BOZEMAN, Mont. – One by one, wearing plaid shirts and straw cowboy hats, they climbed onto the flatbed of a rusting orange Chevy truck parked near the Yellowstone River to launch exuberant Instagrammable jumps and turns.
In time, a woman who’d been watching from the Old Saloon patio in the flyspeck hamlet of Emigrant asked if they were ballet dancers.
Yes, replied Maria Sascha Khan, and Bozeman-bred to boot, although her sister now dances in Rome, her brothers are in Russia and she’s in London.
But for part of August, Maria Sascha and Nadia Khan and their brothers, Julian and Nicholas MacKay, savored their cowboy country roots. They hit the rodeo, ate local bison and trout, soaked in the Boiling River and, most important, spent rare downtime with their parents and one another. By Labor Day, they’ll have scattered again,
While ballet is filled with multiple generations of performers and numerous sibling combinations, the Khan-MacKay foursome is notable for being born in unlikely Montana to parents who never danced.
Teresa Khan MacKay is mother and muse to this brood. An artist and onetime Paris fashion designer, she moved to Montana in her 20s, married and gave birth to her daughters. After divorcing, she reared Maria Sascha and Nadia alone in tiny Pray, without television but with a fabulous dress-up trunk and nonstop exposure to music, books, dance and Montessori home-schooling built on the mantra “Teach me to teach myself.” She supported the family as a Montessori educational consultant.
Twenty years ago, Khan married Gregory MacKay, an educator, computer consultant, lapsed classical pianist and occasional composer. Then came sons Julian, now 18, and Nicholas, 15.
Indoors and outside the modest brick rambler on nearly two acres in Bozeman, the kids frolicked with pals, pets and the neighbors’ llamas and horses.
Their parents studied, wrote and lectured about right-brain education, which stimulates creativity. Maria Sascha and Julian took up the cello, Nadia chose the harp and Nicholas the violin. All took ballet classes in town and around the state.
But it was a touring Russian who stunned Maria Sascha, by explaining that ballet is, for some, a paying profession, not just a passion. After a few summers of intensive training on both coasts and in England, she entered the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C., in 2002. (Like other female performers wary of typecasting, she won’t give her exact age.)
Younger sister Nadia, 24, a summer intensives alumna, begged to enter the Kirov, too, never mind that she hadn’t applied to the school with a long wait list. The day Maria Sascha registered, Nadia was accepted on the strength of her homemade audition video and what her mother calls a classic ballet build: tiny frame, long neck, small head.
Founded and staffed by Russian dancers in 1989, the school follows the rigorous Vaganova method, born in the early 1900s and still a gold standard for classical ballet training. The girls had academics and dance Monday through Friday at the boarding school, and ballet all day Saturday.
Then came the Kirov’s 2002 Christmas production. Teresa, Greg and the boys came from Montana to see the sisters dance. What they also saw was student Brooklyn Mack, now at the Washington Ballet, go airborne in one of ballet’s most dazzling male solos, from “Le Corsaire.”
A mesmerized Julian, then 4, declared on the spot, “I want to fly like he does.”
In 2003, Nadia joined the Bavarian State Ballet, went on to Madrid’s Compañía Nacional de Danza de España, and just started her second season at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma.
Maria Sascha left in 2004 to study at the Academie de Danse de Princess Grace in Monaco, on the glamorous Riviera. At 18, holding five job offers, she signed with the Staatsballett in Berlin, moving on to the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich three years later. Most recently a principal soloist in Russia’s Ekaterinburg State Ballet, she has taken a temporary creative detour to develop “Warrior of Light,” an original work about an unnamed Russian artist/philosopher. Naturally there will be roles for all four siblings.
“I didn’t have anyone showing me the way, saying, ‘That’s how you do it,’ ” the family trailblazer says about her professional career. “I just had to trust my inner voice.”
“In Europe, where many companies are state-sponsored, you have health benefits and you have a longer season than in the U.S.,” says Nadia, whose contracts typically run 13 or 14 months. “And you have paid vacations in summers and at Christmas.”
There is also the adventure of living and working abroad. Collectively, the four dancers speak German, French, Spanish, Italian and Russian, and they have colleagues and friends worldwide.
Julian’s career took flight in 2009 after a six-week program with teachers from the acclaimed Bolshoi Ballet Academy. It was part of a Russian American Foundation effort to bring promising homegrown students to Moscow.
He made the cut, but at 11, was too young for a dorm. His mother, however, had zero desire to trade her Montana home for a rented Moscow flat. Maria Sascha ultimately convinced her to go for Julian’s sake; Nicholas arrived the next year at age 9. The brothers juggled rigorous ballet classes, academics and Russian, and soon were slinging slang with their native-born comrades. They jokingly call themselves “bro-skis from Bozeman.”
But money – for training, travel, competitions and living expenses – was so tight that their Bolshoi dreams nearly crashed after two years. Foreigners paid $18,000 a year each for the program, which is free for Russians. The family needed $36,000. Fast.
Greg MacKay explained the situation to Loren Bough, a wealthy fifth-generation Montanan who’d done business in Russia for decades.
“Montana communities always pull together when there are floods, hailstorms or barns burning down. So I organized for a Russian partner to actually deliver cash (to the school) to get them in the door,” Bough says. “On my next trip over, I went to meet them and I was just charmed. I know how hard it is for American kids, and there they were, speaking Russian. It was clear I was going to have to be the trigger to make sure their education could continue.”
Last year, Julian became the first American graduate of the Bolshoi’s lower and upper schools with a full Russian diploma. He’s now at the newly hot Mikhailovsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, joining superstars who had been lured from other companies, including the Bolshoi Ballet’s Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev.
Julian also is doing a four-year program at Moscow’s Russian Institute of Theater Arts to qualify as a ballet master or company director, and is choreographing Russian fairy tales for Christmastime performances at the Four Seasons Hotel in St. Petersburg.
With Julian dancing in St. Petersburg, Nicholas switched cities and entered the Vaganova Academy’s upper school. He is the family wit, with a flair for drawing. He also is sufficiently tall and muscular to partner and lift ballerinas in demanding pas de deux.
All four dancers are acutely aware of their parents’ long financial and personal sacrifice. Teresa has been the boys’ expatriate mom for seven years while her husband oversees the Bozeman house and Violet and Shakespeare, the family’s miniature Schnauzers.
“My basic thing is you do what you’ve got to do,” says MacKay, chief breadwinner (he trains software developers). “Even if you don’t see any way, keep a positive attitude and pray.” The house has been mortgaged a few times, and Teresa recalls a particularly dark day when the Russian larder contained little more than tea and bananas.
But the flip side of privation is pride. On a trip to Rome in June, Greg saw Nadia dance professionally for the first time. And a second. And a third. “I was just so proud,” he says softly.
Teresa, too, is gratified. “I am not one of those stage mothers who says, ‘Your arabesques are not high enough.’ That’s why they have teachers and coaches. The thing I am most proud of is the character and values they have developed. Every country they have danced in, they have made an effort to learn the language and learn the culture.”
Yet that is not all. In November, Julian will become the first sibling to dance professionally in this country, when the Mikhailovsky Ballet goes to Costa Mesa, California. Nearly a lifetime after that family trip to Washington to watch his sisters perform, he will go airborne in the explosive, life-altering slave solo from “Le Corsaire.”
Washington, D.C., journalist Annie Groer writes widely about culture, politics and design.