New York City Ballet dancer returns to Alabama for "The Sleeping Beauty"

Olivia MacKinnon started taking ballet lessons in Mobile at age 3.

The last time Olivia MacKinnon performed with Mobile Ballet, she danced in "The Sleeping Beauty." In the years that have passed since then, she achieved her dream of becoming a professional dancer. Now part of the New York City Ballet's corps de ballet, MacKinnon is rehearsing this week to dance once again with Mobile Ballet in "The Sleeping Beauty" - this time in the starring role of Aurora.

When she's onstage this weekend, she will have come full circle. "When I watched the video of 'Sleeping Beauty' to learn my role, I could see myself," she said. "I left doing 'Sleeping Beauty,' and now I've come back as the principal dancer doing Aurora. It's such an honor for me to perform this role."

MacKinnon started taking ballet classes when she was just 3 years old. Her first little pair of ballet slippers is displayed, along with a portrait of a little blonde girl in pink tights, in a shadow box in her parents' home in midtown Mobile.

Even at that age, she loved to dance and "got excited when music came on," she said. By the time she was 11 or 12, she knew she wanted to become a dancer when she grew up. Being homeschooled gave her the flexibility she needed to train.

When she was 15 years old, she moved to New York City to attend the School of American Ballet, which feeds into the New York City Ballet. It wasn't easy to leave home and her large, loving family at such a young age, but her sacrifices have paid off.

MacKinnon spent a year as an apprentice, which is kind of a "trial run" for New York City Ballet. She has fond memories of performing for the queen in Copenhagen, Denmark. "It was such a surreal experience," she said. "We had to do special bows for her."

In the fall of 2013, she traveled to Tokyo and Osaka. On their first day in Japan, as she started doing plies at the barre during a class with Peter Martins - the successor to George Balanchine at New York City Ballet who serves as artistic director and faculty chairman at the School of American Ballet - Martins "held my hand and said, 'You're in.'"

MacKinnon had become a member of the New York City Ballet company. Her fellow dancers stopped what they were doing and clapped for her. "It was a really cool moment," she said. "He told me to call my parents, and they were so excited."

Her parents, T. Bruce and Dana MacKinnon, are "very supportive," she said. "I couldn't have asked for better parents."

For the past four years, MacKinnon, now 21, has lived in a studio apartment with three closets to herself, on the Upper West Side, with her cat, Meeko, to keep her company. In addition to her daily ballet routine, she manages to take classes at Fordham University.

Watch her in action: In this New York City Ballet video from Feb. 3, 2017, MacKinnon wears the pink tutu in "Eight Easy Pieces," choreographed by Peter Martins with music by the composer Igor Stravinsky. It was one of her favorite roles in the winter season, she said.

'I love Mobile'

After dancing for 17 weeks straight through New York City Ballet's fall, "Nutcracker" and winter seasons, she hasn't been home since August. "I love Mobile," she said earlier this week, as she sat on her parents' front porch, sewing satin ribbons onto a pair of pointe shoes before her first rehearsal with Mobile Ballet. She expects to go through three sets of shoes during her performances this weekend. "Whenever I come home, I feel so relaxed and at ease."

She feels so comfortable here that she's not too nervous about her starring role in "The Sleeping Beauty," she said. Though she has had featured roles before, the performance with Mobile Ballet will be her first time as principal in a full-length ballet. "It's very special," she said. "This is a big production for them to put on."

Zachary Catazaro of Canton, Ohio, who is also a dancer with New York City Ballet, stars as the Prince. In fact, he's renting a costume from New York City Ballet costume for the Mobile performance.

"He's a very experienced partner, very strong," she said.

MacKinnon, meanwhile, will wear three different tutus as Aurora, two of which her parents had made for her as a Christmas gift. She especially loves the one she wears in Act I, which incorporates butterflies "They have special meaning for me," she said.

When New York City Ballet recently staged "The Sleeping Beauty," MacKinnon worked closely with principal dancer Sterling Hyltin to learn her role. Another principal, Daniel Ulbricht, traveled to Mobile last week to help coach some of the Mobile Ballet dancers.

In her role as Aurora, she will act out three aspects of her personality, she said - first as a carefree 16-year-old; then as a romantic, ghostlike vision that appears to the prince; and then, in the wedding scene, as "a more confident, mature version of myself."

"That's the act I have to work on the most," she said.

Despite the delicate beauty of ballet, behind the scenes it's a grueling sport, and MacKinnon acknowledges that a dancing career is a short one. "Your body can only last so long," she said. New York City Ballet offers a team of physical therapists, massage therapists and nutritionists to help her stay in the best possible condition. She also receives acupuncture to counteract the pain in her muscles and joints.

In addition to hours of ballet training, she takes Pilates classes, which help lengthen muscles while stretching and relaxing her body. She's into cross-training and likes to swim. "You have to be very in tune with your body with any athletic job," she said.

Still, the adrenaline rush she receives when performing makes all her sacrifice worthwhile. "I can't compare it to anything else," she said.

The audience can see it on her face, said her mother, Dana MacKinnon. "What a lot of people tell me about Olivia is that she radiates joy," she said.

One of her younger sisters, Mary Thomas, 17, is following in her footsteps. Now studying at the School of American Ballet, in August she will become an apprentice with New York City Ballet. The sisters see each other a couple of times a week, and Mary Thomas is flying down to see her sister in "The Sleeping Beauty."

"She said she wouldn't miss it for the world," MacKinnon said.

When she returns to New York City, MacKinnon will perform in two shows as part of The Ashley Bouder Project (in Susan Stroman's "Blossom Got Kissed"), then go right into New York City Ballet's spring season. "Things are getting very exciting," she said.

Despite such a jam-packed schedule, MacKinnon adores every minute of it. "I feel so blessed to do something I love every day," she said.

Mobile Ballet's "Sleeping Beauty" takes place Saturday, March 11, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 12, at 2:30 p.m., at the Mobile Civic Center Theater. Tickets start at just $20. Purchase online at www.mobileballet.org or call (251) 342-2241.

Article New York City Ballet dancer returns to Alabama for "The Sleeping Beauty" compiled by www.al.com

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