Dancer Kevin McKenzie Looks Back on a Remarkable Career, Onstage and Off | Performing Arts | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Dancer Kevin McKenzie Looks Back on a Remarkable Career, Onstage and Off

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Published July 7, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated July 9, 2021 at 10:05 a.m.


Kevin McKenzie and Natalia Makarova in Romeo and Juliet - COURTESY OF MIRA
  • Courtesy Of Mira
  • Kevin McKenzie and Natalia Makarova in Romeo and Juliet

Kevin McKenzie's dance career got off to a shaky start. The Burlington native was 6 years old when his father suggested he tag along with a friend who was taking tap lessons. "Who knows, you could be the next Fred Astaire," McKenzie remembers him saying.

Not so much. A few weeks later, young Kevin demonstrated a routine — while hanging on to the back of a chair. Thinking his son needed to work on his balance, Raymond McKenzie then advised that Kevin take ballet classes with his sister Maureen.

Not only did Kevin's balance improve, he took to ballet like an otter to water. Still, no one in the McKenzie family could have predicted that the once-awkward little boy would become one of the most acclaimed classical dancers of his generation.

Most notably, McKenzie performed with American Ballet Theatre from 1979 to 1991. When his dancing years came to an end, he accepted the role of artistic director for the company. This spring, McKenzie announced that he would retire in 2022 after 30 years at the helm.

In a phone conversation as he was driving to his home in Woodstock, N.Y., McKenzie, 67, reflected on his remarkable career at the pinnacle of American dance, beginning right here in Vermont.

Young Kevin McKenzie - COURTESY OF KEVIN MCKENZIE
  • Courtesy Of Kevin Mckenzie
  • Young Kevin McKenzie

From the start, he recalled, he was hooked on ballet. "It just spoke to me," McKenzie said. "There was something about the music and the positions and the way it made you feel."

In order to take extra ballet classes, he gave up basketball and other afterschool sports. That was far from typical for a boy in those days, but McKenzie's large Irish Catholic family — of the famous meat company his grandfather founded — supported and celebrated his talent.

He's the youngest of 11 siblings. Maureen McKenzie recalled, "Dad and Mom were always interested in what we were learning at dance school." Another sister, Martha McKenzie Akey, enthused, "We were always proud of Kevin."

After seven years at the (now-defunct) O'Brien School of Dance in South Burlington, teacher Rosemary O'Brien figured she had brought Kevin and Maureen as far as she could; she encouraged their parents to send them off for professional training. They auditioned and were awarded scholarships to the Academy of the Washington Ballet, a conservatory program where the two spent their high school years away from home.

Kevin McKenzie said he never minded missing out on normal teenage activities. "I was always so engaged by everything, loving what I did," he said. "This is what I wanted to do with my spare time."

He was grateful, too, that academic classes at the ballet conservatory were tailored to students who wanted to spend a life in the theater: "Ancient history classes were about the history of culture," McKenzie recalled. "Geometry classes related to architecture and choreography. Biology classes related to hip and shoulder placement in relation to ballet and how the body moves."

After graduation, his sister Maureen moved to New York City to study with Harkness Ballet but ultimately did not pursue a professional career.

Kevin and Maureen McKenzie - COURTESY OF ROSALIE O'CONNOR
  • Courtesy Of Rosalie O'connor
  • Kevin and Maureen McKenzie

McKenzie's summer after high school, in 1972, was a heady time that brought him national and international attention. He performed in Washington, D.C., on the outdoor stage at Wolf Trap and in the opera house at the Kennedy Center. And he was the first American to win a silver medal at the prestigious International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria.

"It was awesome before the phrase came into being," McKenzie said. "I was living in a state of awe."

That same year he was hired by National Ballet of Washington, DC, and danced with the company until it went bankrupt two years later. McKenzie's dream was to dance with ABT, so he auditioned in New York City but was told there were no open positions at the time. Instead, he danced with Joffrey Ballet for four years.

Finally, McKenzie's dream was realized in a most circuitous fashion.

