As a boy growing up in Oakville, Ont., Evan McKie would do pirouettes on the baseball field.
His musician father and makeup-artist mother enrolled him in competitive jazz after noticing their first-born son could not sit still whenever music was playing. He told them ballet was for girls.
That perception shifted when, at age 8, McKie saw a performance of Onegin performed by the National Ballet of Canada with then-principal dancer Rex Harrington in the eponymous lead role.
It was, McKie recalls some 20 years later, a life-altering experience.
"I had always had this image of ballet as pink and pointe shoes, which is nice, but it wasn't for me. Onegin was different," he explains in an interview. "The central character was a guy, and he was dressed all in black, and there was this other kind of beauty, masculine and brooding. I decided then that this is what I would do."
This month, McKie is performing with the National Ballet as a principal guest artist. One of the shows in which he's appearing is Onegin. (The second was James Kudelka's version of Swan Lake earlier this month.) It is a return engagement for McKie, following 2012's critically acclaimed homecoming dancing The Sleeping Beauty and Giselle.
Trained at Canada's National Ballet School, the American outpost of Russia's Kirov Academy in Washington and the John Cranko Schule in Germany, from which he graduated in 2001, and then heading straight into the Stuttgart Ballet company as an 18-year-old apprentice, McKie is a versatile dancer, unfussy and powerfully expressive.
The now 30-year-old principal dancer has admirers around the world, among them the French actress Isabelle Huppert, the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke and the U.S. burlesque artist Dita Von Teese, plus a super-fan in Tokyo who flies to wherever he is performing to watch him soar.
A lyrical dancer, he is the first – and, to date, the only – Canadian ever to headline the Paris Opera Ballet, the world's oldest surviving ballet company, and the only one after Karen Kain to perform with the Bolshoi in Russia.
"I laugh at those who want to compare ballet to an Olympic sport," McKie says. "Ballet is more than turns and double cabrioles. It is telling stories with your body … communicating your passion."
The National Ballet presents Onegin at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre from March 19 to 23. Evan McKie performs the role of Lensky on March 19, March 20 (evening) and March 22 (matinee); national.ballet.ca.