Kevin McKenzie to retire as Artistic Director of American Ballet Theatre

David Mead

Following the recent announcement of Helgi Tomasson’s stepping down from the leadership of San Francisco Ballet comes new that Kevin McKenzie is to retire as Artistic Director of American Ballet Theatre at the end of 2022. Until then, he will continue to oversee ABT’s creation of new works and performances while working to aid the seamless transition to his successor, the search for who begin will begin this summer.

In a statement, McKenzie recalls watching the great dancers of the 60s and early 70s while a student, examples he says that would guide him through his performing career and inform his sense of responsibility as a director.

Hired by ABT’s co-founder and director Lucia Chase, McKenzie went on to perform with many of the greatest dancers of the 1970s and 1980s before being appointed Artistic Director of the company in October 1992, succeeding co-directors Jane Hermann and Oliver Smith.

Speaking about his decision to step down, he says, “As we enter a time of renewal, I find this is the moment to plan thoroughly for it. ABT has given me my artistic identity and taught me the lessons of aspiration, guidance, and responsibility from the age of 15 through nearly 30 years as its Artistic Director.

“I am proud of the programs I helped pioneer for the company, the generations of dancers I helped develop into leaders in the field, and the incredible range of work that Alexei Ratmansky has contributed to ABT’s repertoire.

“And now, it is time to pass the torch – to new leadership and to the next great leaps in ABT’s history. I look forward to guiding the Company through 2021 and 2022, re-entering the exciting world of live performances, reinvigorated and ready for the challenge. I’m eager to apply the lessons over the past year, to relish in our newfound agility to create new works in dedicated residencies, to pick up the planning of long-anticipated commissions still waiting in the wings, and, once a transition is made to new leadership, swell with pride for having led one of our nation’s artistic institutions. I am ever grateful for the trust instilled in me by trustees, colleagues, and artists.”

Andrew Barth, Chairman of Ballet Theatre’s Board of Governing Trustees, paid tribute to McKenzie’s “uncanny ability to find optimism, joy, and renewal in each season and with every generation of dancers.” Barth also refers McKenzie’s intelligence, perception and sense of care, and to how he has been a source of stability and calm through the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

In a leadership tenue that represents more than a third of ABT’s history, McKenzie has overseen an expansion of ABT’s repertory while lovingly curating its classics and keeping its narrative ballet focus. The list of choreographers he commissioned works from is long and includes William Forsythe, Jessica Lang, Lauren Lovette, Lar Lubovitch, Cathy Marston, Wayne McGregor, Benjamin Millepied, Darrell Grand Moultrie, Mark Morris, Helen Pickett, Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Rudd, Pam Tanowitz, Sonya Tayeh, Twyla Tharp, Christopher Wheeldon, and James Whiteside, and more. McKenzie’s own choreography for ABT includes The Nutcracker (1993), Don Quixote (1995, in collaboration with Susan Jones), and a new production of Swan Lake (2000).

Additionally, he spearheaded the ABT Women’s Movement, increasing the number of female choreographers working at ABT. Since its inception in 2017, a total of 27 new works by female choreographers have been premiered by the main Company and ABT Studio Company.

McKenzie has not let that pandemic put a halt to the company’s creative output either, with 17 new works created and filmed for digital distribution.

Elsewhere, he initiated the formation of the American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in 2004, which had over 400 students pre-pandemic, and ABT’s National Training Curriculum has over 1,600 certified teachers in 44 countries worldwide.

Kara Medoff Barnett, ABT Executive Director for five years, sums McKenzie up by noting his unwavering commitment to excellence. “He doesn’t believe in multi-tasking, and he is fully present in the moment, in every rehearsal, every conversation. Kevin is fond of saying that ‘energy begets energy,’ and his energy has fueled ABT’s evolution, resilience, and growth for three decades.

“Above all else, Kevin is a coach, and he has helped generations of dancers and colleagues discover and unleash their superpowers. Ultimately, he believes in the power of ballet to illuminate truth and the power of theater to connect us with our shared humanity.”