Embodying Sweat and Beauty

An Interview with Corps de Ballet Member Olivia MacKinnon

Hailing from Mobile, Alabama, Olivia MacKinnon's quiet grace and determination have made her a stand out in the corps. Since joining New York City Ballet in 2013, she's originated corps roles in a number of new ballets, including in two choreographers' first works for the Company: Lauren Lovette's For Clara and Gianna Reisen's Composer's Holiday. She's also appeared in a handful of notable featured roles and made her debut as the only new Dewdrop in the 2018 performances of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker®. Outside of NYCB, she's also performed as a member of the Ashley Bouder Project, and in 2017, returned home to dance the role of Aurora in Mobile Ballet's production of The Sleeping Beauty.

Dancing is bit of a family affair for the MacKinnons. Olivia's sister Mary Thomas recently joined the Company as a corps member in the fall of 2018, and younger sibling Lily Grace is also dancing back home in Mobile.

What does this Balanchine quote mean to you? First comes the sweat. Then comes the beauty, if you’re very lucky and have said your prayers.
It takes an incredible amount of work behind the scenes to create something that looks effortless on the stage. A lot of people in the audience just see the beauty of ballet – and there's a lot of sweat that goes into it, a lot of hard work.

Who in the dance world inspires you the most, and why?

I realized over the years that people that I look up to or people I can relate to as a dancer, and those that encouraged to grow as a dancer, are the most inspiring. Sterling Hyltin has definitely been one of those dancers that I can relate to. [Former NYCB Soloist and School of American instructor] Susan Pilarre has been a huge encouragement throughout my career in New York City Ballet – and also [former NYCB Principal Dancer and School of American instructor] Suki Schorer and all the teachers at SAB, and the ballet masters as well.  There's a large group that I that I look up to.

Is there a performance that resonated with you in a significant way? 

Well, the first time I saw New York City Ballet performing, it was The Nutcracker and I think it was Alexandra Ansanelli as the Sugar Plum Fairy. And I remember watching her and I looked at my mom and I was like, “Okay, New York City Ballet is the right place for me.” And I know a lot of people have a similar story, but I did look up to that dancer in particular. And I thought she was really beautiful; she seemed very real.

What is your favorite music to perform to?
I'm very much moved by any type of music. It really depends on my mood. I would say Tschaikovsky is definitely – but any music will get me excited and make me want to dance. I've been that way since I was really little!
Tell us about a personal or physical challenge you’ve had to overcome in your career. How did you approach it?
A couple years back, I went to my hometown to perform the full-length The Sleeping Beauty as Aurora – and that has always been a dream role for me. And doing all three acts made me grow a lot stronger as a dancer and an artist. Being able to portray three different periods of someone's life was really interesting. And it was definitely one of the most memorable times that I've had onstage. And I was able to dance for all of my family and friends.

Ballet is mentally demanding as well as physically grueling. How do you maintain your mental strength on top of your physical strength?
I feel like we spend so many hours working ourselves to death, and I try to stay as grounded as possible for my spirit: reading and saying God's Word and spending time with people that I love. This life as a dancer can go by so quickly, and I’m trying to savor every moment I get, even though it gets really difficult and tough.

What kind of cross-training do you do to support your dancing?
I love going to the gym. I have a trainer and I lift weights. Some people think that dancers don't lift weights, but I do it to stay toned – and I do Pilates. I have and amazing Pilates instructor. And I love to swim too, and do yoga. But mainly I work with my trainer and work on my Pilates, those are the two main things that I keep up with.

Do you play any sports? Which one/s?

I played sports before I got really serious [about dance]. I did tennis – I love playing tennis – but I was pretty much focused on just being a dancer at NYCB. I didn't need anything else taking up my time.
Have you ever struggled with a particular step, variation, or role? How did you overcome it?
The first year I did Marzipan [in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker®], those hops en pointe were a little intimidating, but I realized that I was very much capable of doing them. In every rehearsal, I did them just fine – and then my first show I had a little slip up. But ever since that first show, I've done the hops.

So, I think it's a mental thing a lot of times, and dancers just have to push forward through feeling that nervous, mental kind of energy, and just realize they can do it, and they're very capable. There are definitely other things that I always struggle with, but … practice makes perfect!

How has the discipline of ballet shaped your identity?
Ballet has helped me test my patience and endurance. It's tested my limits both physically and mentally – and I feel like not much could compare to the love and passion I have for ballet.
As a dancer and an athlete, when do you feel the strongest? When do you feel the most artistic?

When I'm finally able to show the audience what I've been working so hard for. I recently debuted in Dewdrop this past Nutcracker season. Having about six or seven weeks leading up to finally being able perform the role, that moment finally paid off all the hard work. It was the best feeling of accomplishment. It flew by so quickly, I could barely remember what happened – but I just had so much adrenaline. And even afterwards, being so exhausted with that high feeling – I feel like that's what dancers hold on to and live for. That’s the moment.
It's a role that I always wanted to do; I'm a jumper, so I love all the jumping in Dewdrop.  And it was also definitely another mental thing to overcome, too. I'm still in the corps, so I have to dance in almost every show, and your body breaks down towards the sixth week of performances – and that's when I was cast! So, I was just like: Hold on body, hold tight, you can do it! But once I finally did the show, I didn't feel any pain – and it was great. I was just so happy to finally be dancing Dewdrop.

Olivia will be performing throughout the remainder of the 18/19 Season. Check out our winter and spring programming pages for tickets and more information.

Olivia MacKinnon Sweat/Beauty photos by Gabriela Celeste © 2017