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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."
My dance coach wants my word that I'll keep competing under his school's name for the next year and not audition. I'm 18 years old and already doing lead roles and winning medals. I love his teaching, but shouldn't I be ready to go out and get a job?
—Gil, Las Vegas, NV
How do we make ballet, a traditionally homogeneous art form, relevant to and reflective of an increasingly diverse and globalized era? While established companies are shifting slowly, Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference, though less than 2 years old, has something of a head start. The guiding force of the company, which is based in Germany, is bringing differences together in the same room and, ultimately, on the same stage.
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
Claude Debussy's only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, emphasizes clarity and subtlety over high-flung drama as a deadly love triangle unfolds. Opera Vlaanderen and Royal Ballet of Flanders are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the composer's death with a new production of the landmark opera that is sure to be anything but traditional: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet are choreographing and directing, while boundary-pushing performance artist Marina Abramović collaborates on the design. Antwerp, Feb. 2–13. Ghent, Feb. 23–March 4. operaballet.be/en.
Black History Month offers a time to reflect on the artists who have shaped the dance field as we know it today. But equally important is celebrating the black artists who represent the next generation. These seven up-and-comers are making waves across all kinds of styles and across the country:
When a new director began transforming Atlanta Ballet a couple of years ago, longtime dancer Alessa Rogers decided to finally explore her dream of dancing in Europe. "I always had this wanderlust," she says. She wasn't set on a particular city or company, but thought learning French would be fun. She began her research that September, making note of repertoire and the number of dancers as well as which companies employed foreign, non–European Union dancers. "I saw that Ballet du Rhin was looking for dancers," says Rogers. "They also had a new director coming in, so I thought it could be an opportunity." After sending a video, Rogers traveled during her layoff week to take company class. She was offered a job on the spot.
Uprooting and moving out of the country, far away from your support system, language and customs, is not something to take lightly. While it can push you as an artist and be an exciting opportunity for personal growth, working as a dancer in a foreign country comes with its challenges. Lots of research and an adventurous spirit are required.
Justin Lynch is surprisingly nonchalant about the struggles of being a full-time lawyer and a professional dancer. "All dancers in New York City are experts at juggling multiple endeavors," he says. "What I'm doing is no different from what any other dancer does—it's just that what I'm juggling is different."
While we agree that freelance dancers are pro multitaskers, we don't really buy Lynch's claim that what he does isn't extraordinary. In fact, we're pretty mind-boggled by the career he's built for himself.
At the annual Gala de Danza in Los Cabos, Mexico, the lineup of performers is usually pretty typical gala fare: You can expect celebrity performers like Lil Buck, reality stars like Ballet West's Beckanne Sisk and "So You Think You Can Dance" finalist Tate McRae, plus principals from top companies like New York City Ballet's Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht.
What's absolutely not typical? The venue.
At 5'10" I felt like an ant in the studio with Alonzo King LINES Ballet. The San Francisco-based company is full of statuesque dancers whose passion is infectious. Every story was told not only through their movement, but through the expression on their faces and their connection to one another.
We talked to artistic director Alonzo King about his love of collaborations and why he thinks politicians need to dance more.