Julian MacKay and Anastasia Smirnova dance in an outdoor performance during last year’s Yellowstone International Arts Festival along the banks of the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley. | Photo by MACKAY PRODUCTIONS/NICHOLAS MACKAY

Round Up: Bozeman’s Ambassador to the World

For more than a decade, Julian MacKay, now 26 years old, has been Big Sky Country’s de facto cultural envoy to the world, hustling his way into the most storied spaces of dance. His vocation has taken him across Europe and Asia, as well as North and South America. He’s achieved prestigious accolades: He is the first American to graduate from the lower and upper schools of Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet Academy, now in its 250th year.

He was the first American soloist at St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Ballet. In 2015, he won the Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland, the world’s most significant competition for aspiring professional ballet performers. In 2016, he became the Royal Ballet of London’s youngest featured performer.

On July 21, MacKay will perform in his home state of Montana alongside his three siblings, ballerinas Maria Sascha Khan and Nadia Khan, and 
Russian-trained dancer Nicholas MacKay. This performance, known as Stars on the Yellowstone, is a part of the Yellowstone International Arts Festival, which is produced by MacKay’s mother, Teresa Khan MacKay, and is held outdoors along the banks of the Yellowstone River, north of Gardiner, Montana.

Julian MacKay currently trains six days a week at the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich, Germany. | Photo by MACKAY PRODUCTIONS/NICHOLAS MACKAY

MacKay’s dancing is a golden mean of athleticism, artistry, and emotion. He adds refreshing expressiveness to a craft that sometimes seems cold and calculating. “Coming from Montana and falling in love with classical ballet is not something that happens that often,” MacKay says, speaking after a full day of training at the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich, Germany, where he has been the principal dancer since 2022. Training lasts from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week. It is physically and mentally taxing. But he remains strikingly pleasant, thoughtful, and composed.

No matter where he goes, the Big Sky side of MacKay is present in his mind and heart. “Knowing who you are and where you’re from gives you strength to go to new places and do new things,” MacKay says. “It helps keep me grounded.” 

As a child growing up in Bozeman, Montana, MacKay played soccer and Little League baseball. He tried tennis and fencing but found his passion in ballet, as did his younger brother. Their two older sisters were well on their way in careers as prima ballerinas by the time the boys caught the dance bug. “I started dancing because of my sisters,” MacKay says, adding that he spent his preschool years imitating their moves in the driveway. “I wanted to see what that world was for myself.” The stunning leaps performed by male dancers particularly inspired him.

MacKay admits that dance didn’t come naturally to him, so he pursued it with great vigor to succeed. That desire to perfect his craft continues to inform his vocation. “I learned a lot from my dad [Gregory MacKay] about hard work,” MacKay says, crediting his father for imparting a strong sense of determination in him.

Montana-born Julian MacKay, who began training at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow at 11 years old, stands for a portrait in his home state. | Photo by MACKAY PRODUCTIONS/NICHOLAS MACKAY

At just 11 years old, MacKay was invited to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, and soon his brother joined him. The teachers were exacting and demanding but that suited MacKay’s personality. “I am very grateful for all the people along the way that have made this a good experience,” he says, citing as disparate influences as the Russian grandmothers who told him to wear a winter hat to keep from catching cold to Loren Bough, the Big Sky-based real estate developer who served as a patron to both MacKays during their time in Moscow. While Russian students attended the state-run school for free, foreigners faced a steep tuition bill. For MacKay and Nicholas’ first two years, the family footed the bill and relied heavily on Gregory’s frequent-flier miles to transport the boys back and forth from Russia. Then, Bough stepped in, ensuring that the MacKay brothers could complete their training.

In all, MacKay spent six years at the academy before launching his international career as a professional dancer. In addition to his work on the stage, he has partnered with Nicholas to launch MacKay Productions, a Montana-based multimedia production company focused on fashion and dance, with clients like Armani and Victoria’s Secret.

A capstone, of sorts, to MacKay’s international travels, his return to Montana each year is a tender opportunity to perform with his family in an intimate, outdoor setting. “We have this beautiful big sky that gives this feeling of endless opportunities,” MacKay says.

Teresa, executive director of the Yellowstone International Festival, notes that each of her children has their own strengths, interests, and approaches to dance, but together, they share a unique language and set of experiences, which makes the night on the Yellowstone River a particularly powerful event that is radically expanding the cultural offerings in the Bozeman area. It’s one not to be missed.

For more information about the Yellowstone International Arts Festival or to purchase tickets for Stars on the Yellowstone, visit yellowstoneinternationalartsfestival.org.

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