From the Rockies to the great dance spaces across Europe, the Khan-MacKay siblings have impressed audiences. The oldest, Maria Sascha Khan and the youngest, Nicholas MacKay spoke to NOW! Jakarta during their brief stop over in Jakarta where they conducted a set of masterclasses.

From the Rockies to the great dance spaces across Europe, the Khan-MacKay siblings have impressed audiences. Personal Files/NOW!JAKARTA

A group of six girls stand at attention, their right hands extended over a barre, the left hands on their hips. Their attention is focused, transfixed on their instructor at the head of the room. She gently instructs them on ballet technique and works with them as they practice gracefully. The girls follow directions closely, their bodies in tune. Their guest instructor this afternoon is Maria Sascha Khan, international Guest Artist and former Principal of the Ekaterinburg State Ballet Russia.

Two floors above, another group of girls, barely 10 years old are practicing a series of stretches. Their instructor shows them an easy way of performing the moves, the girls follow suit. He, too, carefully watches them, guiding them expertly. Suddenly, with a flick of his copious, curly hair he performs a move that is de rigeur in ballet, the saut de chat, the long leap, as the girls look on. They’re in a masterclass conducted by Nicholas MacKay, Maria Sascha’s brother and fellow ballet dancer.

The siblings were in Jakarta in early December as part of a programme organised by the Indonesia Dance Society. This is Khan’s second visit to Indonesia, although she has travelled to the region multiple times over the years, mostly to Malaysia and Singapore.

Maria Sascha, Nicholas and their other siblings— sister Nadia Khan, who currently dances for the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma in Rome and brother Julian MacKay, who was the first American to graduate from Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet Academy,  and at just 21 is a bright star of Russian ballet—grew up outside Bozeman, Montana, home of cowboys and cattle, the Rockies and the Yellowstone National Park.  In most cases, dancers who are as accomplished as the Khan-MacKay siblings usually come from a long line of dancers. It is particularly impressive, then, that these dancers have no background and have managed to accomplish as much as they have. They are musically inclined, though, with Maria Sascha and Julian taking up the cello, Nadia the harp and Nicholas the violin. With parents who supported their creative engagements and encouraged a more wholistic upbringing with nature as their guide, all four took ballet classes in town and around the state.

It wasn’t until she was 10, Khan recalls, that she learned that one could make a career out of ballet, thanks to a touring Russian who impressed the young dancer. What followed was a series of summer intensives across the U.S., and in England. In 2002, she enrolled at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in northeast Washington in 2002.

She went on to study at the Academie de Danse de Princess Grace in Monaco, and then dance with the Staatsballett in Berlin, moving on to the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich three years later.

The siblings were in Jakarta in early December as part of a programme organised by the Indonesia Dance Society.

While her career trajectory is impressive – and commendable, it hasn’t been without its own set of challenges. “There was a steep learning curve,” Khan says. The oldest of her siblings, she recalls there was no one to tell her or her sister Nadia what they needed to know or what was missing in their practice. “It took perseverance to try and figure it out what I was capable of,” she said. Most recently a Principal  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.

Nicholas McKay joined her on this trip, and from our conversation, it is apparent that this deep-rooted passion for this dance form is certainly a family trait, perhaps inspired by his older siblings. Things were different for him. The youngest of the brood, he remembers being inspired by the ballet “Spartacus” at the tender age of 7. “I love Greek and Roman history,” MacKay says, “So it was definitely a defining factor [in my decision].

“I took him to see it,” Khan chimes in, adding that he begged her to take him again the following day when he asked several questions about the performance, wowing some of the audience around them with his knowledge of ballet. Two years later, he followed brother Julian to the prestigious Bolshoi Academy Moscow. Now in St. Petersburg with his brother, he hopes to become a master dancer.

During her last visit to Jakarta in April 2018, Khan helped judge a dance scholarship programme held in cooperation with the Indonesia Dance Society. The students in the contest solidified her commitment to working with students in this region. “I was impressed with their musicality which is lacking in the dance world and coming to Indonesia, which doesn't have a history of ballet, to see them already quite well presented, was as impressive,” she notes, adding that she felt that it would be good to work with them to the next level. So, she brought her Ballet Legacy Master Class – which was borne out of her love for teaching and is held annually in Bozeman, Montana – to Indonesia.

“I had organised, with my siblings, our first Master Class  because all of us have been teaching here and there and we're all in our careers,” she says. “We saw that there was a wonderful result from all of that. As a teacher, you find out what their lacking and give them a jumpstart on what they're working on. I saw these kids and also for me it was quite personal. Seeing the development in Asia and seeing that interest grow, I knew I wanted to be behind that and support that,” she adds, noting that she adapted her programme for Indonesia and conducted two-day sessions in Jakarta and Bali.

Through these masterclasses, which she founded two years ago, students are provided a wealth of information—but also opportunity—to build connections and to further their interest in the art form. Part of Khan’s work here also involved evaluating students for possible consideration to be included in her production and also for scholarships for the two-week programme held in Montana.

Nicholas, who turned 18 during his time in Indonesia, has worked with Yuri Smekalov of the Bolshoi on “Moidodyr”. Also a photographer, Nicholas’ focus during his time in Indonesia was on giving masterclasses to intermediate dancers and modern movement classes which he has been working with along with Julian, in addition to the “Warrior” piece.

From movement classes to breath training, the siblings have benefitted from rigorous training over the years and have established themselves well – and far- from their roots. They all also help with the family-run charity Youth Arts in Action which supports talented young artists.

The siblings gathered together with their parents for Christmas in Montana, for the first time in 15 years. A feat in itself given their far-flung residences and commitments. Acutely aware of the many sacrifices their family has made over the years, they both concur – and speak for their other siblings as well – when they conclude that family is everything. After all, this is an art chosen for love.

Ranjit Jose

Ranjit Jose

Ranjit is a previous Editor of NOW! Jakarta. A cultural journalist and anthropologist by training, he has reported on arts and culture for a variety of publications in the USA and Indonesia.