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Averbukh attributes success to persistence

Astute Russian producer plans foray into U.S. market

Ilya Averbukh would love to have his show, <i>Ice Symphony</i>, see the same kind of success in the United States that it has in Russia.
Ilya Averbukh would love to have his show, Ice Symphony, see the same kind of success in the United States that it has in Russia. (Lisa Herdman)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(06/06/2008) - The success of Ice Symphony, the long-running extravaganza that has visited 80 international cities and counting, once again proves the value of self-belief, tenacity and a dash of luck.

In less than five years, Ilya Averbukh, the tour's founder, has transformed from an ice dancer into a scrappy entrepreneur to a true entertainment impresario.

"When I competed, I trained in the U.S. for eight years; when I returned to Russia, it was a little difficult to find a new role," Averbukh said.

As the 2002 Olympic silver medalist (with partner and then-wife Irina Lobacheva), he might have carved out a career as a coach.

"For me, that would have been a little bit boring," the 34-year-old Moscow native said. "I had to take a new direction."

Boredom is now the least of his concerns.

Averbukh produces one of the highest-rated television programs in Russia while touring the world with a stellar cast of mostly Russian Olympic, world and European medalists. But when his ideas first took root, it was anything but smooth sailing.

"People in Russia knew about [competitive] figure skating, but they were not [familiar] with figure skating shows," he explained. "I wasn't sure a mass audience could pay money. Also at the time, many of our most famous figure skaters had left for the U.S. for good contracts and training, and they did not believe they could enjoy similar compensation in Russia."

By his own count, Averbukh approached hundreds of companies to seek sponsorship. In his words, he "danced in their offices" to get support, eventually interesting several, including Coca-Cola. Four years ago, his first shows in Siberia gained substantial audiences but devastating financial results.

"Some of the buildings didn't even check tickets," Averbukh admitted. "The tour went broke."

Still, after securing a loan, he financed eight shows the following year and 16 the next, with the tour growing to about 77 events over the past year.

"Luck was on my side," he said. "After the show in Moscow, an influential channel [Channel 1] invited us to put it on TV, and after that it exploded. The ratings were so high; only the appearance of former President Vladimir Putin giving his new year's address was higher."

Following the trend of television reality competitions, Averbukh added Russian celebrities to the mix, having them compete with professional partners on the television show. While a similar program in the U.S., Skating with Celebrities, died after a single season, in Russia the concept achieved Dancing with the Stars-like success, spawning imitators.

"Unfortunately, in Russia, the media is making the same mistake they made in the U.S. years ago -- it is overfeeding figure skating to audiences," he said. "This will lead to a decline, unless we have wiser programming."

Such thoughts have led Averbukh to seek opportunities outside his native land, and he hopes to visit up to 10 U.S. cities next year. Until then, the show is mostly an all-Russian affair. (The tour has made stops in Switzerland, Germany and Israel, among other countries.) For the Atlantic City stop, the producer hooked up with a multicultural marketing company, who in turn approached Western Union.

Silvia Eliat, Western Union's marketing director, said Ice Symphony (also called Ice Age) was a perfect fit.

"We not only provide [financial] services for our customers, but also sponsor events of interest to the communities," Eliat said. "Figure skating is very big in Russia, and if we want to be the company of choice for Russian-speaking people, we have to think out of the box."

Averbukh narrated the show almost entirely in his native tongue, and little English was spoken by the 6,000-plus members of the audience. Even the tchotchkes handed out by Western Union -- key rings with matryoshkas (nesting dolls) -- had a Russian bent.

The show included five Olympic champions -- 2002 gold medalist Alexei Yagudin; 2006 pair winners Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin; and 2006 dance champs Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov -- as well as several Russian celebrities who just donned skates a few months ago.

"We've done so many shows this year," Yagudin, who lived and trained in the U.S. from 1998 through 2004, said. "I toured for five years with Smucker's Stars on Ice, and I have great memories. I grew up on that tour; it's really my wish to go back. I miss touring in the U.S. and seeing my friends here, so I'm so happy and proud we were able to come."

The 28-year-old put to rest suggestions he may return to eligible competition.

"I had knee surgery in September, and I tried to recover, but [competition] is not inside of me," he said (Yagudin also had appendicitis surgery in March).

"It would be too difficult now. I cannot work at 100 percent, and all my wishes [for a return] have disappeared. At the same time, there are so many opportunities in Russia, and I love being there."

Totmianina also shrugged off reports that she and partner Marinin might return to competition.

"Last year, we thought about skating as amateurs, and we asked [the Russian Skating Federation] about financial support," she said. "[Federation president Valentin Pisseev] didn't say 'No,' but he said it would not be possible to find any kind of support. So we said we will do shows and make some money. That's it, a very short story."

Among the celebrities on the tour is famous Kirov and Bolshoi ballerina Anastasia Volochkova, who participated (with pro skating partner Anton Sikharulidze) in the television competition.

"It was very difficult to decide to be in the show," Volochkova, a fixture of Russian tabloids, said. "Any [on-ice] steps are dangerous. My legs are everything to me; they are my life and my work. At first I was terrified, but Ilya said 'No, you're beautiful,' and I started to believe him."

Volochkova, whose two numbers in Atlantic City with Marinin featured elegant lifts, found herself in the opposite position from what 1992 Olympic champion Kristi Yamaguchi faced on the recent Dancing with the Stars. While Yamaguchi is a skater who flexed her dance muscles, the ballerina traded her toe shoes for blades.

"Maybe the ballet posture and coordination relate, maybe. But everything that is turned out in ballet is turned in here," she laughed. "Everything bends differently on the ice."

Other highlights of the show included a sophisticated tango by two-time world ice dancing champions Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski, a jazzy program by Navka and Kostomarov set to Michael Jackson music, and a charming Mama Mia medley from pairs Elena Leonova and Andrei Khvalko and 2000 world champions Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov.

While the crowd gave his troupe a lengthy standing ovation, the canny Averbukh acknowledged that a more U.S.-friendly version of his show would require a few changes.

"I know that figure skating is not as popular in the U.S. as it was ten years ago, but with added development, such as bringing in American skating stars, we might attract a wider audience," he said.

"I know, too, that we must elevate [production values]. [Smuckers] Stars on Ice and Champions on Ice are wonderful shows. I studied them, and, for me, they are big entertainments. But I hope the Russian skating stars that are world-known will draw more U.S. audiences next year."