she turns out to be the odd Tamara Volskaya.

 © 2007 All content property of European Weekly unless where otherwise accredited


© 2006 All content property of European Weekly unless where otherwise accredited