Kevin Irving – Taking the Leap

Artistic Director of Oregon Ballet Theatre

In June 2013, Kevin Irving became the new Artistic Director of Oregon Ballet Theatre (www.obt.org). He draws from a career that spans the globe, and multiple dance disciplines. But the experience of feeling like an outsider at certain points in his journey has led to his greatest strength: helping people to maximize their potential.

Kevin Irving
Kevin Irving

Kevin grew up in Long Island, New York, studying jazz and modern dance. He then received a scholarship to study with the Alvin Ailey school and training ensemble, from Ailey himself. As one of very few Caucasian dancers at the school, he describes the experience as eye-opening. At age 24, he joined Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, crossing over into classical ballet. Although he didn’t have the background in classical dance that many in the company did, he distinguished himself as a principal dancer. “I worked extremely hard, but I also feel that I was successful because I found a way to turn the context to my advantage.”

After eight seasons, Kevin took a position as ballet master with Nacho Duato’s Compañia Nacional de Danza in Madrid, Spain, where he discovered his strength in coaching, assisting several members of the second cast who eventually became some of the strongest members in the company. He outlines the process of bringing each dancer to a point where they are meeting all the expectations that have been laid out, and then exceeding them: “It’s a Venn diagram – they need to find the place where the expectations overlap with their own personalities and artistry. They need to expand that center part, so they become more themselves, even as they become more exact in terms of the choreography.”

Kevin was subsequently hired as Artistic Director of The Göteborg Ballet in western Sweden, and then went on to serve as a frequent guest ballet master for The Royal Danish Ballet. In 2010 Kevin formed I-DANCE (Inspiring Dance: American Nation Choreographic Exchange), a not-for-profit organization that has sent teachers and choreographers to Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Peru. “Scratch the surface of a dancer, and they are really not that different anywhere. We all have the same obsessions. The only things that are different are the context, the resources you are given, and the actual experience that you live.”

OBT_Nutcracker_250x250Having arrived in Portland, Kevin says that he couldn’t be happier. In his new role as Artistic Director of Oregon Ballet Theatre he wears many hats, bringing the team together and making sure every single member feels valued. As curator of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s season, he says he is like a midwife in many ways. “Helping choreographers to achieve their vision is much like helping individual dancers to achieve their personal potential.” He points out that Balanchine said that a good program is like a balanced meal, with an appetizer, main course and dessert. “But all of our cultural habits are shifting – we are immersing ourselves more. I love potent experiences, so that’s what I am looking for when I make a program.”

George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker opens this week, running December 13th – 27th. It promises to be a magical experience for the entire family. Characters from the ballet will be in the lobby before performances, so children can get their picture taken with the Sugar Plum Fairy. Students from Oregon Ballet Theatre’s school are cast in the show. “The Oregon Ballet Theater school is an important point of contact with our community. All the parents are effectively saying that they believe we are good caretakers for their children, that we will help them to become more fulfilled. With shows like The Nutcracker, kids can tap into their ambitions to become performers. It’s so joyful to watch them participate.”

Additional upcoming shows include a full-length Cinderella, also promising to be delightful for the whole family (February 28th – March 7th, 2015), and IMPACT (April 16th – 25th, 2015), a program which will include RASSEMBLEMENT, a piece by Nacho Duato that portrays the residual effects of slavery, racism, colonialism and brutality. “It cuts to our shared human dignity, and our drive for freedom, respect, and the expression of one’s own liberty. It is even more relevant today than it was when I first thought of bringing it – sadly,” Kevin states.

And the future of Oregon Ballet Theatre? Kevin describes the recent experience of staging Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 25th Anniversary program, confiding that he altered the format of the evening a short time before the performance: “I went through a few different drafts before coming up with what I thought would be right for the occasion. The past was the first act, and the future was the second act. I wanted to pay homage to what had come before, to show the DNA of the company. I also wanted to show that there is a lot more to come! There is a future that will be surprising and captivating.”

Oregon Ballet Theatre
818 SE Sixth Ave.
Portland, OR 97214
503-222-5538
www.obt.org

About The Author: Merlin Varaday