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Facing the Daunting Task of Turning Around ABT : Dance: Kevin McKenzie, the new ABT artistic director and former dancer, takes over a financially crippled troupe. He is confident, though, that the company 'is going to make it.'

November 30, 1992|JANICE BERMAN | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — "I was never that interested in dancing," Kevin McKenzie was saying. "I was interested in portraying a role."

OK, Mr. M., prince of ballet's cavaliers, try this one on for size: artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, one of the world's top troupes, now, after years of over-optimism, over-opulence and over-extension, $5.7 million in debt. Ride to the rescue and kiss that sleeping princess awake. Let a thousand swans bloom. Or something.

McKenzie, 38, agreed to take it on, but only if someone else would mind the money while he was minding the store of present and future artists and repertoire. Gary Dunning, late of the Houston Ballet and, like McKenzie, an ABT alum, was named executive director.

"This is the first time anything like this ever happened, that you have two people grow up within the company and end up running it," McKenzie said in a recent interview in his tidy office. It's also the first time in ABT's 52-year history that there's been a crisis of this magnitude. "However," said McKenzie, "as in any relationship, sometimes it goes through a crisis point and you're just going to be there, working it through."

Already, there has been movement, but not exactly the kind artistic directors dream of. "I released six first-year dancers. Union-wise, they were the only ones we could let go." The company is down to 67 dancers from an all-time high in the Mikhail Baryshnikov era of about 100.

And compared to that era, touring is at an all-time low, because of the recession as well as inflationary costs of presenting a company of this magnitude. Looking to next year, ABT has a week in January at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, a week in February in Washington, D.C., and eight weeks at the Metropolitan Opera House, May 23-June 26. Other tour dates may or may not materialize, but one thing is certain--no new ballets are on the horizon.

"What I have to work with, this year, is nothing," McKenzie said. "It's just the warehouse. But we have an incredible repertory."

Ninety percent of the New York season will consist of revivals. There will be four full-length ballets: "Sleeping Beauty," "Manon," "La Sylphide" and Devid Blair's "Swan Lake," the one Baryshnikov, artistic director from 1980 to 1989, used as the basis for his own production. Works by Antony Tudor, Agnes de Mille, George Balanchine, Glen Tetley and Clark Tippet, among others, will be on the schedule.

Many of the ballets, in short, were in the repertory as long ago as 1979, when McKenzie was hired as a soloist. Two years later, he moved up. "I was the last principal Lucia (Chase, late co-founder of the company) promoted," he said.

Those were the fat years. "In 1979, the money was just unbelievable. You did a new role, you went upstairs and had a new costume made just for you."

And now the lean. "Ballet Theatre has always reflected what has happened in the government," McKenzie said. "Misha ran the company when it was incredibly affluent, and then the country realized, 'Oops . . . !' Jane (Hermann, Baryshnikov's successor) tried to stanch the flow and move on." Now it's Mckenzie's turn with the tourniquet.

McKenzie trained at the Washington Ballet, was the company's assistant artistic director until taking up his new post, and shares a home in Washington, D.C., with former ABT ballerina Martine van Hamel. While he thinks the new Democratic Administration will be "more lenient" toward the arts, "before you attack the problem, you've gotta pay the credit-card bills." Clearly, he identifies with Bill Clinton. Although McKenzie's only in his 30s, "culturally, I feel like a baby boomer, because I grew up on all my brothers' and sisters' records."

His family is from Burlington, Vt. His father was a meatpacker, his mother a retired nurse and "major housewife." The 11 kids were raised in a "strong Irish-Catholic value system," McKenzie said: "Be human, be decent, be straightforward." He was the youngest, and everyone knew he was the last. "I was spoiled-rotten," he said with a grin, "considering that my father was a total, raging alcoholic.

"He was never physically abusive, but I never lost the fear that this staggering, out-of-control man was going to fall down in front of me and split his head open. I guess that might be considered the downside of (my) Irish-Catholic upbringing."

When McKenzie was in the second grade, one of his friends began taking tap. "He was urging me to do it. And my father, he said: 'My god, do it, boy! You'll be the next Fred Astaire.' He loved Fred Astaire. He was actually very encouraging," and, when it looked as if ballet might help him with tap, his father urged him forward. "My mother paid for a private class for me and my sister, so I wouldn't have to walk into a class full of girls wearing tights."

That was the beginning; the end of life at home came in adolescence, when Mrs. McKenzie shipped him and his sister off to the Washington School of Ballet.

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