Stages On Life’s Way: An Interview With Evan McKie

Anyone who follows Canadian-born Stuttgart Ballet Principal Evan McKie on Twitter will know him as an eclectic and upbeat social media presence: he digs from Kierkegaard to Philip Roth, from Lady Gaga to Esa-Pekka Salonen. Besides connecting with ballet audiences worldwide, Evan juggles his busy dancing career with various side projects like freelance writing (for Dance Magazine and, in the past, for The Winger) and photography (he exhibited his work at the Schicten Gallery in 2009). Last year Evan also co-created the cool Typology test Crankocast and made an appearance at Japanese ballet manga SWAN, where he headlined a special number devoted to Stuttgart and its dancers.

Evan believes all of these interests link back to his dancing. “It’s all intertwined” he says. He is considered one of Stuttgart Ballet’s most versatile performers, with a CV that includes not only the company’s biggest dramatic jewels (Onegin, Des Grieux in The Lady of the Camellias) but also edgy performances in modern ballets by Wayne McGregor, Marco Goecke, Mauro Bigonzetti and Christian Spuck. As Evan is about to launch a revamped personal website, we caught up with him to hear about his career, views on ballet and use of social media to attract and connect with new audiences:

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TBB: Can you tell us about your early days: your training; your move to Kirov Academy… How did you end up in Stuttgart?

EM: After falling in love with the theatre through plays, I went to dance class. I was pretty good at tap and I loved jazz but when I saw Onegin, my first time seeing a dramatic narrative ballet, I knew that this direction of dancing would be part of my destiny. I spent wonderful lower school years at Canada’s National Ballet School – I am still drawing on things that I learnt there! – but when halfway through one school year I was offered a spot at The Kirov Academy in Washington, I couldn’t resist. There was an abundance of talent and sheer love of ballet amongst the students there. I have never seen such intense focus. Then I met Pyotr Pestov, one of the biggest and best male ballet pedagogues in the world. He found me in the States one summer and invited me to Stuttgart where he was after decades as one of the Bolshoi Academy’s most heralded teachers. I had heard incredible things about the kind of work the company did in Stuttgart and I was hooked on Pestov’s extremely demanding teaching style so I packed my bags and left North America. I was fourteen then and have never danced there since.

TBB: What have been your biggest career challenges so far?

EM: I had to learn early to address my overwhelming ego and obsessive energy. I am an Aries and though I am extremely positive, I am demanding and critical when it comes to the pursuit of anything I feel is worthwhile. I am a “Doer”. For my dancing not to suffer, I have to do other things outside of the theatre to focus energy on unexpected inspiration. I become very immersed in each ballet but I force myself to find a balance in order to avoid overcooking anything. I have no respect for lazy dancers but an extremely eager dancer also runs the risk of losing perspective.

When I go into any creative situation, I usually have ideas and concepts of how I believe something great can be achieved but I have learnt that when I am mentally flexible then the best things happen.

TBB: What are your individual traits as a performer?

EM: This is always tough to answer. One of my favourite things about theater is that each person may see something different in each dancer. I sometimes feel like a painting hanging in a gallery of other beautiful paintings – my colleagues are very beautiful – I just have to be the composition of colours, techniques and intentions that I am as that painting… ten people may walk past without taking notice but that’s worth it if one person falls in love with what I can give them.

When I go into any new role I try my hardest to combine precision with spontaneity, remembering why I started dancing in the first place. The artistic staff and outside choreographers have given me incredible chances to discover a kind of plasticity to my character dramatically and physically. “Versatile” was something that I didn’t know I was until I started growing up here in Stuttgart and now this is the one quality I am most thankful for. I am grateful to be given such diverse roles, from the old notary in La Fille Mal Gardée when I first joined at 18 to Hamlet, to the Messenger in Song of the Earth.

There are weaknesses and “uglies” as well but I don’t try to hide them. Instead I let them be a part of who I am so that I can always offer audiences something that is hopefully real and gripping. Some people don’t know what to make of my performances in certain dramatic roles because I just do everything the way I feel in the moment; It’s not fair to an audience not to do this, I feel. The ones who initially objected to my take on Hamlet or Messenger of Death or Onegin have somehow kept coming to my shows and I even get presents from some of them…Nice presents…not threats or anything! [laughs]

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TBB: What traits in other performers do you admire?

EM: I find myself touched by actors or artists or writers who create a moment that moves me. If I cry or laugh out loud at a show, I’ll make sure I go back to see this artist again and again and let them know that I am a fan. I really appreciate an ‘individual’ onstage and I believe that artists who take risks for what they believe in must support each other!

TBB: You said in the past that what you love about dance is this art form’s link with “movement and music”. How do you see this connection?

EM: Music inspires me to dance because of that dramatic connection to each note. Little pictures flash through the mind. It starts out so pure and simple, but through each movement the music usually proves its endless dramatic possibility. Those flashing pictures and feelings are the part of the moving plus music equation that becomes the dance.

TBB: What’s your take on plotless, “pure dance” ballets?

EM: There is no such thing. Movement makes people feel things. There is at least the essence of a story behind every step even if that step is simple. An architect puts just as much blood and guts into a minimal atmosphere as they would something more extravagant. So does a choreographer or dancer.

TBB: Can you tell us more about your collaborations with Wayne McGregor?

EM: I was lucky to meet him when I was just starting out and he had no problem plucking people from the corps! This made me very happy at the time because it was something that I could pour every last drop of energy into! For that production in 2003 [Nautilus], in addition to my own part in the ballet, he also put me as the only second cast for all of the seven or eight soloist boys! It was so much material and I thought I’d never learn it all but now I still remember half of it. It was challenging in all the best ways. When he created his spectacularly successful Eden|Eden here a few years later people would stop me on the street and want to have a conversation about the eerie themes and metaphors of the piece. They were moved and had opinions and wanted to debate! This made me so happy because involving – especially young – audiences in what we are doing is what keeps us in existence, as humans! I love every part of his processes and wish he’d never leave.

