Dancing, like acting and singing, often runs in the family. There are countless dancers whose parents danced: Zenaida Yanowsky (Royal Ballet), Yury Yanowsky (Boston Ballet) and Nadia Yanowsky (Het Nationale Ballet) are the children of Russian ballet dancer Anatol Yanowsky and Spanish ballet dancer Carmen Robles. Ballet's in their blood.
What makes the Khan-MacKay family special is that the four siblings – Maria Sascha, Nadia, Julian and Nicholas – are not the children of dancers, nor do they come from London, Paris or New York, where trips to the ballet can be regular events, but are from Montana, the home of cowboys and cattle, the Rockies and the Yellowstone National Park. Yet the family is now dispersed around the globe training and dancing, with Maria Sascha Khan at the Bayerisches Staatsballett in Munich, Nadia Khan with the Compañía Nacional de Danza in Spain, and the boys Julian MacKay and Nicholas MacKay both training at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. As elder sister, Maria Sascha, asks, “I was born on the porch of the midwife's log cabin, in Montana, USA. How do you get from there to an international career in ballet?”
Growing up in Montana
The four children grew up in a home where culture surrounded them, “My husband is trained as a classical pianist, and I as a clothing designer,” explains their mother, Teresa. “Both my husband and I believe that you come into the world with a specific mission to fulfil before you are done. We raised all our children in a Montessori learning environment which encouraged them to try many different things, and explore many areas of life, to build yourself from the inside out. “Help me to do it myself” is Montessori wisdom at its best!” Both parents had seen Nutcrackers at Christmas, “but had no desire to dance ourselves,” says Teresa.
The two girls, now in their early twenties, danced whenever they could, “Living room, kitchen, backyard… I even got in trouble for doing it at school one time,” remembers Nadia, “My Mom had to come pick me up from kindergarten because I was being Cinderella, complete with broom, singing, and choreography, during quiet time.”
A group of little girls used to gather in the back of a restaurant to dance. “We were taught by a beautiful lady named Judith Younger Hertzens, who encouraged our love of dance,” says Maria Sascha. “By ‘our' I mean my sister, my best friend, some of our other classmates and I. She gave us a dose of beauty and art, amid the cowboys and bison we were all used to. I took it very seriously, but back then it was all scarves, princesses, and my début as the ‘Rose Fairy'. It wasn't until later on, at the age of 10, that I started to take some ballet classes.”
And Nadia, three years younger than Maria Sascha, followed in her sister's footsteps. “I have always, and still do, look up to her. She is very inspiring not just as a dancer but also as a person.”
Although dancing was just a pastime for the young girls, they both felt the need to dance; as Nadia says, “I started dancing because I am a dancer. It's that simple. I love it with all my heart and it's part of my soul. When I dance I feel like my soul is free, able to speak and connect with something higher, something… more… Why wouldn't I dance!”
However, when Maria Sascha was 10-years-old, something happened that would change her life, and eventually the lives of all her family members. “Growing up in rural Montana, I was never exposed to professional ballet. I had no idea that the possibility of doing this beautiful thing, as a job, even existed. Fortunately, one summer some former Bolshoi dancers, in need of a gig, showed up in Montana. One of these dancers, Misha Tchoupakov, asked me if I wanted to be a professional ballerina one day. In astonishment, I asked him, “You mean I can do this for a living?” What a shock that was. Well, after that day, my mind was made up. I was going to be a professional ballerina.”
Now things got more serious, and she attended summer sessions at San Francisco Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and the Royal Ballet School. Then, when she was fourteen, her parents were in agreement that she would leave Montana for Washington D.C. to attend the Kirov Academy of Ballet, under the direction of Oleg Vinogradov. However, 11-year-old Nadia wanted to go along as well. “It was kind of a funny story because originally only Maria had applied and was accepted. But I decided, if she's going then I am going too!
“My mom gently tried explaining, you have to first apply to the school to be accepted, but I was determined. So we took a video of me dancing with us and gave it to the directress. Well, as I was waiting for the taxi to the airport her assistant came out to tell me I had been accepted. I only realize now how abnormal it is for an 11-year-old to make a decision like that, because at the time it was so clear in my mind.”
Meanwhile, 4-year-old Julian, who had started “dancing on the driveway in tap shoes” when he was 2, was getting not only the ballet bug, but was developing a passion for classical music too. “I was drawn to ballet at first because of the musicality. I have always loved classical music and begged to play the cello at 2½ like my sister, Maria. I was inspired to start dancing by my sisters and I still get inspiration from watching them rehearse and perform. They are smart, funny and beautiful dancers, they are the best! Since I was born I was always watching ballet, seeing my sisters in five Nutcrackers before I was even two months old!”
