Shortly after the figure skating team of Irina Korina and Viktor Yelchin finished their first rehearsal for this holiday's edition of Knott's Berry Farm's "Festival on Ice," Korina had a question about a routine set to "Silent Night."
"We have heard this music before," she said. "What is it?"
Their ignorance of what is perhaps the world's best-known Christmas carol may be partly due to the fact that the couple is Jewish. But the main reason is that they have only recently arrived in the United States from the Soviet Union, where Dec. 25 is but another date on the calendar and it is New Year's Eve that calls for celebrating with gifts under a tree.
As stars for 15 years of the Leningrad Ice Ballet, the skaters, who are married, were national celebrities. Financially well off by Soviet standards, they owned their own flat in Leningrad as well as a home in the country.
But on Sept. 12, they left their native city with then-6-month-old son Anton, Korina's father and Yelchin's mother, and settled in Los Angeles with Yelchin's brother Eugene, a free-lance illustrator who lives in the Silverlake district. The five stayed briefly with Eugene and now share an apartment in West Hollywood.
Unlike their more famous compatriots, Ludmila and Oleg Protopopov (the 1964 and 1968 Olympic Pair Champions who now live in Switzerland), Korina, 32, and Yelchin, 38, did not defect; they are officially classified as refugees. Asked why they decided to forsake fame and relative fortune to start over again in the United States, the couple answers immediately, as one:
"We were afraid for our son," explained Yelchin, sitting with his extended family in the couple's dressing room during a rehearsal break at Knott's Good Time Theatre, where the show runs until New Year's Day. "It is a very bad situation over there. I would get angry, too--I'd say, 'Why should we have to buy things on the black market? Why should we have to stand in line?' "
Then, too, there was religious and political oppression. In 1972, as the nationally third-ranked pair team, they qualified for the Olympics but were not permitted to go because of their religion. More recently, a production they choreographed was performed by the Leningrad Ice Ballet only after other choreographers' names replaced theirs for public credit. And for three years after Eugene Yelchin had moved to the United States, married to an American woman he met in Leningrad, the skaters were forbidden to perform outside their own country.
"They said, 'We cannot find your forms, you must stay home,' " Korina recalled. "Then Gorbachev came in, and we could skate abroad again. They were three difficult years."
They are adjusting quickly to American life, despite some early misgivings. "You have propaganda (about the U.S.S.R.), but we have propaganda, too," Yelchin noted. "Every day we heard about capitalism; that man in America is a wolf." Added Korina, "We thought about it, but since we've come we see only smiles."
It did not take long to discover some of the elements that particularly define Los Angeles. "What's especially good for me is Melrose (Avenue)!" Korina said. "I like the people on the street and the stores."
Yelchin said, "Everyone here wants to make movies. My brother studied at USC and wants to direct an independent film." Korina added, "A woman came up, saw Anton, and said, 'He's beautiful. He will be actor.' "
Almost immediately after their arrival, the skaters were signed for representation by manager Michael Rosenberg, whose other clients include 1988 Olympic silver medalist Elizabeth Manley and former world pair champions Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner. They made their U.S. debut last month as guest stars of Richard Porter's "Celebration on Ice" show at Bally's Grand Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, then traveled to Ottawa to take part in the World Cup of Figure Skating competition, placing fourth.
Skating in the West bears some similarity to their Soviet experience--"As principals, we're still seeing hotels, rinks, always talking about skating," Yelchin noted--but has so far yielded one major difference. "We were stars in Leningrad, but that did not have the same meaning as here," Yelchin said. "In Leningrad, we could say, 'Today, we will take it easy.' At Bally's, we were billed as very special guest stars, and every day we had to be great, great, great."
They have found that North American audiences and skaters alike are receptive to their skating style, which combines classic Soviet grace and lyricism with such precisely timed acrobatic moves as a pull-through in which Korina somehow manages to go from a lift to an upside-down position and through her husband's legs in a matter of seconds.
"One woman at Bally's told us she had seen us seven times," Korina recounted. "And we have made many friends in just a short time. . . . At the competition, when we said goodby, the (other) skaters said, 'No say goodby, we'll be seeing each other soon.' I've cried many times at this warm feeling."
The pair were cast in Knott's Berry Farm's "Festival on Ice" after producer Dick Foster watched them practice a mere 10 minutes at a local rink. "Their movements are extremely fluid--they remind me a lot of the Protopopovs," said Foster, who spent three months in the U.S.S.R. in 1973 as producer of the television special "Peggy Fleming Visits the Soviet Union" and has produced numerous other television and live skating shows. "They have a unique presentation--so fluid and yet so adventurous. There's a reason the Soviets have dominated (amateur) competitive pair skating for years."
In "Festival on Ice," opening today and running daily through Jan. 1 with shows at 1, 3 and 5 p.m., the pair perform two routines and the finale. There are a dozen holiday-themed numbers in the 30-minute show, which is directed by David Gravatt and also features soloists Cindy Stuart and Doug Webster, the Peanuts characters Snoopy, Charlie Brown and Lucy and a 10-member ensemble.
Show choreographer Randy Gardner is trying to inject some flashier American moves into Korina/Yelchin's style: their first number is a rhythmic, upbeat version of "Good King Wenceslaus."
"They do some spectacular stuff, but I want to add a different voice, change their thinking about different patterns and lifts," he said. "Working with them is interesting because of the language barrier--I use ballet terminology, which is universal, or try to describe something with a gesture, no talking, which is kind of wild but fun. They understand."
While their next engagement after Knott's is not yet set, the pair may be returning to Bally's. Farther afield, they would like to return to Leningrad--but for a visit only, to show Anton the city. "I have the American Dream--to buy a house," Korina said. "The American people's life is more fun, more easy, more beautiful. It's great. We won't leave."
"Festival on Ice" runs today through Jan. 1, except Christmas Day, at 1, 3 and 5 p.m. in the Good Time Theatre at Knott's Berry Farm, 8039 Beach Blvd., Buena Park. Admission included with park admission: $15.95 to $19.95. Park hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday; Closed Monday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. Information: (714) 220-5200.