October 12, 2013
Dean Speer and Francis Timlin
As we met with the new Artistic Director of Oregon Ballet Theatre, I was particularly curious about what makes Kevin Irving, Kevin Irving and how this might relate to his overall vision of OBT. Here is a summary of that conversation which took place backstage prior to OBT’s Opening Night of its 2013-14 season.
It is so good to meet you and thank you for your time. In pondering what to ask you, I wanted to go beyond the usual questions and find out what makes you, you – and, of course, briefly what your background has been and importantly, of what you see for the artistic future of Oregon Ballet Theatre.
I had an unusual dance trajectory. I grew up on Long Island and wanted to be on Broadway. I started jazz classes at Miss Marianne’s School of Dance, which I loved and was encouraged to audition for a scholarship at the Alvin Ailey School – which I got. It became my dream to be in the Ailey Company but I was instead offered a contract by Elisa Monte, a former principal of the Graham Company and I became a founding member of her group, dancing with her for three years.
I was then offered a contract with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and found myself being at the right place at the right time when Balanchine stager Sara Leland cast me in the pas de deux of Balanchine’s “Agon,” pairing me with one the company’s most experienced and senior members. I was then promoted to soloist, then principal. My last gig was with Twyla Tharp and I thought it was a good place to finish my performing career.
I then had the chance to work with Nacho Duato as a rehearsal director and subsequently spent eight years as associate director/rehearsal director. I learned a lot by just figuring it out.
The next stage of my career was as Artistic Director of the Gothenburg Ballet in Sweden for five years. This is a very contemporary company and, in terms of expectations, I found it very difficult to push them toward excellence. The culture clash was too great and I resigned after five years.
Tell us about your staging work…
I did freelance work for Frank Andersen at the Royal Danish Ballet, which included an all-Kylian evening, which, at the time, was considered to be most extraordinary for the Danish company. I’ve also staged and coached Duato, Robbins, and Balanchine ballets in Copenhagen.
Learning – as I did at Ailey – has become a recurring theme for me. Sometimes it’s a steep learning curve. I like to push to accomplish more than what comes naturally or easily. I’ve always wanted to push beyond natural boundaries.
In terms of my goals here in Portland, an important objective is to change the public’s perception of what is possible in ballet. Duato definitely was a challenge for the dancers here but I think ultimately revelatory for our audience. I plan on pushing the way the company is perceived by the community and engaging them more.
And staging the Duato piece here…
The Duato work is extremely detailed and precise on many levels – musicality, shapes, and nuances. Each dancer needs to express his or herself in Duato’s language. As a stager of his work, I hope to shed light on how that is accomplished. I’m still fit enough to demonstrate physically and it’s the quality [of Nacho himself dancing] that I try to pass along. I demonstrate a lot, including being hands-on with both roles of partnering. Sometimes certain parts of the process can be very boring for dancers, and I try to keep the spirit alive even while working on the pedantic.
When it is done right emotions can wash over the audience and it’s a beautiful shared experience, even in a large hall like Keller.
As the time to conclude our interview was upon us and he needed to get ready to attend a donor function, I asked Mr. Irving for any parting thoughts…
I’m excited about my time at OBT, coming in after some intense turmoil. I have every confidence that the future will be strong for OBT.