“I don’t think I used to give Romeo enough credit as a character,” admits Evan McKie, who will be dancing the lead in the National Ballet of Canada’s upcoming performance of Romeo and Juliet. “I thought he was simple and just driven by youthful love.” McKie has been a Principal Dancer with the National Ballet since 2014, before which he danced with the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany. His repertoire is impressive, with leading roles in The Nutcracker (as the Nutcracker), Onegin (as Onegin), and The Winter’s Tale (as Leontes), yet he remains grounded and empathetic towards his colleagues. “People who don’t know me sometimes think that I must be some cocky prodigy who had huge opportunities handed to me very quickly,” he says. “But my closest friends know that my reality has been quite the opposite.”
We caught up with the busy dancer between rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet, to discuss his experience becoming a Principal Dancer, his upcoming role, and the challenge of transforming a literary feat by the likes of Shakespeare into something purely visual and auditory.
S/: Congratulations on debuting as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet this season. How does it feel to be dancing such an iconic, romantic role?
Evan McKie: So different than I thought it would… I don’t think I used to give Romeo enough credit as a character and I take full responsibility for that. I thought he was simple and just driven by youthful love. I understand now that Romeo is looking for something that only becomes passionate because of a deeper philosophical pairing with a person who is feeling the same way. I have danced stunning versions of this ballet before and in this rendition by Alexei Ratmansky there are new steps and patterns that feel to me like stomach butterflies. There is also a lot of playing with physical weight and weightlessness, and to me this represents the emotional themes of this story.
Ballets of Shakespeare’s stories are unique in that we all know them through his beautiful language. How do you capture the story through movement and music rather than words?
Music and dance access parts of the brain that we are constantly discovering and this is an endless source of inspiration for me on its own. Regarding Shakespeare, I saw a lot of [the plays] as a kid and I am so deeply grateful that family and teachers were enthused to take us to the theatre when I didn’t know much about it. There were times when I would open my mouth as a kid in school and I struggled to identify and communicate how I truly felt. What I was feeling on the inside was not what was emerging in my words and that is such a disappointing and often frustrating feeling. I tried to overcome it and I think I have been able to identify myself more completely in my life so far because of coming to the theatre. The great roles in literature can really resonate when you recognize part of them in yourself. And when there is music and physical expression involved, people can communicate with each other in a special way. It feels so foreign from the way we often communicate in our daily lives and yet it can feel the most natural.
In my interviews, I like to ask where someone sees themselves in five years. But as principal dancer, you’ve essentially reached the top! What does this achievement mean to you and how would you like to grow from here?
At a certain point I realized that I have felt what it is like to be at each rank of a ballet company and I am most grateful for that understanding. It’s not the kind of empathy where I am pretending to profess to know what everyone’s struggles are all the time but I do feel equipped to say, “I have been through some ups and downs that a lot of people would never believe just from looking at me… and you probably have too so let’s build something together.” Empathy is the truest reason that I love dancing with other people and with an audience. I have been a kid who dreamed of dancing every day, I have been in a Corps de Ballet that danced more than 100 shows a year, a Soloist who danced both ensemble pieces and supporting roles and I have been a Principal Dancer who is required to work very independently at times… People who don’t know me sometimes think that I must be some cocky prodigy who had huge opportunities handed to me very quickly but my closest friends know that my reality has been quite the opposite. I had time to look at different facets of the organization I was in (as I do now) and how they fascinated me. I also had to look at myself long hard and ask what kind of person I wanted to be (as I do now). I would have quit dancing if I didn’t have mentors around me who encouraged my confidence and helped me keep training myself… I do not have an interest in choreographing but I do have an interest in great choreographers and dancers and the concept and creation of new ideas. I have tremendous respect for leaders who know where dance has been and can facilitate where it is going to. Where will I be in five years? I am working on a lot in and out of the studio right now. I think it will be interesting as long as I can keep unexpecting the expected and I’m working with artists who are willing to do the same.
Tell me about a memorable moment in your career thus far. How did that moment feel and what did you learn from it?
Dancing with Paris Opera and Bolshoi Ballets required major courage because the whole ballet world was watching and such opportunities are rare and extremely unexpected… Very unexpected for me because I had to fight just to get a job after ballet school! I like the pressure of dancing in places where the audiences are connoisseurs and have access to every dancer or choreographer in the world. However, I also love dancing for an audience which has never even seen a ballet before because we’ve all been there and probably remember our most visceral initial response, whatever that may have been. I always try to go back to that feeling when I want to refresh my objectives. My favourite challenge is physically bringing a character to life with a choreographer or ballet master so that any audience can see something in it and so that I can get enjoyment out of understanding it myself. I want to use every inch of the body and that takes special training that you never graduate from. Having an opportunity to dance in Germany for a decade is a big part of who I am because I was exposed to a vast amount of choreographic influences from today and the last half century. I also look back on my school years in Toronto, Washington, D.C. and Germany with gratitude because I learned to look closely at what my instincts were and to start owning them even in the face of temporary adversity sometimes. The moment when Karen Kain first approached me about dancing in Toronto again was also pretty profound for me, not just because I grew up here as a kid but because she took a chance on me, someone who had chosen to accept chances to live and work as a Canadian in other countries. It felt like a new kind of era had arrived where ideas were starting to change about what this city could act like and I am drawn to the generous vibe. We can still be ridiculously polite but we don’t have to be apologetic about change and wanting the most interesting city possible.
You’ve done a lot of travelling in your career. How has this experience evolved your perception of ballet as an art?
Everyone has different needs and dreams. As a kid in Toronto, I learned to respect that and see it first-hand. Because I was inspired by the growing diversity of the “scenes” I saw here, my curiosity was piqued to keep experiencing cultures and styles and methods first-hand. That means engaging in conversations and opportunities and experiences with people (and countries) of all different ages. There is always something to learn when you take time to understand other cultures and philosophies. At least this has been the experience for me and many new friends I have met along the way—friends I would not have met if I would not have ventured. Some people forget that moving to Canada again is an adventure too. I see things that I did not see before I moved away.
Evan McKie can be seen onstage during The National Ballet of Canada’s Winter Season which features a mixed programme of Cacti & The Four Temperaments & Rubies, March 9 – 13, and Romeo and Juliet, March 16 – 20 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. Visit national.ballet.ca for more information.
Photography by Aleksandar Antonijevic, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.