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Ballet star Evan McKie defies the purists

Evan McKie in performance

Stuttgarter Ballett

Evan McKie, principal dancer with Stuttgart Ballet, is considered one of the most gifted ballet stars of his generation. At 28, the tall, elegant dancer is the first Canadian to perform a leading role with Paris Opéra Ballet, appearing at that prestigious house in Onegin. He made Dance Europe Magazine's critic's choice list for his portrayal of Albrecht in Giselle, and some of Europe's hottest choreographers have created roles for him.

Now he's back in his hometown of Toronto, making his debut with the National Ballet of Canada. He sat down with The Globe to talk about life, art and his challenging guest role in The Sleeping Beauty.

How did you get into dance?

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I grew up in a crazy family of artists. My grandmother is a director, my dad is a musician, and my mother is a makeup artist. My family went to all the ballets, and I knew I wanted to be a dancer when I saw Onegin and The Nutcracker. Dance has it all – movement, music and acting. I became a student at the National Ballet School. My teacher Glen Gilmour told me that I was principal dancer material so I'd have to work 10 times harder than anyone else.

But you didn't stay at the school.

I'm the type of person who's always looking for new stimulation. I attended a summer dance intensive in Vail, Colo., when I was 13. There I met the great Russian ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov. I fell in love with the strong and masculine Russian style, so at 14, I switched to the Kirov Ballet Academy in Washington, D.C. When Pestov moved to the John Cranko School in Stuttgart, I followed him there. I like being pushed really hard because I want to be the best – like an Olympic athlete.

Was joining Stuttgart Ballet an inevitability?

I'm a dramatic dancer and I love partnering. Stuttgart has a dramatic ballet repertoire with works by Cranko, MacMillan, Neumeier, Kylian and Forsythe. I joined the company when I was 18. I'm lucky, because I've been chosen by choreographers to be in every new ballet created for Stuttgart in my time there.

I understand you're a real stage animal.

I love connecting to an audience. You can feel it physically when you've made that connection. It gives me such an amazing high. I've been accused of dancing for the audience, but I've never understood teachers who say that you should dance like no one is watching. I want the audience watching me.

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How did your guest role with the National come about?

Karen Kain came to Stuttgart for the 50th anniversary gala last February. It was the first time she had seen me really dance. Right after the gala, she asked me to come for Sleeping Beauty – just like that. I've never danced the Nureyev version, but when I talked to Stuttgart artistic director Reid Anderson, he told me that it was a role that was made for me, particularly the long yearning/reflective variation. I grew up watching the DVD and it's a very difficult ballet for the man. I'm delighted to take on the challenge. Greta Hodgkinson is my partner and I love working with her. I like experienced ballerinas who aren't afraid to take risks.

What does it mean to you to dance in Toronto?

A lot. I'm well known outside Canada, but not in my own country. I've always wanted to dance for my fellow Canadians, and now I have the chance.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Guest artist Evan McKie appears as Prince Florimond in The Sleeping Beauty, Mar.ch11, 15 and 18, 2012.

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