The win puts Mack in rare company, as few Americans have won gold medals at the venerable competition. Mack is likely also the first African American to win in Varna. Established in 1964, the Varna event is the oldest and arguably the most prestigious of ballet contests. Patterned on the Olympics, it awards gold, silver and bronze medals to men and women in various categories.
Many of the biggest names in ballet gained their first international recognition at the competition, held every other year in the seaside town. Past winners include Russians Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova and Vladimir Malakhov; Canadian-trained ballerinas Evelyn Hart and Martine van Hamel; and French dancers Sylvie Guillem and Patrick Dupond.
U.S. gold medalists are relatively uncommon. In 1974, American Ballet Theatre’s Fernando Bujones became the first American man to win. In 1996, young dancers Michele Wiles and Rasta Thomas, who both trained in the D.C. area, won junior division gold medals.
Mack traveled to Varna with former Bolshoi and New York City Ballet ballerina Valentina Kozlova. “The most screaming audience” saluted Mack’s performance at Monday night’s gala, Kozlova wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Post. Mack and his partner, Sarah Steele (a student at Kozlova’s Dance Conservatory of New York), danced the “Le Corsaire” pas de deux.
Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre learned the news via e-mail Sunday in Honolulu, where he is staging his “Alice (in Wonderland)” for Ballet Hawaii. “I was thrilled and knew that he worked really hard and really deserved it,” he said Monday. “I also knew it would really spotlight his great work for the Washington Ballet, and I’m immensely proud.”
Webre, who has served as a judge for many international competitions, said it was likely that Mack’s fine classical technique that impressed the Varna jury, as well as his sense of abandon. “It’s a very clean and clear technique, but underneath it is so much visceral power and charisma,” Webre said. “It just seems to grab the audience by the jugular.”
Mack, from Elgin, S.C., began taking ballet lessons at age 12 in the hopes that they would improve his football skills. At 15, he moved to the Washington area to study on scholarship at the Kirov Academy of Ballet. In 2004, after graduating from the Kirov, he joined the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago as an apprentice. A year later, he moved on to the American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company. Mack danced with the Orlando Ballet for three years before joining the Washington Ballet in 2009.