Maria Sascha Khan has lived what most people would consider an extraordinary life. She was just 16 when she went to Europe to become a ballet dancer. She studied first at the Académie de Danse Classique Princesse Grace in Monte Carlo—where she was chosen to perform at the coronation of Prince Albert II—then at the Bayerisches Staatsballett in Munich. Now, in her mid-20s, Khan is first soloist (and the only Westerner) at the Ekaterinburg State Academic Opera & Ballet Theatre in Yekaterinburg, Russia's fourth largest city, on the border of Europe and Asia. International ballet websites reveal high-fashion shots of her standing en pointe in front of a harbor or in a ballroom, leg lifted à le seconde toward a chandelier. Even her speech betrays the eclectic world she has come to inhabit. Her first language is English, but her accent is an elegant mixture of French and German (she is fluent in both) and Russian, of which she has a moderate grasp.
"I'm coached in Russian, so if it's related to ballet, that's fine—I can speak it," she says. "If I had to give a diplomacy talk in Russian, that would be a little more complicated."
It all seems like a far cry from where Khan grew up in rural Montana. She was born on a midwife's log cabin porch in Pine Creek and later moved with her family to Pray, a place known for very little but the rustic resort of Chico Hot Springs. In many ways, her world was simple: no TV, but plenty of mountains to explore. It didn't strike her as an unusual upbringing for a future prima ballerina, except when she visited big cities.
"I remember I was visiting a friend in boarding school in New York—I think I was 12," she says. "I was saying how we don't have traffic. My friend said, 'I don't know what you're talking about.' I told her that sometimes the ranchers would be herding the cattle across the road and you would have to wait for a half hour, but there are no other cars around. That's the traffic!"
Still, her family didn't fit the stereotype of rural Montanans. Khan's mother had spent her childhood skiing in Montana, but she worked in New York City's fashion industry as a designer and model. Khan's father was a classical pianist. Once they moved to Montana, her mother taught Montessori classes and her father worked as a computer programmer, but they always exposed Khan and her three siblings to classical culture.
"I had an amazing childhood in the mountains and was still exposed to the fact that you can do anything with your life," she says. "And that's something I carried with me since I was very young."
That worldview came into play when Khan was 10 and some former Bolshoi dancers showed up in town to dance. One of the dancers asked Khan if she wanted to be a professional ballerina some day. She was floored.
"The moment I found out ballet was something I could do as a profession, my mind was made up immediately," Khan says. "There was no question. It's otherworldly. You step on stage and you go to another dimension."
Knowing what she wanted to do didn't yet prepare her for the hard work ahead. Her first ballet role was in Berlin, at age 18, when she danced in the corps for La Bayadère.
- photo courtesy of Malaysia Tatler Magazine
- Maria Sascha Khan grew up in rural Montana and now enjoys the role of first soloist at a top Russian ballet company.
"After the performance, the next morning, I was just so dead," she recalls. "I mean, everything hurt from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. I was like, 'How am I going to survive this?' One of the girls turned to me while we were warming up for class and said, 'How are you doing?' And of course it's a new job, I wanted to look professional, so I was like, 'It was great. I'm fine!' She's like, 'Really? Because I'm dead.' I found out later it is the most difficult ballet you can dance, especially as a corps de ballet dancer."
What's even more extraordinary is that as Khan pursued her dream, her siblings—all younger than her—followed suit. Her sister, Nadia Khan, is now a professional ballerina with Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, in Rome. Brother Julian MacKay is the first American to ever graduate with a full Russian diploma from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow and now dances with The Royal Ballet in London. Her youngest brother, Nicholas MacKay, is completing his professional ballet training at the Vagonova Ballet Academy in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
"We've gone all over the world but we're all from Montana," Khan says. "And to me, Montana is still home."
This week, Missoula audiences will get a chance to see Khan's homecoming during the Vienna International Ballet Experience. The dance competition and conference, hosted by the Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre and Destination Missoula and featuring world-renowned dancers, has never been produced in the United States before, let alone in Missoula. Khan will sit on a panel discussing diplomacy and dance and she will help jury the competitions. She will also dance in the exhibition's gala at the Wilma on Saturday, Jan. 16, which will showcase the competition's winners.
Khan is adamant that if you succeed in life, you must do good with it. She's an ambassador for the wildlife organization Save the Tiger and an active member of Youth Arts in Action, a Bozeman-based group founded by her mother, Teresa. She sees VIBE as part of that calling—a chance to give back to the state that shaped her earliest dance years.
"I think it's important, especially for the students who will be attending from around Montana and public schools students to be exposed to what exists outside of their world," she says. "If I had never known I could pursue it as a profession, no matter how much I loved it I wouldn't be a professional ballerina right now. Montana is an important part of that. The upbringing I had I think prepared me for an international career because as a child I gained a lot of soul. I had a lot of beauty and nature around me. Having that as my foundation has been amazing. It's something I always have with me no matter where I go."
VIBE presents the gala finale at the Wilma Sat., Jan. 16, at 1 PM. $25–$100 advance. The competition and other events begin Tue., Jan. 12, and are free. Visit destinationmissoula.org for more info.