BWW Interview: A Conversation with Canadian Ballet Star Evan McKie, Principal Dancer with The National Ballet of Canada
In less than a week, The National Ballet of Canada invites you to experience Streetcar like you've never seen it before. John Neumeier's ballet, A Streetcar Named Desire picks up where the play left off, with Blanche DuBois in a mental institution. Set to music by Prokofiev and Schnittke, Neumeier's "daring and sensitive" choreography manipulates the well-known story, delving into a deeper investigation of the psychological aspects of the play.
Playing Mitch in Streetcar, is one of the National Ballet of Canada's Principal Dancers, Evan McKie. A Toronto native, Evan trained at Canada's National Ballet School, The Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C. and the John Cranko School in Germany. After gathering experience as a Principal Dancer with the Stuttgart Ballet, Evan returned home to appear with The National Ballet of Canada in 2012, becoming a Principal Guest Artist in 2013 and Principal Dancer in 2014.
Evan has enjoyed a thriving international career, performing with the Paris Opéra Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, Mariinsky Ballet and the Tokyo Ballet, to name a few. Hailed as "among the absolute best in the world" (Dance Europe), it was my pleasure to chat with Evan about life as a dancer and his role in the upcoming ballet, A Streetcar Named Desire.
TAYLOR LONG: Tell me about how you started dancing as a young boy in Toronto. What piqued your interest? What kept you focused and motivated and what gives you the courage to dance on the best world stages?
EVAN MCKIE: I am just freakishly in love with ballet and always have been since I first saw it. My family, friends and teachers will attest to that. I'm equally immersed in past and future generations. That is what motivates me and gives me courage. I grew up in a theatrical family, there was constantly conversation and debate about music, the performing arts, books, philosophy... I already loved the idea of creating an atmosphere and connecting with others.
When I realized that ballet and dance could combine acting and music, it opened my eyes. I think everyone's body has something different to say and this fills me with appreciation and motivation to keep working. I like the athletic side of dance and it is the emotional human reasons for each movement that drives me to be athletic and keep pushing past any previously set boundaries. I am always focussing on what's next.
TL: You've been described as "a rare type of dancer who represents both the most exquisite quality of movement and also uninhibited individualism." You are only in your early thirties - how do you stay humble when you are often called "among the best in the world"?
EM: I am eternally humble through dance. It is so limitless. It keeps me dreaming. It is so hard, that it keeps me grounded and most importantly it keeps me questioning my own perceptions and those of others. That is really the magic of it. It took me a long time to become a Principal Dancer compared to many of my colleagues. I was a little bit younger than them, a little bit gawkier and in a place where there were great dancers ahead of me. I am grateful now, that I had so much time connecting to each rank of the ballet company and understanding the patience and hard work that goes into each person's role in such an organization. I spent years coming to a boil and so when things started to really heat up for me, I was ready and knew what I wanted and how I wanted to treat the people around me. It's an energy exchange and that's what makes it interesting. If that balance isn't right, it doesn't work.
Performing in the most exclusive companies in Paris, Russia and Tokyo, where they set the bar exceptionally high, is always an honour because you have to work to the highest standards and have something completely unique to say with your dancing to be worthy. That is a great and high-pressure challenge - and life is short, so my character thrives on that - aiming really high and seeing if I can do it, you know?
I have my own standard and I keep working to upgrade it wherever I go, in any environment. It is not an easy way to be, you lose some friends along the way, but you also make incredible new ones who understand the sacrifices and the drive.
TL: How did Karen Kain (Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada) convince you to begin investing the prime years of your career into the National Ballet of Canada? Was there a campaign to bring you home to Toronto?
EM: I don't think any convincing was necessary, though she can be very charming. It was her repertoire of different ballets that she was building in Canada, that I felt I could contribute to and be happy developing myself in and she agreed. I needed something that was a combination of the fast-paced American style and the dramatic-narrative theatrical British style and that is how I see The National Ballet of Canada. We are always doing new work and taking new chances.
I also wanted to continue educating myself about the business of theatre in North America. (There are substantial differences on each continent.) I like to see how each company around the world operates from the outside and from the inside and I have seen many. I have had a strange fascination with the engineering of art and groups of artists since I was a kid. I would sit with friends who were also "young aficionados" and we would create business models for dance companies in our dorm rooms during Nutcracker season. We tried to give opportunities to all of the dancers in the school who we saw hidden potential in! I loved this as much as I loved dancing even at the age of 13! It was all just fun then. Anyway, five years ago I was invited, by Karen, to start performing with the National Ballet. After getting a feel for the enormous potential of the company, I asked if she thought she could see an interesting future for me, engaging full-time and full-heartedly here while stepping away from a thriving career in Europe. She was very positive and so here I am!
Many people ask if I came to Toronto as a sort of allegiance to my home because I am Canadian, but the truth is, I care most about how much a person gives of themselves to each project, each day, anywhere in humanity. I have Canadians whom I admire, like choreographer Crystal Pite or writer Margaret Atwood, whose (Canadian) contribution to the world is not measured by where they live or how many years they have been working - they are just incredibly generous, talented and immersed in what they do, which means a great deal to me when I experience their work. Karen also lived the career of one of the top Canadian dancers, so she has a great understanding of some of the pressures of the job. I feel I can expose any insecurities or ambitious wishes in meetings with her and she will not look at me like I am crazy.
TL: What does your rehearsal process look like? How long do you rehearse for a production, how many hours per week?
EM: 8 hours of training, rehearsing and dancing a day....sometimes more. It's more than a full-time job! Rehearsals start with creating new steps or learning already-created choreography from the past like in Swan Lake. Then you try to feel how you want to dance it and what the choreographer wants. We work in groups, couples and often alone with a coach and we just keep working until we improve and are ready to perform! I enjoy when we have live music.
TL: It must be exhausting to dance so much and juggle all of your other activities at the same time. How do you stay energized when you are doing so many things at once?
EM: Everything I am doing invigorates me. It's like many of the best things in life - you give energy to get energy. I dance, write, consult, photograph, create projects, engage in charitable causes that mean something to me (like mental health and addiction) and pursue education in areas that will help me achieve my goals and passions. I get pleasure from being active and doing things that help me make a difference in another person's life - things that help me see life in different ways. After I went through a rough divorce four years ago, I filled my time with learning new things and building new bridges that I couldn't before. I like to be involved with a team and contribute in as individual a way as possible. I get energized from watching other people around me, especially when I think they have hidden talent that they may not know they have. That's why I love dancing a wide range of roles each year with a great group of people. People expose themselves in the most interesting ways sometimes and that is very valuable in our profession.
TL: You are known for being a "chameleon" onstage and have just won a fan-favourite award for your diverse portrayals over the last year in roles by George Balanchine, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky and John Cranko. How do you prepare for a new role? Is there research involved?
EM: Physical research and intellectual research make me excited. I dance to learn and portraying roles with the body is a great way to do that. I like to sponge up as much information about anything as I can, really. It is borderline obsessive, but that is how I like it. It is great to prepare myself immaculately and then a week before the show, have a reality check and kind of throw everything away to see what comes back. I always like the spontaneity of the live art-form.
Working with great choreographers can be the most rewarding experience. Choreographers, like dancers, either have it or they don't - but it is important to have a certain amount of patience to see how they grow, if they don't show promise for a while - just like young ballet students. On the other hand, I have worked with choreographers who blow me away from the first day and you can just feel that they have the chops. I have old videos of John Neumeier (A Streetcar Named Desire) in his twenties and he was already such a genius in his approach, integrity, ideas and skill.
TL: Tell me a bit about this production of A Streetcar Named Desire.
EM: John Neumeier is one of the best choreographers to turn a play like Streetcar into a dance performance. Physical storytelling is one of his specialities and he is known for often making the ballet versions of certain plays even more striking and humanly plausible than the originals. I have worked with him in Europe and here in Canada and I am always excited for more time with him. He too started his career in Stuttgart, Germany just like I did and it was there that he created this production of Streetcar.
I have danced this ballet as a young corps de ballet member but this will be the first time I will be playing Mitch, who is a sensitive leading character in the story. It is like no other role I have ever played. He is awkward and shy and perhaps idealistic when it comes to what a woman should be.
TL: How would you convince someone who's never been to a ballet, to come see A Streetcar Named Desire?
EM: Some ballets are about entertainment and some focus more on reflections of the realities that are inside of all of us and around us. I think both are important. Streetcar is a psychological journey, featuring one of the most famous characters in literary history, Blanche DuBois. There are stunning characters that give audiences a further glimpse into the depths of the company's talent pool. Come if you really want to lean forward and get into it. It is a Tennessee Williams play after all so there will be tension, sex, drama, repression and yearning.
TL: What is the best piece of advice you've received? And what advice would you give?
EM: Take your own road. Pave it if you have to. Learn from everyone and show respect but don't let anyone else tell you how to live your life, because they are often struggling to live their own. Value your friends and those who support you and if there are ever any haters, then still try to find the good in them and speak to their "best-self". It is difficult sometimes, but this is the only way to find mutual benefit and understanding.
My teacher at Canada's National Ballet School, the late Glenn Gilmour, told me, "the better you get at your craft, the more you will learn about human psychology in a select few others around you." He said there will be some great times and some sad times, especially if one is sensitive but told me to just keep believing and being positive until strength prevails. He was right and I am so happy he taught me to be kind and to learn from every light and dark situation, so that I can remain focused on a bigger purpose.
You can catch Evan in both of the upcoming National Ballet of Canada productions, A Streetcar Named Desire and Swan Lake.
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE runs from June 3 - 10, 2017 (Evan performs as Mitch on June 3, 7, 8 and 10 at 7:30pm)
SWAN LAKE runs from June 15 - 25, 2017 (Evan performs as Siegfried in Swan Lake on June 17, 21 at 7:30pm and June 25 at 2:00pm)
The National Ballet of Canada performs at The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street W, Toronto, ON.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit http://national.ballet.ca or call the box office at 1-866-345-9595. Tickets can also be purchased in person at The Four Seasons Centre.
(header photo credit: Karolina Kuras)