After two years in Washington, Maria Sascha moved to Europe where Marika Besobrasova, a former dancer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, who ran the Academie de Danse Classique de Princesse Grace in Monte Carlo, took her under her wing, awarding her a full scholarship, including room and board, “and invaluable lessons for life as well as ballet.” The training was hard, but she loved her time in Monte Carlo. “Some days I felt as if I had stepped right out of a fairy tale.” At 18 she accepted her first professional contract from Vladimir Malakhov at the Staatsballett Berlin.
Julian had started training, back in Montana. “I remember seeing Brooklyn Mack at the Kirov Ballet Academy in Le Corsaire. I had never seen anything so powerful! His jumps were so crazy, he seemed to fly, and that inspired me. So for the next year I continuously asked my mom to put me in ballet classes, which she was reluctant to do. Finally she gave in and I switched from asking if I could go to ballet class to asking “When is my ballet class?” My favorite teacher was Christine Austin in Bozeman, Montana.
“My first performance was in Montana at 6 when I was Fritz in The Nutcracker. I also performed a lot for The Fairy Tea for the Arts, to help raise funds for other young artists from Montana. I was James in La Sylphide, and other parts like a fencing Elf!”
Little Nicholas could not be left out. “I started dancing at 4-years-old in a little ballet studio with one of my favourite teachers, Christine Austin. I was really excited to jump over the stuffed purple rhino and I was also the only boy. When I started dancing I went twice a week; in the beginning I didn't want to go, and when I got there I didn't want to leave!
“I started dancing because I didn't want to be left out – being the youngest – and once I started dancing, I liked it. When I became serious about it, at about 8, I couldn't stop dancing!”
Now Nadia, too, left Washington, but this time she didn't follow her big sister. “I moved to New York City to train with Prima Ballerina Assoluta, Eva Evdokimova. Eva really taught me her great attention to detail and concentrated a lot on artistry. She had such a legacy to pass on and it was an honour to train with her. Then my final year of training was spent in Athens, Greece, where I was coached by Masha Mukhamedov for one year. She was the most incredible coach I ever worked with. Sometimes you meet people and it just clicks. That's what it was like for me with Masha. Finally everything just worked and made sense. She taught me a new way of thinking with my body and everything just fell into place.”
The boys started to up the pace, as Julian recounts: “In the summers I went on scholarship to many ballet summer programs including the Royal Ballet summer school and American Ballet Theatre's summer program for young dancers. Franco de Vita [Artistic Director, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre] gave me full scholarships. I was only 8 but he let me come because he thought is was so great that some one so young had such a love for ballet. It was the first time I had a class with only boys. In Montana it was pretty much just my brother Nicholas and I. I loved all the classes and how challenging it was to be there in NYC!
“The Royal Ballet summer program in Richmond park was a really cool experience for me because it feels like Sherwood Forest from Robin Hood, and when you get to the school it is so historically focused around ballet. It was so awe inspiring to train in a place where Royalty used to call home!”
In the autumn of 2010 Nadia entered her first company. “I got my first job in the Bayerisches Staatsballett II. It was their first year making a junior company, so we were the originals and the guinea pigs. It was a great experience for me and I learned a lot in those two years and was given opportunities that most dancers wouldn't be offered their first years in a company.” In the same year, her sister left Berlin, and arrived in Munich too, to be part of the Bayerisches Staatsballett, where she still dances.
Family ping pong continued when Nicholas left his first teacher, Christine Austin, and went to a teacher “who didn't want to teach little kids so she didn't help me at all. Time to leave Montana!”
“When I was 8 years old I went with my older brother to San Diego, California, to study with Max Chernychev, a former Bolshoi dancer. The coolest experience I had there was dancing The Nutcracker with Gennadi Saviliev and Hee So from ABT.”
Moving to Moscow
At the same time, two important events happened in Julian's life. “At 11, I went to Youth America Grand Prix and won a bronze medal. Russian teachers saw me in New York and invited me to train at the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow.” And that's where he's been for the last five years.
Mom Teresa accompanied him with the younger Nicholas: “I auditioned in Russia with about 500 Russian kids. My brother was already training here at the Moscow State Ballet Academy of Choreography.” He was accepted. “I am now in class IVA.” For Nicholas, there is nowhere better to be: “When I was 7, I saw the Mikhailovsky do Spartacus. After the first night, I begged my sister Maria Sascha to take me again! Seeing this made me respect and admire Russian male dancers, all of them.”
