Brooklyn Mack, internationally acclaimed African-American ballet dancer formerly of the Washington Ballet, made an historic debut as a guest artist in American Ballet Theatre’s production of “Le Corsaire” at the Metropolitan Opera House, June 11-15. In a spectacular display of sheer virtuosic dance and artistry, Mack performed two of the most technically challenging roles in this romantic ballet loosely based on a 19th century poem by the English poet Byron, about the Middle Eastern slave trade, pirates, pashas and damsels in distress. Mack took the Met’s stage first as Ali, a slave of the lead pirate, Conrad, then as Conrad himself.
Aware of the ballet’s politically charged storyline, ABT’s press office issued a statement saying, “The original version of ‘Le Corsaire’ premiered over 160 years ago, and is loosely based on Lord Byron’s 1814 epic poem of pirates, pashas and damsels in distress. It is situated in a time and place where slavery and polygamy were driving forces of the economic and social landscape.” The ballet company also announced that it had made adjustments to some of Corsaire’s traditional staging. For one thing, the ropes binding a group of female slaves were now gone. ABT expressed the hope that “audience members be transported to the period in which it is set and realize such scenes are a reflection, not a validation, of life in those times.”
Of course, the most dramatic adjustment of all to ABT’s production was actually Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie’s decision to make history by featuring the extraordinary Black ballet dancer Brooklyn Mack in both of ‘Le Corsaire’s’ lead roles—as slave and as liberator. Mack’s performances were so awesome that not only did audiences give him a standing ovation but critics praised his “magnificent” debut the first two nights as Ali, Conrad’s faithful slave, dancing the well-known pas de deux with Conrad’s love interest, Medora, and the second two nights as the commanding Conrad, pirate/slave trader turned liberator. Both Mack’s extraordinary command of classical ballet’s most complicated technique, on spectacular display as Ali, and his assertive characterization of Conrad, prompted standing ovations from an enthusiastic audience.
But that should come as no surprise. Known for his “powerful, show-stopping bravura,” Mack has long impressed ballet competition judges and audiences winning the Gold Medal at the Olympics of dance competitions—Varna (in Bulgaria, 2012) —and stunning folks at Jackson (2006), Helsinki (2009), and Istanbul (2012). His explosive leaps, gravity defying jumps, commanding presence and impressive technique are the result of an innate talent and training that began at age 12 at the Pavlovich Dance School in South Carolina. From there, armed with a full scholarship, he studied at Washington’s Kirov Academy of Ballet, Joffrey (2004), danced with the ABT Studio Company (2005), joined Orlando Ballet (2006) and then The Washington Ballet (2009). During his nine years at TWB, which he left recently due to a contract dispute, Mack has been an in-demand guest artist with major ballet companies in Paris, Havana, Moscow and Britain. In fact, following his ABT engagement he performs with The English National Ballet.
In 2015 he and Misty Copeland made history becoming the first African-American duo to perform the lead parts in a full-length “Swan Lake”—he as Prince Siegfried to Misty Copeland’s Odette/Odile in The Washington Ballet’s Swan Lake at the Kennedy Center. Of the partnership “that had the dance world buzzing,” Copeland praised Brooklyn as “an excellent partner,” speaking of the “mutual understanding and bond” and “organic chemistry” that existed onstage between them.
Before his recent appearance in “Le Corsair,” Mack took timeout of a busy schedule to talk about his Corsaire debut, Black men in Ballet, his artistry and an impressive career, his mentor Arthur Mitchell and his very special ‘Dance Mom.’ He also announced that in addition to the three performances he was originally slated to do, ABT had just asked him to perform for Corsaire’s opening night. Mack’s eyes lit up when he talked about his ABT appearance noting the importance of chemistry between him and his partner. “Of course, it’s important to be a sensitive partner. It’s also nice to have an amazing partnership where sparks just fly. Magic is often waiting around the corner sometimes with very different partners.”
Asked about his upcoming performance, Mack, who enjoys both the ballet’s physically explosive pyrotechnics and more subtle dramatic nuance, says, “I think Conrad’s easily likable because he’s strong, he’s very manly, he’s confident, but then he also has a level of sensitivity and obviously love and respect for his woman. After all, not only does his pirate break the ‘bro-code’ for love of a woman but he’s a hero. So I try to bring that to the role and have fun being the leader of a bunch of pirates.”
Mack’s mother Lucretia Mack-Bransen says dance has been both fun and a challenge from the moment he surprised her by announcing, “Mom, I want to try this ballet thing.” After all, his first love was football, but, he knew she didn’t want him playing such a potentially dangerous sport. She says she figured he had an ulterior motive when expressing an interest in ballet and Mack says, she was right. After watching a ballet performance, he figured ballet could build the strength he needed for football. His mom nurtured his passion, finding a school, convincing them to give him a
scholarship and driving him, daily, to class 35 miles away. She says he took class and practiced religiously, also reading every dance book and watching every video he could find. After all, dance had once been her passion too, but her mother saw ballet as a dead end for a young Black girl. Nonetheless, Lucretia managed to study ballet and modern and eventually performed, briefly, with the Hartford Ballet and a modern company in Germany. So, when Brooklyn announced “Mom, I love this ballet stuff” she understood but warned him of the roadblocks he could encounter.
Encounter them he did. Brooklyn says some teachers ignored him, some even discouraged him. Of those who didn’t see him initially, Mack says, “Some of them I had to make see me…I was incredibly tenacious and diligent and, just—I had this will that just couldn’t be broken and I never gave up and I worked and worked and worked.” Then, there were those precious few, like his teacher in South Carolina, who saw his potential. Another, was Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Arthur Mitchell. Mack says, “I first met Mr. Mitchell when I’d been dancing about two and a half years. I did the Grand Prix and he happened to come to check it out. He had his assistant tell me to come to DTH to meet him. Mr. Mitchell said, ‘Young man, I see you can do some tricks and stuff.’ I think he thought I thought a lot of myself but I really didn’t at all. Ballet had humbled me a lot,” Mack says laughing. Mitchell invited him up to watch company class and rehearsals at DTH.
“I’d never seen anything like it. I was just struck by the beautiful ballerinas with sick, sick feet and lines. I was like, ‘What is this! Feet to the sky. Lines. Turnout. Oh, my goodness.’ And there were great male dancers as well. I was just floored. I could not believe it.” He and his mom entertained the idea of him going to DTH year around but as fate would have it that was not feasible then but, Mack says, Mr. Mitchell remained a life-long mentor. “That meant everything to me. It was invaluable because, you know, he had already been-there-done-that. Just having his ear, his tutelage, his advice was really invaluable.” Brooklyn did take a summer intensive at DTH, a time he fondly remembers. Recently, he even posted a photo of him in Mr. Mitchell’s class for his 11.4 thousand Instagram followers to see, saying, “That was a magical summer. Even though I had been there and seen the company going there for a summer session and seeing all those students that look like me—these browns, caramels and chocolates. I remember I stopped at the doorway and it was like seeing the ocean for the first time. I couldn’t catch my breath for a while. At the Kirov, I felt so alone, isolated and alienated. Not through any fault of anyone or how I was treated because everyone was very nice, but I was the only, only one.”
Now, he’s an international ballet dancer, an in-demand guest artist, who, this month, made history at the American Ballet Theatre performing roles that only go to dancers of the highest caliber, and as his recent performance showed Brooklyn Mack is just such a dancer.