Mackenzie Brown competing at this year's Prix de Lausanne. Gregory Bartadon, Courtesy PDL.

Get to Know the 2019 Prix de Lausanne First Place Prizewinner, 16-Year-Old Mackenzie Brown

Earlier this month, 16-year-old Mackenzie Brown took home the first prize at the 2019 Prix de Lausanne. Not only was the Stafford, Virginia-native the only American to place in the finals; she also won the Contemporary Dance Prize and the Audience Favorite Prize. A student at the Académie Princesse Grace in Monaco, Brown's path to the Prix was anything but smooth: The determined young dancer fought against injuries that threatened to keep her on the sidelines.

We caught up with Brown, currently taking a few weeks to recover at home with her family in Virginia, to hear all about her experience at the Prix de Lausanne.


How did you find your way to Académie Princesse Grace?

When I was 13, I competed in Youth America Grand Prix and was accepted in the finals, and got a scholarship to Académie Princesse Grace. Before that I was training at two studios: one which was all styles of dance, and one that was strictly classical ballet.

What was it like to move to Monaco at such a young age?

It wasn't very hard for me. Of course I loved living at home, but I love to explore new things, so I was very excited. It turned out to be the best decision that I've made.

What's the best part about training in Monaco?

The fact that the school is so small. There are only seven girls in my class. We're all one big family. It's really a blessing that everyone really cares about each other, and we're all able to support each other.

What's the hardest part?

The language. I'm still working on learning my French. Luckily the school is English-speaking. It's very international, and there are only three other Americans. It's really nice to get to know people from all over the world and understand their cultures.

Brown in class at the Prix de Lausanne

Gregory Bartadon, Courtesy PDL

When did you start attending dance competitions?

I started competing when I was about six years old. I did competitions in jazz, tap, hip hop, contemporary... everything. I started ballet competitions when I was a lot older. I did YAGP for two or three years before accepting the scholarship to Princess Grace.

Last year you participated in the Prix de Lausanne's first ever Choreographic Project. What was that like?

To be able to go to the Prix de Lausanne and not have the stress of competing, and to see what the environment was like and still be able to work with such amazing coaches and teachers was incredible.

When did you start preparing for the competition this year?

My director Luca Masala decided that I should apply, and we started rehearsing in October. But I've been having problems with both my tibias, so it was really on and off throughout those months. It's my first real injury, and I didn't know what to expect and how to deal with it, so it's been a big learning process. I was really nervous I wouldn't recover in time to compete, but I was lucky to have my doctors, teachers and the students in the school helping me and giving me information.

Luckily your injury was under control, and you were able make it to the Prix de Lausanne. What was surprising about your time there?

I had some insight from previous competitors from my school, so I kind of knew what to expect, but it was all so real when we arrived. I kept thinking, wow, I'm actually here! I went into the competition dealing with my injury, but then I formed an abscess on my toe while I was there. It got infected, and I had to have a little procedure. I had the classical jury right after, so I just put my pointe shoes back on and kept going. Being able to make it through that class really boosted my confidence. It was something that I definitely fought for.

How does the Prix de Lausanne differ from other ballet competitions?

It's more than a competition. It's a full week, and having the opportunity for the jury to watch you not only on the stage but also in class is really cool. It kinds of brings a different pressure that you have to learn to deal with.

What were your two variations?

The classical was the third shade from La Bayadère, and the contemporary was the Abstract variation by Jean Christophe Maillot. I actually had a bit of an advantage, because we study his rep at Princesse Grace, so I kind of know his movement. I really enjoy contemporary a lot.

Were you nervous at all while performing?

I really surprised myself, because I wasn't that nervous. I think it's because I was dealing with so many things that my mind wasn't concentrating on nerves.

Brown (front row, second from right) with the rest of the prizewinners and jury members after the awards ceremony

Gregory Bartadon, Courtesy PDL

By winning first place, you have your first choice for a school scholarship. Do you know what's next for you?

I think I'm going to be staying at Académie Princesse Grace. I still have to work everything out, but I really love where I am now.

Do you have a dream company or a dream role?

I'm just willing to go anywhere that incorporates classical and contemporary where the director likes me. And I would love to dance any of John Cranko's rep, like Marguerite and Armand or Lady of the Camellias. I also love Giselle.

What are some things that you like doing outside of ballet?

I like spending time with friends and just being able to hang out and talk. I also like the beach; In Monaco I live five minutes away, so when it's warm out it's nice to be able to go there for the day.

Do you have any advice for dancers competing for the first time?

You shouldn't be nervous; remember that everyone is in the same place, and is nervous as well. And you can do anything if you really put your mind to it.

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Here, Ball and two other experts share their advice for how to make the most of this precious opportunity to dive deep into dance—and how to handle complications that may get in the way, like injury and drama.

1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

Summer intensives offer a preview of company life: You'll be dancing in a variety of styles over the course of the day, and all day, everyday. But that doesn't mean you have to be company-ready on day one! Though the first day may be filled with placement classes, try not to approach every class as an audition. "This year has taught us that the work is the important thing," says Ball. "Let go of trying to impress. The best impression I ever receive as a teacher is when I see someone receptive to doing things differently, even if that means taking one step backwards initially, to be able to take two steps forward by the end of the summer."

