Ask a person on Main Street to name three Columbia-born celebrities, and you might hear names like Angie Stone, Kristin Davis or Sam Beam. But if you walk around a cultural hub in the Washington, D.C., area — or even in Moscow — and ask if anyone has heard of a certain Columbia native, there’s a good chance they’ll know the name Brooklyn Mack, an Elgin native and one of the most celebrated young male dancers in the world.
Mack returns to Columbia several times each year, and he dances with the Columbia Classical Ballet this Saturday at the Koger Center as part of the annual LifeChance gala.
Mack spent most of his time as a child playing backyard football with his friends and attended a small private school in Columbia. When it came to his favorite sport, he played the tough guy role, letting everyone know, “‘can’t nobody touch me,’” he says now. Mack’s cocky youthful demeanor left little room to entertain the idea of ballet. Just about the only thing he’d heard about it until he was 12 was that it was “for the girls or the sissies; so that’s pretty much what I went with, because I didn’t have anything else to go by about ballet.”
Mack didn’t realize at the time that his mother had been a dancer. She was raising him on her own — and didn’t want him near a football field.
Somewhere along the way, though, he heard something else about ballet: that some football players used it to improve. And everything changed when he went on a field trip to see Columbia Classical Ballet’s LifeChance. He was awed by the athleticism of the male dancers. He thought, “I’m already the best football player I know, so if I implement ballet into what I already do, I’ll be unstoppable.”
Seeing potential in her son, his mother, Lucretia, went to Radenko Pavlovich’s studio to see about getting him started on classes — for free.
“I was astonished,” Pavlovich remembers. “She walked in here and said that she wanted him to take classes and that she wanted a scholarship for him.”
Pavlovich took one look at Mack’s “ugly feet” and had doubts, but there was something in the spirit of the mother and son that drove him to give the 12-year-old a chance. He gave him a scholarship on the condition that Mack take every class at the studio, thereby taking over any time for football.
It turned out that Mack’s mother was right. With every increase in the level of difficulty he attempted, Mack thrived. Later, he started training with Pavlovich himself.
Finally understanding Mack’s level of commitment, Pavlovich took even more interest in the boy. Soon afterward, Mack left Columbia to take a scholarship at the prestigious Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C., but as Mack returned to train, the two became as close as father and son.
Some might expect a teenager from rural South Carolina to flounder in situations where he was the only black kid in a crowd of international students, but Mack relished his surroundings. As he traveled the world, he began learning Russian and Japanese. After the Kirov, he studied with the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. Then he went to New York City, where he joined American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company and briefly studied with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, where he gained a fan in its founder, the legendary Arthur Mitchell.
“He’s like a black panther,” Mitchell says. “The sleekness of his body — and he has this electricity when he hits the stage that’s absolutely wonderful. He has a jump that is absolutely amazing and he creates an excitement when he hits the stage.”
In an art form that is short on males and even shorter on minorities, Mack has wowed international audiences. He’s even been specially invited to dance at the Kremlin.
After three seasons as a principal dancer with Orlando Ballet, Mack returned to the nation’s capital to dance at The Washington Ballet, where he’s been for five seasons. Along the way, he has won almost every major award offered in ballet, including first prize at the International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria —an honor once earned by Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Outside of Columbia’s arts community, there’s a general lack of knowledge about Mack’s career — which is puzzling, considering Mack’s determination to come home.
“Sometimes people have to be told that they have a gold mine,” Mitchell says.
Mack is actually part of a growing fraternity of world-class dancers raised locally.
“I don’t know if it’s the cornbread, the grits or the water, but there’s a lot of talent coming out of Columbia,” Mack says.
He lists a few from Columbia or elsewhere in South Carolina: Sara Mearns of the New York City Ballet [online copy clarified]; Joseph Phillips of the State Primorsky Opera and Ballet Theater [online copy corrected]; McGee Maddox, from Spartanburg, at the Royal Ballet in Canada; and Columbia-born Mathias Dingman, who is a soloist at the Royal Ballet in Birmingham, England.
With Columbia sending this much talent out into the world, it would be easy to imagine the city to be full of classical dance fans.
However, the United States “has always thought that ballet was only for certain people,” Mitchell says. That mindset seems magnified in a mid-sized Southern city. One can imagine talented kids fleeing to places where they can have a big following.
Mack, however, refuses to cut Columbia out — a visceral feeling he struggles to explain.
“It’s home,” Mack says. “That’s first and foremost. It’s where I come from, and there are good things and there are many faults, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s where I come from. So I want to give back as much as I can.”
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