Every soloist hopes and prays for the moment when their director
offers that ;rst big lead role. For American Ballet Theatre’s Christine
Shevchenko, it happened last November when artistic director Kevin
McKenzie informed her that the following spring she’d dance the role
of Kitri at the Metropolitan Opera House.
After three years as a soloist, she felt ready. Shevchenko was
particularly glad that her first lead with ABT would be in Don
Quixote. She’d won competitions with the third-act variation as
a kid back at The Rock School for Dance Education. A few years
ago, she danced the full ballet in Ukraine, the country where she was
born, with the Donetsk Ballet. Plus, it’s a fun ballet, she told me a
few weeks before the debut. The whole cast is rooting for you, she
says, clapping along, snapping their fingers.
I got to watch Shevchenko put the ;nishing touches on her interpretation in ABT’s studios, and checked in with her occasionally before,
the day of and after her debut.
Shevchenko began to rehearse in December. Since she knew the basic
choreography already, she could focus on capturing the ;amboy-ant, Spanish-;avored style and developing her interpretation. She
was guided by ballet mistress and great former Soviet ballerina Irina
Kolpakova, who focused more on presentation and technique, while
McKenzie kept an eye on the big picture and worked on ;nessing the
pas de deux.
Shevchenko had to decide what she wanted her Kitri to be like.
“Obviously, she’s very ;ery,” she says, but there are many nuances
The ;rst act presented the most challenges, mostly because the
that can be layered onto the role. Some dancers, like the late Russian
star Maya Plisetskaya, have played her as a blazing, larger-than-life
character. Shevchenko, a dancer with a more soft-edged, sunnier dis-
position, opted for a different model: Ekaterina Maximova, a petite,
sparkling Bolshoi dancer born 14 years after Plisetskaya. “Her Kitri
was a little bit more re;ned, but with that same ;ght and energy,”
style—broad, explosive, almost masculine—felt the least familiar.
Shevchenko worked with Kolpakova on achieving a radiance and line
that would help her take up more space onstage without looking forced
or tense. Kolpakova pushed her to dance bigger, to use her shoulders
more, to be more open and expressive.
Meanwhile, Shevchenko also worked with acting coach Byam
Stevens to get a fuller sense of what makes Kitri tick. “What we were
working toward was more about a certain soulfulness,” says Stevens.
There’s the obvious, extroverted side of the role, which, Stevens says,
can be a trap. But why is she that way? “I think that because she grew
up without a mother, she always needs everyone’s attention,” says
Shevchenko. By the third act, once Kitri is convinced that her sweetheart Basilio is trustworthy, she can relax and rely on her poise.
At a rehearsal with McKenzie about a month before the performance,
Shevchenko seemed laid-back, open to trying different approaches. The
one area she was still working on was her stamina. “I ;nd the ;rst act
to be really exhausting,” she told me, “because there’s just so much
jumping.” To prepare, she was pushing the Gyrotonic and strengthening exercises, eating lots of anti-in;ammatory foods like avocado and
salmon, and making sure to get a lot of sleep.
The night before her debut, I texted her to see how she was feeling.
BY MARINA HARSS
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KYLE FROMAN Unf lappable
Inside Christine Shevchenko’s journey to
becoming Kitri—and an ABT principal
with Kevin McKenzie