Julian MacKay
Photo by Nicholas MacKay
Emerging Masters

Julian MacKay: “That’s just a part of me”

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Short Profile

Name: Julian MacKay
DOB: 1997
Place of birth: Livingston, Montana, United States
Occupation: Dancer

Julian, you once said that the best moments for you as a ballet dancer happen when a piece feels like it’s meant to be. What does that mean exactly?

I think that everybody is always looking for their purpose in life. For me, when I was really young, I already found it because I loved movement. I knew that this was something that I cared about more than anything. Dancing is really personal, and when I go on stage and I perform, you kind of have this moment where time stops, and everything becomes very, very singular. And you're kind of letting it happen. It feels like time has stopped, and you're still moving.

Does that only happen to you on stage? Or can it also happen for you when you’re rehearsing, or even when you’re dancing alone?

I've gotten to the point where whether I’m dancing in my room alone, or I'm performing on stage, for me, it's the same feeling. I'm just sharing a moment in time with myself — and sometimes with an audience.

It seems like that’s the right way to approach your craft without putting so much pressure on yourself to perform.

What I've learned over over the years is that the more that you're able to dance how you would dance alone, the more I'm able to stay in that state. This past season in Munich, where I am the principal dancer at the Bavarian State Ballet, I've had a lot of these big premieres and these dream roles that I've gotten to dance, but I think the reason why I finally got to this point is because rather than being nervous about it, I try to just dance how I would dance. The more authentic that I can be about going through the journey or the emotions, the more I can be really me, the better it comes out in the end.

“Sometimes people say it’s better in ballet to have a cold head, to just focus on the steps. But I think I’ve only survived and made it this far because those emotions have brought me there.”

I guess it takes a lot of technical skill and training to reach the point where you can really let go and give in to those emotions that are so essential in ballet.

It takes a lot of work in perfecting those steps. When I was at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, I had this teacher that would tell me, “Julian, you need to calm down; calm down your emotions, stop dancing with the emotions first and then thinking about the steps after that.” (Laughs) But to be honest, I think that's why I've had a career and why I’ve been successful at my age because I've always had the emotions at the forefront. And that can be challenging, exhausting even, sometimes you feel like you’re almost going to die, you’re pushing it so hard to the very end. Sometimes people say it’s better in ballet to have a cold head, to just focus on the steps. But I think I've only survived and only made it this far because those emotions have brought me there.

Apparently towards the end of your time in Russia attending the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, you were getting frustrated because you really craved these more emotionally challenging roles. Were those kinds of parts just not available to you in Russian ballet?

When I was in Russia, I did a lot of technically difficult roles. I think they turned out well and I’m happy with how I danced them, but looking back on it and having more experience now, especially dancing in Munich and in San Francisco, I’m playing roles that feel really authentic. I think my understanding of the roles I’m playing comes with time. My father passed away, a pandemic happened, I had some difficult life experiences, you know, things that we all go through. But it definitely helped me to build a repertoire that is based in reality, rather than having to think, “This character should feel this way.” I've had more life experience and more of a journey that I've gone on, so when I go on stage that comes through. I'm able to fill out those dramatic characters.

What other life experiences have helped you bring more to your on-stage characters?

Well, for example, when I joined the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, I was 11. I had classmates that were about two years older than me, because from the beginning, they put me in a class that was more advanced. And that didn't mean that I was advanced, it meant that I really had a hard time keeping up. So that was already a very clear sign of how things were going to be. I don't think anybody could have predicted that I would graduate and make it through all the challenges — because most people don't. No other American has. I had classmates who were only doing ballet because they got kicked off the Olympic figure skating team, or because their parents were pushing them. But for me, I was there because I was passionate. At the beginning, I couldn't do a lot of the steps and the physical things that I needed, the passion that I had for trying to do them would push me through the end, no matter what.

Was it also difficult being one of the only foreigners in this established school?

Sure, I mean, I was working in a system where I had to pay for the Academy and find a sponsor, whereas for Russian kids, it was free. The politics of the time, with everything happening internationally, was really not in my favor either. Dance in Russia is very much supported by the state, it’s ingrained in their culture so much, but I think that people saw how honest my passion was and how genuine my affection for ballet was, and they had respect for that. In the end, I was able to learn all the best things and leave the rest out.

Eventually you made your professional debut with the Russian State Ballet’s Swan Lake, dancing your first principal role at just 17 years old.

That was the thing — I was only 17! A lot of dancers worked their whole careers to reach that kind of goal, so having that experience when I was 17… I mean, it was shocking and scary, and I had moments where I didn’t know if I could do it. But I think it’s good to have that mentality of, “Okay, I am what I am today, and I’m just going to go on stage and give it my all.” When you’re out there, you have to just go for it, it’s like this is it, it’s your moment, it’s your time to shine, so seize the moment, you know what I mean? Even if there's a small mistake, or it's not perfect, or if it didn’t go the way that you could have envisioned it, you continue and you keep fighting.

“I’ve realized that if you incorporate them into your dance, they’re not mistakes, they’re a part of your movement. I understand that that’s what makes me unique.”

How are you able to pick yourself back up from those moments where you do make a mistake? How do you come back from that?

That’s the most important thing in a performer’s life: how do you deal with failure? I've always had a very harsh look on how I perform and how I work from a technical standpoint. I'm always critiquing, I'm always seeing those flaws and things that I can build. I'll finish a performance and it'll be 10 pm, and I'll go back into the studio and do the exact same steps again. Especially at the beginning of my career, I used to do these big principal premieres, and then right after the curtain closed, I'd be re-doing this step that wasn't perfect… But as I've gotten older and matured a little bit, I’ve realized that if you incorporate them into your dance, they're not mistakes, they're a part of your movement. I've learned to accept those little things and I understand that that’s what makes me unique, and what makes me exciting to watch. Even though ballet is really specific, it’s still all about making it your own.

How has that growth impacted your love for this art form?

The beauty of it is that it's something that just continues to develop with time! I'm really excited about exploring what else is possible, with dance and with movement and with those kinds of emotions, even the acting side of things. Dance is so personal for me: when I'm happy, I dance; when I'm really sad, I dance, even when I'm trying to figure something out, I move. I’ve always used movement and dance as something to understand myself, to understand the world around me, to process emotions. That is something that's just a part of me and I can't get rid of that.