Evan McKie, Current Principal Dancer, The National Ballet of Canada, Previous Principal Dancer of The Stuttgart Ballet. Guest Principal of The Paris Opera, Mariinsky, Bolshoi and Tokyo Ballets.
You have certainly achieved a lot for a dance-artist of just 36 years... Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in dance?
Grew up in Toronto & then Stuttgart! Although "will to dance" is noted to be embedded in our DNA and starts in the womb, I became first fascinated thru MTV to be absolutely honest...dancing to Micheal Jackson, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and Madonna’s heavily choreographed and narrative-based music videos that I could do with them from my own living room in my pyjamas! I was born in the city of Toronto and once I started talking and walking my parents put everything into sending me to private schools because honestly, I think I asked too many questions and wanted answers and structure very early on in life! At home I was also exposed to a lot of jazz music and at school I started to learn about classical music. I became interested in Ballet when I saw John Cranko’s "Onegin" and it hit me….the idea of becoming a sort of "theatre artist" pulled me by the heart and tugged at my soul because I felt that perhaps one could feel intense responsibility and vulnerability at the same time while presenting a performance.
You have humbly described yourself as a "lanky late-bloomer riding principally on enthusiasm for the craft itself ” and yet you are in a small handful of the decades most critically acclaimed ballet dancers. Do you even read reviews ?
Yes I read some if I like the writing! I value each perception even if I don’t always agree. I don’t read them all though ... ! I’m definitely a dancer who started growing or "blooming" later than many of my colleagues because I think I needed more time to sponge a lot in before fully committing to some dauntingly complex roles that I’ve done. I observed a lot during those early years in Stuttgart and developed many opinions, thoughts and ideas by watching and studying. In the school I snuck into almost every performance Stuttgart Ballet gave.
You’ve had some truly outstanding reviews and reactions from the hardest-to-please critics and audiences...Does this ever affect your performances and friendships?
My performance is a space all it’s own...it’s sacred and it’s not about anything but the work and trust with partners and the audience. But in daily life, yes, I have felt totally guilty and deeply ashamed if people have suddenly stopped talking to me after a good review or two. It’s not like I expected them, you know! That’s something I was definitely NOT prepared for but has played a role in my life so far. It can be isolating. I want all of my colleagues to succeed. I’m not interested in being ashamed of my own truest work anymore out of some fear to offend. It’s gotten a lot better though since I stopped thinking about it. Besides, they don’t know how many bad reviews I’ve had haha!
What have been some of your worst reviews that you can recall ?
Someone in Germany once wrote that Parisian audiences only liked me because of certain physical attributes and that they really didn’t care about my artistry or work in the role of Cranko’s "Onegin" or Ratmansky’s "Psyché". Online, I’ve had people call me a number of things too. Mostly is just funny but it has also been vulgar.
How did your background and your family's background fuel your dancing?
They are theatre people… lighting engineers, makeup artists, play directors, drama teachers, musicians…. I am the first person to state that I wished to have a dance career. They taught me to be kind to people and to work hard though…but to never work against myself.
Why didn’t you go a more traditional route like auditioning for the Royal Ballet or American Ballet Theatre? Instead you’ve managed to break records by basing your search on literature’s most complicated roles and being part of new choreography as much as possible.
I have to follow my heart. This is the business of DANCE after all. It’s not that I wouldn’t love to dance at those two companies but I’ve honestly never been asked! I also have spent so many years being preoccupied with the work I’m learning and building new work as well. There are, of course, some very important guesting opportunities that I’ve had to turn down in Berlin and Holland because I was involved here in Canada performing at our National Arts Center in Ottawa. It was tricky in my heart at the time but sometimes I think one has to make sacrifices like that if they are interested in genuine cooperation in a group. Too many sacrifices might turn one into a lemming but I do think that those big ones that one has to make once in awhile underscore one’s commitment and social awareness.
Sacrifices are a big part of being a dancer. As a Principal Dancer, are there any other sacrifices you’ve made in order to focus on the team and develop collaborative efforts?