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TBB: What are your favorite roles & your dream roles?

EM: Something that is a bit messed up character-wise, challenging, involves beautiful partners, and gives me the responsibility to make or break a show for the audience. This thrill is the dancer’s answer to what daredevils and mountain-climbers seek. Got any suggestions?

TBB: Yes, Rudolf in Mayerling & Des Grieux in Manon!

TBB: … On that note… you’ve been highly praised for your portrayal of Lensky and you debuted as Onegin at a very young age. Can you tell us more about your history with this ballet?

EM: Cranko’s ballet is a masterpiece. He made it so easy to get into each role. There is such a rich frame for each character that one can just indulge in different shading and whatever may feel right with the music and your partner. The steps are words. Each of the two roles is masculine, yet extremely vulnerable. The chance to become one of the roles has immeasurable value when transforming into the other on a different night. This ensures that the dialogue between the two men is truly understood by the actor. I was promoted to Soloist during the intermission of a performance as Lensky and when I was made a Principal dancer two years later I was also told that I would be debuting as Onegin! It was the first dramatic narrative ballet I saw so you can see how this particular piece is really part of my theatre make-up. Any dancer who gets to dance even one of these roles is extremely lucky. I am thrilled to be dancing both. I know Opera Divas who say “I am not Tosca or Elektra or Jenufa when the lights go out…I am just me”. With Onegin and Lensky though I feel like these were both already inside of me and I only recognised this through doing these roles onstage.

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TBB: Should ballet companies do more on social media to attract new audiences? What more can the dance world do?

EM: Just like individual artists, I don’t see any good reason for a company to shy away from attracting new audiences. Thousands of young internet-savvy people are dying to know more about what dance companies are doing right now. Because of its fame, the Stuttgart Ballet’s shows are normally sold out but since the reviews are in German or French and don’t appear in The New York Times the next day, international audiences like to search the internet to find out what the company is up to. For me, dancing has always been a dialogue with an audience. Each show is just as much of escape for me as it is for them. The lights are down and it’s a feeling of give and take and the bond is like no other I have felt. Us having new and interested audiences is equal to you having new and interesting dancers to get to know.

Like any Art, I believe a lot of ballet goers have found that ballet is an acquired taste. When one finally gets to know what they like, they are often older and, let’s face it, anyone who wants to truly appreciate any fine art has to pay a certain price. I think it’s cool for DVDs and online videos to be available to people who are not able to afford theatre tickets. People get to know who and what they are attracted to and then want nothing more than to enjoy a particular person or performance up-close and live. Offering a glimpse of something, be it online or whatever, is imperative when leading up to any big reveal! People understand more and want more.

TBB: Is it important to connect with audiences using the new social media tools available?

EM: I don’t understand a dancer not wanting to connect to an audience though the way one goes about it can speak volumes. There is no replacing live-performance but it can be interesting to share theatre experiences with others who want to hear it. I don’t think a dancer HAS to have a website but it’s a far more theatrical way to present necessary information than a simple business card.

Sometimes I tweet too. I think dancer’s updates in particular celebrate our differences. Personally I would find it very difficult to tweet during a show for example, though I don’t disrespect anyone who does. Using the platform as a mask seems silly to me as well because the people who follow me are interested in what is actually going on whether I’m riding on a performance-high or an injury-low. Last year’s NY Times article opened discussion about whether or not Twitter was removing some of the mysticism behind a ‘ballet star’. I think when an audience member knows what each of us do individually each day, whether it be traveling, rehearsing, training, researching or just being stupid, it makes the actual moments of undeniable beauty onstage all the more enchanting. I believe that good dancers have to have different sides to them and must embrace the rapid thoughts firing through their heads each second in order to coordinate their lives. Twitter is a mere glimpse into how complicated and extraordinary a dancer’s short existence can be. Especially in this generation.

TBB: Have you ever convinced any of your colleagues to join Twitter?

EM: I wouldn’t try to convince someone unless they felt they had interesting things they wanted to share. My friends were surprised when I joined Twitter because I am a person who is almost obsessive about privacy. I have a very close group of friends in and out of the theatre and unless it’s a party, I am not the person who needs to be heard and seen when I go out for dinner or to other performances. Social media simply lets me offer my experiences with those who are interested and allows me to learn more about artists that I, myself am interested in. I owe a lot of who I am to the other artists, authors, actors I admire. Maybe a young person has never heard of of Gareth Pugh, Philip Roth or Esa-Pekka Salonen before so I want to share the experience with them. On Twitter, I am connected to everything from the Guggenheims to Lady Gaga to my weekly Kierkegaard quote.  I wouldn’t force anyone to tweet or blog because the worst is reading people’s updates when they don’t have much to say. Like in dance, if someone wants to express something then they will.


Photo Credits: The Stuttgart Ballet © and Ulrich Beuttenmüller / The Stuttgart Ballet ©

Find out more about Evan:

Visit Evan McKie’s Official Website

Follow Evan on Twitter @EVANMcKIE

Read Evan’s interview for Naomi’s blog La Dolce Vita (in Japanese, with plenty of photos)

We started The Ballet Bag in April 2009 with the mission to prove that ballet is not stuffy, old fashioned and inaccessible; that it is quite the opposite: relevant, fresh and topical. With the aim to Give Ballet a New Spin we try to show it under a different light. When writing our capsule biographies, ballet fact cards, review roundups and commentary on social media, we cross it over with other art forms and cultural references (pop culture, cinema, rock music – ie. other things we love!).