Broadway Luminary Donna McKechnie on Why She's Still Dancing in Her 70s
Triple threat Donna McKechnie is cherished for her Tony Award–winning portrayal of Cassie in the 1975 musical A Chorus Line. Her featured number, "The Music and the Mirror," sheds a spotlight on the hopes and dreams of a struggling dancer, willing to return to the chorus for a job doing what she loves. McKechnie has spent her more than 50-year career doing what she loves—dancing, singing and acting. The Broadway darling has grown up onstage, from her first gig as a teen to her latest: Starting October 27 she plays Mabel in Arena Stage's production of The Pajama Game in Washington, DC.
Have you done Pajama Game before?
This is my first. I love the show and was thrilled when choreographer Parker Esse called me. I see connections with my career generationally in the script. When I came to New York, Bob Fosse was my first choreographer. I was in shows that original writer/director George Abbott directed.
Will you be dancing?
I play Mabel, the secretary and mother hen, but Parker said he was going to expand the dancing. I'll be 75 this month and I'm proud of it. I want to be a living example for people to keep dancing and moving. I take ballet class five times a week—if you don't, you lose it. I do the whole barre. If you do a ballet barre correctly, I can't think of anything harder.
For A Chorus Line, Michael Bennett had a group of show dancers tell their life stories. Are you Cassie?
Cassie was the most fictionalized character of them all. Michael used the experience of a dancer he knew who went to Hollywood and didn't get much work. She came back to audition for Michael in the chorus. He told her, "I can't have you in rehearsal. Looking at you I see failure."
The solo is Cassie's journey. It's about someone trying to find her dance identity again, find her confidence, her spirit, a reason to go on. The dance is very static because when you walk into a studio and haven't danced in a while, you have to try something. You look at your line in the mirror. It's very narcissistic: You're invisible if you don't see yourself in the mirror.
A Chorus Line is about a group of dancers auditioning. Tell us about your first audition.
It was for winter stock. They were doing The King and I, Bitter Sweet and Guys and Dolls. I remember going to the Cass Theatre in Detroit when I was in my senior year of high school with one of my dancing girlfriends. I said, "I don't want to audition, but I want to see what it's like." We got there and she gave me a leotard and, not having any idea what I was doing, I went up and learned the combination.
I discovered that I loved this kind of choreography on my body. And being the snooty little ballerina, it was all so different. When the director called me and asked me to do a little dance tour in the South—one-night stands—starting with a four-week rehearsal in New York, I asked my parents and they said no. I had my first teenage fight with them. I really thought it was a life-or-death situation. There would never be another opportunity. I ran away from home, literally. Then my father came and brought me back. One of my teachers spoke to my parents and said, "Let her go. She'll find out how hard it is and come home."
For the past 3 years, choreographer Stephen Petronio has been reviving groundbreaking works of postmodern dance through his BLOODLINES project. This season, although his company will be performing a work by Merce Cunningham, his own choreography moves in a more luxurious direction. We stepped into the studio with Petronio and his dancers where they were busy creating a new work, Hardness 10, named for the categorization of diamonds.
'Tis the season to have some fun in the kitchen. If you want to get more creative than simply baking another pumpkin pie, try these Nutcracker-themed treats—created by and for dancers. These recipes from former Boston Ballet and Joffrey Ballet dancers were first published in Dance Magazine's December 1990 issue. Today, they're still guaranteed to turn any holiday party or dressing room into a true Land of the Sweets.
It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.
According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:
When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.
But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT