Kevin McKenzie couldn't stand it anymore. The longer he'd been the artistic director of the American Ballet Theater, the more weary he grew of the company's adaptation of Swan Lake. It was stale, tired, and boring as an episode of According to Jim. "By the time I became director in 1992, it was as old as I was," notes the 50-year-old McKenzie, who was the theater's principal dancer since 1979. "It was falling apart. This was my chance to put my stamp on it."
McKenzie ditched the ragged production and overhauled most of the choreography into four acts of fancy athletic moves, paired with vibrant costumes and lush scenery. The updated version premiered in Washington, D.C., in 2000 and has toured the country ever since. (It's in town this weekend for a five-performance run at the State Theatre).
"I needed to take some cardboard characters and fill them in with texture and color," he says. "I thought, If this doesn't fly, it could be a huge disaster."
Originally choreographed in 1877 to its famed Tchaikovsky score, the ballet takes place in 16th-century Germany. When a princess refuses the hand of a sorcerer, he turns her into a swan. This poses a problem for Prince Siegfried, who had designs to marry her. It can only end in tragedy. "You get a sense of blood-and-guts human beings striving for the human element," says McKenzie. "Here's a man who can't marry his ideals to his realities. Who can't relate to that?"
He hopes twentysomethings can relate. It may help that the five dancers who alternate in the lead role are all in their twenties. "It can be incredibly relevant to a young person -- if they can get past the notion they're going to a ballet."