Stas Levshin, Courtesy Mikhailovsky Ballet

Meet the US-Born Dancer Rising the Ranks in Russia

At the age of 11, Julian MacKay gave up his life in rural Montana to move to Moscow and train full-time at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. It paid off: With Apollonian lines and bravura reserves of technique, the young dancer is now a versatile first soloist with St. Petersburg's Mikhailovsky Ballet, and brings an enterprising American spirit to his Russian life.

Company: Mikhailovsky Ballet
Age: 19
Hometown: Bozeman, Montana
Training: With Christine Austin in Montana, Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow
Accolades: 2015 Prix de Lausanne (Royal Ballet apprenticeship), 2015 Beijing International Ballet and Choreography Competition (bronze), 2014 Yuri Grigorovich Ballet Competition in Sochi (bronze), 2014 Istanbul International Ballet Competition (gold)


Stas Levshin, Courtesy Mikhailovsky Ballet. MacKay in The Flames of Paris

Russian gamble: MacKay was the first American to graduate from both the lower and upper schools of Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet Academy. He was invited to train there after a summer Bolshoi intensive in the U.S., and ended up staying six years. "I thrived on the constant challenge," he says. "I had to fit in both in the ballet sense and in the language sense."

Family affair: MacKay is far from the only dancer in his family: His two older half-sisters, Maria Sascha Khan and Nadia Khan, have danced with European and Russian ballet companies. Their mother moved to Moscow to support Julian, who was later joined at the Bolshoi Academy by his younger brother Nicholas MacKay. "That is definitely my secret to success: I wasn't there by myself," says MacKay.

"Julian has this wonderful Western self-control, mixed with a Russian understanding of musicality." —Mikhail Messerer

St. Petersburg calling: While auditioning for the Hungarian National Ballet, MacKay met Mikhailovsky ballet master in chief Mikhail Messerer, who was giving the class. Messerer later offered him a second soloist position in St. Petersburg, with principal roles on the horizon. "I couldn't turn him down. The more opportunities you have, the more you can grow as a dancer."

Youthful bravura: Messerer threw another challenge his way last winter, with the difficult, high-powered leading role in The Flames of Paris. After rising to the occasion, MacKay was promoted to first soloist. "He is startlingly handsome, and he has the ability to dance not only academic roles but also flashier ones," says Messerer, who will next cast MacKay as the Prince in another Soviet-era revival, Rostislav Zakharov's Cinderella.

Entrepreneurial ambition: Bolshoi Academy students graduate with a bachelor's, and MacKay has opted to pursue a master's degree at Moscow's Russian University of Theatre Arts (GITIS), which prepares dancers for roles as ballet masters and choreographers. He's already putting the choreography component of the course to good use: last year, he staged a family-friendly version of The LittleHumpbacked Horse in St. Petersburg, and took it to Montana this summer.

MacKay with siblings Maria Sascha Khan, Nadia Khan and Nicholas MacKay.

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Luke Isley, Courtesy Ballet West

How Do Choreographers Bring Something Fresh to Music We've Heard Over and Over?

In 2007, Oregon Ballet Theatre asked Nicolo Fonte to choreograph a ballet to Maurice Ravel's Boléro. "I said, 'No way. I'm not going near it,' " recalls Fonte. "I don't want to compete with the Béjart version, ice skaters or the movie 10. No, no, no!"

But Fonte's husband encouraged him to "just listen and get a visceral reaction." He did. And Bolero turned into one of Fonte's most requested and successful ballets.

Not all dance renditions of similar warhorse scores have worked out so well. Yet the irresistible siren song of pieces like Stravinsky's The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, as well as the perennial Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, seem too magnetic for choreographers to ignore.

And there are reasons for their popularity. Some were commissioned specifically for dance: Rite and Firebird for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes; Boléro for dance diva Ida Rubinstein's post–Ballets Russes troupe. Hypnotic rhythms (Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel) and danceable melodies (Bizet's Carmen) make a case for physical eye candy. Audience familiarity can also help box office receipts. Still, many choreographers have been sabotaged by the formidable nature and Muzak-y overuse of these iconic compositions.

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