Evan McKie, reflects on his career as he eagerly enters his 20th professional season in 2021
Evan McKie admits he is a late bloomer. His steady rise to the top of his profession has been driven by a constant and very deep passion for the art form and what can be described as a profound and honest respect for the people around him. He is the team player and the individual. His extraordinary empathy, his curiosity to learn and absorb, are qualities that have allowed him to become an artist of the highest calibre. Principal dancer with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Myriam Simon says of him, “Evan is the real deal. No fakery. He’s genuine and interested. He actually cares about the people around him. He keeps surprising the world with these incredibly nuanced performances.”
Partner and friend Diana Vishneva says, “Evan knows what it is to be within the dialogue on stage. It’s very precious. He lets a ballerina be herself onstage. I remember how fast we found a common language.”
When we speak, as always, he maintains a positive disposition and his intelligence and integrity, which is so apparent in his performances, reveals itself again in his articulate responses to my questions. The National Ballet of Canada has not yet returned to performing live due to the pandemic but he tells me they will be recording a solo created for him by Juliano Nuñes and composed by Kirill Richter called In Time We Trust. McKie explains, “It’s a personal take on where we are going perhaps, with a very strong pulse. I’ve really enjoyed performing it. We made it here, so it makes sense to dance it here.”
We then move onto the subject of what he describes as his ‘otherness’ because so often in the ballet world he moves a little differently or doesn’t always go with popular opinion.
“Sometimes I wonder how I even have a career in ballet but dance, as expression, is in my blood. My dad does this electric slide, to the syncopated funk of James Brown! My mom has ballet hands and talks with her Elizabeth Taylor eyes. There’s dance inside me, a lot of it, but I have always felt like it is more volcanic – a need to explain or express something and I had to keep gathering skills to harmonise various degrees of that inner range. I’ve always liked learning, I enjoyed school. I’ve liked the thought of someone building you up, the idea of learning skills but then something tries to come out from inside, that’s the ‘real’ dancer. I’ve always said ballet is outside/in but the dance is inside/out.
“I’ve just embraced from a young age that conflict is within all of us and I’ve been able to recognise when I’m having trouble in a surrounding or environment where I’m not able to bring it to the next level. I knew right away that I had to find ways to embrace this outside/in classicism but I truly fall in love when I find choreographers who want to work with [the inside/out]. My teacher Glenn Gilmour, said to a 13 year-old me, that I would be a principal dancer one day but I was going to have to work twice as hard and it will take twice as long as everyone else. I was flexible but I was going to have to harness that and needed more time and patience. Cranko’s Onegin or Christopher Wheeldon’s Leontes in The Winter’s Tale or Diaghilev in Neumeier’s Nijinsky are roles about a transformation, about characters that are a product of society, but the conflict is visible right away. Onegin is a perfect example of someone who is dealing with fatigue of society without ever having to deal with the inner turmoil, until its conclusion. It’s similar with Leontes, the layers peel off these tightly wound characters. When I moved back to Canada, the ballet had just been created. I had no idea Christopher would choose me for Leontes. It’s a role where you really need to trust the people around you on stage to make things happen. John Neumeier is also profoundly important to me. I started working with him when I was in Stuttgart but one of the things he did here in Canada was to cast me as Diaghilev in Nijinsky, a person who is in complete control. In the second cast I was Petrushka, who is a character completely out of control. A challenging gift for a dancer.”
This leads me to question whether he could have handled the contrasting roles as a younger dancer. He answers with a definitive, “I’m still growing into myself! I’m lucky, I’m at the stage where I still have a generation above me working actively, doing the best shows of their lives. Then I have a generation that’s coming up so I’m right in between. As a young dancer I was never a prodigy. I needed time to develop and for people to believe in me. I think Reid Anderson [former Stuttgart artistic director] saw that. He thought something might fit one day, but it was hard at the beginning, because everyone around me was so amazing and developing quickly. But I wanted to keep re-skilling myself, in and out of the studio, working on my technique, reading books, finding new inspiration.” When I question him about work he still aspires to dance he says he would like to do something by Pina Bausch.
