Image by: NYC Dance Project
It’s not everyday you can take a ballet class taught by a professional dancer. And when said class is taught by National Ballet of Canada principal dancer Evan McKie, it’s almost too good of a treat to pass up—even if you have never put on a pair of ballet shoes in your life. (Seriously, you don’t have to know first position from a plié.)
But how does a principal dancer even find the time to teach—after all, besides his on-stage and rehearsing duties, McKie is also busy as a visual artist, writer and volunteer at organizations like the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. “I still jump out of bed every morning, not because of the intense perfectionism required in my profession, but because of the child-like fantasy of just being able to dance around to music all day,” the Torontonian tells us over email. “That simple feeling is the same now as when I was 10.”
McKie—who joined the Canadian company as a principal in 2014—is teaching his next class for total ballet beginners on Feb. 10 at the National Ballet’s In Studio. We caught up with the dancer ahead of the class to find out what to expect.
What’s your advice to those who are interested in the class but has never done ballet before?
Ballet is unlike anything else. Get a comfy outfit and get ready to feel your body singing from head to toe, because it is possible to feel like that after the initial few minutes. It’s not your typical “workout”—there’s a live piano for all of us to dance to, which I always find luxurious. It’s a beautiful thing to feel the body learning ballet posture and positions. After a few minutes, you notice things about your body and the space around it that may be very interesting and even elating.
A Toronto theatre-journalist recently tweeted, “It’s actually ludicrous that you can take a beginner ballet class from one of the best dancers in the world, but Toronto’s that kind of place.” Why is teaching a beginners’ class something you wanted to do?
I love that Toronto is a place where something like this can happen, because everyone is kind of game to try new things. I'm so thrilled that Kate Kernaghan, director of National Ballet of Canada's In Studio program, has invited me to teach this class. I smile though, because people are writing to me saying that they’re worried they’ll “embarrass themselves” in such a ballet class. These are moms and dads, full-time CEOs, even people who are live on TV! I’m like, “People, you have no idea how much even the most seasoned dancers laugh at themselves each day and the kind of shenanigans that occur in the studio anytime one is learning new choreography or steps.”
What fitness benefits does ballet have on the body?
Ballet dancing in this case is the ability to play with control over your mind and body while experiencing classical music. I think that just being in the studio, moving through space and learning even the simplest steps develops one’s cognitive landscape. Of course, the more one moves, the more one experiences the cardiovascular, coordination and musculoskeletal benefits. Learning the language of conditioning one’s entire body while just enjoying the simple urge to dance can instantly increase brain health and physical well-being.
As a top dancer, how do you take care of your mind and body?
Dancing keeps me feeling alive, and surrounding myself with inspiration is important. I work with some of the most outstanding people in the ballet business—Karen Kain being one of the most impressive artistic directors there is. Moving back home to Toronto five years ago, after spending half of my formative years in Europe, has been one of the most enlightening experiences I’ve ever had artistically and socially. The idea of embracing movement has allowed me to see the world with perspective and deeper understanding often from arms length and distance. It is not always easy, and I write all the ups and downs in journals so that I can document my own progress and recall some of the obstacles I’ve overcome to arrive where I am right now. I am not a robot, and therefore I have to pay extra attention to when I’m thriving and when I’m struggling in order to self-regulate my philosophies, heal my immune system and update my expectations of myself.
Other than teaching, what are you working on now?
I am in rehearsal learning one of the most celebrated roles in ballet, George Balanchine’s Apollo. It's about the God in Greek antiquity who becomes enlightened through three muses of art: in this case poetry, mime and song. It is loaded with symbolism passed down through the ages and works so well in a mixed program evening with three or four very different types of ballet.