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Theatre & Performance Toronto’s Evan McKie completes ‘holy trinity’ of global ballet stardom

Evan McKie, right, stands for a curtain call with Yekaterina Osmolkina in the Mariinsky Ballet’s Giselle earlier this month in St. Petersburg.

Mariinsky Theatre

Superfans might seem reserved for the world of rock stars or celebrity athletes, but National Ballet of Canada principal dancer Evan McKie has his own retinue of devout admirers. They've followed him around the globe, tracking his career across the most eminent dance theatres of Europe and East Asia.

On April 4, their devotion took them to St. Petersburg, where the Toronto-born dancer made his debut with the renowned Mariinsky Ballet. The performance adds another top company to the résumé of the 33-year-old dancer who has already appeared as a guest artist with the Paris Opera Ballet and the Bolshoi Ballet.

"Being at the Mariinsky is a huge honour and I was really nervous," Mr. McKie says. "Like the Paris Opera and the Bolshoi – they seemed beyond my wildest dreams. It's kind of like a holy trinity; these are dance companies that don't need guests."

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By all accounts, Mr. McKie's performance as Albrecht in Giselle was a triumph. French dance site Danses avec la plume raved about his onstage charisma and majestic arabesques. For his top superfan, the Tokyo-based dance writer Naomi Mori, the Mariinsky appearance was a career highlight.

"He did not do flashy things like most dancers do these days; he did everything precise and gracefully with respect to the sacred stage. … It was a beautiful performance. As a ballet-goer who sees more than 100 performances a year, finding an artist with such depth is very rare," Ms. Mori said by e-mail from Tokyo.

Giselle is a pinnacle of romantic ballet and a work that requires presence and classicism from its male lead. But the work also has its own special significance for Mr. McKie in light of how it so directly thematizes dancing.

"Dance itself is the main character. Giselle dances until she dies. Albrecht is condemned to dance until he can't any more. Dancing until you drop is a pretty fascinating theme," he says.

Mr. McKie's ties to the Kirov Ballet, as the Mariinsky was formerly known, go back well over a decade. While he began his training at Canada's National Ballet School, he spent time as a teenager at the Kirov Academy in Washington, where he trained seriously in the Russian style and fell in love with the old-world tradition of learning through mentorship, in which veteran dancers play a hands-on role in coaching young protégés.

He went on to study at the John Cranko Schule in Stuttgart, Germany, then danced with the Stuttgart Ballet for 13 years, under the direction of Reid Anderson.

While performing as a guest star in New York, he caught the eye of Mariinsky prima ballerina Diana Vishneva, who invited him to partner her in St. Petersburg. The performance was scheduled to take place in the spring of last year. But Mr. McKie was forced to cancel due to a serious back injury.

"I thought it meant Mariinsky was off the table and they'd never call me back," he says.

Happily, Mr. McKie was wrong. He thinks the second invitation to dance Albrecht (this time with Yekaterina Osmolkina) has a lot to do with the reputation he's been building with the National Ballet, which he joined in 2014.

With the company in rehearsals for its first new Canadian full-length ballet in more than a decade – Guillaume Côté's Le Petit Prince – Mr. McKie was nervous to ask artistic director Karen Kain for permission to leave for Russia for a week. But with a little scheduling creativity, and by declining invitations to guest star in Taipei and Singapore, Ms. Kain and Mr. McKie were able to make it work.

"Karen understands because she's been through all this before herself. You want to be there with the company, working with the company, but also when invitations like this happen, it's important as an artist to just go for it."

As a child, Mr. McKie was drawn to ballet because of its high-stakes theatricality and unique capacity for expression. The first ballet he saw was John Cranko's Onegin – it's a ballet that went on to play a formative part in Mr. McKie's artistic development, with his interpretation of the titular role garnering ongoing praise. Mr. McKie made his guest-artist debut as Onegin at the Paris Opera Ballet in 2011, filling in for an injured dancer on opening night. He calls the windfall opportunity a career "game changer."

He is looking forward to reprising the role of Albrecht in the National Ballet's June production of Giselle. He'll be dancing opposite his now regular partner, the former Bolshoi ballerina Svetlana Lunkina, who Mr. McKie says is famous for her interpretation of Giselle in Russia.

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The two recently performed as Romeo and Juliet in the National Ballet's production in March, a challenge Mr. McKie relished despite some initial trepidations. "I never knew if I would even be good at Romeo," he says. "I never could see Romeo in myself." He credits his success in the role in part to Ms. Lunkina. "We really play off of each other."

Does Mr. McKie have plans of returning to St. Petersburg?

"I hope so," he says. "There's this spirit at the Mariinsky. It's like the Opéra Garnier in Paris. You can't help but notice how many of the biggest, best idols have danced there over the past two centuries."

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