The first time Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, saw Daniil Simkin dance was not on stage, but on the computer. Like countless others who had watched videos the young dancer had uploaded to YouTube (garnering a few million hits), McKenzie was impressed.
It was an unusual introduction, but then, much is unusual about the 25-year-old Russian native, who became a principal dancer with the company last December and is heading into his first ABT fall season in that role, starting on October 30. Even the training of the Russian-born dancer defied tradition: Simkin studied with his parents, both ballet dancers, at home, while also taking classes in his free time. “I avoided all the noise and comparisons you find in academies,” he says. After winning gold medals in several international competitions, he joined the Vienna State Opera’s ballet company, and in 2008 signed on with ABT as a soloist.
The transition to ABT wasn’t an easy one. “Here, you rehearse from 12 to 7, working on four to five ballets a day, then you perform eight shows a week,” he says. “The schedule was excruciatingly taxing on the body.” But whatever he has put into training has yielded a dazzling prowess onstage—his soaring jumps leave audiences gasping. Recent bravura performances have led critics to compare him to Baryshnikov and Nuryev.
Simkin says he adapted to New York—eight months a year he lives on the Upper West Side; he spends the other months traveling to artist gigs around the world. Wherever he is, he keeps in touch with fans via social media. “I’m a bit of a geek,” he says, adding: “Many people think dance is old fashioned.” Simkin is determined to change that perception, with the help of the Internet. “Social media offers transparency,” he says. “I can show the work behind the stage, and in the studio—it’s mind-bending, what bodies can do. The videos can ignite people’s curiosity.”
Now, he’s looking forward to the roles he’ll tackle in the fall. After dancing in The Tempest, choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, he’ll take on Theme and Variations by Balanchine, followed by Piano Concerto #1, also choreographed by Ratmansky. In 2012, Alastair Macaulay of The New York Times saluted Simkin for “taking exciting risks.” Says Simkin, “The second you go on stage, you’re taking a risk, especially in ballet. You’re not able to fake it. As a dancer, taking risks is your job.”