Yellowstone International Arts Festival Weaves Ballet, Nature and Community

The fourth annual ballet festival was a dazzling confluence of unexpected people, performances and more

Paradise Valley, Montana might be the only place in the world where cowboys and world-class ballerinas collide. Such is the allure of the Yellowstone International Arts Festival, an annual ballet production in Yellowstone’s mountainous valley, founded by a Montana-born family of internationally renowned ballet stars: Maria Sascha Khan, Nadia Khan, Nicholas MacKay, Julian MacKay and their mother Teresa Khan MacKay. Held on 10 August, the festival (now in its fourth year) brought ballet and live classical music to an unexpected locale amidst an untraditional audience of locals and classical devotees who flew to the rural region just for the occasion.

“The Stone Flower” by Maria Beck and Alexander Romanchikov, courtesy of Nicholas MacKay/MacKay Productions

This year, the festival was held right on the bank of the Yellowstone River, adjacent to the hot springs (which stayed open until almost 2AM for the festival). Paradise Valley, being as narrow as it is, allowed any view of the stage and top-tier performers to be accompanied by a picturesque perimeter of mountains. Here, performances rarely or never produced in the US—like Sergei Prokofiev’s The Stone Flower—converge with the singing of crickets and local bull elk who actually wandered into the crowd to stop and watch.

“That’s the Montana connection,” Maria Sascha Khan tells COOL HUNTING. “It is wild opens spaces, huge open skies. For us to connect these art forms that are usually in these huge theaters of the world and put it in the theater of nature… You just can’t get more beautiful than that.”

Joshua Stewart courtesy of Nicholas MacKay/MacKay Productions

In many ways, ballet and nature go hand in hand. Not only does wildlife and its soundtrack activate the performances, but the dancers connect to the land as well. As Khan continues, the platform acts “as a way for the artists to have their dreams come true either by performing a piece that they never would be able to otherwise or coming here where most people have not been.” On one hand, the setting helps challenge the dancers, forcing them to work around nature, weather and pesky gnats. On the other hand, it offers new experiences, from staying in glamping tipis (that local company Yellowstone Tipis donated) to relaxing in the hot springs and rafting down the river.

“Soul of the Yellowstone” by Maria Sascha Khan and Jesse Eagle and choreographed by Alisher Khasanov; courtesy of Nicholas MacKay/MacKay Productions

Pulling off the fourth annual festival was particularly challenging, as an intense flood occurred in mid-June, the magnitude of which only occurs once every 500 years. Repairing the grounds and building the stage are testaments to the strength of the communities of Paradise Valley and Gardiner, Montana, as well as their desire to keep the festival going. “We almost considered canceling it—that’s how damaged the area was. But people pulled together,” says Teresa Khan MacKay. “Paradise Valley is a community in and of itself. It’s outside of the bigger cities and people have learned to depend on each other because they’re ranchers and farmers.”

“Swan Lake” by Julian MacKay and Madison Young, courtesy of Nicholas MacKay/MacKay Productions

The community worked together to rebuild bridges and roads with many local stores, like the Yellowstone Raft Company, donating to the festival to help them see it through. “It really touched us how excited people were that we were bringing that right there to them. And it brought an influx of people to the area,” adds Khan, who led the production of the festival as its Artistic Director in addition to performing in it.

“It’s been interesting to draw in cowboys from big ranches that probably have never seen ballet and yet are extremely enthusiastic, buying tickets for all their family members and friends,” continues MacKay. It was this disparate confluence that motivated the family to found the festival in the first place.

“Swan Lake” by Julian MacKay and Madison Young, courtesy of Nicholas MacKay/MacKay Productions

Growing up in a rural town (and even being born in a log cabin in the area), Khan was one of the only people from Montana to compete at the most prestigious level, like at the Prix de Lausanne. However, entry into the world of international professional ballet is expensive, intense and comes with sacrifices for many families who are new to the field. MacKay—whose children have all gone on to become professional ballet dancers—knows this firsthand, which is why 18 years ago she began a non-profit, Youth Arts in Action, to help create more opportunities for others to become elite dancers. The festival is an extension of this mission.

“As the four of us developed in our own careers and had these amazing experience in the world, it was like, ‘How can we put all this together and bring this back to our local community and have a platform that continues to showcase young talent but also can help give them a vision for what is in the world?'” Khan says.

Nadia Khan and Jinhao Zhang, courtesy of Nicholas MacKay/MacKay Productions

To open up a new, diverse world to their community and inspire other burgeoning ballet stars, the Khan-MacKay family carefully craft their performance line-up. “We definitely focus on presenting people that you would not see here otherwise and most you wouldn’t even see in the US,” says principal artist Khan. This rarity extends to the performances themselves, which, this year, included the US premiere of the solo Lacrimosa by choreographer Valentino Zucchetti of the Royal Ballet in London and performed by Violetta Komyshan from the American Swiss Ballet.

“Soul of the Yellowstone” by Maria Sascha Khan and Jesse Eagle and choreographed by Alisher Khasanov, courtesy of Nicholas MacKay/MacKay Productions

Also included in this year’s line-up was the world premiere of Khan’s own performance, Soul of the Yellowstone, performed in collaboration with Jesse Eagle Speaker, a Native American chicken dancer from the Blackfoot tribe, and choreographed by Alisher Khasanov. “We combined the storytelling and power of Native American dance with the grace of classical ballet,” says Khan. “I myself have never done anything like that and I have never seen that done either. So it was really nice to get to combine what we’ve learned of the classical art of ballet from Europe and Russia and also the history of where we’re from.”

“Dying Swan” by Maria Sascha Khan, courtesy of Nicholas MacKay/MacKay Productions

Merging folk dance, classical ballet, opera and Native American traditions with local communities and those beyond it, the Yellowstone International Arts Festival showcases ballet in an exciting new light. Within a long-established practice, this different approach is few and far between, but that is exactly why it’s necessary. “There needs to be new models of production that are presented, because in order to keep ballet relatable and something that people still are interested in, you have to move with the times,” says Khan. “It’s getting something that’s still a live production model but in a very unusual setting and offering people something they wouldn’t have otherwise.” A celebration at a new frontier of ballet, the festival considers those outside of the art’s typical patrons, beautifully weaving Native Americans, cowboys and beyond.

Hero image of Nadia Khan and Jinhao Zhang; courtesy of Nicholas MacKay/MacKay Productions