American Ballet Theater’s Leader to Step Down After 30 Years

A former principal dancer with the company, McKenzie is a direct link to the founders of Ballet Theater, which was formed in 1939 by Richard Pleasant, and partially financed by a dancer, Lucia Chase. She became the co-director, with Oliver Smith, a stage designer, in 1945, and hired McKenzie in 1979, shortly before Mikhail Baryshnikov took over as artistic director in 1980.

McKenzie remained a prominent presence at Ballet Theater until 1991 (the critic Arlene Croce once called him “the Jeremy Irons of ballet”), when he became artistic associate of the Washington Ballet. It was a short apprenticeship; in 1992, he was offered the job of artistic director by a beleaguered Ballet Theater, deeply in debt and without a director. (Jane Hermann, who ran the company after Baryshnikov’s abrupt departure in 1989, had resigned five months earlier.)

“To say things were chaotic was an understatement,” McKenzie said of those first years. “I initially succeeded because everybody needed me to, and our only resource was sheer determination. I don’t think the current moment is a point of crisis like it was then. It’s counterintuitive, but the company is in a healthy state.”

McKenzie will leave a different company than the one he inherited. In recent years, he has moved away from Ballet Theater’s historic reliance on international ballet stars. While stars generated obvious excitement, he said, they “were not primarily focused on the success of the company.”

Asked whether this was a good moment for the company to make a leadership change, Barnett said it was “a natural time in many ways because the pace of change has been so accelerated.” She added, “if Kevin has decided that he has overseen this catalytic year, and that this next era requires new skills and interests and ideas, I trust his instincts on that.”

Barnett said the company, which holds an endowment valued at $26.8 million, had managed to balance its operating budget ($45 million in 2019 and under $30 million last year) over the last five years. She added that government support as well as individual and corporate donors had enabled Ballet Theater to continue to provide benefits and health care for the dancers and musicians during the shutdown, as well as a portion of their salaries. For 2021, she said, the company was planning a number of different budgetary scenarios, given the uncertainties around a return to live performance.

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