His soaring jumps, artful athleticism, and joy-filled performances thrill audiences. Brooklyn Mack is dancing ballet’s leading roles on the world’s great stages. And he remembers vividly the first time he signed an autograph.
He was 5 years old and gave what he calls “an impromptu performance” to M.C. Hammer in a Columbia Burger King.
“Back then, Burger King used to have jukeboxes. ‘2 Legit 2 Quit’ was really hot. Somebody gave me a quarter, or I found one. I can’t remember. But I popped it in, and I just started jamming out in the middle of Burger King,” Brooklyn says. “Two girls, who I think went to Spring Valley, were like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re amazing. Can we get your autograph?’ My brother told me that in my excitement, I misspelled my name.”
At 10, Brooklyn was already envisioning a life for himself that included signing autographs, though he was convinced it would be as a football star in the NFL. He saw himself as more of a Lynn Swann, not a prince in Swan Lake. But in a couple of years, a school field trip would change his plans.
The Fateful Field Trip
Growing up in Elgin, Brooklyn built his dreams around football, the way lots of boys do. He was naturally athletic and excelled every time he played the game. But his mother, he says, always managed to avoid taking him to tryouts. It was clear she didn’t want him to join a football team.
A class field trip to a ballet gave Brooklyn an idea. He’d seen in a documentary that great football players, including Lynn Swann, had taken ballet classes to get stronger. “It was one of the only positive things I had ever heard about ballet,” Brooklyn says. “At the time, of course, I couldn’t see any possible correlation between ballet, which was for girls, and football, which was obviously, you know, for strong guys like me.”
He was impressed by the athleticism of the stars of ballet that came for Lifechance which he saw on the Koger Center stage. “I was like, wow, okay, if these guys can do these amazing athletic feats on stage, then I — being who I am — clearly will be exponentially more amazing,” he says, laughing at his youthful confidence.
He came home and made his mother a proposition: If he took ballet, she’d let him try out for football. “My idea behind that was she would see how badly I wanted to play football. And hopefully, she’d be moved by my level of resolve that I’d be willing to do something as embarrassing for a 12-year-old boy as ballet in the 1990s in South Carolina.”
He could tell his mother was surprised. And she surprised him by saying yes. Unknown to Brooklyn at the time, his mother, Lucretia Mack Bramsen, had been a professional ballet dancer. She’d performed with companies in Europe and the United States. Brooklyn is her youngest of four children, and after years of trying to convince his siblings, she’d given up hope of having another dancer in the family.
Lucretia took Brooklyn to meet the director of Columbia Classical Ballet, Radenko Pavlovich, at his ballet school on Forest Drive. She told Radenko her son should have a scholarship. Lucretia was a single mother working numerous jobs to provide, making a scholarship a necessity.
“She was so confident in her presentation, talking about me — who knew nothing. She was bigging me up, basically. She did it in such an eloquent way that he had no choice but to take a look,” Brooklyn says.
Radenko led Brooklyn through a series of movements at the barre, the same basics that begin every ballet class. He concluded that Brooklyn had potential but also told Lucretia that her son’s feet were terrible.
“I never forget that assessment,” Brooklyn says, “because I remember thinking when he said my feet are terrible, what does he mean? I have 10 toes. I can run crazy fast. Me? My feet are terrible?”
Radenko also said that for Brooklyn to receive a scholarship, he’d have to take class six days a week. “My mom looked at me like, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ And I don’t know what possessed me to say yes, but I agreed before I really thought about it. And it started from there.”
Hooked by the Challenge
Scholarship secured, Brooklyn started attending dance classes with teenaged girls who’d been taking ballet for years. “To be honest, I had excelled at anything I wanted to do up to that point without a ton of effort. So I figured it would be the same with ballet. But ballet was the most difficult thing I’d ever done. And every time I felt like I had gotten somewhere, I needed to do 100 other things. Ballet was, I guess, my Rubik’s Cube.”
To catch up, Brooklyn watched videos of Mikhail Baryshnikov, checked out library books on the history of ballet, studied the terminology that was so foreign to him, and practiced his moves in the school gym. “Before I knew it,” he says, “I was wrapped up like a tree in wisteria. I was no longer my own tree. I was ballet.”
Two years later, at the age of 14, Brooklyn realized his little ploy to play football had become his number one priority. “I know exactly when that happened,” he says. A friend asked him to play football on a Saturday. Brooklyn couldn’t make it. He had a ballet class and rehearsals. His friend responded, “Man, you always got dance. You always say no.” Brooklyn tried to argue but realized his friend was right.