Angelica Generosa, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, clearly made a splash during her first of three summers at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance. At 14, she was cast to dance the pas de deux from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes in the final performance. Generosa describes her younger self as "very eager." She'll be a guest teacher at Chautauqua this summer, and says that a similar eagerness catches her attention: "Dedication, and willingness to try. That twinkle in the eyes when a step is really challenging."

2. Make Friends

Even if friends from your year-round school will be with you this summer, branch out. During breaks at the studio, you may be tempted to spend time on your phone. "Take your headphones off," suggests Margaret Severin-Hansen, director of Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. "Share that ballet video with the person sitting next to you! Their eyes might see it differently; you could learn something. Or find that you have other things in common, too."

Do things outside the studio, too, even if your social circle is limited for safety reasons to a "pod" of classmates. "Sign up for activities," says Generosa. Go on that weekend shopping trip, or out for ice cream. "Be open," she says. "These are people you might see along the way in your future."

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Courtesy CPYB

3. Stay Healthy

"The first week is tough—you're going to be sore," says Ball. "Prepare yourself." He means that literally. Before your program begins, ramp up cross-training, especially cardio to build your stamina. Severin-Hansen recommends you also keep dancing. It no longer matters that your regular school might be on break: We now know it's possible to take virtual classes from home or in a rented studio. If you're on pointe, make sure to put the shoes on every day, at the very least for some relevés. Keep the skin on your toes tough; the last thing you want is to be sidelined by blisters.

If you are recovering from an injury or managing something persistent like tendonitis, take action even further in advance. Find out if your intensive provides access to physical therapy, and if not, make a plan before you leave home. Learn exercises and massage techniques that you can do on your own, and ask about virtually checking in with your regular doctor or PT. Once you arrive, says Ball, communicate with your instructors. "Chances are it's a common ballet injury that teachers understand. They'll be able to help you."

During her summer intensives, Generosa often suffered flare-ups of inflammation. "I knew the tendonitis in my knees was from over turning out, and in my ankles from lifting my heels in plié." She was able to alleviate some of her pain by dancing more thoughtfully, addressing those habits. She also got creative about taking care of her tendons during off-hours. "I basically did ice baths in Chautauqua Lake."

4. Deal With Disappointment Constructively

Whether you're placed in a lower level than you'd like or were hoping for a soloist role that went to someone else, disappointment is understandable. Try, on your part, to understand too. The faculty may believe you'll thrive more in that particular group, or see a technical issue better solved by not pushing you too fast. If you're not sure exactly what you should be working on, ask. "Trust that you can make the most of your experience, whatever level you're in," says Ball. "Don't be afraid of the conversation."

5. Avoid Drama

Competition is inevitable, but unproductive competition is unnecessary, and bullying unacceptable. Severin-Hansen lays down a very clear guideline: "Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable." If you hear or see anything that bothers you—whether directed at you or someone else—don't hesitate to speak up. "If there's even one person creating drama, you feel it in the class. Summer is short. There's no room for that." Tell the resident advisor in the dorms, or bring the problem to the school administration.

Angelica Generosa performs an arabessque elong\u00e9 on pointe while her partner stands behind her holding her waist and with his left leg in tendu. She holds her left hand on her hip and extends her right arm out to the side with her palm up. Angelica wears a purple leotard, black tights and a white Romantic tutu while Kyle wears a yellow shirt, black tights and tan slippers.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Angelica Generosa (shown here in rehearsal with Kyle Davis) made notes of corrections she'd received and variations she'd worked on during her summer intensives to help retain what she had learned.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

6. Fuel the Long Day

Depending on your housing arrangement this summer, you may be on your own for buying or preparing your own meals. Generosa recalls her first time living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food: "I wanted to try everything: pizza, chicken tenders, the salad bar, the dessert section—that was also my introduction to coffee." She found, however, that caffeine and sugar rushes would give way to energy crashes, and soon enough her better knowledge prevailed. "I told myself, 'Angelica, get your protein, vegetables, complex carbs—the right kind of energy.'"

Masking requirements may make snacking at the studios slightly more difficult. Nonetheless, there will almost certainly be somewhere you can safely have a nibble in between classes, whether that's a dancers' lounge or socially distanced in the studio itself. Make sure you always have something with you that's easy to munch on during breaks. Ball recommends protein bars or fruits and veggies. "Hydrating is huge," he adds, and suggests bringing packets of powdered electrolyte supplements to add to your water.

7. Retain Corrections

Take a moment each evening, Severin-Hansen advises, to write a few things down. "Say the whole class got a general correction, like 'Use your head.' The person who takes notes will think about it: 'When could I have used my head?' It's all about how you come back the next day and improve."

Generosa set a goal for herself to get better every day. To accomplish this, she would stay late to practice, she says, "so my body could adjust to what I was trying to achieve in that class." If you're inclined to follow her example, ask a friend to practice with you. You can film each other to get a glimpse of your own progress.

At the end of her Chautauqua summers, Generosa made notes of some things she had worked on and which variations she'd learned. "Then it wasn't like I left and that was that. I brought the summer experience with me, for my whole year."

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