Kevin McKenzie, the longtime artistic director of American Ballet Theater, who has steered the company through rocky patches and triumphs since 1992, hired the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky and has had to reckon with the yearlong pandemic shutdown, will retire next year. The company announced on Thursday that McKenzie, 68, will continue to oversee programming and performances through 2022 while a search for a successor begins this summer.
The announcement comes two months after San Francisco Ballet announced that Helgi Tomasson would step down in 2022, after 35 years at its helm. Together, these retirements signal a sea change for American ballet.
McKenzie said he began to think about stepping down around the 25th anniversary of his directorship. “I made a mental note that 2022 would be 30 years, and I wouldn’t go much beyond that,” he said in a video interview.
The chairman of Ballet Theater’s board, Andrew Barth, said that he would want a successor to possess “a lot of the qualities that Kevin exhibited.”
“It’s rare to find such a combination of artistic ability and passion for the arts, combined with a humility,” he said, adding that he expected a lot of résumés. “Using a ‘Nutcracker’ metaphor, it’s a Sugarplum director role.”
Kara Medoff Barnett, the executive director of Ballet Theater, said a search committee would be appointed this summer and an executive search firm brought in after that. “We will absolutely prioritize diversity in the candidate pool,” Barnett said, adding they were looking for someone who values inclusivity and sees it “as an essential pillar of their leadership and vision.”
Although he had been thinking about retiring, McKenzie said, the pandemic influenced his decision “to some degree.” When it hit, he realized that creative activity would move online. “We are dealing with a medium that I don’t really like,” he said, “but which we are going to have to rely on a lot in the future.”
He added: “It needs someone who likes the medium and believes in its value.”
McKenzie said he worried that he might be seen to be leaving at a difficult moment. “But I want to set up a future director for success and we need to get that going,” he said.
A former principal dancer with the company, McKenzie is a direct link to the founders of Ballet Theater, which was formed in 1939 by Richard Pleasant, and partially financed by a dancer, Lucia Chase. She became the co-director, with Oliver Smith, a stage designer, in 1945, and hired McKenzie in 1979, shortly before Mikhail Baryshnikov took over as artistic director in 1980.
McKenzie remained a prominent presence at Ballet Theater until 1991 (the critic Arlene Croce once called him “the Jeremy Irons of ballet”), when he became artistic associate of the Washington Ballet. It was a short apprenticeship; in 1992, he was offered the job of artistic director by a beleaguered Ballet Theater, deeply in debt and without a director. (Jane Hermann, who ran the company after Baryshnikov’s abrupt departure in 1989, had resigned five months earlier.)
“To say things were chaotic was an understatement,” McKenzie said of those first years. “I initially succeeded because everybody needed me to, and our only resource was sheer determination. I don’t think the current moment is a point of crisis like it was then. It’s counterintuitive, but the company is in a healthy state.”
McKenzie will leave a different company than the one he inherited. In recent years, he has moved away from Ballet Theater’s historic reliance on international ballet stars. While stars generated obvious excitement, he said, they “were not primarily focused on the success of the company.”
Asked whether this was a good moment for the company to make a leadership change, Barnett said it was “a natural time in many ways because the pace of change has been so accelerated.” She added, “if Kevin has decided that he has overseen this catalytic year, and that this next era requires new skills and interests and ideas, I trust his instincts on that.”
Barnett said the company, which holds an endowment valued at $26.8 million, had managed to balance its operating budget ($45 million in 2019 and under $30 million last year) over the last five years. She added that government support as well as individual and corporate donors had enabled Ballet Theater to continue to provide benefits and health care for the dancers and musicians during the shutdown, as well as a portion of their salaries. For 2021, she said, the company was planning a number of different budgetary scenarios, given the uncertainties around a return to live performance.
McKenzie said he considered the principal achievements of his tenure to be hiring Ratmansky, in 2009, and starting the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, in 2004. In an interview, Ratmansky, who has created 20 works for Ballet Theater, said that McKenzie “changed my life with a single phone call 13 years ago.” He added that McKenzie has “the ability to stay in the shadows when everything goes well, and to stand out when help is needed.”
McKenzie’s decision to focus on homegrown dancers rather than international stars had been a courageous and important one, Ratmansky said. “Not everyone agreed with it,” he said, “but as a result we have a generation of extremely talented dancers grown from inside the company. The company feels very different today.”