By Yona Zeldis McDonough
Some twenty-odd years ago, Kevin McKenzie’s stellar career as a ballet dancer was winding down. A native of Vermont, he’d trained at the Washington School of Ballet, was awarded a silver medal at the Sixth International Competition in Varna, Bulgaria, and had been a leading dancer at both the National Ballet of Washington and The Joffrey Ballet before joining American Ballet Theater in March of 1979. He was made a Principal Dancer the following December, and performed with the company until 1991.
McKenzie’s second act seemed to be unfolding away from the glittering stages of New York. He had spent close to a year at the Washington Ballet doing an apprenticeship in leadership. “I was ready to move into the next phase—artistic associate, choreographer, teaching, ballet master, scheduling,” he says, seated behind the desk of his comfortable office at 890 Broadway. A tall and still graceful man, he seems as poised as a civilian as he was as a dancer. “I fully expected to stay in Washington.” But around that time, Jane Hermann, co-director of American Ballet Theater, was stepping down and McKenzie heard—through the grapevine, not directly—that he was on the short list as her successor. The news came as quite a surprise. “ABT had not been on my radar,” he recalls.
Those were trying years for the venerable company; ABT was in dire straights and there was serious talk of its merging with The Joffrey. McKenzie was asked to co-direct the new hybrid with Gerald Arpino, Joffrey’s co-founder and long-time Associate Director. McKenzie thought this was a terrible idea and was not shy about saying so. He pointed out that while merging the two companies may have been a prudent business decision, artistically it made no sense at all. In his view, American Ballet Theater needed to remain an entity unto itself, albeit one with new leadership and a new executive director. Clearly, his passionate conviction was persuasive because two months later, he was asked to usher the company into what turned out to be not only the next decade, but also the next century.
McKenzie bid Washington good-bye and came back to New York to assume the reins at ABT. “For the first three months, I made no drastic changes,” he remembers. “I just observed. And I’m a good observer.” It was only after this initial period that he set forth a five-year plan designed to bring the company into the future. “It succeeded because everyone wanted it to succeed,” he says modestly. The dancers were proud that one of their own was at the helm and did everything they could to support him. “I’m not a visionary, but I have vision.” And according, to McKenzie, artistic vision has to be consistent, but it also needs a corrective as time goes on. “ABT is the nation’s ballet company,” he explains. “We are exemplary in dancing the classics, yet we must strive to redefine the art form.”
Although McKenzie had been interested in developing as a choreographer, he claims that he was not a good enough choreographer for ABT. But he knew he could use his position to find the choreographer of his dreams. That turned out to be Alexei Ratmansky, a former dancer and director of the Bolshoi Ballet. Ratmansky’s brilliant interpretation of the Nutcracker was received to great acclaim when danced by ABT at City Center. “He was my ideal before I even knew who he was,” says McKenzie. Ratmansky’s version of The Firebird will be part of the anniversary celebration for McKenzie on June 12, 2012.
When asked what he thought were among his most important accomplishments over the last two decades, McKenzie was quick to mention the establishment of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. The decision to create the school was an incremental process. Twenty years ago, ABT didn’t even have an education department, so in the mid 1990s, McKenzie established one. The logical next step was a series of satellite summer schools in cities such as Detroit, Alabama, Texas designed to identify centers of talent all over the country. From there, McKenzie established a second company, a two-year program headed by John Meehan. This company was designed as a feeder into the main company, but McKenzie soon realized that the dancers had to be retrained in order to fit into ABT. It was this realization that made him understand the necessity of a school.
In the late 1990s, he took his staff—trained at schools such as the Paris Opera, the Kirov, and the Royal Ballet—and brought them together. The disparate nature of their training meant that they had different ideas but they were able to come together on certain key issues, and in 2004, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School opened its doors.
The school follows a specific graded curriculum, divided by age, which is outlined in the American Ballet Theatre National Training Curriculum. Each level is designed to be sensitive to the developmental needs of the group. “We make sure we give young dancers age-appropriate material and they are not put on point too early,” says McKenzie. He speaks glowingly of the network of healthcare professionals—psychologists, eating disorder specialists, orthopedists—who work together with the goal of creating young dancers healthy in mind and body. “And if there is a problem, we catch it early and alert the parents,” McKenzie says. In a profession known for its physical rigors and relentless discipline, McKenzie’s attitude is a wholesome and welcome alternative.
What’s in store for this monumental company that is home to both local and international talent? “We don’t need to reinvent the world,” McKenzie says thoughtfully. “What we need to do is embrace the fact that the physical and mental capacities of our dancers are constantly evolving. It is our job to challenge them to be the best they can be. Time will tell whether we can.” If these last twenty years are any indication, it seems clear that McKenzie’s hopes will come to glorious fruition.