Kevin McKenzie on American Ballet Theatre, past and present

This is an extended version of a feature that first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald on 26 July, 2014

At the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, three American sailors on a 24-hour shore leave cartwheel onto the stage, swing past a lamppost, swagger into a bar, and throw back a beer or three.

The bartender is beyond boredom as the sailors spot a couple of women out on the town. Each man dances his socks off, tapping, high kicking, spinning into ballet turns, and jumping onto the bar as they compete for attention.

In a textbook case of art imitating life, the ballet on stage depicted life outside, where real sailors of the United States Navy clustered around Times Square, making most of every moment they could in their brief respite from battle.

With a simple set, a small cast, and no expectations other than the choreographer’s idea of a romp, the 1944 premiere of the ballet, Fancy Free, was a box office hit, an artistic triumph, and a pivotal moment in American theatre.

Fancy Free catapulted the choreographer, Jerome Robbins, and the composer, Leonard Bernstein, into a new stratosphere and marked the first major success of the four-year-old American Ballet Theatre.

The ripple effect was instantaneous. Fancy Free quickly inspired a Broadway musical, On the Town, then a movie starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Its success proved beyond doubt that American choreographers could break free from the dusty past of Russian ballet and create new works set in the here and now of the United States.

The ballet became a calling card for the company in hundreds of locations, among them a high school gym, a Las Vegas nightclub, the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria, the steps of the New York Public Library and the deck of a United States Navy aircraft carrier.

Now, Fancy Free will add Brisbane to the mix with American Ballet Theatre’s first ever visit to Australia next month.

Two months after the Brisbane season, American Ballet Theatre will launch its 75th anniversary season in New York, a landmark event for the company of 90 dancers and its ballet staff, led by the artistic director, Kevin McKenzie.

“We’re going to milk it”, he said. “We’ll be focusing on our heritage works”, not only Fancy Free but Antony Tudor’s Pillar of Fire and Lilac Garden, and Agnes de Mille’s ballets, Rodeo and Fall River Legend. The past will meet with the present as the company premieres works by choreographers, Mark Morris, Liam Scarlett and Alexei Ratmansky, the company’s artist-in-residence. Ratmansky’s new Sleeping Beauty will cost $US5 million production. Just as well David H Koch, a billionaire and a trustee of American Ballet Theatre for a quarter of a century, is able to underwrite the production with a gift of $US2.5 million.

The American heritage is vitally important to the company. Jerome Robbins who went on to choreograph West Side Story asked rhetorically, “Why can’t we dance about American subjects? Why can’t we talk about the way we dance today and how we are now?”

And from the start American Ballet Theatre did, with George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, which blends the high kicks of showgirls with pure academic ballet, de Mille’s Rodeo, with its cowboys and hoedown and Fall River Legend, based on the trial of Lizzie Borden, accused of murdering her parents with an axe.

De Mille said of the American choreographers, Robbins, Michael Kidd and herself “To the classic base we have accordingly added colloquialism. We have come down to earth; we have put our feet on the ground” and she proved her commitment to American dance by choreographing the great musicals Oklahoma!, Carousel and Brigadoon.

Twyla Tharp followed in her path. Equally confident in the worlds of ballet and Broadway, she choreographed Nine Sinatra Songs, In the Upper Room, in which some dancers wore pointe shoes and others wore sneakers, and the showcase for Mikhail Baryshnikov, Push Comes to Shove, and Movin’ Out, to the songs of Billy Joel.

McKenzie, artistic director for 22 years, has been working on the anniversary all this year, but he made time to fly to Australia to promote the season to come, with a whistle stop tour to Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, along with two principal dancers from the company.

I met McKenzie in Sydney at the Nine Network studios where the dancers performed an extract from Swan Lake for the Mornings show. As they prepared, we sat in the Green Room where he maintained an air of absolute calm despite the undercurrent of confusion surrounding us. (A hiccup with the music tape. And was backdrop OK? And would the studio floor be safe for the dancers? It was, as they insisted it be sprung.)

