NEW YORK — When American Ballet Theatre hit him up on Instagram, unemployed dancer Brooklyn Mack thought it was a joke.
In the message, someone claiming to be an assistant to ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie wanted to know if he had time for a call.
“Must be somebody trying to prank me,” Mack thought. Last August, Mack’s nine-year career at Washington Ballet had cratered after drawn-out contract talks. Mack, who had been the company’s most powerful technician, has an electrifying stage presence that made him immensely popular with D.C. audiences. He was shocked to find himself suddenly without a job — and the hiring season was long past. He had an 8-year-old son to support and a dancer’s body to maintain, with a few lingering ailments.
The ballet world is small, and lots of people knew that Mack was looking for work. He was easy prey for a phony Instagrammer. But after months of navigating ballet’s gig economy — regional “Nutcrackers” here and there; gala appearances and pop-ins with companies in Hong Kong, Oslo and Mexico City; taking part in a tribute to his late mentor, Dance Theatre of Harlem founder Arthur Mitchell — what did Mack have to lose? He replied to the DM with his phone number.
“I was just waiting for them to say, ‘Psych! Gotcha — no you didn’t!’ ” said the 32-year-old dancer. “And then, lo and behold, I got a call, with that unmistakable voice on the other end.”
It was McKenzie after all, and the fulfillment of the director’s request happened last week, when Mack strode onto the Metropolitan Opera House stage to make his debut with ABT in the full-length, pirate-themed ballet “Le Corsaire.” He danced in four shows, June 11 to 15, leading three casts as heroic buccaneer Conrad and appearing once as Conrad’s slave, Ali. (This ballet, hardly one of the most progressive, is full of such archaic blots, though the virtuosic role of Ali is a surefire crowd-pleaser and a prized showcase.)
Mack is one of only two guest artists ABT has engaged this season, the other being the celebrated ballerina and relatively frequent visitor Alessandra Ferri last fall. In a company with a long practice of importing high-pedigreed guest artists for its prestigious Met season, Mack stands out. The South Carolina native is a rare homegrown VIP, as well as one of the few African Americans brought in to perform principal roles at ABT.
So a lot was riding on Mack’s shoulders as he prepared for the biggest debut of his life — and then a last-minute switch upped the pressure. His first ABT performance was to have been a relatively low-key Wednesday matinee, with Mack in the secondary role of Ali. But he was slotted in a day earlier, performing Conrad as a substitute for the injured ABT star Herman Cornejo.
“They asked me if maybe I wanted to forgo the Ali show,” said Mack, “but I said my people are coming, my mom and stepdad coming up from South Carolina, and cousins and family friends.”
Mack had to ready himself in a rush. Because the last performance of a different ballet took place the night before, there was no time for a dress rehearsal. Mack had a brief walk-through with lighting cues but no props. He didn’t hear the orchestra until opening night.
Forget nerves; Mack had just one thought as the overture began. “I was wondering when the curtain was going to go up,” he said with a laugh afterward. “Le Corsaire” opens with Conrad onstage with his pirate crew, aboard a ship bobbing atop fluttering silk waves. “It went up way earlier than I’m used to. I just rolled with it.”
Such unflappability grounded Mack's performances opening night and at the matinee the next day. His blazing technique was even sharper and more brilliant on the vast Metropolitan Opera House stage than in his years at Washington's Kennedy Center. The Met stage is one of the largest in the world, and Mack flew across it in three leaps. His legs scissored apart in soaring full splits, the unbound flexibility delivering an extra sensation of vigor and freedom. This freedom was apparent, too, in his high-flung air turns. Throughout these exertions he looked supremely at ease, exhilarated when airborne, light and unhurried on the stage.
“Le Corsaire” tells an unsavory tale (what ABT terms “challenging subject matter” in a well-framed program note) of enslaved women kidnapped, sold, terrorized — and wheeling brightly about in splendid classical form. Conrad stumbles across a human auction and promptly falls for Medora, one of these lovely captives. He contrives to rescue her and the others and bundle the whole lot of them off to sea, where the ballet ends somewhat as it began, give or take a few adventures. Exposition is minimal, and there’s nothing to puzzle out; the story unfolds as a series of accepted realities followed by whirlwind displays of bravura dancing.
Neither acting nor subtlety of musical phrasing are major parts of the job here. But Mack gave his Conrad a pleasing relatability, with an air of gallantry and warmth. His gestures were grand and sure, and the way he partnered Skylar Brandt — a lithe and enchanting Medora — was almost casually deft. Brandt called attention to his skills in an extraordinary way: At the curtain call, after receiving her customary bouquet, she instantly gave it away — to Mack. A completely understandable tribute.
Mack led a magnificent cast, with the ravishing Sarah Lane as Medora’s friend Gulnare and Blaine Hoven as auction boss Lankendem. The agile Daniil Simkin branded one’s memory with an Ali for posterity that night, with a daredevil series of revoltade jumps, his body corkscrewing horizontally; a manège of triple saut de basques; and a final turn in a flung-out back bend position, arcing with impossible pliancy.
Beautifully shaped athleticism, even verging on acrobatics, is the point of this solo, and male dancers have the latitude to add in special steps they’ve mastered. The next day, in his Ali solo, Mack add his own flourishes, finishing an explosive set of high, light jumps with a kneeling arch, his head and torso bent back nearly to the stage. He also tossed in a spinning pas de papillon (butterfly jump), where he appeared to hover effortlessly in space.
Yet Mack's freelancing success this past year hasn't only hinged on his classical finesse. New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck got him one of his first gigs last fall because she knew he was open to a mix of styles.
“It’s hard to find a great partner who’s also an amazing dancer, and besides being a great technical dancer is also so charismatic,” said Peck, who has known Mack since they were kids at a School of American Ballet summer course. She asked Mack to join her and Memphis jookin dancer Lil Buck at Fall for Dance last October, in Jennifer Weber’s new work, “Petrushka.” (NYCB’s Amar Ramassar had dropped out amid a sexting controversy.)
“It was a home run,” Peck said. “I felt like he was dancing with me instead of just partnering me. Especially with this, which wasn’t just doing whip turns. You needed someone who understands how to do a different type of movement quality.”
“I never doubted that he’d have a successful career beyond Washington Ballet,” she added. “He has such a sweet heart. And he’s not afraid to try anything.”
Mack has some steady employment coming up: In August, he’ll join the English National Ballet for half a year, through January 2020. “Brooklyn has incredible physicality and power and very good technique — he can do great turns and jumps, and he’s very athletic,” said Tamara Rojo, English National Ballet’s artistic director, who has previously brought him in as a short-term guest. “But it’s also his charisma. He has a warm personality that comes across to the audience, and a joy of dancing and generosity, as a man and as an artist.”
Before heading to London, where he’ll dance again in “Le Corsaire” as well as in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Cinderella” and other works, Mack plans to spend time with his son, who lives in Washington. He’ll also be plotting out the future. He wants not only to dance, but also to work with children, especially minorities.
“I’m looking at ways to get my story out more,” he said, “and I want to create some programs that will help facilitate young dancers having more opportunities.
“I’m not a believer that everything happens for a reason, but a lot of things do. And everything has turned out fantastically. One door closes, and so many more open up. I’m really happy.”