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McKenzie's Lead

Keeping up with Burlington's biggest ballet success


Published September 21, 2005 at 1:35 p.m.

When he was dancing full-time with American Ballet Theatre in the 1980s, Burlington native Kevin McKenzie was its preeminent prince. The tall, dark danseur noble brought dramatic intelligence and a graceful gallantry to the stage, whether he was playing romantic Romeo or the "Champion Roper" in "Rodeo." He also distinguished himself as a sensitive and gifted partner, supporting ballerinas such as Cynthia Gregory, Sylvie Guillem and Martine van Hamel -- now his life partner. New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce once dubbed him the "Jeremy Irons of ballet."

McKenzie had pretty much mastered all the leading roles in ABT's repertory when, in 1992, the company offered him the biggest part of his life: artistic director. At 38, McKenzie gave up dancing to ply his choreographic and administrative talents behind the scenes. At that point, the New York-based ballet company needed more than just a well-timed boost. It was $5.7 million in debt, due in large part to the unbridled spending of McKenzie's predecessor and former boss Mikhail Baryshnikov.

The specifics were paralyzing: unpaid health-insurance premiums for dancers, cancelled engagements, a diminished arrangement with the Metropolitan Opera, which hosts Ballet Theatre's spring season. The New York Times Magazine reported "serious talk of disbanding." In the same article, principal dancer Cynthia Harvey said, "I'm delighted Kevin took the job. I'm just surprised he did, knowing how bad things are."

In a recent telephone interview, McKenzie, now 51, recalls the frantic months before his first Met season in New York. "It wasn't a question of, 'Can we get through today so we can be alive tomorrow?' It was, 'How are we going to get to 12 o'clock?' And it was quarter to 12 when we were asking the question."

These days, McKenzie has happier preoccupations: growing Ballet Theater's endowment; differentiating the spring and new fall season in New York from each other; and managing a deep talent pool. A recent New York Times article compared McKenzie to New York Yankees manager Joe Torre for the skill with which he juggles "his overflowing cornucopia of ballet stars."

With a sure hand -- and despite a less-than-stable series of executive directors -- McKenzie has successfully escorted ABT from the brink of ruin back to its rightful position in center-stage New York. The company enjoys annual engagements at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and since 2003, at Chicago's Civic Opera House. Four years ago, it toured China for the first time.

The company's second-string Studio Company -- another McKenzie brainchild -- performs in smaller cities, and this week it is Burlington-bound. Although he doesn't normally travel with the troupe, McKenzie has too much family in the area to skip out on a hometown gig at the Flynn Center. The youngest of 11 siblings, he's a member of the McKenzie meatpacking clan. His brother Tim founded the Burlington Land Trust. Cousin Bruce leads the local drumming ensemble Sambatucada!

"He's definitely the star of the family," Maureen McKenzie says of her national-celebrity brother.

Plus, you could say McKenzie owes Burlington balletomanes. "The one and only time he was scheduled to dance at the Flynn, he incurred a knee injury," Maureen recalls of a summer 1986 performance with the New Amsterdam Ballet. "They had to announce from the curtain that he wouldn't be dancing. That was a big deal."

Maureen has every right to bask in her brother's glory; she led him to the barre. At 8, Kevin took up tap dancing, following in the footsteps of two older siblings. Then, in an effort to improve his coordination, he accompanied Maureen to ballet lessons in South Burlington with Rosemary O'Brien.

"My first lessons were private so I wouldn't have to wear tights in front of the girls," he told Dance Magazine in 1993. By 11, McKenzie had given up tap, basketball and acrobatics to pursue pirouettes. The next year, he and Maureen were awarded scholarships to the Washington School of Ballet.

McKenzie thrived under the tutelage of the school's matriarch Mary Day, despite his first debilitating attack of ulcerative colitis, which cost the slim six-footer 34 precious pounds. After graduation, and a prestigious silver medal at the International Ballet Competition in Bulgaria, McKenzie stayed in Washington to join the now-defunct National Ballet.

But his long-term goal was to dance with the Manhattan-based American Ballet Theatre, where his dramatic sensibilities would be compatible with its story-ballet repertoire. The other logical option -- Balanchine's New York City Ballet -- held minimal interest; McKenzie has always been less enthused about abstract choreography, which he describes as "movement for movement's sake."

So when the National went belly up, the long-limbed, eloquent dancer arranged for an audition at ABT. To his surprise, McKenzie couldn't get anyone to notice him, much less offer him a contract. He soon discovered why: His first appearance at ABT coincided with Baryshnikov's. Just as Amadeus upstaged Salieri, "Misha" set a whole new standard for male dancers in America.

McKenzie didn't twist in the wind after he got dissed at ABT, however; he joined the Joffrey and quickly rose through the ranks. In 1978, Time magazine selected him as one of America's six most promising dancers. But McKenzie was apparently thinking in Russian. In the same article he was quoted: "If I had to compare myself to Baryshnikov, I'd give up and take up carpentry."