McKenzie, 60 this year, is a practiced talker and effortless raconteur but he’s also a good listener, an attribute he may have learned early as the youngest of 11 children in a family who owns a meat packing business in Burlington, Vermont.

He started his professional dancing career in Washington DC but in 1979 McKenzie moved to New York to join ABT, first as a soloist, then rising to the rank of principal in 1991. The following year he was appointed artistic director.

His 22-year directorship puts him in company with a very short list of ballet chiefs who have racked up more than two decades in a notoriously difficult position.

But, despite the stress of the job, he in no way resembles the neurotic, even maniacal ballet bosses portrayed in the movies CentreStage and Black Swan. If he was he could not have remained in the post for so long. Nevertheless, McKenzie is well aware that the ballet world is a rickety platform on which all the players must maintain a steely inner self along with a humble façade.

As for the movie depictions of ballet, “it’s so easy to stereotype because yes, ballet dancers spend their lives trying to balance humility and hubris, so yeah, it’s not an office worker job, it’s a particular dynamic, it’s a particular personality that can easily be caricatured”.

At the top of the ABT pyramid McKenzie has to manage one of the biggest ballet companies in the world, employing 90 dancers and more than a dozen of so superstars, including guest dancers from around the world. He is continually planning the repertoire at least three years in advance, and, along with the company’s chief executive officer, Rachel S. Moore, making sure the dollars keep flowing in.

ABT has bounced between serious financial deficits and breakeven years for decades. Its present operating budget is now in the safer zone, with a breakeven of $US43 million. Only a tiny percentage comes from government sources.

“ABT is unique in the world in that it has lived from year to year with no security”, said McKenzie. “There is not another company like it with that kind of insecurity. All the other companies have government funding”.

In the last few years it was hit by the global financial crisis and, earlier, a revolving door of executive directors. Moore, appointed executive director in April 2004 and chief executive officer seven years later, recently told a reporter from Bloomberg that the company “had about four executive directors in a short time. The deficit was huge…we restructured the finance department, analysed production costs and overtime and we reframed ourselves as a national company by touring a lot. New York is very expensive; touring is about mitigating loss”.

McKenzie hopes the 75th anniversary program will help build income and provide a cushion for the next time the US economy crashes, “as we all know it will”.

He tells of his time at the top in three chapters.

“The first seven years were about crisis management. The next seven years were about learning how to be an artistic director, and the next seven years will be me taking great pride in trying to cement Alexei’s place”.

McKenzie’s appointment of Alexei Ratmansky as artist-in-residence was a great coup. The Russian choreographer is considered by many to be the brightest star in the ballet galaxy. A former artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet he excels at creating narrative works.

McKenzie’s pursuit of Ratmansky reveals McKenzie’s determination to get what he wants.

“When Alexei was artistic director of the Bolshoi he came to me for advice and how we could work together. Then he let me know he was not going to re-sign as the Bolshoi director. He said ‘I realise that directing is getting in the way of choreographing and I just want to choreograph’”.

McKenzie asked if Ratmansky could choreograph for ABT. He could and he did, with the ballet, On the Dnieper in 2009. The company’s repertoire now includes 11 of Ratmansky’s acclaimed works.

Then, said McKenzie, “I was having a health crisis. I had this huge kidney stone thing. I was way out of control and went with some friends to a resort to recuperate and there someone said ‘look at this on the internet! Alexei’s going to sign up as resident choreographer of (New York) City Ballet and I was like, what! I got on the email and said ‘please don’t sign anything until you talk to me’ and he called, and said ‘what’s up?’

“I said if you sign up with them make sure you have the capability to go somewhere else, that you’re not excluded from (American) Ballet Theatre and if that’s not true, I want you to know that I’d love you to be at Ballet Theatre but you can go anywhere else including New York City Ballet and create on them. I told him ‘I want to offer you the job that I really wanted and that’s to be the creative genius and not have any of the headaches in management’. Next thing I know he said ‘great, let’s do that’.

