[At the bottom of the story: Four videos of Mack in action]
Brooklyn Mack applauded as the other dancers on the stage were recognized at the 2003 Youth America Grand Prix in New York.
Mack, who was one of six finalists out of 400 dancers at the competition, was the only one on the Lincoln Center stage who didn’t have his name called to accept an award.
And then the Elgin native had to dance.
“I was like, ‘Let me get my child and take him home.’ He’s hurt,” said Mack’s mother, Lucrecia, who rushed backstage.
“I came here to dance, and that’s what I’m going to do,” she recalled Brooklyn telling her.
And dance he did.
“He knocked the socks off the audience,” Lucrecia Mack said. “At that moment, I tried to peer inside this kid. That’s the focus that has kept him on point and helped him arrive at this particular stage of accomplishment.”
This summer, Mack, who will perform Friday night with Columbia Classical Ballet, won three international ballet competitions, including a gold medal at the superior International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria. He is the first black dancer to win on the revered stage.
“So many legends have graced that stage,” said Mack, who dances professionally with The Washington Ballet. “Getting a gold there was a huge honor. I was really humbled.”
Mack, 26, began his dance training at Pavlovich Dance School under Radenko Pavlovich, the artistic director of Columbia Classical Ballet. After seeing the company’s LifeChance performance, Mack, then 12, told his mother he wanted to dance.
“I was floored by the athleticism and the things that the male dancers were doing,” he said.
In dance, he saw an opportunity to entice his mother to allow him to play organized football.
“That if I was willing to take ballet, it would show my mom just how serious I wanted to play football,” said Mack, who doesn’t brag about his accomplishments in ballet. He’s not so humble about his backyard football exploits.
“I almost never got tackled,” said Mack, who was always the running back. “That was the thing. That’s why I was a neighborhood legend. Nobody could touch me. I was ridiculous. If I took ballet, then I would be unstoppable.”
A majority of male ballet dancers have a certain aesthetic. They are tall, lean and muscular. They are expected to be powerful with the ability to manage a female partner. Mack, who maintains a chiseled frame, has always had power. Now when he leaps, audiences gasp as he vaults himself through the air.
“I had to work on refining that power, because you can’t just be out there flailing yourself without form,” he said. “That was one of the things that intrigued me about ballet – gaining that control, and the challenge of that.”
Pavlovich was initially hesitant about taking Mack as a student. Lucrecia Mack, who danced with New Haven Ballet and Connecticut Classical Ballet, wouldn’t allow Pavlovich to rebuff her son.
“Unfortunately, I did not have the support from my mother,” she said. “Her emphasis was on education. She thought dance was foolishness. When Brooklyn said he wanted to dance, I said, ‘Let me support him and make sure he gets to do this.’”
“I did it as a challenge, because I looked at his feet and I said, ‘No way this is going to happen,’” said Pavlovich, who still trains Mack for competitions. “This kid has something more than a normal kid. He has amazing qualities, and you can’t really teach somebody that. I saw a difference in the beginning, but I didn’t know to what extent.”
His mother’s determination has been passed to Mack.
“When I got to ballet, and I wasn’t getting things right off the bat, it was nerve-racking and at the same time intriguing and engaging,” he said. “It made me more hungry for it because it was a challenge. I didn’t want to stop until I felt like, ‘I got this.’ But that didn’t happen.”
And it never will.
“Ballet is a journey. It’s a perfect art form, but no one is perfect, so it’s lifelong,” said Mack, who is in the final year of his contract with The Washington Ballet.
Mack began making his mark at the international level when he won a silver medal at the Jackson International Ballet Competition in 2006. He won silver at the 2009 Helsinki International Ballet Competition. This summer, he won a gold medal at the Boston International Ballet Competition and the grand prix at the Istanbul Ballet Competition.
Next month, Mack will dance at the Kremlin in Russia at the behest of Andris Liepa, the former Russian ballet star. He will travel to both South Africa and Japan in March. According to Mack, the assumption remains that black dancers can’t perform classical repertoire.
“I feel an extra responsibility to really take this as far as I can go,” said Mack, who would like to join The Royal Ballet in London or Het Nationale Ballet in Amsterdam. “That’s always what I wanted to do personally in the first place, but just realizing who I am, I feel an extra responsibility to do that.”
Video: Brooklyn Mack dancing