By Chelsea Thomas of Dance Informa.
Nadia Khan is no typical ballet dancer – her determination and assiduous nature have taken her from Montana, the home of cowboys and cattle, to many top training centers. These include the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington D.C., the Académie de Danse Classique Princesse Grace in Monte Carlo, the Royal Ballet School in London, and the Ecole Supérieure de Danse de Cannes, to her current stomping grounds, Compañía Nacional de Danza de España.
Yet, what makes Khan such a fascinating standout is not just her impressive resume of elite training, but how she got there and who supported her along the way.
Here, Dance Informa catches up with the stunning rising star hailing from the state known more for the Rockies and Yellowstone National Park than ballerinas to find out how she got to be where she is and what advice she has for other aspiring dancers.
Coming from rural Montana, when were you first exposed to ballet? Did you train nearby or have to travel far?
“As long as I can remember, I loved to dance! My sister and I had an amazing dress-up trunk with old ballgowns, hats and jewelry. I would play dress-up and pretend to be dancing like Anna in The King and I. There was a time when I watched that movie everyday if I could.
I was then old enough to go to a pre-ballet class with a lady who used to dance with San Francisco Ballet. My sister and my best friends Victoria and Olivia were also in the class, along with several little boys. My first pas de deux was with Jess and we danced, two four year olds, the Prince and Princess, in our own little magical world!
When I was a little older, my mom drove my sister and I three hours to ballet class. Even though at that point none of us really knew that much about ballet, my mom still strived to offer the best opportunities she could.
The support of my parents is a very big part of what has helped enable me to become a professional dancer. We soon began to look at fulltime ballet schools.
When I was 11, I left home for the first time to attend a ballet boarding school, The Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington D.C. That was a real shock for me. Until that point, I had no idea what ‘real’ ballet was. I didn’t even know you had to be turned out! Haha! So that was my first exposure I suppose to ‘real’, more serious ballet, and I loved it!”
So that was your first major leap into the world of classical ballet – the Kirov Academy of Ballet under the direction of Yelena Vinogradova. What was that time in your life like?
“I moved with my sister Maria Sascha Khan, who was 14 at the time. I absolutely loved it! It was fulltime training with teachers from Russia. My teacher was Angelina Armeiskaya, from the Vaganova, and the former star of the award-winning film The Children of Theatre Street. She is a great lady and we kept a friendship for many years after.
When you’re that young, you are like a sponge. You’re hungry for information, especially when it is something completely new. I loved the challenge. It was exciting to see how much I would improve everyday and how much stronger I was getting. The costumes were from Russia – just beautiful! – and the performances were a great experience. Plus, I am a very social person, so from that aspect it was very exciting for me too, to meet people from all over the world and live in one dorm together.”
Later you moved to New York City and then Athens, Greece, to take private lessons. How old were you and were you by yourself? How did you finish your schooling?
“When I was 14, I moved to New York City and attended a school that allowed me to arrange my schedule around my ballet training. After two years, however, when I was 16, I got my GED so I could spend more time focusing on my training.
So when I moved to Greece at 18 to train with Masha Mukhamedov, I didn’t have to worry about school. I could be completely focused on my training. She had only a few students at that time and she gave us everything. I am very grateful for her,”
How did taking private lessons further your dancing?
“Private lessons were always good for me. It made such a big difference having that one-on-one time with my coach, really looking at every detail and giving personal advice and corrections for me. I had the privilege of training with teachers who came from a very high level of professional artistry; they gave me things that are difficult to put into words… the essence of what ballet truly is.
I was fortunate to work privately with Prima Ballerina Absoluta Eva Evdokimova, who was famous for her exquisite romantic style. To be coached and given tips by her on variations from Les Sylphides and Giselle first hand was priceless.
The other teacher who truly helped shape me with her knowledge through private training was Masha Mukhamedov. Until then, I had been well trained and given a lot of the information I needed, but she really helped to bring out the best dancer I could be, to make that transition from school dancer to professional. She is able to look at you and see exactly what you need. Maybe it’s a correction you have been hearing for years, but with Masha she had a way of saying things that would just suddenly make it click for me. It’s so important to have that kind of connection with a teacher; it makes a world of difference. Without her help, I wouldn’t be the dancer I am today.”
