We sat down with 18-year-old dancer Julian MacKay at Mille Feuille Bakery to discuss his career over a cup of coffee. At 11 years old, MacKay moved from his hometown in Montana to Moscow to join the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. He became the first American to earn an upper school degree in Russia, and is now the youngest soloist to dance at the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. If you think that's already a lot, he’s just been signed by IMG for modeling and talent.
How were you discovered by IMG?
IMG found me on Instagram and wanted to sign me for talent & modeling, which was unexpected because it wasn’t something I’d been going for. I’d never heard of IMG, so when I received a random message on Instagram, I was skeptical. Nonetheless, I ended up going to the agency in London. It’s really interesting how you can use a platform such as dance or ballet to seek out other opportunities, like modeling.
When you first went to Russia at age 11, were you familiar with the language?
I only knew one word which meant “a little bit”. I was very young, and it was the sound for trains (“choot choot”), so I answered “choot choot” to everything. Slowly but surely, I gained more knowledge of the language. Knowing Russian and being bilingual opens the brain to new possibilities -- it definitely helps you know more about the world.
How were you recruited into the Royal Ballet?
I went to Bolshoi [Ballet Academy] when I was 11 and spent six years there. I was the first American to graduate with a Russian diploma. After I graduated when I was 17, I went to a ballet competition in Switzerland [Prix de Lausanne], where I won an offer to participate in an apprenticeship at the Royal Ballet. I went and really enjoyed it, but noticed that you had to wait a long time to dance advanced roles. I was already able to dance the soloist roles because of my Russian training, but knew I’d have to wait three or four years to attain them in London.
I decided to take a soloist opportunity I was offered at Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Usually people don’t get to skip steps like that -- it’s definitely been a crazy ride so far. In terms of my career, I was only able to envision what I wanted to be because I saw what my sisters were doing -- they were already ballerinas in Europe when I went to Bolshoi. That’s the only reason I was able to see how to pursue dance and become successful with it.
What’s your favorite place that you’ve lived?
I love St. Petersburg. It’s beautiful and there are canals everywhere. You can rent speedboats pretty cheaply, and a driver will drive you around the canals -- it’s quite fun.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not busy dancing and modeling?
I love to skateboard. It’s a great way to learn your way around. I don’t like walking that much -- I’m a dancer, so walking can get weird with my hips.
Is there anything you can share about your future acting opportunities?
I have a lot of exciting things coming up. It’s something I definitely want to pursue because it’s so close to dance and ballet; just another way to express myself.
Your Teen Vogue video was incredible -- you’re extremely talented.
Thank you! It’s definitely been a journey. There were a lot of times when things shouldn’t have worked out, but I stayed focused on the future. There were times in school when I told myself I couldn’t do it, but it never really mattered, because I knew that I had to. I realized that the little things that I told myself I couldn’t do didn’t mean all that much.
The Teen Vogue video was shot in Moscow by Charles Thompson. It was winter in Russia; it was freezing. Moscow is an amazing city. Because I grew up there, it feels like a home away from home. It’s very business oriented, whereas St. Petersburg is more artistic, like New York. I love Montana though; it’s always home. We have chickens, rabbits and two dogs. It’s definitely out there in the wilderness.
It’s interesting that you’ve lived in so many places and can say good things about all of them.
Even if I don’t like something, I’ll figure out a way to enjoy it so that I can get something out of it. For example, the winters in Moscow were always really cold. I’d still laugh though, because I’d see the backs of women walking on ice in really high stilettos, and then they’d turn around and be holding babies in their arms. It’s mind blowing.
Do you have performances every night during the season?
I’m not necessarily performing every night, but definitely every other night. It’s been difficult to learn different roles and be dancing them at the same time. Everything’s new to me. The best thing I did was relax and realize that I could actually do this stuff. I know what I’m doing when I’m on stage, but it tends to be more in my head. The body follows the mind.
Do you sleep?
Yes! Sleeping is very important. Especially when I get home late from a show and it’s 11:30pm, and the next day I have class at 9am. When you’re really exhausted, it’s pretty easy to sleep. More sleep is always good.
Do you know where you want to see yourself in the future?
It’s difficult to say. I’m 18, so I don’t know what opportunities I’ll have in the future, but right now it’s going great. Ballet is quite a young career. By the time you’re 40 (if you make it that long), you have to retire because classical ballet is too hard on the back. I’m interested in seeing where I can take these high energy things, including modeling, with me as I get older. I’m going to school in Moscow to get my masters degree in the arts and learning how to stage a ballet. I get bored quite quickly, so the more challenges I have, the better.
By Matt Bernstein