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McGee Maddox: Plucked from the corps de ballet

It's the stuff of legends: A young dancer is catapulted out of the ranks in his first season with the company to perform a starring role.

McGee Maddox, only 23, will take the lead in the National Ballet of Canada's production of John Cranko's masterpiece Onegin at the matinee performance this Thursday in Toronto. And while it may be a single midday outing, as ballet aficionados know, it signals a promise of glory to come. In fact, just this week McGee was promoted to second soloist.

It was Reid Anderson, director of this production, who plucked Maddox out of the corps de ballet. The former National artistic director, currently head of Stuttgart Ballet, was himself one of the great Onegins.

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"I went on my gut instinct when I saw McGee in company class," he says. "He may be young but he has bearing, deportment and moves with elegance. He's also a very good partner, a natural onstage, and he's blessed with charisma and a strong theatrical presence."

Right from his start with the National, Maddox has been cast in such hefty roles as Benno, the Prince's friend in James Kudelka's Swan Lake, and in the Snow Queen Pas de Trois in Kudelka's The Nutcracker. He was also one of the few whiz kids chosen for Jorma Elo's world premiere Pur ti Miro.

The Globe caught up with Maddox between rehearsals to find out how he handled being the only boy in his ballet class in Spartanburg, S.C., how he recovered from injury to keep on dancing and what it means to play Eugene Onegin.

The obvious first question: How did you get into dance, anyway?

I was a hyperactive kid. When my mother, a pianist, played our Steinway, I'd dance around to the music - so my parents put me into creative movement [classes] I started to take dance seriously when I began formal ballet classes at 7 or 8.

What was it like being a ballet boy in a conservative Southern town?

As the only boy in ballet class, I certainly had to defend my choice of art form, so I became known as a little guy with a big mouth. I was also into sports, played the cello in the school orchestra, studied piano and around 14 got into rock with drums and guitar - but I always knew that dance was where I was supposed to be. I fast-tracked through high school because I had to get out of Spartanburg.

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And you went straight to Houston Ballet. Why there?

I'd taken summer ballet intensives at Houston Ballet's Ben Stevenson Academy with a phenomenal teacher called Lazaro Carreno. When I was offered a scholarship, I jumped. After two years I joined the company.

Even as an apprentice, you got leading roles - and then everything came to a grinding halt. Tell me about you injury.

In the last week of my apprentice year, I tore my knee. Between surgery and rehabilitation, I lost a year and a half.

How did having such a serious injury affect you so early in your career?

When I first went to Houston, I was in that dangerous young-dancer mindset. I wanted to have the edge that comes from pushing yourself to be the best. The time away taught me not to try so damn hard - to be honest with myself, and dance how I feel, and not do things that don't feel right.

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You only spent one more year with Houston before auditioning for the National. Why the move?

I felt I had grown as much as I could, and after six years, it was time to work with different people. I was looking for a company with a progressive rep that was au courant and attracted the movers and shakers of dance. The National is the 'here and now' of ballet.

You certainly got major roles right away.

I think people here could see that I could handle big stuff in a short amount of time. I'm committed to this art form. My technique is constantly evolving. I want to be a great dancer.

Tell me about landing that pivotal matinee lead in Onegin.

Onegin is a role that a dancer can build a career on. Tchaikovsky's music is awesome and the choreography is perfect. It requires partnering and acting, so it's my kind of ballet. It's a dream of every male dancer to perform Onegin one day. Because the ballet is associated with mature artists, it's a very big surprise to be taking on the role at 23.

The National Ballet's Onegin runs through Friday at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre. McGee Maddox performs the title role in Thursday's matinee at 2 p.m.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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