July 15, 2013 7:00am PT by Michele Amabile Angermiller
'Dancing With the Stars' Takes Broadway: Karina and Maks in 'Forever Tango'
The tango is among the sexiest dances in the world, so what happens when your dance floor partner is your ex-fiance?
It's a nightly challenge for Karina Smirnoff and Maksim Chmerkovskiy, of Dancing With The Stars fame, who are taking on the steamy Argentine favorite in the Broadway revival of Luis Bravo’s Forever Tango.
“It’s definitely not easy,” the 35-year-old ballroom dancer tells The Hollywood Reporter. “But we actually want to learn and do tango the proper way. The way it’s supposed to be done.” That means, leaving behind the glitz of Hollywood and getting past their own emotional baggage. After calling off their engagement in 2009, says Smirnoff, “we were really good at avoiding each other.”
The two dove in and "let the walls down every night, “ she continues. “It is so rewarding and enriching. It not only made us better dancers but better people towards each other. We have a whole new love and respect for one another. We are involved in the emotional journey that‘s required for this dance. It’s kind of crazy, but it’s scary and beautiful all at the same time.”
THR was invited to sit in on rehearsals for Forever Tango just before its public run at New York's Walter Kerr Theatre where the two shined as guest stars in what's a beautiful but also grueling story as told through the Argentinian dance.
“It’s like we are floating,” says Smirnoff. “Every time we dance it, we're both like , ‘I need a drink after this’. It’s so beautiful."
Sitting backstage for a chat with THR, the petite dancer winds down after an action-packed day that started with an appearance on The View, a photo shoot and prep for the evening’s performance which will include all of Broadway’s top critics and Latin superstar Ricky Martin.
Smirnoff is in a great place, professionally. The Broadway engagement is going so well, that she and Chmerkovskiy extended their run through August 11. This summer, she will grace the silver screen in a film role in the independent film, Across Grace Alley, where she portrays a dancer in a bad relationship. Plus, she is co-authoring a book about relationships with her manager, Lindsay Rielly.
“We both were going through something in our relationships that were not easy situations, and we kept confiding in each other and talking about what we were going through. Little by little, we were each other’s advisors,” she says of the tome that's nearly finished and ready to be shopped to perspective publishers.
Clearly, Smirnoff is relishing her time back in the Big Apple as she talks about trying out the new City Bikes program and happily points out that the theater across the street is where she and Chmerkovskiy first appeared in the show, Burn the Floor.
But even on the opposite coast from where the ABC show shoots, Dancing with the Stars is never far from her mind. Among Smirnoff's favorite contestants to tango with: Baltimore Ravens star Jacoby Jones, with whom she danced to a very dramatic piece about rape and murder.
Recalls Smirnoff: “When I told the story of the dance to Jacoby, he looked at me and said, 'Woman, you crazy.' But it’s the story. I needed him to convey that emotion. He trusted me, went for it and did an incredible job.”
She also gave a nod to pop star Aaron Carter. “We came out and did a slower tango, which is kind of scary to perform, because when you move fast, you can camouflage mistakes,” she explains. “The slower the dance, the more difficult it becomes.”
So who exactly did she need to camouflage? No surprise here: Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino of Jersey Shore fame. “I think it’s safe to assume that maybe The Situation wasn’t the best at Tango, but he definitely gave his effort in the dance, so he did good,” she says.
While she speaks fondly of her DWTS men, Smirnoff was at first under the impression that she would be paired with an Argentine dancer for Forever Tango, but was pleasantly surprised when the producers told her she could bring on any dancer she wanted: Chmerkovskiy immediately came to mind.
“We talked about it for a while,” she reveals. “We already had so much history -- would it work?”
Both dancers labored intensely for two weeks -- sometimes rehearsing four hours straight just to perfect two dances and two group numbers. Smirnoff says Bravo, who is not a dancer, but a composer, conveyed the need for raw emotional release while telling a story in the dance, and it turned out to be a cathartic experience. “He pulls it out of you,” she says of Bravo’s direction. “There were times I was getting emotional [in rehearsal] and Maks was, like, 'Don’ t look at me.' We both cried. It’s the highest level of therapy. This is something so much more than we ever hoped for."
The emotional rollercoaster hardly lets up for the dancers or the audience, as each story interweaves themes of romantic longing. Adds Smirnoff: “Whether its loneliness or pain, when you watch the show, you connect your experience. You don’t need to speak any language. You speak the language of dance. “
It is the that love of the dance, she says, that has kept DWTS on top for 16 seasons. “We might be losing ratings from when we used to have 20 million viewers, but we are still the No. 1 show,” Smirnoff defends. “We had 15.5 million viewers on a Tuesday show. That’s huge after 16 seasons! I’m honored to be a part of something so big that's given me an opportunity to do what I love, which is dance.”
Go behind the scenes with the cast and crew of Forever Tango at THR's exclusive gallery.