But the sisters weren't together in Munich for long. After her maximum of two years with the Bayerisches Staatsballett II, Nadia left for a season with the Leipziger Ballett, and at the beginning of the 2013 season joined the Compañía Nacional de Danza in Madrid under the direction of José Carlos Martínez. “Out of all the places I have worked this is by far my favourite,” she says, “I absolutely love it and am so happy and thankful everyday to have the opportunity to be here.”
And this is where we find them today. As Teresa says, “It is very challenging to get everyone on the same continent! Holidays spent apart are normal now. One training on a Russian Orthodox New Year holiday schedule, (not free until December 31) another performing with the Bolshoi company , one touring Spain, another dancing in Munich…” But even if family reunions are tricky, the family bond is fundamental to each of them. As Nadia says, “When my parents realized they had 4 talented kids in ballet, they started to educate themselves about it. Started to learn what you need to be a dancer. What it takes, where to go, what to do. They never said no to an opportunity for us. And more than that, they have sacrificed a lot to get their children where they need to be.”
For her two boys, Teresa changed continent. “My mom moved to Russia just for me when I was 11,” says Julian. “My dad tirelessly works to support me and my siblings. My sister Maria helps me navigate the dramas of ballet school, my sister Nadia shows me that no matter how much stress you're under laughter is the best medicine of all! My brother Nic is great, he is always there with me at the Bolshoi!
“My family is a gigantic part of my life,” enthuses Nicholas. “They are the only reason that I have had so many experiences and opportunities. They support me so much and I am awesomely grateful for everything!”
The boys are grateful to their sponsor who supports their time in Moscow, and the family are already giving back with their arts nonprofit, Youth Arts in Action, to bring Master teachers and world class dancers to Montana. “For over seven years the children have worked to help others gain the knowledge and training about Classical Ballet. We have helped hundreds of dancers, classical musicians, and a few Opera singers!” says Teresa. “Our mission is to Inspire, Educate, and Sponsor Outstanding Young Artists.” Maria Sascha also works as the director of their annual gala Les Danses de L'Amour, and has an interview series, together with Nadia, on YouTube, Inspiring Artists. She's not afraid of hard work, and doesn't believe in overnight success; “For most that's not the case. I mean how boring would that be! It is the journey that takes you there that is the far more interesting part. It is what forms and develops you. I am loving my journey so far. I am excited to see what will happen, not just for me but for all of my siblings! It is so fantastic to be able to work all together in the arts, in pursuit of our passions.”
Nadia echoes her sentiments. “It hasn't been a completely easy road for any of us, but definitely rewarding. Having a big sister who dances and two little brothers who train in Moscow at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, we all understand each other. Even if we each have very different personalities. We can celebrate each others victories as well as understand the challenges each one has to overcome. They will also let you know if you're doing something wrong. It's kind of like a little support group of your biggest fans. Doesn't get better than that!”
The family attitude to education and culture has certainly paid off. 16-year-old Julian maturely says, “My family is extremely important to me . They encouraged my love of the classical arts and showed me how important they are in society. Since I was born my family has always showed me that there are limitless possibilities of what you can do with your life. It is important to chose something that helps others.”
Learning and growing
Their mother is justly proud. “Each of our children is finding what they have to give to life that is unique to them. I live in Moscow so see my sons on a daily basis growing beyond where they were a week or month before. This is our greatest hope already fulfilled, that they continue having joy in learning!”
So they keep learning and growing. Julian is already appearing with the Bolshoi, and was chosen recently to go on tour to Rome as one of the cavaliers in Sleeping Beauty. “I am grateful to the Director Marina Leonova for the many opportunities I have had to perform both with the Academy and the Bolshoi Company. I love it here and will graduate in 2015 as the first American to attend both the upper and lower schools training on a full Russian contract. I do all my academics in Russian.” Maria Sascha has just become a Gaynor Minden Artist and will be featured in their upcoming ad campaign. Nicholas, who has just entered his teens, has big aspirations, “I dream of dancing the roles of Spartacus, in Don Quixote, and many other ballets. I would like to dance all over the world.” He's already been involved in exciting projects: “I admire Yuri Smekalov who created the ballet Moidodyr (Wash 'em Clean), where I had the part of a dancing tooth and a schoolboy. We worked with Yuri a lot and it was nice to be part of a World Première in the Bolshoi Theatre.” And Nadia now embarks on her first season as a member of Spain's première troupe, “I just started and I love it. So I am excited to see what develops and what kind of opportunities present themselves.”
The four siblings form a tight knit group, with an infectious passion not only for dancing, but for dance and the culture that envelopes it. “The ballet world is a family in itself,” says their mother, “moving and magical. It is a privilege to be a part of such dedication and beauty. Ballet is a beautiful but difficult career with brief rewards! You choose it out of Love!”
A Family Album
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.