Brooklyn Mack might never have become a dancer had it not been for a gala to benefit cancer research. He was 12 and living in South Carolina when his class attended the annual LifeChance charity performance presented by the Columbia Classical Ballet. He came home and immediately told his mother he wanted to try ballet.
Fast-forward 18 years: Mack is now a senior dancer with the Washington Ballet, and he is an in-demand soloist around the world. And in New York on Monday night, his career will come full circle when he performs at the Dance Against Cancer gala, an annual fundraiser for the American Cancer Society that attracts some of the nation’s top dancers.
Performing for free on a rare day off is not only a sign of Mack’s generous spirit, but also proof that he belongs on the same stage as acclaimed dancers such as Gillian Murphy and Stella Abrera of American Ballet Theatre; Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck of New York City Ballet; and Matthew Rushing of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
The gala caps what has been a lot of headline-making recently for Mack. Last April, he and mega-star Misty Copeland performed the leads in the Washington Ballet’s first “Swan Lake,” at the Kennedy Center. Last summer, he and fellow Washington Ballet standout Andile Ndlovu took turns performing the title role in a “Spartacus” production that toured South Africa. And in January, Mack made his London debut, starring in the English National Ballet’s production of “Le Corsaire.” Mack is a guest artist with the company this season and will travel with the troupe to France in June.
“To go to France period, and to perform at the Paris Opera,” Mack said, smiling and shaking his head slightly. “I’ll be checking those items off the bucket list. I’m so completely stoked and still kind of in disbelief.”
And yet Mack views the honor as a natural trajectory rather then the apex of a “breakout year.” Despite his global travels, he’s still a local fixture, wrapping up his seventh season with the Washington Ballet.
“Hey, Brooklyn, how’s it going?” a security guard called out during a recent interview at the Kennedy Center, where the company was performing “Carmina Burana.” Mack knew the man by name.
It was Mack’s huge leaps that first astonished D.C. audiences, and gradually, his partnering and technique have caught up. But all along, his intention has been to nurture an international career.
“It was a prerequisite of coming here,” Mack said, noting that he ran into a little resistance the first time he signed a contract with the company and asked for more time off during the season. (The troupe’s current contract is for 36 weeks, with nearly all of the off-weeks in the summer.) Outgoing artistic director Septime Webre wouldn’t let Mack travel to Oman in March to perform with ENB, but otherwise, Mack said, “they’ve been great.”
It was New York City Ballet principal dancer Daniel Ulbricht who asked Mack to perform in Dance Against Cancer. They’ve performed together at galas around the world, most recently in Puerto Rico, but Mack didn’t know Ulbrecht was producing the benefit gala until he was asked to join the star-studded cast.
“Dude, of course. This is amazing,” Mack said he told Ulbrecht.
“Cancer affects everyone,” said Mack, who has lost family members to the disease. “I just think it’s super awesome that so many beautiful and amazing artists are coming together to combat this.”
Career-making moments coming full circle will also be the theme when singer, actress and composer Storm Large performs with the National Symphony Orchestra next week at the Kennedy Center.
It was there that Large made her debut with the dance-hall band Pink Martini in 2011. At the time, she was best known in Portland, Ore., where she had launched her one-woman show, “Crazy Enough,” and starred as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret.”
In 2013, the Oregon Symphony asked Large to sing Kurt Weill's “Seven Deadly Sins” at Carnegie Hall’s Spring for Music Festival. She was thrilled, but financial issues prevented the orchestra from making the trip. Carnegie Hall called 24 hours after the cancellation with another offer: Would Large perform the dramatic song cycle with the Detroit Symphony instead?
“I literally said, ‘If I swear right now, would I lose the job?’ ” Large recalled recently from San Francisco, where she was performing with singer-pianist Michael Feinstein. “It was the piece and the moment that changed my life.”
After years of touring in bands, singing and acting, Large was finally being acknowledged as a serious solo performer, and she got to Carnegie Hall by championing the work of another genre-crossing artist. Weill (best known for “The Threepenny Opera”) originally wrote “Deadly Sins” for his wife, Lottie Lenya, to perform with a dancer, an orchestra and a male quartet. The two women are sometimes interpreted as sisters, but Large sings the “Sins” as one character who is bipolar.
“It’s sort of a split personality,” she says. “I love it. It turns the traditional idea of sin on its ear. It’s not the sin of lust, where you are selling your body to make money. It is the sin of pride if you don’t. It’s the sin of sloth if you don’t.”
Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre is launching a salon series of staged readings of landmark plays by women. The readings will feature such Charm City notables as Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who will kick off the series April 25. The mayor, who has been a staunch supporter of the arts, will host “The Little Foxes,” a 1939 play by later blacklisted writer Lillian Hellman.
“Hellman was a spirited woman for her time,” Rawlings-Blake said. “I admire not only her imagination in the written word, but her tenacity to stand firm in her beliefs.”