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Brooklyn Mack

The principal dancer of the Washington Ballet, Misty Copeland’s co-star in illustrious ‘Swan Lake’ tell us everything about Russian ballet… in America.

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Bi: How did you decide to come to Moscow to perform at the ‘Christmas Gala’?

BM: I was invited by Andris Liepa. He asked if I would be available for the gala. I said “Of course!” and immediately asked my director for some time to come. She said ‘yes’ & here I am)

Bi: Is it your first trip to Russia?

BM: Actually I have come to a Kremlin Gala four years ago, also at the invitation of Andris Liepa after I won Boston Ballet Competition where he was judging. He presented me with an award in the name of his father – The Maris Liepa Award. I was so honored and humbled! I was very excited to return to Russia!

Bi: Do you like the Russian audience? 

BM: Russia has one of the greatest (if not the greatest) traditions of ballet in the world, my training was Russian, so, of course, I appreciate this audience. They are so experienced in ballet, so accustomed to seeing ballet at a high level, they really know what they watch, unlike many audiences in America. In that respect, it’s a little sobering and even daunting, because one cannot fudge anything. But I really love an educated audience. I think the only country I can compare with Russia in that respect is Cuba.

Bi: Can you say a few words about your performance at this gala (‘Diana and Acteon’ pas de deux) and your partner Tatiana Melnik? 

BM: I had a great time, a lot of fun on stage and I really enjoyed watching the gala. Watching all the other beautiful artists got me pumped up and inspired before going on stage to dance; I could not wait to get out there.

And Tatiana… she was amazing! At the time we performed it was around 20:30 – just 23 hours since we first met! It’s less than a day! She is a very accomplished artist and we shared a special connection on stage. When we were dancing together it felt as if we knew each other for years already, when in fact at that point we had barely spoken to each other! I really enjoyed dancing with her and I hope to dance with her in the nearest future.

Bi: How much time did you have to rehearse together?

BM: Not even an hour. We met the night before the gala, went to the Bolshoi, warmed up, discussed the choreography of the version, went through the pas three times, I guess… And the next day we had a stage rehearsal. So all together it was not more than 45 minutes; So it was really amazing!

I mean I’ve danced with people on short notice many times, but it was unexpectedly gratifying to dance with her.

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Bi: Can you tell a few words about your education in the Kirov Academy. And what are the main differences between the American ballet schools and Russian ones?

BM: The Kirov Academy school was so very unique! It was opened by Oleg Vinogradov himself, while he was still the director of the Kirov Ballet (now – Mariinsky). He formed this school with exactly the same formula as the Vaganova school. We had the same curriculum, and he even brought the teachers directly from Russia; so we were effectively transplanted into Russia right there in DC. We had amazing teachers, like Anatoli Kucheruk, Luidmila Morkovina, Vladimir Djouloukhadze, Angelina Aremiskaya, Jacqueline Achmedova, Nikolai Morozov, and legends like Alla Sizova.

It’s completely different in American schools. I realized over the years that communism and ballet seem to be perfect for each other. In America, if you have money, you can do ballet, because it costs, unless you can get a scholarship. Because it depends on money, it creates a smaller pool of people to choose from.  Also, because the schools are sustained by the paying parents it is more difficult to be critical of the students for fear of losing revenue because of sensitive parents. Consequently, there are a lot of people who do not really work hard.

It is an unfortunate reality that most of the ballet schools in America are so dependent on private funding. In Kirov if someone came to class giving less than 120% or if they have no passion at all they were kicked out; no time for games If you were not fully concentrated in class, or messed a combination, you heard: ‘GET OUT, stupid boy!!!” We were shamed, kicked out of the class, and then made to write down the entire class, every single combination, by hand. This unyielding approach really instilled a great level of respect and reverence for what we were doing. It is only as hard as it should be.

Bi: But on the other hand there are much more amateurs in the United States, there are ballet schools of different levels even in the small cities. In Russia, it is either a professional school – 8 years of scholarship, few dozens of graduates a year – or nothing, which influences, of course, on the popularity of ballet. 

BM: That’s the other side. I taking ballet even recreationally, is very beneficial if you have some passion. I believe you get a lot out of it.

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For example, in my school, a number of people from my class went to professional companies, but some others decided to go to college instead. Every single one of them have been quite successful; many earning their master’s, and PhDs because ballet at Kirov gave them such a level of discipline and tenacity that directly and perfectly translates to the real world.

Bi: There is a practice in Russia that soloists in the serious companies have tutors and the career of a dancer often depends on this choice. Did you have such a tutor or someone who has influenced your dance?

BM: That’s one of the problems in American ballet companies – America is very much a country of an instant gratification – we want everything yesterday. Much of this is out of necessity and has to do a lot with the fact that ballet is not necessarily supported by the government; it relays on almost entirely on private funding. In Russia or Europe, the companies work throughout the year, but in America, the companies work “seasononally”: meaning you have a contract for 8 or 10 months of the year if you are lucky. Because of these time and monetary constraints, many aspects feel rushed: often times you are rushing to put together programs, the company is understaffed, and there is little to no time for private tutelage.

It depends on the company, but there are usually two or three ballet masters or mistresses, the director and assistant director and they are spread out helping the entire company. The director is often busy fundraising to keep the company afloat. Generally, there is not much individual attention. It’s especially difficult for the young dancers, as the companies usually seek someone who already has some experience because they just want someone who can readily and easily be thrown into something; without having to spend time “handholding”. It’s just: ‘And… go!’ Into the machine!

Bi: So the dancer is himself responsible for his shape, the accuracy of performance? 

BM: In many ways. Some people are lucky enough to have someone who takes them under the wing. Sometimes it’s a fellow dancer, who sees a young dancer and believes in him/her or just likes their personality.

Bi: You are dancing in Washington ballet for 7 years. Do you like the company?

BM: I like DC. I do like ‘Washington Ballet’ and we have a new director Julie Kent from ABT, who is planning to improve lots of things.

Bi: Is there a lot of classics in the repertoire?

BM: We normally would do one classic a season. Most seasons are 35% classical, 45% neo-classical and the rest contemporary.

Bi: I can’t fail to ask about your ‘Swan Lake’ with Misty Copeland. For the first time – two Afro-American dancers performed the leading parts in this legendary ballet. And following this can you tell did you ever face discrimination in your work?

BM: I absolutely enjoyed working with her. Misty is very attentive and responsive.

We had a great time working together, she is a beautiful dancer.

About your second question – of course, I faced discrimination. But that is not something I am a stranger to. I mean there was and still is plenty of racial discrimination in general within the United States, especially where I grew up, so it was business as usual. I have thick skin, and I won’t let anyone other than me define my limits.

Bi: Last question – is it the ‘Nightmare before Christmas’ ring on your hand?!

BM: Yeah. Totally! (laughing).

Bi: The best Burton’s film?

BM: ‘Beetlejuice’!

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We thank Christmas Ballet Gala and International Ballet Centre for the organisation of this interview.