The story of how Brooklyn Mack became a ballet dancer has all the heart and heroics of "Billy Elliot," but none of the bullying. Thursday night, Mack makes his debut in the classic ballet "Giselle," taking on the role of a royal leading man for the first time after four years with the Washington Ballet. He'll play Albrecht, the count who cheats on his princess fiancee with Giselle, a gorgeous peasant, and then breaks both their hearts. If playing a 19th century German royal sounds like a stretch for a guy from Elgin, S.C., being the coolest guy in town -- and juggling a little relationship drama -- is not.
"I was really lucky," Mack said, recalling his adolescent dancing years, when he transitioned from being the kid everybody wanted to play football with after school to being the kid who took dance lessons after school. "I never had any of the 'Billy Elliot'-type stuff. Maybe because I started a little later. I think some of my friends wanted to say something, but they were scared. I wasn't the biggest kid around, but I was definitely the toughest."
His tough-guy image continues to affect his casting at the Washington Ballet. He's played a bullfighter in "Hemingway," a murderous lover in "Gatsby" and a leaping Native American in the company's unorthodox "Nutcracker." He's the go-to guy when artistic director Septime Webre wants to wow the crowd, but that's not necessarily how Mack wants to be known.
"I like to jump, and I love the bravura roles, but I like everything else just as much. It's another side of me, and that side of me has to be fed," Mack said.
At 27, Mack's now 160 pounds and lists his height at 5 feet 10 inches. He's not tall for a dancer, but when he comes onstage, audiences take a sharp breath and brace themselves for a display of firepower. Last year, he won a gold medal at the so-called Olympics of ballet, the International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria.
He began dancing at age 12, after a school field trip to a ballet gala. "I'd heard about ballet was that it was for girls and sissies. But way less often, I'd heard one more thing: that ballet was good for football players," he said.
At the time, Mack wasn't on a football team: His mom refused to let him try out. But after being "blown away" by the fleet footwork he saw on the field trip, the aspiring running back and his mom cut a deal: He'd take ballet lessons if she'd let him go out for a team. That was in January. By fall, there was no talk of football.
"Ballet just sucked me in and kept me," Mack said. He starting taking classes in nearby Columbia, S.C., and then left home to continuing dancing at Washington's Kirov Academy. At both schools, he was the only African American male. It wasn't until he started spending summers at the Chautauqua Institution and other training programs that he was able to meet black men who danced. There are more young African Americans dancing in the South now, he says, and adds with pride that South Carolina continues to pump out more than its share of athletic male dancers, including Matias Dingman of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, McGee Maddox at the National Ballet of Canada and Bo Busby of the Boston Ballet.
Mack's career has included stints in apprentice programs at the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre and three years with Orlando Ballet. In 2009, he moved to Washington, and he's been pounding his feet on the Kennedy Center stage ever since. During rehearsals for "Giselle," stager Charla Genn has worked with Mack to hone his acting skills, so that he can play a regal flirt in Act I, and to perfect his poetic, slow partnering work so that he can dance with the ghost of Giselle in Act II.
"You cannot fudge anything," Genn said. "I've been working with Brooklyn on having a very clean classical technique. Act II is very physical, not only in the dancing, but in the partnering."
He'll be dancing with Maki Onuki, a petite ballerina who ranks as one of the company's most reliable technicians. In rehearsal, Genn has chided her to appear more authentically girlish. "Remember, you're shy!" Genn exclaimed when she seemed a bit too receptive of Mack's caresses. Later in the act, Albrecht's princess fiancee shows up and Giselle collapses and dies of a broken heart. After intermission, she's back, but only as a specter.
The story of "Giselle" is based on the legend of the wilis, the ghosts of virgins who go to their graves before their weddings and return to haunt -- and sometimes kill -- the men who spurned them. "Giselle" premiered at the Paris Opera in 1841, with choreography by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli, and has remains one of the most popular ballets in the world. The scholar Francis Mason called it "ballet's Hamlet" because people return not for the story, but to see who's playing the haunted lovers this time.
Four couples will take turns dancing the roles of Giselle and Albrecht during the Washington Ballet's five-day, seven-performance run at the Kennedy Center. Mack and Onuki are the "A" cast, performing three times. On the sidelines at the studio, all four male dancers have found themselves gossiping about Albrecht the way linebackers might trash-talk a quarterback. Not everyone agrees he's a jerk.
"Every prince in ballet is different," Mack said. "It's not cookie-cutter, and Albrecht is complicated. You really want to like him -- that's how the ballet is set up. But he's pretty deceitful. Most of us like to think of him as a genuinely good guy who just made a mistake, a really big mistake."
Because men do make mistakes, perhaps especially tough guys wearing tights. "That's the great thing about 'Giselle.' It happens," Mack said, laughing, but with a nervous smile. "Breakups happen all the time, minus the dying of the heart attack. And who knows about the vengeful spirit thing."