In 1992, the European Union coalesced, Bill Clinton won the presidency, John Gotti landed in the slammer, and the NYC transit fare hit $1.25. And Kevin McKenzie, revered for his steady temperament, took the wheel as Artistic Director at American Ballet Theatre. At the end of 2022, he will step down after three decades.
McKenzie’s stamina and directorial finesse reflect his dancing at ABT, where he was a Principal Dancer from 1980 to 1991: astutely Apollonian, noble, theatrical, but strikingly versatile—he was equally at home as the tap-dancing Champion Roper in Rodeo or as an atoning Albrecht in Giselle. He has embodied both the classy and the classical—the New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce called him “the Jeremy Irons of ballet.” And as director, he wanted ABT to follow his lead. He has worked enthusiastically hands-on in the rehearsal studio, often, late into his 50s, demonstrating double tours en l’air in his street clothes or stepping in to correct the technique of partnering a ballerina.
When he began in 1992, ABT was over $5 million in debt and floundering. McKenzie, whom the dancers enthusiastically endorsed as the new director, maintained a positive outlook and a dogged work ethic. During his tenure, and despite his relative lack of previous directorial experience, he molded the corps de ballet to dance better than it ever had; hired burgeoning young choreographers such as Nacho Duato, Christopher Wheeldon, Wayne McGregor, Jessica Lang, and Cathy Marston; created and curated solid, crowd-pleasing interpretations of the classics; amped up the caliber of the male stars; shepherded ballerinas, such as Misty Copeland and Isabella Boylston, from the corps through to stellar status; and with the ABT executive directors, stabilized the budget.
The Company has made impressive strides during those three decades, but McKenzie has decided that it is now time to pass the baton. He had recognized 30 years as a benchmark, but other intervening circumstances confirmed his instinct to move on. “When COVID hit, we were at an inflection point,” says McKenzie, now 68. “This feels like the right time—not because the Company’s in bad shape—frankly, the Company is in pretty damn good shape considering what we’ve all been through.”
ABT maintained a pandemic presence, including filmed performances, through creative social media. But, says McKenzie, “I realized the very thing that I don’t have a very high regard for, which is social media, is going to play a huge role in the Company’s future. I feel the Artistic Director should know how to control the messaging and imagery.” He believes ABT must be a catalyst to teach those with a short attention span “to be an audience instead of just searching for cool things to look at.”
Perhaps McKenzie’s crowning achievement during his reign at ABT materialized when he nabbed master choreographer Alexei Ratmansky as Artist in Residence in 2009. Ratmansky’s contributions to the Company include 18 new ballets, including such repertory gems as Seven Sonatas, The Seasons, Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, a new production of The Nutcracker, and this summer’s New York premiere, Of Love and Rage. “Alexei taught the Company how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” says McKenzie. “That’s why the performers are so daring now, why they are more believable.”
Designed to train students from a young age through maturity, the American Ballet Theatre JKO School was launched in 2004, well after ABT Summer Intensives and ABT Studio Company, the troupe’s trainee performance group, were established. At first, McKenzie wasn’t convinced a school was necessary, questioning how ABT’s style would justify a school. “I realized we don’t have a singular style—we’re about energy and can-do,” says McKenzie. “The science and the music and the ability and the way to approach your dancing and what it means to you and how the music informs you—that’s the dominant thing.”
He helped to formulate a curriculum, one that allows dancers the technical foundation to take on disparate styles. “It’s like putting on an Ashton suit, then Balanchine, then Jiří Kylián,” says McKenzie. “To have a closet like that is astounding.” A majority of the current ABT corps de ballet, Soloists, and Principal Dancers have progressed through the ranks, either from the ABT JKO School or from ABT Studio Company, into the main troupe.
Speaking of Frederick Ashton, McKenzie aimed to address what he calls ABT repertory’s “sins of omission” by acquiring masterworks, such as John Cranko’s Onegin and Ashton’s The Dream, that help to shape dancers into great artists.
McKenzie’s directorship has given us unforgettable moments on the ABT stage: Alessandra Ferri and Julio Bocca, hopelessly passionate in Manon; Misty Copeland’s White Swan and Gillian Murphy’s Black Swan debuts; a teenaged Paloma Herrera’s dazzling first Theme and Variations; Angel Corella and Diana Vishneva in a heart-breaking Giselle; Julie Kent as a shimmering, seductive Titania in The Dream; Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg in the rapturous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet; and the sublime ABT corps de ballet in La Bayadère’s Kingdom of the Shades scene, or sliding down a ramp in that delicious Whipped Cream ballet blanc.
Are there any regrets over the last 30 years? “I wish that we could have had a presence in theaters all around the world in far greater numbers,” expresses McKenzie. With 12 Swan Lake performing opportunities in a year for a ballerina, rather than two, “think how much more they would develop and how much more powerful each performance would be.”
McKenzie will stay with ABT through 2022, acting as an advisor to the directorial transition committee. In the near future, McKenzie says, “I need the space to think and be. The one thing I know is I don’t want to run another ballet company!” He does plan to be more active in the Kaatsbaan Cultural Park, which he began with his wife, former ABT ballerina Martine van Hamel, and two other founders in Tivoli, New York.
During his entire directorship, McKenzie says, “I was doing what I loved to do.”
For leading American Ballet Theatre through the tough times and the great ones, thank you, Mr. McKenzie. After dancing and directing, may your third act also be fortuitously blessed.
Joseph Carman is a former ABT dancer who writes about the performing arts.