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Artistic director of American Ballet Theatre has his own ‘Billy Elliot’ story

Hee Seo, Cory Stearns and Joseph Gorak are members of the American Ballet Theatre, celebrating its 75th anniversary with a special documentary May 15 on PBS.
Hee Seo, Cory Stearns and Joseph Gorak are members of the American Ballet Theatre, celebrating its 75th anniversary with a special documentary May 15 on PBS. TNS

When Kevin McKenzie was 18 he found himself dancing with prima ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn. While he was just one of the cavaliers, it was a coup for the kid who’d goofed up his tap dancing class when he was in the seventh grade.

It was a long leap that led McKenzie to where he is today: artistic director of American Ballet Theatre.

He went on to become a leading dancer with the Joffrey Ballet and the National Ballet of Washington, and soloist with American Ballet Theatre which is celebrating its 75th anniversary.

To commemorate that event PBS’ “American Masters” is presenting the documentary “American Ballet Theatre: a History” on May 15. McKenzie is a pivotal part of the film – he’s been artistic director for 23 years.

But it didn’t begin fortuitously. His father was in the meat packing business and McKenzie was the youngest of 11 children.

“We were not well off and my journey was a little like the ‘Billy Elliot’ story,” he says. “I had a friend . . . who was going on and on about these tap dance lessons, how much fun they were. And my father overheard us talking and he said, ‘You should go … who knows you could be the next Fred Astaire.’”

His parents arranged private lessons. “After three lessons I was hooked.”

“The transition from dancer to artistic director it was a very tumultuous time,” he says.

“When I joined as director, the company was on its knees. It was in such dire financial straits that it was ready to close, and I was the go-to guy of last resort. Everyone who had the experience and the knowledge to direct a big institution had said, ‘I won’t touch this with a 10-foot pole. I’m not going to preside over the downfall of the ABT.’”

He made it clear that he didn’t want to be hustling funds nor would he settle for a desk job. “For me it needed to be about the artistic planning, about the hiring, firing of the artist. It needed to be about coaching and teaching and, at that time when I joined, about choreographing.”

McKenzie feels his childhood fortified him for the job. “I think that the amalgam of growing up in such a large family where there wasn’t time for any acting out or any ego. It was like, ‘OK, everybody, we all have to get through this day. And at the end of it, the beds have to be made, the dishes have to be done, and la-da-da-da-da-da. And I’m not doing it alone, we’re all doing it.’ It was organized chaos, and that’s what I do now.”

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