There was an instance I vividly remember in Washington D.C. where we (Zthe National Ballet of Canada) danced Christopher Wheeldon’s "The Winter’s Tale" at the Kennedy Center. There was a sudden winter blizzard after our first two shows that was so strong that the roads and transportation closed. A cast had to miss their show and so, when the snow started to melt and it looked like my cast was going to be able to do our second performance at the end of the run, we (Svetlana Lunkina, Jurgita Dronina and I) met privately one morning before class and decided to offer our performance to the cast of Guillaume Coté and Sonia Rodriguez (who had lost their show). Giving up a performance is not something one does lightly but we felt that it was the right thing and asked our director Karen Kain if it would be possible. She seemed touched by the spirit of cooperation and I felt like it was important to do at that time to see if it might promote solidarity. In the end the roads still hadn’t opened up enough to put on the show but it was about the idea of collaborative compromise and seeing how we could start the ball rolling. It is highly unusual, I know, but it felt like it was an important way to set a tone.
What career would you have chosen if you could not have been a dancer?
I held a fun photography vernissage once when I had a three-month injury and wanted to gauge the appeal of my work in a photography genre that was new to me... I was ready for anything but it was actually financially very successful and I sold 50 portraits in a day but the real fun was making the works with my friends. No two were alike; They were all different in front of the camera. I couldn’t believe how much I sold (!) and I also couldn’t believe, most importantly how many beautiful sides of themselves each colleague was willing to offer to our shootings. I like writing about dance too. I am immersed in film now, lighting and also.... from another side of my work , "neuroplasticity". We have mapped my brain a few times while I was dancing and it’s fascinating because the data on this topic is only beginning to be properly collected around the world. I’m also very interested in political science and social design.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started dancing professionally?
If you work your hardest, have good mentors and give your all, no step can actually be “wrong” … Also, to not let bad role-models get you down. Some are so wonderful and so it’s a shame when others just aren’t.
Which role has helped you grow into the respected artist that you are today ?
Oh Gosh, well I was "actively watching" for a long time before I was allowed to actually dance some of these roles.. : John Cranko’s Onegin, Christopher Wheeldon’s Leontes in “The Winters Tale” and Kevin O’Day’s “Hamlet” ; I started to trust myself in these experiences for the first time…and therethrough learned to look at my partners and castmates in a more trusting way too. These are roles that changed my life. I can say, too that especially, ALL roles by John Neumeier and Wayne McGregor demand on-the-spot growth because they force one to ask the toughest questions of oneself. It takes courage and time and also spontanaity and is, again, a trust exercise with yourself and with those around you: very revealing! I can’t give them enough praise; I love them.
Have you had any high-stress "last-minute" performances throughout the last decade and a half?
Onegin in Paris only happened because someone got injured and they asked me if I was interested and I said "of course"... I was on the train within an hour directly from theatre to theatre (Stuttgart-Paris) with only costumes in a suitcase that the Stuttgart wardrobe crew gave me. Aurélie Dupont and I got together and rehearsed very quickly in just a couple of days before our opening night! Exhilarating to say the least ! I also had a separate experience in Canada where two of the men playing Diaghilev in John Neumeier’s "Nijinsky" got injured so I was the only one left standing. There was no rehearsal time so we just kind of focused as much as we could and "winged" it. It’s been a highlight of my career so far partnering three different Nijinskys with such short notice. All three men dance so differently and with little to no rehearsing together, the connection and concentration has to be absolutely precise. Show after show after show, it became even more invigorating looking forward to partnering each one of them and seeing how much trust we could put into eachother. It was high-stress but also high-reward! It felt good to have so many shows back-to-back so that the characters start to build momentum!
Any advice on dealing with injuries?
If you handle them wisely, they can make you better, smarter and more understanding of what others might be going through. An injury is nothing to feel bad about; it’s an opportunity to grow. My first instinct was that I’m letting everyone down but then I realized that it happens to all of us at some point and it’s when one is injured that one needs the most support. I make sure I trust my physio and medical team and hope they are able to be articulate and make time for you. Everyone needs to find what works for them.
If a child told you they wanted to be a dancer, what advice would you give them?
Do it…it's one of the most glorious jobs there is if you remember to be kind and courageous. It’s already in your DNA to dance and you should see some of the breathtaking moments I catch a glimpse of every once in awhile. Unforgettable beauty.
How has social media changed a dancer’s status and what is required of them?
