Kevin McKenzie, American Ballet Theatre's longtime artistic director, announced yesterday that he will retire at the end of 2022, after three decades at the helm. He will continue to oversee the company's 2021–22 season while a search for his successor begins this summer.
In an interview with The New York Times' Rosalyn Sulcas, McKenzie noted that he began seriously considering retiring a few years ago, seeing his upcoming 30th anniversary as a good time to step away. He was also somewhat influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, saying that the company could benefit from new leadership as ballet enters a more digital age. "We are dealing with a medium I don't really like, but which we are going to have to rely on a lot in the future," he told Sulcas about the recent shift to online performances. "It needs someone who likes the medium and believes in its value."
McKenzie, 68, became ABT's artistic director in 1992, but he has been associated with the company since 1979, when he joined as a soloist after careers with the National Ballet of Washington and The Joffrey Ballet. He rose to principal dancer in less than a year and performed with the company until 1991. McKenzie briefly served as associate artistic director at The Washington Ballet before taking ABT's top role.
In a statement, ABT executive director Kara Medoff Barnett described McKenzie's hands-on working style: "He doesn't believe in multi-tasking, and he is fully present in the moment, in every rehearsal, every conversation." She adds: "Above all else, Kevin is a coach, and he has helped generations of dancers and colleagues discover and unleash their superpowers."
McKenzie with soloist Luciana Paris in rehearsal
Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT
Indeed, those whom McKenzie has hired and guided throughout his tenure are some of the biggest names in ballet, from Angel Corella, Paloma Herrera and Ethan Stiefel to Gillian Murphy, Stella Abrera, Misty Copeland, David Hallberg and Herman Cornejo. While the company went through a lengthy period of bringing in international guests artists, McKenzie shifted gears several years ago to develop more dancers from within. This summer he elevated a new crop of principals with the promotions of Skylar Brandt, Cassandra Trenary, Aran Bell, Joo Won Ahn, Calvin Royal III and Thomas Forster.
McKenzie also made the critical move of appointing Alexei Ratmansky as the company's artist in residence in 2009, adding a wealth of original works and reconstructed classics to the repertoire. In 2004, after years without an official academy, McKenzie established ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, and later oversaw the creation of its National Training Curriculum. There are now more than 1,600 ABT certified teachers throughout the world.
McKenzie is the second artistic director of a major American company to announce his retirement in recent months, following San Francisco Ballet's Helgi Tomasson in January. As ballet fans begin the fun game of speculating on their successors, one thing is clear: Between the changes that the pandemic and various social justice movements have brought to our art form, and the departures of longtime leaders, ballet in this country is going through a major shift.