ABT Gala Bids Adieu to Kevin McKenzie with Don Quixote

Photo Lieba Nesis

Woman’s advice has little value, but he who doesn’t take it is a fool,” said Don Quixote in Miguel de Cervantes’s tome, published in 1605 and 1615. The American Ballet Theatre (ABT) decided to utilize excerpts of the novel for its much-ballyhooed opening gala on June 13, 2022, which was held at the Metropolitan Opera House, with the performance beginning at 6:30 PM.

Due to the pandemic, for the first time in 3 years, ABT once again used the gala to usher in the beginning of its 2022 Summer season, which runs from June 13-July 16th; and, more importantly, said goodbye to beloved Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, who served with dutiful dignity for 30 years.

Martine van Hamel, Kevin McKenzie and Stella Abrera
Photo: Lieba Nesis

Attending this gala for over a decade, I have in the past been left speechless at the pageantry of the evening, with McKenzie producing show-stopping performances that left audiences spellbound. And so I had been excitedly and patiently awaiting this night, knowing it was McKenzie’s last hurrah and therefore expectant of an all-out, excessive production where showmanship and bravado would be the tip of the iceberg.

Amy Fine Collins
Photo Lieba Nesis

While I enjoyed the competent Three Act Ballet, I was disappointed the evening was not replete with the usual style of small ballet vignettes showcasing the best of the season, the typical horde of celebrities coming to pay homage to McKenzie, or even usual attendees such as Hamish Bowles, Sutton Stracke, Anh Duong, Fe Fendi, Christine Schwarzman and Jamie Tisch – what happened!!!

Susan Fales-Hill, Andrew Barth and Jean Shafiroff
Photo Lieba Nesis

Where was Diana Vishneva, Isabella Boylston, Misty Copeland, whose careers McKenzie had so brilliantly championed, or the legendary choreographer Alexei Ratmansky who was nabbed by McKenzie as an Artist in Residence in 2009 in what will undoubtedly be recognized in ballet history as a watershed moment? Why didn’t students from the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School (JKO) which McKenzie launched in 2004, perform in an ode to their master who had guided and mentored them for nearly 20 years?

B. Michael and Mark Anthony Edward
Photo Lieba Nesis

The 68-year-old McKenzie is one of the few noncontroversial ballet figureheads who has handled himself with humble professionalism throughout his storied career; consequently, his farewell should have been executed in a manner reflective of his sacrifice. Some have criticized his focus on cultivating homegrown talent instead of importing international stars, while his replacement, former principal dancer Susan Jaffe, will likely do more of the latter.

Olivia Palermo and Johannes Huebl with our writer
and photographer Lieba Nesis

Raised in Burlington, Vermont, the youngest of 11 children born to a successful meat-packing business McKenzie took an immediate interest in the ballet and rose to Principal dancer of ABT from 1980 to 1991. His appointment as Artistic Director in 1992 was a unanimous decision – the same year the transit fare was $1.25, and John Gotti was sent to prison. ABT was over $5 million in debt and floundering during this period, with McKenzie boldly taking the reins and stabilizing the company’s finances.

Daniil Simkin and Enrico Bruni
Photo Lieba Nesis

Today the endowment is $28.9 million, with the operating budget at just under $30 million in 2021 – not bad. McKenzie stated his departure was due to his distaste for social media and his belief that the next leader should be able to control “messaging and imagery” for those with short attention spans. And so it appears McKenzie is a casualty of the Instagram age where unless a message can be distilled to two seconds of photo-taking, the effort is futile.

Ruth and Adam Miller
Photo Lieba Nesis

McKenzie’s deft tutoring of principal dancers to achieve optimal results should not be undervalued: who can forget Alessandro Ferri and Julio Bocca in the breathtaking Manon, or Diana Vishneva bringing audience members to tears in Giselle, or Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg mesmerizing the audience with the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene.

McKenzie even convinced Congress to pass a resolution recognizing ABT as “America’s National Ballet Company.” Perhaps the low-key McKenzie was desirous of exiting the company with little fanfare looking forward to spending quality time with his wife, prima ballerina Martine van Hamel. Or maybe the pandemic and the necessity of cost-cutting left a more bare-bones gala intact that was a quiet farewell to a legendary leader.

Larissa Saveliev and R. Couri Hay
Photo Lieba Nesis

McKenzie’s future plans are unknown, although he stated he never wants to run another ballet company. Regardless of its shortcomings, the evening was still a delight with soaring temperatures and an even hotter crowd that welcomed fashion luminaries Olivia Palermo, Jean Shafiroff, Amy Fine Collins, Jennifer Creel, Anka Palitz, and so many others.

The ravishing Eli Saab-clad philanthropist Susan Fales-Hill was also honored for her indomitable support of the dancers. The night began with Hill movingly expressing her gratitude to the ABT company for enriching her life and rewarding dancers for the quality of their performance rather than excluding them for the color of their skin as they did in the 1940s.

Don Quixote has been in the ABT repertoire for years, debuting in 1978 at the Kennedy Center in DC with superstars Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland. Its rich history and McKenzie’s decades-long involvement in its expert staging made it a predictable choice.

In 1995 McKenzie and Susan Jones produced the opening, which was danced by Paloma Herrera and Julio Bocca at Lincoln Center. The dazzling costumes and crowd-pleasing dance numbers have drawn audiences for years as it provides a masterful vehicle for those fond of fanciful ballet extravaganzas.

Santo Loquasto expertly executed the first act’s imaginative scenery and costuming. Soloist Catherine Hurlin and a slightly injured Aran Bell were my favorites: producing a magical partnership that showcased their exquisite craft. Scene 2 recreated the dream sequence with beautiful maidens and joyful dancers Hee Seo and Joo Won Ahn.

The finale was nearly as fantastical as Christine Shevchenko had the audience jumping out of their seats during a set of fouettés that were some of the best I have seen. The evening ended three hours later with less than usual theatrics without the outgoing McKenzie even taking to the stage as flowers were delivered to conductors David LaMarche, Charles Barker, and Ormsby Wilkins.

Guests who shelled out a minimum of $2,500 a ticket headed to the second floor of the adjoining David Koch Theater for a lavish dinner decorated rather sparsely with purple flowers and plain tablecloths. Kevin McKenzie was one of the last to arrive-clutching his wife’s hand in a bearded disguise: accepting the congratulatory goodbyes and exhibiting a readiness to accept his anonymous future in typical underplayed McKenzie style.

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Lieba Nesis

My love of fashion, writing and photography were something that always dominated my lifestyle however it wasn't until I was approached by the editor of Lookonline that I realized I could utilize these three skills in combination.

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