He adds that he is grateful that he recently had the opportunity to dance Balanchine’s Apollo, a role for which he was highly acclaimed. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get to dance this and it was a wonderful experience. Again it was a role about transformation. It was the joy of movement and music and the mark of true choreographic genius.”
I am keen to hear more about his experiences since returning to Canada. “Karen [Kain] is a person who also experienced ‘otherness’. She’s very tall and extremely striking, but it was at a time when her physicality and stature were not de rigeur. As a kid I saw how she was navigating her career and trusting certain creators to make new works for her. Karen was the first director to ask me to guest. I was also able to mention to Karen that I was interested in mentoring, partly because Reid and Tamas [Detrich] had been such great mentors to me as Rudolf [Nureyev] had been for her. She introduced me to the board of directors and I was able learn a bit about the business side of things, interesting after growing up in a German company. Then she helped send me to Ipswich [DanceEast Rural Retreat] for deeper creative leadership understanding.
“Another person who I am so grateful to is Wayne McGregor. He has been responsible for a huge part of my career. He cast me in Nautilus . I was very young and surprised when the cast sheet went up and I was 2nd cast for all the male solo roles! It gave me so much responsibility. After that we created Eden I Eden and Yantra. I’ve never worked with a choreographer who’s a genuine scientist! He has been utterly generous. I’d love to keep working with him as far into the future as I can imagine.
“Because of the way the schedule is in Canada, I have been able to go out and commission work or work with people like David Dawson. I was mesmerised when I saw his Swan Lake pas de deux – I felt I really needed to dance it! And also commissioning young choreographers like Juliano Nunes. I’ve commissioned 3 pieces from him and they are all so different. I have also worked with young fellow Canadian Shale Wagman, I really believe in his talent and wanted to show it by creating a tangible project.”
I’m curious to find out what this year and time for reflection has brought to him in terms of what his future looks like. I note that he has long shown an interest in creative leadership as well as teaching. He says, “People have remarked that I’m teaching now and does that mean I’m going to stop dancing next month. I’m like, NO! Balanchine used to put his principals into school to teach even when they continued to dance for years. It actually helps my dancing to see what works with students and what doesn’t. I started teaching in Japan a couple of years ago, but this was the first time I’d opened up to teaching online. I pitched this idea of teaching absolute beginners at the National Ballet of Canada’s InStudio programme, people who’ve never danced a step in their lives and yet they are some of the most unknowingly graceful people I’ve ever met.” As well as teaching students who are working towards a professional life in ballet he uses dance as a part of the rehabilitation process for people recovering from trauma and addiction. He is a volunteer at Canada’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and feels it’s a way of giving something different back to the community.
“With teaching, I have been given many tools because I’ve had such amazing teachers and coaches. I feel like it’s really important to share my experiences both physically and emotionally with the next generation. Reid always said he thought I would be a director one day and should get ready for it, but I was hesitant with the thought of being in a position of power. I prefer to think of it as putting the pieces of the puzzle together, attaching the right choreographer to the right dancer or musician. Making sure that everything is very fertile and everyone is growing.”
Another thing McKie has achieved this year during lockdown is graduating with honours from Oxford University’s Executive Leadership certification programme as well as previously obtaining a diploma in Interpersonal Relations and Leadership from L’école des Hautes Etudes Commerciales de Paris. Aside from his studies, he spent time shadowing Mikko Nissinen, Boston Ballet’s artistic director. No one can accuse him of resting on his laurels. He has a healthy attitude towards team work. “I’ve thought a lot about this and I want people to feel heard and empowered as groups and as individuals.”
So twenty years? “Yes, I actually like the fact that I was a late bloomer. I look at the new skills one can learn and the exciting new scale the horizon seems to suddenly have for us. It’s about constant re-evaluation, understanding the psychology of why people behave the way they do. So twenty years feels like there’s still a lot more blooming to do!”
Interview by Deborah Weiss