as Onegin

Before we announce the winners of the 2014 My Theatre Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

We were supposed to interview the National Ballet’s newest principal dancer about his signature role, the tragic and proud title character in John Cranko’s glorious Onegin. But the incredibly personable McGee isn’t fond of talking about himself so, while we touched on Onegin’s complexity and the misguided perception that a hyper-masculine dancer is inherently insensitive in performance, we mostly talked about movies. Somehow we feel like we gained more actual insight that way (seriously, go ask someone to talk about their favourite film, it’s endlessly enlightening).

You were nominated last year as well-
I saw that. Two years in a row; I feel like Bradley Cooper.

Our first question is always do you remember the first ballet you ever saw.
I really don’t. That’s not really how I was introduced to ballet anyway. Because I’m from a really small town in South Carolina and so it’s not like that was a thing; you don’t go to the ballet. I guess I kind of remember a video of Baryshnikov or Nureyev or something maybe creeping into the VHS collection of my household and maybe seeing that at a young age.

So then how did you get interested in the art form?
My mother’s a pianist and she played a lot of classical music growing up and my father always caught me dancing in the same room. Just messing around but they could tell I was very musical and dramatic and, if my mother was playing a sad piece of music, it was obvious I understood that at a young age. It wasn’t just incoherent movement. There was something, ‘oh, he understands what he’s listening to and he’s moving to it’. So that’s how I was introduced to it and then it was their idea to ask me at three or four years old, ‘hey do you want to take creative movement? do you want to take a ballet class?’ And being the un-insecure four year old that I was, I was like, ‘yeah, let’s do it’. Completely unaware of how much heartbreak and bullying it was going to lead me to [laughs]. But I stuck with it.

Was there a lot of that growing up?
Well, here and there, but, you know, you toughen up. I’m from Spartanburg South Carolina, you can’t walk around like a little bitch all the time [laughs]. You gotta toughen up. I don’t know, maybe I toughened up a bit too much.

You think so? In what way?
I like to think of myself as a sensitive man, but everybody says, ‘McGee you’re so tough, so this, so that’. I don’t get it. I’ll cry at the drop of a hat [laughs]. I don’t know how I got this tough guy image.

Is that in comparison to other dancers or as a man in general?
Oh I think the answer’s in general but I am very aware of the stereotype of what a male ballet dancer is- maybe slightly effeminate, slight body types, things like that. I still kind of see that and I don’t belong to that category.

Is that something you’ve confronted throughout your career, affecting what roles you get, and even what jobs you get?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Sometimes even my boss, she’s surprised like ‘oh you played that role very sensitively’. I kind of go, ‘well, that’s my job, I don’t know why you’re surprised’. I think that, me as an artist, my physical appearance can kind of [set false expectations], like who would expect that type of emotional range from someone that looks like me?

Going back a bit, at what point was ballet something that seemed like a possible career path?
Probably really early on. I don’t think I ever had too many arguments with myself or kind of ‘ah ha’ moments where it was like, ‘oh I can do this as a job’. For me, it was kind of just like, ‘well, I’m going to do this and I’m just going to keep doing it’. Even in high school or junior high school, [when I was asked] ‘what do you want to do with yourself?’ I was like ‘I’m just going to dance’. This is what I want to do, I just entertain people. You know, ‘I guess that’s a job; can I skip college and do that? I want to do that!’ [laughs] I think really early on it was just apparent to me that I’m here to entertain people and I need to keep doing it because I love doing it.

But you picked one of the hardest mediums-
I know! It sucks. But I figured I’m young enough that [when my dance career is over] then I can move on with my performing arts career in other aspects. It’s the cruelest discipline, for sure. But did I pick it? I feel like it picked me. If I picked it, I probably would have quit [laughs]. But I think I’m kind of married to it a bit.

How did that happen? Your parents put you in dance class and then you sort of just got swept up into it?
Yeah. From the very beginning it was just such a natural thing to move to music and to emote and to act and to tell a story and dance and perform and to, especially, be in front of an audience. I know a lot of dancers who have had to fight stage fright or even [the fear of] something like talking in front of a group of people but I think that my inherent need for attention sort of overrides any kind of insecurity that I have about doing things in front of other people or performing. I really just kind of thrived in those situations, especially when I was young.

Do you have other performing pursuits that you do on the side or have real plans to pursue after you retire?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I actually have a Meisner acting class today at 7:00. I’m very intent on getting into the film and television industry in some way.

As an actor?
Yeah, as an actor. I’d love to direct. I mean, I don’t know how you get into all that kind of stuff but I’m putting it out there. I just love movies [laughs]. I love movies. I watch at least a movie a night.

What’s your favorite movie ever?

Probably There Will be Blood.

Why? Not to get completely off topic, but why?
[laughs] This is on topic. I mean, we’re talking art, we’re talking performing arts.

That was a movie that I saw when I was like 21 years old. I saw it and I was like ‘holy shit!’ Cinema can really change your perception of the world. I went to the movie theater and, two hours later, I had no idea where I was. I was so drawn into Daniel Day Lewis’ performance and these beautiful pictures and the score and this odd little story that was being told. And I was like, ‘I want to do that. I want to make that’. To be able to speak to such a wide audience, that’s awesome.

