Brooklyn Mack makes historic debut in American Ballet Theatre’s ‘Le Corsaire’

Zita Allen | 6/20/2019, 11:55 a.m.

Brooklyn Mack, internationally acclaimed African-American ballet dancer formerly of the Washington Ballet, made an historic debut as a guest artist in American Ballet Theatre’s production of “Le Corsaire” at the Metropolitan Opera House, June 11-15. In a spectacular display of sheer virtuosic dance and artistry, Mack performed two of the most technically challenging roles in this romantic ballet loosely based on a 19th century poem by the English poet Byron, about the Middle Eastern slave trade, pirates, pashas and damsels in distress.  Mack took the Met’s stage first as Ali, a slave of the lead pirate, Conrad, then as Conrad himself. 

Aware of the ballet’s politically charged storyline, ABT’s press office issued a statement saying, “The original version of ‘Le Corsaire’ premiered over 160 years ago, and is loosely based on Lord Byron’s 1814 epic poem of pirates, pashas and damsels in distress. It is situated in a time and place where slavery and polygamy were driving forces of the economic and social landscape.” The ballet company also announced that it had made adjustments to some of Corsaire’s traditional staging. For one thing, the ropes binding a group of female slaves were now gone. ABT expressed the hope that “audience members be transported to the period in which it is set and realize such scenes are a reflection, not a validation, of life in those times.” 

Of course, the most dramatic adjustment of all to ABT’s production was actually Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie’s decision to make history by featuring the extraordinary Black ballet dancer Brooklyn Mack in both of ‘Le Corsaire’s’ lead roles—as slave and as liberator.  Mack’s performances were so awesome that not only did audiences give him a standing ovation but critics praised his “magnificent” debut the first two nights as Ali, Conrad’s faithful slave, dancing the well-known pas de deux with Conrad’s love interest, Medora, and the second two nights as the commanding Conrad, pirate/slave trader turned liberator. Both Mack’s extraordinary command of classical ballet’s most complicated technique, on spectacular display as Ali, and his assertive characterization of Conrad, prompted standing ovations from an enthusiastic audience. 

But that should come as no surprise. Known for his “powerful, show-stopping bravura,” Mack has long impressed ballet competition judges and audiences winning the Gold Medal at the Olympics of dance competitions—Varna (in Bulgaria, 2012) —and stunning folks at Jackson (2006), Helsinki (2009), and Istanbul (2012). His explosive leaps, gravity defying jumps, commanding presence and impressive technique are the result of an innate talent and training that began at age 12 at the Pavlovich Dance School in South Carolina. From there, armed with a full scholarship, he studied at Washington’s Kirov Academy of Ballet, Joffrey (2004), danced with the ABT Studio Company (2005), joined Orlando Ballet (2006) and then The Washington Ballet (2009). During his nine years at TWB, which he left recently due to a contract dispute, Mack has been an in-demand guest artist with major ballet companies in Paris, Havana, Moscow and Britain. In fact, following his ABT engagement he performs with The English National Ballet. 

In 2015 he and Misty Copeland made history becoming the first African-American duo to perform the lead parts in a full-length “Swan Lake”—he as Prince Siegfried to Misty Copeland’s Odette/Odile in The Washington Ballet’s Swan Lake at the Kennedy Center. Of the partnership “that had the dance world buzzing,” Copeland praised Brooklyn as “an excellent partner,” speaking of the “mutual understanding and bond” and “organic chemistry” that existed onstage between them.