While recovering from a broken metatarsal in 1979, McKenzie left the Joffrey and began taking classes with Maggie Black, who taught many ballet stars. It was there that he met and became friends with Martine van Hamel, one of ABT's prima ballerinas.

McKenzie told van Hamel about a duet by John Cranko, Pas de Deux Holberg, that he had performed at the Joffrey, suggesting it would be a perfect vehicle for her. When van Hamel saw the work, she persuaded ABT to acquire the rights to it. Later that year, while performing the piece in Chicago, van Hamel's partner was injured. Since McKenzie knew the duet, he was hired to sub as a guest artist.

Although his foot wasn't fully healed, McKenzie nailed that performance. Immediately afterward, he recalled, then-ABT artistic director Lucia Chase "gave me a soloist contract." Later that same season, he became a principal.

Over the next 22 years, McKenzie thrived with the company — and with van Hamel. Their onstage chemistry grew into a lifelong partnership. They married in 2014 after what Maureen called "a rather long engagement of 30-plus years."

Martine van Hamel and Kevin McKenzie in Swan Lake - COURTESY OF MIRA
  • Courtesy Of Mira
  • Martine van Hamel and Kevin McKenzie in Swan Lake

McKenzie's dramatic, emotional dancing made him a preferred partner for many ballerinas. In a gala video tribute to him 10 years ago, Russian superstar Natalia Makarova called him "my favorite Romeo," referring to when they had performed together on world stages throughout the '80s.

"I couldn't believe that I ended up dancing with Makarova, because she was one of my heroes," McKenzie marveled. "Partnering her in this role made me discover a huge part of my own capability and my theatricality."

Critics gushed about McKenzie, too. The New Yorker's Arlene Croce called him the "Jeremy Irons of ballet" for his portrayals in story ballets such as Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet, The Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake.

Since ABT hired dancers for only 42 weeks each season, McKenzie often guested with other companies around the world, including London Festival Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet and National Ballet of Cuba. He and van Hamel also toured with New Amsterdam Ballet, which they formed in 1982. This chamber company appeared at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in 1986, but — to the disappointment of local fans and family — McKenzie pulled a muscle in rehearsals and could not perform for the Burlington crowd. The duo later cofounded the Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli, N.Y., in 1990.

Of course, no matter how great the dancer, their onstage careers are limited. At the age of 37, McKenzie came to terms with what his artistic mentor, the Danish dancer Erik Bruhn, had told him: "As the artist matures, their artistry deepens, but their body betrays them."

McKenzie left ABT in 1991 to become artistic associate of Washington Ballet. "I was really interested in choreography, had been choreographing for a couple of years, and I knew I was waning," McKenzie said. "Here I could have my own company to choreograph on — how fabulous is that?"

But the position was short-lived. A year later, ABT and the Joffrey were in financial distress; both organizations consulted with McKenzie.

"The two boards were acting like it could be a corporate merger," he said. "'We merge our two companies, and we will have all these assets.'" McKenzie remembered chiding them: "The assets are a bunch of stinky costumes. What are you going to call it? If it's not Joffrey or ABT, you are starting over. Have you talked to anyone in the artistic community? I think this is a bad idea."

Instead of merging with the Joffrey, ABT asked McKenzie to become its artistic director. He accepted but reminded the board that he didn't go to business school and would need "a brilliant executive director to be responsible for fundraising and marketing." At that point, the company was $5.7 million in debt.

McKenzie further articulated his role to the board: "I can direct the company artistically. All I have to do is set an example for the artists with the level of achievement we are looking for."

Working with the administration, McKenzie said his commonsense modus operandi was, "We can't afford to do this right now, but we're going to figure out what we can afford and just make it work."

The company downsized and slowly righted itself with McKenzie's canny curation of full-length narratives, revivals of company standards and commissioning of new work. Within a few years, his adroit leadership returned ABT to preeminence on world stages, as well as to financial viability.