You know, ballet can only reach so many people. And it’s really only understood by so many people. It’s hard for me to listen to people [say] ‘I like dance but what else is there, except some guy throwing a girl around?’ and I just go like ‘ugh, face palm’ [laughs] ‘If you only knew!’. The first time I saw Onegin, when I was 15, I had rented the tape from my library, and I saw that you can move people with this stuff. That’s the whole point. If you want to see a guy hurl a girl across the stage, go see Cirque du Soleil. It’s beautiful, but I want to be moved. I want my view of the world to be changed by the time I’m done reckoning with it, you know? Art is so subjective, and that’s what it is. It’s subjective. It’s an opinion. You’re telling me your opinion about the music or the story or a relationship and, any time I dance, I try and tell the audience my opinion of the world and how I listen to the music and how I interpret a relationship or role. Watching film is the same thing. It’s just such a broader audience. But dance is so niche. Some people can watch a ballet like Onegin and and just go like, ‘oh, that was nice’ but I never watch these big, dramatic ballets and go ‘that’s nice’. If it’s done well, if it’s done properly, I go ‘Wow. Alright, I’ve kind of peeked into a corner of the world, of the human psyche, that I had never seen before’.

Especially with that actor’s mindset, stepping into a role like Onegin (which has arguably become your signature role with the company) do you feel like you have a very specific take on the character that’s unique to your dancing style and point of view
Yeah, absolutely. And I see that when I try and watch other Onegins, it’s hard for me to do. I’ve talked about this with Evan McKie, who’s done Onegin before, and other dancers. It’s very hard for us to watch other dancers do it because we have such a mindset about how we do it, that to watch other dancers do it, I almost cringe. And it’s nothing personal. It’s not like they’re doing it wrong, they’re doing it their way, but I have such a specific way that I like to do it. I don’t watch too many shows of Onegin and, again, it’s nothing personal. It’s not because I don’t like that dancer or this or that, it’s just such a personal thing for me, that I enjoy it more interpreting it than watching it.

What are some of the specific things you bring to the character?
I don’t think I can really spell it out. I go out on stage and do it. It’s how I listen to the music; it’s how I choose to look into her eyes during the pas de deux; it’s how I choose to react in the second act to all the drama. The steps are all the same for everybody, but I think it’s just different and that’s why we dance it.

Do you feel like you see something in that character that may or may not be necessarily part of everyone’s interpretation in terms of his humanity or how much of a villain he is?
Yeah. And I kind of had to learn that stuff doing it the first couple of times. I think the first time I approached it, it’s almost too easy to make him just ice cold. And I find it much more interesting to make him charming. Because, if he just comes off as a dick, why would the audience fall in love with him? Isn’t that the point, to get the audience to fall in love with him and understand why she would fall in love with him? And then be disappointed that he is turning her down. Instead of it being so expected. You expect an asshole to turn a girl down. But if he’s charming enough so the audience falls in love with him, that’s when they get disappointed. Then they want to see them get back together. That’s the multi-dimensions within that character. He is a charming guy. He’s aware of the depth of his humanity too and I have to find it in me to find those places. It’s in everybody. You just have to be fearless enough to tap into those things and do it in front of two thousand people.

with Xiao Nan Yu in Onegin
with Xiao Nan Yu in Onegin

Does the experience change dramatically working with certain partners?
Oh yeah. The first couple of years I was here, I was partnering Heather Ogden a lot and that was really a learning experience because she’s so ahead of the game in terms of classical technique in a female dancer. I came into the company, and I was a good partner, but she made me a better partner. She laid it down. And working with [Xiao Nan Yu], who has a completely different body type and different musicality, I apply what I learned with Heather and do it on Nan, and it’s all very different. And even every show is different, even with the same partner. It’s just a matter of getting used to the body and the musicality and what they’re giving me artistically.

Do you generally work with the same person over and over again?
For me, with my height, I will partner tall ballerinas. As much as I’d love to partner Sonia [Rodriguez, who is 5’1″], I’m not going to partner Sonia. That’s how casting goes, at least in this company. I know other companies are different, where it doesn’t matter- you’re with this person, you’re with that person- but I tend to have the same partner over and over. I’m monogamous.

You mentioned earlier that your size is very atypical for a dancer. Is that something technique-wise that you had to combat while you were learning?
I certainly had a lot of trouble during my growth spurts, but I’ve really become so attuned with my body that I can move very quickly, considering my size. It took a lot of work at a very formative age to understand that.

What would you say was the biggest challenge for you to overcome to become a dancer?
Oh man. You know, oddly enough, it was very hard for me to partner to begin with. Because I just was not a strong kid. And that’s kind of what I’m known for now, just tossing chicks around.

I remember my first two years at Houston Ballet Academy, where it was kind of like, ‘McGee, you need to be able to pick these girls up’, and I’m like, ‘I know! I know!’ [laughs] Yeah, partnering was very difficult for me. It was kind of a joke, like, ‘we’ll give McGee the lightest girl’ [laughs].

