If you tap most American male ballet dancers on the shoulder and ask them how they got started in ballet, they'll tell you they did it over parental objections, perhaps secretly. It wasn't that way at all with the Joffrey Ballet's Kevin McKenzie. He started to take dancing lessons at his father's suggestion.
"My dad's a meat packer, but in his high school days he was the terror of the dance floor. He really wanted to see me doing tap dance in the worst way," says McKenzie, who was born in Burlington, Vt., the youngest of 11 children. "When a friend of mine - we were 7 - said I'm taking tap, why don't you come along, I did. But I turned out to be a total klutz at it. Meanwhile, one of my sisters was taking ballet, so I transferred to her teacher, thinking maybe I'd learn to stand up long enough to get better at tap.
"To my dad's horror - he never said so, but I guess that's what he felt - I liked ballet, so I gave up the tap idea and stayed."
"I loved being back in Washington," says McKenzie, "I did most of my major growing up here."
The "growing up" included his winning a Silver Medal in the Prestigious Varna international ballet competition in 1972, when he was entered as a graduate of Mary Day's Washington School of Ballet. He was one of the youngest Americans ever to take such an honor.
McKenzie, now 24, and a principal artist of the Joffrey Ballet company for the past four years, is back to town dancing with the Joffrey troupe at Wolf Trap, where he'll be seen as Romeo in the company's innovative version of "Romeo and Juliet" in the ballet's local premier Thursday evening.
Last night he appeared in Balanchine's "Tehaikovsky Pas de Deux" and "Heptagon," a new work by Argentinian Osar Araiz, the choreographer of the "Romeo and Juliet" production.
Though he's not a native Washingtonian, McKenzie did receive the most important part of his ballet training at Mary Day's school, and spent his senior year there preparing for the Varna competition.
"Mary was really wonderful about that," he recalls. "She never mentioned the word 'competition.' She just told us (there were several other Washington entrants) it was going to be an excellent learning experience. She said, after you've watched three weeks of those dancers, you'll be able to tell instantly when you see anyone dance that they've been trained in Czechoslovakia, or Sweden, or Italy, wherever.
"It wasn't until I got the third stage of elimination - when it suddenly dawned on me that I might actually win something - that I got nervous. Then I got very nervous, of course. But the whole thing was a tremendous experience for me - I hadn't ever been east or west of the line between Vermont and D.C. before that."
McKenzie started his ballet class at 9. By the time he was 12, his Burlington teacher, Rosemary O'Brien, had the wit to recognize that McKenzie and his sister had the gift, and needed a level of training she wasn't prepared to give. So the two of them made their way to Washington and Mary Day's academy, where they took both academic instruction and ballet.
The sister graduated, went to New York to try out her wings and dropped out of the field - she's back in Washington now, working at George Washington University Hospital, and about to be married. Kevin graduated a year afterwards, went on to triumph at Varna, and returned to join the National Ballet.
"I remember my first performances with the company," he says. "It was at the Kennedy Center in September of '72, and I danced 'Les Sylphides' at the opening.
"It was great fun, I felt terrific in 'Les Sylphides.' Then came my first 'Black Swan' pas de deux and, omigod, I fell flat on my face - I can still remember my face stinging from the floor. The thing was, I managed a very high jump in the second variation and I could actually hear the audience responding. So I thought to myself, if you liked that, just wait'll you see this, and that's when I took my flop of course. I was so frightened from the fall, I took a breath when I got up and don't think I let it out till the end of the piece. Naturally I couldn't do a single step right after that."
Just the same, McKenzie went on to become one of the most admired dancers of the National Ballet. In 1974, he left to try his fortunes in New York; it turned out to be a prescient move, because the National folded that summer. While he was still with the Washington company, however, he auditioned for American Ballet Theatre.
"They told me they'd like to make me an offer," he says, "but there wasn't a place open in the company just then. A little while later when I heard a place had opened up I dashed back up, but I couldn't get even in the building. Baryshnikov, who'd made his defection just before, had arrived to join ABT."
Instead, McKenzie joined the Joffrey troupe, where his career has prospered ever since. "I've always had a problem with stamina and strength," he says, "and this company has been terrific for me - I mean, we really work very hard. At first I was exultant about being able to do four hours rehearsal, and two or three ballets a night, hey, I thought this is great. Then it began taking its toll, of course - but the company's regime has been an excellant way for me to find my own pace."
The broad spectrum of the Joffrey repertoire has also had beneficial effects on McKenzie, whose own natural bent has always been in the direction of traditional ballet classicism.
"It's a good thing we have to dance as many different styles as we do in the Joffrey," he says, because that's where American ballet is at today. I do feel most at home in classical roles like those in Ashton's 'The Dream' or Joffrey's 'Pas de Deesses.' But I find myself really enjoying the more contemporary things too, like our new 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'Heptagon.'
"I think one actually learns things from such new styles of movement that have application in classical roles as well - classicism was never meant to be rigid and inelastic. If you're intelligent about keeping up your classical technique, you can only gain from exposure to other idioms."