Kevin McKenzie - COURTESY OF KEVIN MCKENZIE
  • Courtesy Of Kevin Mckenzie
  • Kevin McKenzie

Over the next three decades, McKenzie was strategic. "I had to take the approach that we are the nation's ballet company," he said. "We had to be capable of presenting the classics in the most respectful way, but in a way that made them relevant."

His own choreography for ABT included full-length story ballets — The Nutcracker (1993), Swan Lake (2000), The Sleeping Beauty (2007). His Swan Lake, a tragic tale of love and betrayal, was a triumph with its lavish sets, bejeweled costumes, dazzling party scenes and 28 elegant dancing swans. The New York Times called it "the blockbuster production for the dance season."

Yet McKenzie's vision was also more expansive. "If you do only the classics, you are a museum, so we tried to find choreographers who stretched the limits of the rules," he explained. "The contemporary works needed to break all the rules with our unbelievable dancers."

One choreographer in particular, Alexei Ratmansky, has been prolific, creating 20 acclaimed works since he was named ABT's artist-in-residence in 2009.

This appointment was "the best thing I ever did for Ballet Theatre," McKenzie exclaimed. "The reason I landed him was serendipitous. In conversation, I knew he wasn't going to be renewing his contract as director of the Bolshoi, so I offered him the job. Ratmansky is so comfortable with the classical canon but has a new way of telling a narrative," McKenzie added. "He's a genius."

The admiration is mutual. In March this year, Ratmansky told the New York Times that McKenzie "changed my life with a single phone call."

Female choreographers, too, thrived at ABT. Twenty-seven women created dances under McKenzie's leadership. This happened organically. McKenzie said he reviews tapes without résumés and invites choreographers whose work he likes; many happened to be women.

However, once ABT's administration formalized this pattern as a "women's movement" initiative for fundraising purposes, some artists chafed, feeling tokenized; they wanted to be known first as choreographers.

McKenzie remembered Twyla Tharp telling him, "You don't need more women choreographers; you need better choreographers."

Just as significant for the company's reputation was McKenzie's development of strong dancers. Though he inherited the guest-star system, he eventually rejected such reliance on international artists to sell tickets. Instead, ABT opened the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in 2004 to nurture its own homegrown dancers' technical skills.

Now, McKenzie boasted, "the company is the star." Today's audiences cheer for principals such as James Whiteside, Misty Copeland and Vermont Ballet Theater School alumna Devon Teuscher.

It's a further testament to McKenzie's prowess that eight former ABT dancers hold artistic director positions in companies around the world. His advice to them has been, "Every single company has its own culture, and they have to set the pulse of that culture," McKenzie reiterated. "The only thing I can help them with is the tone they can set."

Like all performing arts organizations, ABT has been hard-hit by the pandemic. The company's 2019 operating budget of $45 million shrank to $30 million last year. Because box office revenue was nonexistent, the organization relied entirely on philanthropy.

McKenzie explained, "We found a new way to make work." ABT put smaller ensembles into quarantined settings; during lockdown, the company created and filmed 17 dances for digital distribution on the company's website.

This month, ABT is back on the road, touring to eight cities in a pandemic-responsive manner. The dancers, who perform outdoors on a custom-built stage, travel in three groups of 20 each in separate sleeper buses and production trucks. The tour culminates on July 21 at New York City's Rockefeller Center, the site of ABT's first performance in 1940. McKenzie said he loved "the poetic justice of that."

The 2021-22 season will be his last. McKenzie is busy planning repertory for a return to the Metropolitan Opera House this fall, as well as "to incorporate these systems we used to create smaller works to expand on the bus and truck tour."

Looking to the future, he was cautiously optimistic. "We're not going to be able to go right back to the way it used to be," McKenzie said. "Necessity is the mother of invention — there are many new ways to make live performance happen in conventional and unconventional ways simultaneously."

He added that lessons learned during the pandemic will give his successor options. "At least we have a moment in transition where we can experiment," McKenzie said, "and no one is going to shake their head at us."

Rep. John Killacky (D-South Burlington) is a former dancer and the former executive director of the Flynn.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Dance Master | Kevin McKenzie looks back on a remarkable career, onstage and off"