Q&A with Evan McKie
March 16, 2021
Evan McKie in Apollo. Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.
Evan McKie trained at Canada’s National Ballet School, followed by The Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C. and the John Cranko School in Germany, prior to launching an international career. He danced with Stuttgart ballet and as a guest with Paris Opéra Ballet, The Bolshoi Ballet, Mariinsky Ballet and the Tokyo Ballet prior to joining The National Ballet of Canada as Principal Dancer in 2014. As he celebrates a 20-year career onstage, he shares his thoughts in this new Q&A.
What have you been doing since the pandemic hit?
I was just about to go into a summer of performances with Diana Vishneva in Russia as well as other projects that were put on hold. At first I tried to adapt to what was happening around me and stay calm. Doing endless tendus in the kitchen without ever performing with other people felt soul-crushing. I looked back at all of the roles I have been so lucky to dance since joining our company with such pride. For over five years I felt such wonderful momentum and got to know myself better as an artist. Since I have been such a late-bloomer, I was planning to be dancing my heart out at this point of my career. By having this performance-pause, I realized how much I am just growing into what I think a dancer should be.
Then I lost one of my closest friends. The challenges he went through and his death shook me and I sort of froze. I took time to consider how much I’ve taken dance’s many gifts for granted over the years. I wanted to abstain from dancing entirely to see what I missed the most about it after doing it professionally for 20 years. I realized I missed the act of feeling that special frequency with the music. It was even frustrating, when I was in the studio, because I realized how much I want, need, love the audience in order to do the work that keeps us engaged, connected and creating.
Over this time, seeing friends and family and actively seeking new roles to fulfill (on and offstage) has been inspiring. I have tried to keep things creative, busy and proactive for myself and for our company. I felt the urge to create something so I started choreographing again and participated in a number of digital projects for The National Ballet of Canada as well as Diana Vishneva’s Context Festival and Vogue Mexico. I also did a light-hearted ballet trivia Instagram Live series for Dance Magazine and interviewed one of my favourite ballet teachers, Vladimir Djoulokhadze for Dance Magazine, because he was celebrating his 50-year anniversary in ballet.
I was happy to be able to offer a piece for Spotlight Series that I commissioned from Juliano Nunes from Brazil and composed by Kirill Richter from Russia. It’s called In Time We Trust and we may be able to film it soon for the series. I spent some time volunteering for SickKids Hospital (with the help of our YOU dance team) by answering questions about being a dancer and showing some uplifting ballet-mime and what each gesture means. It was like a mini-performance through Zoom for the kids who were in the hospital beds.
I also finished my executive business certificate from Oxford’s Saïd Business School which really kept my mind on the bigger picture of how companies can function in the future. So while emotionally it has been very challenging, I feel happy to have been productive in many ways that lead back into my life in the theatre.
Evan McKie in rehearsal with Juliano Nunes. Photo by N. Rodboon.
What would you have done as a career if you hadn't pursued ballet?
My career assessment test results kept saying “creative director and movie director or actor” but I refused to give up on my quest to dance. It’s been hard for me to get here and there have been many, many obstacles but it has given me so much. It is always humbling yet very empowering collaborating and producing something for an audience. I have always wanted to work within a realm that is based on creation but also requires a great deal of interest in history, design and time-consuming craftsmanship. Maybe I would have gone to design school and become a production designer, like one of my favourite designers: Es Devlin. She has a job that fascinates me and I love seeing how she does it. I love to make others look their best and feel like the rock stars I see in them.
Have you ever had an embarrassing moment on stage?
I’ve seen a lot of funny mistakes happen and experienced a lot: wigs come undone, shoe elastics burst, undergarments pop right before an entrance, shoes fall off in split jetés, fake moustaches fall off mid-scene, scenery gets snagged halfway down or halfway up. No matter how much you prepare, so much stuff can happen when you really push yourself to your limits. It’s about how you get up or manage after taking the risk.
What is your work philosophy?
“Make sure everything counts and you treat everyone around you with a sense of importance.” Work philosophy to me means figuring out how to take care of yourself and then stepping in to lend someone a hand or an ear if you think someone might be struggling. I have had people lend me a hand growing up in this business and I feel it’s important to do the same. Ballet is an artform that requires a lot of work and focus; it is really important to have the studio be a safe space to come to. It’s an art form where it pays to be extremely sensitive, so it’s necessary to have a lot of courage and a strong support-system to be resilient enough to focus on the core heart of what we do. I felt this particularly while rehearsing and performing Leontes in Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale with a cast I will never forget. I have to thank Christopher and his team for carefully building such beautiful harmony therin. It was interesting playing such a complex and tormented character but then all being such great friends behind the scenes and exchanging this incredible energy.