Throughout your training and individual coaching, how did you support yourself? Did you ever have to work while training?
“I was fortunate to receive talent scholarships to help me through my training years, which made a big difference. However, even with these it was still difficult and my family struggled. Lots of costs add up that people don’t realize – new pointe shoes, dancewear, plane tickets, food and housing, which many scholarships don’t include. That’s why one of the organizations that helped me the most was the nonprofit Youth Arts in Action. They awarded cash scholarships to young artists with all these aspects in mind. So you could still use it towards your training, but in the areas other scholarships are lacking.”
Outside of your main instruction, where did you spend summers and holidays training? How did these experiences supplement your artistry?
“I spent many summers training at the Princess Grace Academy in Monaco, Monte Carlo, under the direction of Marika Besobrasova, as well as The Royal Ballet Summer School in both White Lodge and Covent Garden. I think I learned and gained something from many of the artists and teachers I worked with. Artistry is something I find to be extremely important for a dancer and it’s not something that can be easily taught.
Because I spent most of my summers in Europe, it made it easier and more natural when I moved here to adjust. I am grateful I was able to learn German from living and working there, and I’m now learning Spanish too.”
Looking back on this time in your life when you really had to find your own way, what kept you moving forward?
“I always have had the support of my parents and siblings. I am very fortunate to have three siblings who are all dancers. So if I ever feel discouraged I always know I can turn to them for support or help, and vice versa. Even in times of frustration or hardship, I was still ultimately motivated to pursue my dream. It’s part of who I am, so it was never an option in my mind to completely give up. It’s what I have always wanted and I couldn’t let obstacles hold me back. As my mom always told me, ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going.’”
Today, what advice do you have for other dancers who are looking to create a career in professional ballet?
“Determination!! And tough skin! The life of a dancer is not something to be chosen lightly, but if your heart is in it, it’s truly rewarding. The amount of beauty you can bring into the world and people’s lives you can touch and uplift through your art is a beautiful necessity for society, and a privilege.”
When you did finally “make it” and were dancing professionally in Germany, how did you maintain your physique and technique?
“This is something that is very difficult. When you are in school you have many hours of training a day; you are constantly working. When you join a company, especially the first year, it can be difficult to maintain your technique. It helps a lot to do extra work on your own, whether it be extra strengthening exercises and stretching, or working on a variation with a coach. It can be easy to get lost in a sea of dancers, so even as a professional, private coaching is still a big help.”
Now you have been dancing in Spain with Compañia Nacional de Danza for one year. What are you looking forward to this season?
“I am very excited to travel and perform in China this season! I’ve always wanted to dance there. It’s going to be a dream come true!”
So far, what would you consider your career highlights to be?
“So far, I would say being chosen to dance in the world premiere of Gli Uccelli at the National Theater in Munich, a ballet choreographed by Slava Samodurov (current director of the Yekaterinburg Ballet) on the group of dancers he chose.
I have also had the pleasure to perform three times in the Les Danses de L’Amour gala to support Youth Arts in Action in my home state of Montana.
Best of all was dancing one of my favorite pieces, In The Middle Somewhat Elevated by William Forsythe, for Compañía Nacional de Danza! That was, and is, a great thrill to be chosen for and to dance! I get so excited every time I go onstage and do it.”
Looking to the future, what are some dreams you have yet to achieve? Are there any roles you hope to dance, places you wish to perform, or choreographers/dancers you hope to work with?
“Yes, of course I have all of these! Too many to list! But I love both classical and contemporary, and look forward to dancing many more roles, and traveling worldwide. I love my job. It’s rewarding and fulfilling with endless possibilities!”
Lastly, you said all of your siblings are also dancers. Where are your siblings dancing today?
“My sister, Maria Sascha Khan, dances with the English National Ballet in London. My two little brothers, Nicholas MacKay, 13, and Julian MacKay, 16, both train at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, Russia.”
Photo (top): Nadia Khan in Madrid, Spain. All photos courtesy of Nadia Khan.