No Limits: Houston Ballet Soloist Mackenzie Richter Brings Cool Confidence to Their Roles
Watching Houston Ballet soloist Mackenzie Richter rehearse Balanchine’s “Diamonds” pas de deux with frequent partner Naazir Muhammad, it’s easy to see why the dancer embodies the company’s future. Richter stretches out time in the quieter moments, dancing with a reserved quality as the couple establishes their boundaries. Slowly riding the ballet’s emotional arc, Richter’s dancing builds to a voluptuous grandeur, fully inhabiting the luscious contours of Balanchine’s masterwork. “There are so many special moments,” Richter, who uses she/they pronouns, says of the ballet. “We discover each other, and by the end we are dancing freely.”
At 23, Richter’s trajectory at Houston Ballet is clear. After joining the company as an apprentice in 2016, they rose to soloist within four years. Now, the young dancer is adding more principal roles to their repertoire—with no signs of slowing down.
Hailing from Warner Robins, Georgia, Richter started ballet at age 7, mostly as a way to spend more time with a childhood best friend. “It was a good fit for me right away because I loved a challenge, and I loved being creative,” says Richter, who credits Georné Aucoin, their main teacher at International City Ballet School, for providing a solid classical foundation. “She used to make us balance for 10 minutes,” Richter recalls. “Sometimes, our barre would be three hours long. She wanted us to be strong and flexible.”
Richter’s parents were very supportive as their daughter became serious about pursuing a career. (Richter’s youngest sister Macy, also a dancer, moved to Texas a year and a half ago to study at Houston Ballet Academy.) As a teenager, Richter made a mark on the competitions circuit: Youth America Grand Prix, World Ballet Competition, Prix de Lausanne, and the USA IBC in Jackson, Mississippi. “Competitions taught me how to handle pressure—you’re onstage for three minutes, which is not a lot of time to prove yourself,” says Richter. But they also helped the young dancer build confidence. “You have to think on your feet, and do things quickly with little notice.”
Richter’s experience at the 2014 USA IBC, where the then-15-year-old won a silver medal, came at a pivotal time in their pre-professional life: “My training needed to move to the next level and I was looking for a school.”
Enter Houston Ballet Academy. Onstage in Jackson, Richter had had a chance to meet the legendary Lauren Anderson, a former Houston Ballet principal. “She told me ‘I see something in you. You are a dancer,’” says Richter, who also recalls enjoying classes from ballet master Claudio Muñoz at YAGP. “I didn’t know a lot about Houston Ballet at the time, but I did my research and found the repertoire really diverse. It seemed right. I had a gut feeling.”
The feeling was mutual; at the competition’s end, the academy offered Richter a position with HBII.
As a second company member, Richter learneda varied repertoire, including works by artistic director Stanton Welch, Balanchine and contemporary choreographers. Richter was also used quite a bit in main company rehearsals, where they learned how to be part of an ensemble. “Dancing competitions is not corps work,” Richter says. “Nothing can prepare you for that but the experience itself.”
In 2016, halfway through Richter’s second year at HBII, Welch offered them an apprenticeship. “I had two days’ notice,” they say. “I was super-excited.” At 17, they were ready. Within a few months, Richter was promoted to the corps, and then again to demi-soloist in 2017.
Richter feels their quick rise was due to their skills, confidence and can-do attitude. “I knew my parts,” the soloist says. “My training and technique were really, really strong. It’s easier to build on top of that.”
An early break came when Richter filled in for an injured dancer as the lead in Welch’s Powder. “I was 19 and a bit overwhelmed, but I rose to the occasion,” they say. “I remember ballet master Barbara Bears telling me to ‘go to the full extreme, now is your time to do it.’” That season Richter was also cast as Sugarplum in Nutcracker and named one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch.”
Richter has so much going on inside; with their stoic demeanor, they are a ballerina with an old soul. Yet they’re also a Gen Z dancer, who sees their job as owning the work in front of them and injecting as much of their own essence as the choreography allows. “You have to bring bits of your personality into your dancing, that extra spice that makes you unique. You are not trying to be someone else onstage. It’s your own personality within a character.”
As for challenges, Richter is trying to let go of perfectionism. “I am learning to trust myself,” they say. Richter practiced that skill big time when they danced their first Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty in March 2020.
“It’s one of the hardest ballets for a ballerina, and with one show, I had one chance to do it,” says Richter, who also debuted as the Lilac Fairy that week. “There’s so much dancing, I had to take it one step at a time. Once I got through the Rose Adagio, I just tried to focus on the next task at hand.”
“Mackenzie’s Aurora was a beautiful debut,” says Welch, who had promoted Richter to soloist the week before. “With her physical ability, arabesque line and long limbs, she has a pure classic line, so she’s suited for all the iconic roles.”
Days later, the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down and Richter was stuck in their living room like everyone else. They turned to film photography, first as a pandemic hobby, then as a creative outlet that now populates their Instagram account. Richter found that the process of developing their own photos nurtured their patience and influenced their dancing.
“With film nothing is immediate. I have to wait to see the image,” Richter says. “There’s less judgment. It pushed me to see myself in a different light, and to be less afraid of improvisation, which has always intimidated me.”
Now, Richter is excited to be back to work. “As a soloist I have more opportunities,” they say. Throughout many of their major role debuts—Aurora, Sugarplum, “Diamonds”—Muhammad, a demi-soloist, has been by their side. “One thing that makes Mackenzie a standout partner is her work ethic and tenacity,” says Muhammad. “She is good at letting me know what she needs from me, and I can always count on her to work hard in our rehearsals. She gives her best every time.”
Richter has one major role on their must-dance list: Odette/Odile. “It is my dream role,” they say. Welch has been preparing Richter for the opportunity; they recently danced Odette’s Act II solo during an informal, behind-the-scenes performance at the Asia Society Texas Center. With no scenery, costume or live orchestra, Richter conjured the swan queen’s world with remarkable finesse and ghostly quietude. “I fully expect Mackenzie will get a shot at the role when Swan Lake comes around again,” says Welch.
When it comes to contemporary work, Richter has a bottomless bucket list. “I have never danced a Jiří Kylián ballet or Aszure Barton’s Angular Momentum. I want to perform more of William Forsythe’s work—I want to do it all.”
As for the future, Richter doesn’t focus on the goal of becoming a principal. “Honestly, I just want to be happy. If that gets me there, then great. I want to work hard for myself. It’s more about the experience, to be able to dedicate oneself to a passion, that is so special.”
Welch has boundless vision for the young soloist. “I see Mackenzie expanding into all kinds of repertoire. She continues to impress me. She will go very far. There are no limits to her. She has everything she needs in the palm of her hand.”