Leading the most graceful athletes in Portland

written by Tricia Louvar | photography by Patrick Weishampel

Kevin Irving is dying to bring the Oregon Ballet Theatre to a Portland Timbers game. As OBT’s artistic director, he casts his net far and wide to reignite classic stories and create outreach opportunities in the community, all while managing the dancers’ potential and long-term planning for the dance company. Irving came to OBT three years ago after a distinguished career as principal dancer with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and Twyla Tharp Dance; ballet master with Nacho Duato’s Compañía Nacional de Danza (Madrid, Spain); and founding of I-DANCE, a nonprofit organization that sends choreographers to dance communities in Latin America.

In February, the Oregon Ballet Theatre will showcase a world premiere of the unique adaptation of Swan Lake. How long has this adaptation been percolating?

This idea hatched really slowly. I knew I wanted to do Swan Lake, but I had (and continue to have) strong objections to the traditional storyline which concludes with a double suicide. That really stoppered the whole thing. It was not until I decided to free myself from the conventional story that I realized there was a wonderful way to keep all of the tradition and still update the story. This whole process took about a year.
How do you know when you’ve landed on the “right” adaptation of a classical work?
We won’t know until it is actually performed. I have a strong feeling that we need to reinvigorate the classics even while we keep the tradition alive.

What are the elements you need to manage as the artistic director? Do you ever go to bed unhurried during the season?

Ha! Sometimes I am able to go to bed unhurried, but I almost always have some element, problem or situation on my mind. I am directing all the dancers and all the support people. I am linking donors to the company. I am helping to coordinate the many volunteers who give us their time and, in the case of our Allegro Society (trained wellness professionals who volunteer with OBT), their expertise in keeping the dancers fit and strong. I’m dealing with the day-to-day as well as the long-term planning. But tracking, encouraging and helping dancers reach their potential takes up the lion’s share of my attention.

How do you keep ballet relevant among all the art forms and technology’s noise?

Swan Lake is a great example. Everybody has heard of it, but if they come and see something stodgy and artificial, they will cross that experience off their list and probably never come back. But if they come and are swept away by the story, the beauty, the power, and the overwhelming experience (so different from watching anything on a tablet or a computer), I feel sure they will remain curious and will want to come back.

You have the difficult job of balancing business acumen and creativity. Where did you learn how to balance both ends of the spectrum and be a leader for each?

Practice, practice, practice! I am pragmatic by nature, but also someone with lots of vision. Ever since I left the stage, I have devoted myself to helping dancers achieve their potential. I am a coach, and the process of fostering growth is always incremental. Yet you always have a vision of where you want to end up. I treat my administrative work in the same manner.