It’s another social stage, arena, workroom or gallery. Trends move faster, algorithms edit outliers out and human condition becomes diluted. Unusual creative ideas or hypotheses from within the human become even more valuable and rare…and, if combined with the artificial machine….can create a beautiful, profound reflection of a time that is unique and is ours to define.
Do you have one moment in your career that you remember most fondly? Or one moment that you feel really defined your career or the trajectory of it?
Ohhhhhh, deep breath : Getting approached by the incredible master-pedagogue, Mr. Pestov† to come to Stuttgart ! ; Being chosen by Reid Anderson to come to Stuttgart Ballet when they really didn’t need me at the time and then being patient enough to watch all of my colleagues be promoted or win awards while I watched and supported and learnt and became fascinated by the roles and ballets themselves. ; Being given a chance to suddenly dance Hamlet, right into my dream role that inspired me to dance called Onegin followed by surprise gusting In Paris Opera Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, Tokyo Ballet and Universal ballet. The Cranko Estate , Brigitte Lefevre and my partner Aurelie Dupond put their trust in me and my life changed instantly. ; Karen Kain asked me to guest as the Prince in Rudolph Nureyev’s “The Sleeping Beauty” back home in Canada at a time when I thought my discerning opinions about ballet and politics would limit me from ever coming back to Toronto. I like discussions and civil discourse in order to enhance emerging understanding and I didn’t think that was going to be welcome here…Also I had left to accept international offers for half of my education and that was very frowned upon by some. But, thank the Heavens, the spirit of Erik Bruhn and Rudolf Nureyev very much lived through Karen’s courage, gestures and advice during those initial rehearsals and I never forgot them. Three years later, for both personal and professional reasons, I made the choice to join the National Ballet of Canada as my second ballet company (or second life, if you will.) I have learned a ton by being so up close with this particular community and have been able to see the other companies I have danced with from an arms length perspective and therethru can appreciate them all more. I’m so grateful to Karen Kain for making many of my wishes come true and I can only hope that I have been of some value to her vision and team over the last 6 years. ; Winning the Kirov Academy Award for Outstanding merit as an Artist and Humanitarian three years ago was an emotional moment for me. I have tried to constantly redefine my limits as a dancer, thinker and also as an activist/volunteer so the recognition from the institution where I once studied was admittedly touching.
Who were some of the people who influenced you the most in your career?
Robert Tewsley was one of the best dancers I had ever seen. My ex-husband, Marijn Rademaker who gave me the great pleasure of growing along side each other for a decade in Stuttgart. We were both so dedicated to each step and proud of our art form. Karen Kain and Reid Anderson have both facilitated in ways that opened doors for my dreams to become realities. Wayne McGregor comes to mind when I think of someone who has made time for me and believed in me and reinvigorated me to consider problems from different perspectives a lot of the time. I’m very grateful.
Who would you like most to have a coffee with (could be dead or alive)?
Someone who can help teach me a new language. That is my goal in the coming years. I speak some but I do not speak enough…that means physical languages too. I must keep learning.
What do you most value in your friends?
Connection, individual strengths, shared responsibility, laughs.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
That it is an idea.
If you could be an animal, what would animal would you choose and why?
I don’t know. I don’t mind playing against the onlooker’s sympathy sometimes … I think that is an interesting challenge. Maybe I’d be from the Pokémon family.
Which person (dead or alive) would you most want to dance with if you could?
Natalia Makrova and Allegra Kent. They are eternal. They are very much part of who I am as a dancer. I’d also like to dance with each of my directors for the sheer physical deeper layer of understanding.
What is your greatest indulgence?
Dance films and watching a live Dita Von Teese performance!
What are your worst fears (professionally or personally)?
Not being able to help enough for those who are being wrongfully persecuted or bullied. Seeing wasted potential.
What was your biggest mishap in a performance?
Have had some trouble with long period wigs opening up while doing split-jete menege.
Is there a special meal you have before performances?
Bananas are miracle foods.
What is the one thing you wished more people knew about dancing?
There is wonderful research being done everyday about dance. It is a language we have only barely begun studying the implications of.
Images from “The Style of Movement: Fashion and Dance” published by Rizzoli. Costume from Onegin, courtesy The National Ballet of Canada.