Evan McKie in The Winter's Tale. Photo by Karolina Kuras.
How do you handle criticism?
I simply recognize that there’s the helpful kind and the other kind. I try to filter it that way. I, myself, have been quite critical in the past though too, I must admit, and once I learned that that was coming from my own naive quest for perfection, I changed my way of being present and direct in a situation. That has helped me a lot while trying to maintain a clear and meaningful output. You really never know what someone may be going through.
What is your definition of a successful ballet dancer?
A person who can move and be moved and is willing and able to be flexible and strong, athletic and artistic. I think the range of success is about how much you can get from the profession and how much you can give to it. I have been very lucky to have sought out opportunities to work very hard and enjoy approaching dance from many different angles. I still have a great deal of curiosity when I approach our work. I think it’s important to stay curious and engaged.
What’s the best thing about being a dancer?
Connecting and expressing in a way that feels pre-lingual while gaining a deeper understanding of the body and personality. I believe dancing can be used as a tool to create genuine empathy. It’s the most wonderful feeling to dance by yourself and then dance with another and recognize the differences therein.
What’s the worst?
Anything that prevents me from dancing.
What song makes you rock out no matter where you are?
J.S. Bach’s Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D minor (preferably with violin but I am open-minded) or perhaps the beautiful music Joby Talbot and Deru wrote and recorded for Wayne Mcgregor’s Genus.
Tanya Howard and Evan McKie in rehearsal for Genus by Wayne McGregor. Photo by Karolina Kuras.
What are three random things most people don't know about you?
- I have a chihuahua that can dance and spin on command. I learned how to teach her!
- I am 20% Iberian.
- I have had a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in my knee since I was 14. I was told I’d never dance professionally by a doctor AND a teacher.
What was the last thing you changed your mind about?
- My thoughts about having a 20-year career onstage. It feels like I started just yesterday and yet so much has happened over the last two decades. I feel amped up more than I thought I would. I am a few years shy of 40 but suddenly new opportunities working with some wonderful people appear to take my dancing further. Now I understand why most of my favourite dancers decided to keep searching within their careers after 20 years or more.
- How Balanchine’s Apollo can be interpreted. After watching interviews and performances with Jacques D’Amboises, it felt so warm and all-encompassing, which I liked, rather than icy or cold.
- The life of a dedicated statesman after playing the politician and husband, Alexei Karenin in John Neumeier’s Anna Karenina. He had such faith in every gesture and sought the feeling of control over his career and family. His character arc when he loses this control became even more interesting when approaching it with John.
Alexandra MacDonald and Evan McKie in Anna Karenina. Photo by Karolina Kuras.
What cheers you up on an off day?
Music and lights or a nature walk.
Do you have any bad habits that you're working on breaking?
A million, at least.
What is your favourite onstage memory?
Dancing Onegin with ten different Tatianas and reacting to their innermost emotions. They are all so incredibly unique and so no performance could ever quite be the same. There are very specific stand-out moments for me in that ballet as well as dancing ballets by John Neumeier and Wayne McGregor particularly.
What is your favourite ballet and why?
Onegin, The Sleeping Beauty, Eden | Eden by Wayne McGregor… There are so many more but Onegin is what made me want to be a ballet dancer.
Svetlana Lunkina and Evan McKie in rehearsal for Onegin. Photo by Dylan Tedaldi.
What's the biggest risk you've taken, either personally or in your career?
Deciding to come to Canada, my home, for the second act of my career. I wanted to make new connections with family, to bring all that I had learned to new roles and enjoy opportunities that I wouldn’t have been able to offer the same value to a decade earlier.
When are you most proud of yourself?
When I push myself outside of my comfort zone and it pays off. Also, when I have the possibility to encourage or inspire another person, whether it’s a choreographer or student or anyone who needs and wants it. Also, overcoming a lot of very difficult things in life and bouncing back the best I can.
Tell us about an awe-inspiring thing you've seen or experienced.
Dancing in a theatre never ceases to be awe-inspiring. Also the Pyramids in Egypt or the Papal Basilica of St. Peter’s at the Vatican. Each time I see the CN Tower, too, I am also struck by it.
Do you have a favourite quote?
“If you are born without wings, do nothing to prevent them from growing.” – Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel
What’s the number one item on your bucket list?
My bucket list is full. I’d like to design something more monumental and less fleeting – and yet what we do as dancers still gives me so much joy.
Spotlight Series: Watch Evan in excerpts from Onegin and A Streetcar Named Desire.