McKenzie's career took a nosedive soon thereafter. He broke his ribs in a performance, suffered another attack of colitis and, after a long recovery, came back and fractured his foot. He had decided not to return to the Joffrey -- and to take a janitor job at ABT if they offered it -- when ABT ballerina Martine van Hamel summoned him to Chicago to replace an injured partner. After the performance, he was offered a soloist contract. Less than a year later, he was promoted to principal.

Finally, McKenzie found himself where he'd always wanted to be. Under the direction of founder Lucia Chase, Ballet Theatre had built an impressive repertoire of full-length, 19th-century ballets and major narrative works by choreographers such as Antony Tudor, Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille. But in 1980, after 40 years, Chase stepped down. Baryshnikov took over as the new artistic director. His movie-star presence was "intimidating" to the dancers, McKenzie says. His policies inspired controversy, too, when he started adding pure-dance works to the repertoire and Russianized some of the classics with versions borrowed from the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg.

In 1986, McKenzie publicly criticized his boss in a Dance Magazine interview, noting he'd "made the classic mistakes of a new director." Years later, McKenzie told The New York Times Magazine, "The only time I was all right during that period was when I was on stage."

In many ways, the years at ABT were McKenzie's best. Technically, he was at the top of his game. But the understated premier danseur never really got the attention he deserved, either from Baryshnikov or the American public. When he decided to leave the company in 1991, the New York press didn't even make note of it.

That may have made trading tights for trousers a little easier, though. The New York Times has written well over 200 stories about American Ballet Theatre since McKenzie took over as artistic director 13 years ago. The company's financial drama has inspired a lot of that ink -- four executive directors have come and gone in that time -- as have the company's celebrity-studded season-opening galas presided over by Caroline Kennedy and Blaine Trump.

But critics have also paid close attention to McKenzie's balancing act of classics, revivals, tributes and new commissions; within the company's traditional dance-drama niche, he's been pretty creative. McKenzie has resurrected old, full-length ballets that have long been reduced to excerpts, such as Le Corsaire and Raymonda. Last year, he enlisted 90-year-old choreographer Frederic Franklin to breathe new life into his own original Coppelia.

Even the warhorses have been exercised. Five years ago, McKenzie came out with a new staging of Swan Lake that "whipped the audience at the Metropolitan Opera House into a frenzied ovation," according to Times critic Anna Kisselgoff. She wasn't so fond of the Nutcracker he refashioned in 1994 with playwright Wendy Wasserstein, however; she called it "a ballet for both the tired critic and the tired businessman."

"It is a paradox that those who flock to a repertory form like ballet because it preserves the classics also expect new works," Kisselgoff observed in another one of her reviews. To his credit, McKenzie has hired choreographers such as Lar Lubovitch, David Parsons and Twyla Tharp to make contemporary dances for the company. A tribute to George Harrison by Australian choreographers Natalie Weir and Stanton Welch went over well. But critics panned the duo's more recent effort, HereAfter, set to choral score by Carl Orff and John Adams.

McKenzie understands the importance of this high-stakes artistic direction. "If you don't go there, the art form dies," he observes. But he accurately describes the anxiety involved in bringing new, expensive ballets into the world. "You gotta tell the public and your board and all the people you're raising money from that this is going to be the greatest thing since sliced bread. Then, if it doesn't turn out to be the greatest thing since sliced bread, well, what kind of idiot are you?"

What has been most consistent at McKenzie's ABT is the quality of the dancing. He once represented his fellow dancers in annual union negotiations, and appears to have a knack for what he modestly calls "putting the right people in the room together." It takes steady leadership to attract, coach and satisfy a stable of talented young dancers from all over the world. In particular, American Ballet Theatre has been hailed for its impressive collection of male movers. One of its greatest, Herman Cornejo, is headlining the Burlington performance with partner Xiomara Reyes.

"People will put up with a lot to be here, but that doesn't mean you have to make their life miserable," McKenzie says with a knowing chuckle. "I set a tone that I want to be surrounded by thinking artists . . . I'm willing to manage their quirks, and my quirks, but it can't just be drama for drama's sake. Being a great artist doesn't mean you have to be crazy-out-of-your-mind temperamental."

The financial side of the nonprofit may cause the real tantrums at ABT, but McKenzie has a lot of confidence in the new executive director -- Rachel Moore is a former dancer with the company. Together they work on planning, budgeting and fundraising. McKenzie is the first to admit he was not trained to do "nitty-gritty, hard-core business thinking," as he puts it. But he claims to be able to recognize good and bad financial management. Even in ballet's back rooms, it may come down to casting.

McKenzie has definitely grown into his new role, which includes some schmoozing. His sister attributes this talent to his personality. She describes this once-soaring Prince Siegfried as "down-to-earth . . . He's a very centered person, very comfortable in his own skin. I think most of the people he has to work with, and negotiate with, get that."

One theory? "You don't get to have a huge ego in a big family," Maureen says. "You have to pitch in and do the work. And he's number 11."

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