The businessman behind the ballet

talks to Kevin McKenzie, Artistic Director of the American Ballet Theatre, about ballet, its success and the part he played in creating such a prestigious institution

Ballet isn’t for everyone. In a world characterised by haste and impatience, the ballet’s hazy nuances and its deftly disguised meanings sometimes pass us by. Beyond this, there has always been a stigma attached to it; the feeling that it’s for an older audience, an audience that is able to afford and appreciate the luxury of time. It just doesn’t appeal to many of us, and for most it is not and will never be a part of our lives.

Be that as it may, we must note the continuation and success of such a niche market. In particular, the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) does more than just merely exist. Nowadays, its home – the Metropolitan Opera House, part of the famous Lincoln Centre in New York City – is always bustling and busy from the beginning to the end of the season. People flock from all continents to indulge in the spectacle that the talented principle dancers offer up. The ABT really is everywhere, its tour taking it across the world.

This was not always so. From its foundation in 1937, the almost completely privately funded company has often struggled. Indeed, twice in its history the company has almost ceased to exist.

There has, however, been a change in its fortune over the last 18 years. The astounding popularity and continually growing success of such an institution can be attributed greatly to the changes that have taken place within the company since the early 1990s. It is no coincidence that this corresponds with the introduction of the current Artistic Director, Kevin McKenzie.

My interview with McKenzie in many ways went terribly. I got nothing like what I had expected. In fact, the whole aim and angle of my piece changed completely in those 45 minutes.

As I sat listening to a man at a desk in New York City, I realised that I was receiving much more than I had bargained for. I had wanted a brooding artist, a passionate and self-indulgent visionary to tell me what he believed in, how his dark and ethereal momentary obsessions were translated into dance, and for him to tell me that this was the only true medium of expression. But the man I was patched through to didn’t sound like a reminiscent creative. The man was passionate, for sure, but he sounded like a businessman. And that, I’ve come to see, is precisely the point.

Although the ABT was somewhat respected internationally when McKenzie was appointed Artistic Director in 1992, those involved in the company still believed it had unfilled potential.

“The chairman let me know that he had put me to the last of the list [of interviewees] due to my youth, but the ABT was in such bad shape at time that everyone qualified didn’t want to touch with a barge pole,” he says.
“I thought it was way too big.”

For McKenzie, the job was indeed a huge one.

By 1992, he had decided that it was time for his tour as a succesful principle dancer for the ABT to come to an end. He planned to return to the place he had trained as a dancer – the Washington School of Ballet under his tutor, the pioneering Mary Day.

“I wanted to invest myself in new choreography and I knew my future as a performer was waning. Originally I had wanted to choreograph for Mary Day: it’s what I had expected to happen. I was riding the lovely wave of the end of my career and endeavouring to learn something new,” he reminded himself.

McKenzie is a modest man. He resisted the tempting impulse to launch himself straight into proving himself as a worthy director and artist. Instead, he took the first six months, as he described it, “to observe”.

Once he felt he had a solid grounding in the way the company worked, he decided to focus on consolidating and turning the artistic direction around.

“I was trying to define my artistic vision in that first decade, it was something that was formed by growing up watching and being part of the ABT.” He then set about eradicating the many “sins of omission” as he described them, whereby the classic ballets were being forgotten from the year’s schedule.

The impression I started to get by this stage of the interview was that McKenzie certainly isn’t that brooding artist who can never quite articulate his thoughts and aspirations; he is a realist. He could get things done.

McKenzie had learned quickly, he knew how to “schedule the schedules”, as he put it. His focus was very much more about doing what he had to in order to make the ABT amongst the foremost companies in the USA.

The reason the audiences keep coming? It’s akin to being in love. They believe us, they believe in what we are presenting to them and they believe in us.

“It’s about creating a sense of balance between the absurd ways of an artistic institution and a business,” he told me. There it was, the reason the ABT was so successful and the reason he got the job – he knew exactly what the ABT needed.

“It was hard, everybody’s hungry, sometimes you literally don’t know where your next meal’s coming from. Really, it was a case of priorities, everything is important but one just has to be very tenacious and very patient. Companies with an artistic vision have to run like a business. One has to be very far reaching. You’ve got to plan holistically.”

McKenzie’s focused attitude – his reluctance to trim off the fat, in favour for prioritizing and reshaping – meant that the ABT didn’t lose its character but became a rounded entity. It did what it had to do to survive.

However, McKenzie still worries, even after 18 years. He knows it’s a difficult, shaky industry and he keeps working:

“When people came up to me at the 60th anniversary of the ABT and asked me, ‘What do you want now from the ABT?’, I’d say that I’d like to know where it’s going to be in 60 years,” he says.
Despite his evident talent for business, it is undeniable that McKenzie is indeed an artist and a fervent lover of the ballet. He knows what the company embodies and he continues to see its importance as an institution for ballet, not just a corporation and an educational facility.

“You’ve got to remember, its not the American development theatre or the American education theatre, it’s the American ballet theatre.”

But he also understands where his passion lies in the world. He knows that it’s not a widely popular thing and he treats it so.
“One can’t please everyone, ours is a subjective entity. For instance, I can say that I don’t necessarily like that car, but I have to say it’s well built,” he explains to me.
It is this understanding which McKenzie uses to keep the ballet going. He has a vision for what the ballet needs to do next. “Everyone has an attention span of three minutes nowadays,” he explains.

“The classics are always the standard of measure, but one has to create new works to target the younger audience … they must develop an opinion and grow up with it.”

I went on to ask McKenzie what the ABT wished to give its audience. It was at this point that I saw why he was Artistic Director rather than Financial Director. The man so adores his art and his job. His sentences were flowing, he assumed you knew what he was talking about. Of course you did, but not because you were on his level, you could just hear it in his voice.

“What makes the company unique is in the three words of its title. American – it’s not meant in a patriotic way, but because it’s an American experiment. It’s so peculiar in its energy, and this comes from the exchange of the many different styles of training. Ballet is our language, but all of this happens in the theatre,” he notes.

“This is where the audience is so important. We want to open up an experience that is truly unique in this world and you only get there by spending time … there is a process that you have to go through.”

“I mean, everyone wants to go on vacation to Aruba but to get there you travel eight hours on a plane. It is the process.”

“And what people need to realise is that it’s sometimes the process that makes it what it is. Getting there is part of the fun. The theatre is there to involve you. It’s there to time travel.”

Kevin McKenzie loves and knows his art. You get the feeling talking to him that he wants to grow old with it, just as he grew up with it – in what he describes as “a bit of a Billy Elliot story.” He knows what it needs, and he continues to nurture his art through the medium of the American Ballet Theatre.

Change to him is an exciting and beautiful prospect. He understands the importance of the classics but is also willing to twist them in such a way that they become more accessible to the youth.

“Everything is a reaction to the time in which it lives; art is. The ABT will remain consistent, founded as a very eclectic repository of art and a creator of art. We are going to have reinvent ourselves as the world around us changes,” he says with a clearly discernible tone of excitement in his voice.

He knows his audience now just as well as he did as a dancer. “The reason they keep coming?” he questions. “I think it’s to create that expectation. It’s akin to being in love. They believe us, they believe in what we are presenting to them and they believe in us.”

Image credits: Rosalie O’Connor, Marty Sohl

One comment

  1. Great Article. I have to had it to Kevin McKenzie I remember I think in the early 90’s they had like a 15 week contract and only preformed twice in New York.

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