“I think he clearly demonstrates the ability to take the classics with total reference points to what the original intent was – to give us a fresh look at them. He has the ability to create the classic of the future if not the classics of the future”.

The first big classic is likely to be Ratmansky’s interpretation of The Sleeping Beauty and a new Swan Lake could follow. Kevin McKenzie’s production of Swan Lake, now 14 years old, will anchor the Australian tour repertoire but McKenzie may decide it’s time for a facelift for this classic of all classics, and Ratmansky is the man to do it.

American Ballet Theatre relies on four pillars: 19th century classical ballets reinvented for the 21st century, the company’s 20th century heritage works, such as Fancy Free, its roster of glamorous star dancers, and the importance of the label ‘American’.

Although nine of the 16 principal dancers were not born in the United States, the key word in the company’s title is ‘American’. Originally called Ballet Theatre, it evolved from the remnants of a company founded by the Russian dancer, Mikhail Mordkin, who moved to the United States and established the Mordkin Ballet. Luckily for him, one of his students, Lucia Chase, was the daughter of a very wealthy family. She helped fund the Mordkin Ballet and then Ballet Theatre, a company she ran with the designer, Oliver Smith, for four decades.

During their extraordinarily long reign it was renamed American Ballet Theatre and kept afloat with Chase’s fortune.

These golden but turbulent years ended in 1980 when Chase was edged aside and the Russian superstar, Mikhail Baryshnikov, led the company for a decade. Now, under the leadership of Moore and the company is even more focused on the American label.

In 2006 the United States Congress passed a resolution recognising ABT as “America’s National Ballet Company” and McKenzie continues to speak of the symbolism. The company had to think of itself as a symbol of something, but a symbol of what? “Our identity”, he said, “is embedded in the three words of our title. We’re American.”

Classical ballet in the United States had completed its journey from what the author, Jennifer Homans, described as a “scattered and largely Russian art on the theatrical margins to the forefront of American cultural life”.

Despite the emphasis on America, the ensembles of the US ballet companies are seldom representative of the nation as a whole. Until recently, very few offered contracts to African American female dancers, although African American men had an easier path. Among the higher ranks in ABT, is the American African, Misty Copeland, who is expected to dance the dual roles of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake in Australia.

Despite his longevity as artistic director, McKenzie has still not fulfilled his ambitions, among them further plans for more reincarnations of classics, and not just a tweak at their edges. A perfect example, he said, was the unexpected but hugely successful transformation of Romeo & Juliet into West Side Story, when Jerome Robbins, “took one of those great human conundrums that Shakespeare defines – passion, envy, betrayal and found a new story, a new classic.

“What I want to achieve”, McKenzie said, “is very different to what I would liked to have achieved 10 or 20 years ago. I now realise theatre is there to challenge our assumptions.

“Somewhere in there we are going to find a breakthrough either in movement or production values. I see it in [the choreographer] Christopher Wheeldon’s work and in Alexei’s work – that new way to tell a story”.

Just as Robbins found in 1944.

In the first review of Fancy Free that year The New York Times’ critic, John Martin, wrote: “To come right to the point without any ifs, ands and buts, Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free, which the Ballet Theatre presented in its world premiere last night at the Metropolitan Opera House, is a smash hit. This is young Robbins’ first go at choreography, and the only thing he has to worry about in that direction is how in the world he is going to make his second one any better”.

As it happened, Robbins had nothing to worry about at all. His breakthrough led to the birth of ballet Americana.

American Ballet Theatre’s season at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre runs from August 28 until September 7.

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Kevin McKenzie with dancers from American Ballet Theatre, curtain call, 2012, photographer unknown

Craig Salstein, David Hallberg and Marcelo Gomes, Fancy Free, American Ballet Theatre, photo © Rosalie O’Connor

Bach Partita, choreography Twyla Tharp, photo © Gene Schiavone

Sarah Lane in Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas, American Ballet Theatre, photo © Gene Schiavone

Swan Lake, American Ballet Theatre, photo © Gene Schiavone

Lucia Chase, photo © Maurice Seymour