That year, Brooklyn also landed a scholarship to study full time at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C. He’d spent time away from home at the summer dance programs of the Kirov Academy and Dance Theatre of Harlem. But now he was headed to boarding school, away from family and friends for months on end.
“It was the first time for me that I was in an environment all the time, 24/7, in which nobody looked like me. There was no other black person, which as a person of color is something you’re aware of,” Brooklyn says. “But that awareness quieted down after a month because ultimately you realize, hey, everybody’s here for the same reason. We’re all here because we love this thing called ballet.”
Brooklyn’s love for ballet, plus his talent, athleticism, and hard work, earned him many opportunities and awards. He apprenticed at the Joffrey Ballet and was part of the American Ballet Theatre studio company. In 2009, he joined the Washington Ballet, where he was a principal dancer for 10 years.
“Even to this day, Radenko’s class is one of the best classes I’ve ever taken,” says Brooklyn. “I mean, I’m talking about obviously taking class everywhere — the Bolshoi Theatre, with their masters. He’s really, really up there. Columbia is very lucky to have a teacher like that around. And I was lucky to have a great teacher, as well. I still make sure to train with him whenever I come home.”
Writing a New Chapter in
In 2012, Brooklyn took the senior gold medal at the Varna International Ballet Competition, making him only the third American to win and the first African American man to win what is considered the Olympics of dance. In 2015, Brooklyn partnered with ballerina Misty Copeland on the Kennedy Center stage to achieve another first — the first time Swan Lake was presented with two black leads.
“It was a big moment among many big moments for me,” says Brooklyn of Swan Lake. “It was, I guess, a milestone, to reinforce the idea that, obviously, the arts are for everyone.”
Dance Theater of Harlem Artistic Director Virginia Johnson told NPR that she’d been watching Brooklyn since he was a young dancer. Even then, she said, “You knew he was the prince.” But, she noted, black dancers are often steered toward contemporary dance and away from classical ballet roles.
Now with a career that places him on the world’s grandest stages, Brooklyn has made peace with the idea that he’s making history by breaking barriers. “I’ve wanted just to be viewed for my art and for what I bring to the art form, but I realized as I got older that it’s not completely possible,” he says. “For lack of a better word, I try to be an ambassador of the possibilities and for inclusivity in dance and the arts.”
An Unexpected Break and New Roles
In 2018, Brooklyn left the Washington Ballet, a decision he calls bittersweet. Known for his charismatic style and dynamic leaps, he quickly found opportunities with ballet companies around the world.
In 2019, American Ballet Theater invited him to be a guest artist. His performances with the company not only earned stellar reviews, they gave him a chance to realize his dream of performing at the Metropolitan Opera House.
In early 2020, Brooklyn was wrapping up five and a half months in London, dancing with the English National Ballet, when the coronavirus began to look like a serious global problem. He’d been planning to spend several months in Columbia, where he has a house, to give nagging injuries a chance to heal and to be with his 10-year-old son.
That short break, of course, turned into more than a year — the most time he’d spent in South Carolina since he was 14. He was happy for extended time with family, he says, but the long months of the pandemic took a toll. In addition to all the angst caused by the virus and the political and social tension of 2020, a close friend and former Kirov Academy classmate, a dancer he admired, was killed in a car crash.
“In hindsight, I realized that normally I dance all those things out, that dance, besides being something that I’m obviously very passionate about, is also a sanctuary. So in the absence of that, I was just spiraling down.”
Writing poetry helped Brooklyn find a way to express his feelings, when due to restrictions dance was not an option. Then, New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck got in touch. She’d collaborated with Brooklyn before and had a new project in the works with acclaimed choreographer William Forsyth and Lex Ishimoto, a former winner of So You Think You Can Dance.
“I was super stoked to hear about it,” says Brooklyn, “but then reality came creeping in. I said, ‘Tiler, for the first time in my life, I’m extraordinarily out of shape. I haven’t taken a ballet class in nearly six months.’”
The group started rehearsals remotely using Zoom, then met in California in September of 2020. Working in a COVID-safe bubble, they filmed The Barre Project to stream online. For Brooklyn, it was the impetus to start dancing again.
After getting in shape for The Barre Project, Brooklyn danced in another film. And he started taking classes with his first teacher and mentor, Radenko Pavlovich, preparing to get back on stage in front of audiences and back to the art form he discovered as a boy in Columbia.
Brooklyn’s next performance will be for Meridian International in Washington, D.C., to advocate for arts funding. Following that will be a performance on behalf of the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi. Brooklyn is encouraged with how things are beginning to look after the long struggle that came with the pandemic.