Coming from such a small place, did you have to move away in order to further your training?

At what age did you do that?
I was 16.

And you went to Houston? How did that opportunity come up?
Well, I had gone to their summer programs for years, so I had a relationship with them. And by the time I was ready to kick my training into high gear, it was just a pretty natural choice to go there year round. I knew their staff and their teachers. It wasn’t a shock to anybody.

You joined the National Ballet in 2009. How did that transition come about?
I was with the Houston Ballet Company for 4 years. It was time for me to move on from Houston and I had seen that a couple of dancers from Houston Ballet had transitioned successfully up here and so I was like, well, maybe that would be a good decision for me. So I auditioned and got in.

What would you say is the biggest difference between the two companies you’ve worked with?
Well, our director is not a choreographer. In Houston, our director was a choreographer, so it was a very different hands-on approach. Our director was working with us, choreographing on us. We had a dancer/choreographer relationship and not just a dancer/boss relationship.

You were recently promoted to Principal but, having danced principal roles for years, has the promotion really had any impact on your day-to-day life as a dancer?
I’ve really had to reinvest myself into this profession. I’m a Principal Dancer of the National Ballet of Canada. I have to really make it my life again. I think that, for a couple years there, I might have kind of coasted a bit, and now it’s a much more realized responsibility of, not just my dancing, but I also represent the company outside of the studios and in front of patrons and as a citizen of Toronto. I mean, my face is on the side of the Four Seasons Centre now. There’s a prestige behind that which is pretty awesome.

Do you feel like you’re carrying that Principal Dancer title with you everywhere you go now?
Not in that sense; that would be entirely too pretentious I think [laughs]. I mean, if you ever see me out and about the town, it’s just me. Again, I kind of feel like I don’t fall under the stereotype. I guess, when you think of a ballet dancer, we should be, you know, well put together, in a nice outfit; I’m just kind of grungy in ripped jeans and I’m just kind of like ‘hey, what’s up?’ I spend enough time in costumes, I spend enough time in the studio being other people that I’m very comfortable with myself outside of it.

Does the company dictate things like what you can do with your hair?
Not right now; I’ve got a full beard. It’s itchy. It’s scratchy. I’m actually kind of enjoying it. I’m enjoying my mornings without having to shave. It’s actually quite nice.

Enjoying your time off?
I’m enjoying my time off from the stage. I’m rehearsing. I don’t know if my partner appreciates me having a beard.

I doubt it.
With me rubbing cheek to cheek. Cheek to cheek with Grizzly Adams.

Do you have any time completely off during the year when you’re not either rehearsing or performing?
We’ve got time this summer. But I’m going to be in Japan.

What will you be doing in Japan?
Dancing Swan Lake with the school/company out there. In Fukuoka, Japan. It’s my first time to Asia, so I’m excited.

How did that come up?
Just an opportunity through the school over there, working through the manager/agent to get those kinds of things booked. I don’t know how many of those I’m going to have. I’m really bad at self promotion- horrible at it- so I’m not the one that’s on the phone trying to plug myself and get those kinds of things. So when they come up, kind of second-hand, I take them.

I’m not really too comfortable with self promotion at all. I mean, I barely Tweet. I barely Tweet about ballet. And when I do Tweet, I really just try and come up with something silly to say. Or even Facebook. Like my Facebook post last night, I saw American Sniper-

– was it any good?
Oh, no, it’s a piece of shit.

Oh no. That’s upsetting.
It’s just a big ‘we’re America’ kind of movie. But I posted on Facebook, ‘what are your thoughts on American Sniper?’ and I had a lot of my friends from back home type in, [with an accent] ‘well, you know, he was just a soldier and he served his country’ and all that. And I was just like ‘oh my God’. There was no story, it was so horrible; they didn’t even explain the most ironic part about his life, which was his death. It was just a big mess. I had a much better time debating Foxcatcher or Birdman or something like that. Inherent Vice, that was a good movie.

Yeah, but you like Paul Thomas Anderson. I don’t get Paul Thomas Anderson.
Oh man. He’s my favorite.

What did you think of Foxcatcher, though, as someone who kind of understands that intensive training mindset?
I wrestled in junior high school; I understand the world of wrestling. And to watch a movie which was actually more about relationships… well, that’s what any sports movie is about. It’s about relationships. I just thought it was a really dark, poetic, creepy movie, and I loved it. And I loved Steve Carell in it. Because I don’t expect a performance like that from him. I expect Benedict Cumberbatch to give me his Imitation Game performance. It’s a great performance, but I’m not surprised. You know what I mean?

And there’s something about comedians in dramatic roles. Like when Jim Carrey did Eternal Sunshine and he in no way resembled Jim Carrey.
Yeah, but I consider Jim Carrey just a great actor in general. It’s funny how a lot of the time people are surprised that comedic actors can do drama so well, but most comedy comes from a dark place anyway, so if they can turn their emotional tables around and exude a different tone within themselves… they’re so used to projecting those things across to an audience.

Almost like a super masculine dancer doing a really sensitive role.
True. See, you’re catching on.