The Columbia Classical Ballet Company will debut its final show of the 2021-22 season “Classic on Edge” on March 18.
Behind the three distinct dances that make up the show will be acting artistic director Brookyln Mack, the 35-year-old dance star whose career began with the group.
Just under six months ago, that was an unlikely scenario.
At that time, the ballet was still directed by Radenko Pavlovich, the founding director of the theater for more than three decades. A day into the ballet season, Pavlovich left for a scheduled guest teaching position in Europe with plans to return in a month.
He never came back.
Pavlovich, who had never returned to his home country throughout his tenure in Colombia, decided to accept a role at the National Theater of Sarajevo in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina as a ballet master.
At Pavlovich’s request, the company hired Mack to assume the title of interim artistic director and lead the company’s approximately 30 dancers for the remainder of the season.
“I didn’t want to be an art director anymore. I did it for 30 years. I strictly wanted to work with the dancers,” Pavlovich said in an email interview regarding his exit. “I’m a firm believer that it was never about me, it was about the art in Colombia. I think we’ve accomplished a lot and given a lot to Columbia.
Mack detailed that he and Pavlovich had in fact discussed an arrangement like this – albeit far in the future, not in the middle of Mack’s dancing career – and hadn’t thought much seriously about it. .
Lee Lumpkin, chairman of the company’s board, admitted that the decision did not go down well with some.
“For some it was hurtful and they felt they came to this company to work with Radenko Pavlovich and then he left,” Lumpkin said. “I have a relationship, I love him almost like my oldest. I always feel that if you do what’s best for you, that’s what’s best for the company.
With Mack, the company brought back its star student whom Pavlovich calls its “protege.”
Originally from Elgin, the dancer began his career with Columbia Classical Ballet at the age of 12, before leaving for other training and future professional opportunities.
In the years since his departure, Mack has become a star in the dance world. He danced to major markets as the principal dancer (highest ranked dancer) with the Washington Ballet and Orlando Ballet and broke barriers as the first black man to perform in numerous productions – such as “Swan Lake” for Washington – and to win prestigious competitions such as a gold medal at the International Ballet Competition in 2012.
Columbia is a small market, compared to the types of cities and companies Mack has worked with. Still just 35, Mack remains a sought-after dancer for productions, based on his recent run and numerous offers before the COVID-19 pandemic as a freelance dancer.
“Of course we want it. It would be crazy not to,” Lumpkin said. “Do I think we’re in the game? Indeed I do. But life, you hardly know what’s going to happen next week. I think he’s thinking and he told me he’s thinking and there’s a big world for him as a dancer.
Prior to Mack’s arrival, the company’s longtime choreographer, Simone Cuttino, served as artistic director. She led the company throughout its October production of “Carabosse and the Curse of Sleeping Beauty” and for part of its December performance of “The Nutcracker”.
This happened during what some have described as an uneven season for dancers; although others like Cuttino have suggested it remains a positive experience.
When Mack took over in mid-November, he felt morale was low. As the months passed, he and some of the dancers said things had gotten better.
“If you need to talk to him he’s open to talking to you, no matter if it’s the most irrelevant thing, if it matters to you it will matter to him. In class and in rehearsal he is very energetic and proactive,” said dancer Allison Burbach.
Burbach and fellow dancer Rachel Levin said Mack had a personal teaching style that suited the company well. They both said his return would likely be a positive factor in whether they wanted to re-sign for another contract with the company.
“I think it would be interesting to see what he did if he had the whole season to do on his own… But only if he wants to do it,” Levin explained. “You don’t want a director who doesn’t want to direct…he always dances and dances and directing both could be very hard to do.”
Mack said he was still considering all of his options, saying he enjoyed helping young dancers and was focused on the upcoming production and helping the company become more efficient than what it was managing currently – which Cuttino agreed had to happen.
In May, Mack’s contract as Acting Artistic Director will expire, and the Columbia Classical Ballet Board of Directors continued to pressure Mack to re-sign with them.
“It’s all still up in the air, we’ll see what the future holds,” Mack said.
Whatever he decides, he hopes to continue dancing freelance for gigs around the world, something he’s been doing since leaving the Washington Ballet Company in 2018 and considers himself the final “third” of his own career from dancer.
Moreover, he has pledged to remain an active partner in the ballet, even if not as artistic director. He already performs regularly on special shows and has lent his name and the reputation that goes with it to the company.
This is all swirling around as Mack plans the March 18 performance. It consists of three segments from famous ballets, including “Kingdom of the Shades” by “La Bayadere”, “Bolero”, choreographed by Cuttino and “Being”, a first choreographed by local dance choreographer Terrance Henderson.
Preparing for the performance presented unique challenges for Mack when first directing. He explained that he was not used to handling musical compositions and other technical aspects that other companies often have dedicated people.
Add to that the unique composition of the Columbia Classical Ballet Company. In most situations, companies have a roughly equal split of male and female dancers. Mack has two male dancers on her team and said it was difficult to find a show that would do well, before landing on “Kingdom of the Shades.”
This story comes to the last act of “La Bayadère”, a famous dance, and presents a dream state of the main character after the murder of her lover. Meanwhile, “Being” will be the ballet’s first time working with Henderson and Cuttino’s “Bolero” is a 15-minute dance with no narration, but focuses on themes of “passion” and “love. “Cuttino said.
Despite the turmoil of the season, Mack, Cuttino and each dancer hinted that they were prepared.
“The music is done, the work has been put in place,” Mack concluded.