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Monday, January 25, 2010

The State, South Carolina's Homepage
By Otis R. Taylor, Jr.
Elgin native overcomes stereotypes to perform on the world stage of ballet

How a dancer looks is more important than what a dancer looks like. Ballet, in a perfect world, is a colorless art form. As we know, the world is anything but perfect.

Ask Brooklyn Mack, a dancer who has overcome a personal imperfection - those ugly feet - and built a career that has taken him to stages around the world. In the process, he has hurdled color barriers that still exist in classical ballet.

The Elgin native is an emerging face in the ballet world, one that may change the perceptions of black dancers.

"Ballet hasn't had many black dancers, much less black dancers that had the opportunity to dance in classical companies," said Mack, who joined Washington Ballet this year.

"There is a misconception that black dancers can't dance ballet because our bodies are incapable. A lot of that is ignorance."

In 2007, The New York Times' Gia Kourlas wrote a piece on the dearth of minority women in ballet. Male minority dancers are even more scarce. Mack is following in the path of Arthur Mitchell, a former principal dancer with New York City Ballet who started Dance Theater of Harlem. Mitchell is one of the most famous black ballet dancers to dance with an established company, but there have been few who have achieved such heights.

Could Mack be next?

Mack will return home to perform at LifeChance "Gala of the Stars" at the Koger Center Saturday, Columbia Classical Ballet's annual fundraiser. This season, the production will benefit Palmetto Health Children's Hospital Special Care Center.

Mack, 23, began his training under Radenko Pavlovich, the ballet's artistic director. His company features dancers from Japan, Hungary, Brazil and the Ukraine.

Pavlovich's choreography is in step with how his company looks: There's diversity, distinct shades.

"I don't like it when people all look the same," Pavlovich said. "I have a true international company. They're from everywhere.

"I think that is wonderful for our city. It's wonderful for the arts."

So is color, whether one is talking about costume, choreography or the corps de ballet. But Pavlovich said he doesn't see color when it comes to the dancers he trains.

"When I see Brooklyn, if someone said to me he's black, well, if I look, yeah, he's black. But what does that mean?" Pavlovich said. "We are all on this planet together.

"It's the person, the artist, who they are. That's what's important to me."

Mack didn't consider ballet until he saw LifeChance 11 years ago. Then 12, Mack was awed by the physical condition and pliability of the dancers.

He wanted to take lessons to help his athleticism on the football field. He told his mother, Lucrecia Mack, that he wanted to dance.

"He wanted to challenge his body more and more," Lucrecia said.

Lucrecia sought out Pavlovich and asked for a scholarship for her son.

"Your son wants to dance, and you ask me immediately for a scholarship," Pavlovich recalled. "I thought, 'Lady, you have a lot of guts.' I was floored."

But Lucrecia persuaded Pavlovich to train her son - if Mack trained to Pavlovich's standards.

"I said every day or no way, and I will work with you," Pavlovich said. "Never in my life have I seen so much determination."

He was talking about Mack, who continues to overcome long odds, not the least of which is his ethnicity.

"It's unusual for someone to start that late," Pavlovich said. "Boys start somewhere around eight or nine."

"Everything was against him."

But, unknown to Mack at the time, he had something intangible in his body: a dancer's genes.

Lucrecia had trained as a classical dancer. She didn't tell Mack until after he started with Pavlovich.

"At the time he started dancing, I guess it was something so long in my past," said Lucrecia, who studied with Angela Bowen Peters and later danced with New Haven Ballet and Connecticut Classical Ballet.

"I guess it was something I hoped my daughters would follow and not my sons."

Mack, the youngest by eight years, was the only one of Lucrecia's four children to stick with ballet.

"When I first saw him, I thought this boy is not going to do it. There's no way," Pavlovich said. "He developed into this incredible young man that is beautiful and amazing.

"It's the determination that he has."

After two years with Pavlovich, Mack left Columbia for Washington, D.C., to study at the Kirov Academy of Ballet.

Mack has since apprenticed with the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, and he has danced with American Ballet Theatre's studio company and the Orlando Ballet.

Mack has made his mark in ballet on the international stage. In 2006, he won the silver medal at the Jackson International Ballet Competition.

This summer, Mack won the silver at the 2009 Helsinki International Ballet Competition.

"It's more than a medal," Mack said. "A lot of the directors and choreographers from the world's best companies come. It's almost like a scouting game.

"There's a lot of opportunity it can afford besides getting the medal and money. But that's always nice."

Though he's dancing with other companies, he always comes home to train for competitions with Pavlovich.

"Whenever I have a good decent break, I come to the studio and train and gather up more knowledge," Mack said. "He's been a huge help, and I would say, even a father figure in my life.

"He's still my teacher."

Of course Mack has noticed. Of course he's thought about it.

He's been the only one before.

At 15, when he started at Kirov, Mack was the sole black student.

"I was the only one and I was like, whoa," he said. "It felt very strange. I'd never been in an environment like that.

"Ballet, to me, is all about movement and the art form and making people feel something. Really, it's colorless to me."

It isn't that way for all people. Pavlovich and Lucrecia recounted stories of Mack being told he'd never dance classical leads.

Mack took that as a challenge.

"The stereotypes of blacks not being able to do ballet is just that," Lucrecia said. "Most kids don't have the exposure or the economic means. Unfortunately, you have people that share that view that it's not for blacks.

"I'm really glad that Brooklyn had a constitution that couldn't be broken. He doesn't let anybody break his own spirit. He sets his own heights."

The journey hasn't been an easy one, said Lee Lumpkin, the ballet's chairwoman.

"He's been deprived some because of his race," she said. "You don't see the color, but some people do."

Mack has danced pivotal roles in productions of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Don Quixote," and during the Washington Ballet's run of "The Nutcracker," he danced the role of the prince.

He's determined to have more lead roles in classical productions.

"It's a classic thing. It's something you do every year," Mack said, sounding unimpressed with his "Nutcracker" role. "It's fun to do, even though the music gets a little boring after 12 shows. You hear it every year."

He was more upbeat about "Don Quixote," which he danced at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

"The audience had so many diplomats," Mack said. "I didn't feel pressure, but at the same time, you feel humbled getting on that stage."

When he started dancing, Mack promised himself he'd stop at 23 and go to college if he had not reached a certain point. Ballet has become his career, and he's working toward perfection.

And, yes, he's still working on his once-awful flat feet.

"I always told him you have the ugliest foot in the world," Pavlovich said.

In ballet, the feet accentuate lines.

"It's pretty much required to have flexible ankles and high arches," Mack said. "I still work on them every day. It's still a long way to go, at least in my mind."

Mack is a dancer who doesn't just want to look his best on stage. He wants to be the best.

"What is beautiful about him, he's such a simple young man and down to earth and not so full of himself," Pavlovich said.

"I hope he stays like that, because that's what makes him special."

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