At the Paris Opera Ballet, the top tier of dancers is called "étoiles" (or "stars"). Backstage at the Palais Garnier – the opulent theatre built as a centrepiece to Haussmann-era Paris – each étoile has a private dressing room, renovated according to the dancer's particular taste. Below the étoiles are five company ranks, ranging from premiers danseurs (who dance soloist and lead roles without the star designation) to the newly joined stagiaires. It's a hierarchy that in some ways emulates the court system of 17th-century France, from which ballet derives its roots.
"I'd like to think of our company as more democratic," explains National Ballet of Canada artistic director Karen Kain. "It's a new world," she continues affably, adding that government subsidies in Europe allow for throwback luxury that just isn't practical or feasible in North America. The company's ballet master, Lindsay Fischer, agrees that there's a less entrenched spirit of status in Canadian ballet. "The motivation in our company can't be status symbols, because we don't have them," he says. "Our dancers have to be motivated by something that is much more intrinsic to the business of being human."
Beyond the rift between étoiles and corps, ballet has traditionally been a zone of tension between national determinism and international influence. Classical technique, as we understand it in the modern sense, dates back to a post-Napoleonic Europe keen to distinguish itself on nationalistic lines. But ballet, even more so than other non-verbal arts, was poised to transcend the cultural and linguistic fissures of an increasingly complex continent. When do nationalistic distinctions seem less important than when the human body is centre stage – and raw physicality the vehicle for expression? When I travel, taking a ballet class is like stepping into a world that defies both language and geography. A Russian dancer may have a broader port de bras than a dancer who's trained in British R.A.D. (Royal Academy of Dance), but the differences are like minor shifts in accent and intonation. Syntax and vocabulary remain the same.
But in a world where live arts are still (somewhat) limited to local audiences and where arts prizes and funding continue to operate within national jurisdictions, it's hard not to question whether nationalistic distinctions are still a relevant or interesting way of talking about dance. Evan McKie, who joins the National Ballet this season as the company's newest principal dancer, is drawn to the question of what can distinguish Canadian ballet – and what defines Canadian art more generally. McKie, who has danced with the renowned Stuttgart Ballet for 13 years, has built an international reputation in both classical and contemporary repertoire. Now, in his early 30s – an important time both physically and artistically for a dancer – he's decided to return home.
McKie is intense and elegant on stage; tall and long-limbed, his princely demeanour is infused with a modern presence and emotional availability. Watching him dance the role of Diaghilev in Nijinsky in November, I was moved by his fluid access to both power and vulnerability. His Act 2 pas de deux with Guillaume Côté, charged with sensuality and so haunted by sadness, had the electric quality of being wrought, instantaneously, from the characters' desire.
In person, McKie is contemplative and soft-spoken, determined to interrogate the essence and boundaries of his art. When our conversation turns to the Paris Opera Ballet, where he's guest-starred several times, he echoes French ballerina Sylvie Guillem. "She says it's terrible to become comfortable as an artist. I agree."
After beginning his training at the National Ballet School in Toronto, McKie left Canada to study at the Kirov Academy in Washington and the John Cranko School in Germany. "I felt that part of being a Canadian artist was about gaining an international perspective." He joined the Stuttgart Ballet in 2001, rising through the ranks to principal dancer, while earning invitations to perform as a guest artist around the world. When the offers led him back to Canada in 2012, headlining the National Ballet's production of The Sleeping Beauty, he saw an energy he hadn't been expecting. "Toronto itself was different. The landscape was changing. There was a kind of wild, rapid growth."
At the time, McKie couldn't help but notice a productive analogy between a city striving to find its artistic character and his own development as a dancer. "Here, in Canada, it felt like anything could happen. I was about to turn 30, so I was in a comparable place myself."
Now that Toronto is once again his base, he's excited to join the conversation about the country's artistic identity. "There's a new interest in the notion of a 'Canadian' style. People are asking questions about how art affects their lives in a way they weren't before: Why do we need art? What kind of art is ballet? It feels like there's a sort of ballet renaissance happening in the world."
McKie is drawn to the fertile interplay between tradition and innovation at the National Ballet. "The company has very British roots. It means the dancers have incredible technical strength, plus the English tradition brings the power of storytelling. Then there's Balanchine's 'tights and lights' influence from our proximity to the U.S. And Rudolf Nureyev brought Russian expressiveness."
Performing with different companies, McKie has been able to compare and contrast different styles. "In Paris, ballet is about the exquisite details. Russian ballet is expansive with a lot of soul. I've seen the best La Bayadère in Tokyo because of the strength of their corps de ballet – there's a collectivistic spirit in that company that makes the corps often stronger than the soloists. In Korea, the ballerinas have more of a dramatic soul."
Interestingly, Fischer doesn't think the question of national style or aesthetic is a productive way of thinking about ballet in the 21st century. "To me, the topic is very boring. It's a polite form of racism."
Originally from New York, Fischer had an international career as a dancer before joining the National Ballet as ballet master. "I've been a stranger everywhere I've gone, and the places I've enjoyed dancing are where 'stranger' was synonymous with being welcome and interesting, rather than with being 'strange.' I see how companies limit their growth by saying 'it's not like us, we can't accommodate that.' Nobody has ever grown by staying the same; it's an oxymoron."
Instead, Fischer thinks that Canadian ballet is distinguishing itself by driving the standard of excellence. "I would never have said this myself," he disclaims with a genial laugh, "but when [British teacher and choreographer] Sir Peter Wright came and watched our corps de ballet, he turned to our ballet mistress and said: 'This is the best corps de ballet in the world.'"
Fischer sees an exciting parallel between the youth and vigour of the company and what's happening more generally in Canadian art. "We're busy discovering how we want the arts to reflect the society we have and how we want art to lead society to where it ought to be."
Evan McKie will debut in the role of Peter/the Nutcracker in the National Ballet's The Nutcracker on Dec. 21 at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre.