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Breakthrough year for Quesnel’s top performer

Alexis Mackenzie turned many corners through dance
Six provincial delegates were recommended by our adjudicators to represent the Quesnel Festival of the Performing Arts at the provincial level including Quesnel’s very own Alexis Mackenzie (Senior Stage Level III), the festival’s Performer of the Year for 2023. (Photo by Clarke Action Photography)

The Quesnel Festival of the Performing Arts saved the biggest award for last. They had never even done it before, so it was even more of a surprise. Alexis Mackenzie, 17, thought the prizes had all been handed out, so she was puzzled why her dance coaches weren’t letting her leave, but then her name was called for a brand new honour: Performer of the Year.

“I didn’t even know there was going to be an award. They didn’t have it before.” She was told to stay until the end, because there was one final honour, but wasn’t told what it was or who it was for. “Then they called my name, and I was like ‘what do you mean?’ I didn’t know what to do.”

The organizers of the festival had no idea just how profoundly Mackenzie took the award. She had qualified to represent Quesnel at the provincial performing arts festival, so there was still the highest level of competition still to come, for her, and that prize was an epiphany heading into that event. Instead of it being a pressure cooker, which is how she often feels, it became a joy.

She is hard on herself, to the point of illness, she said. Most performers get nervous before they go on stage, but Mackenzie said she can feel buried by her own expectations. One of the recent techniques she uses to overcome the anxious pressure in her head is to think of her cat. No kidding. Because, she explained, her cat loves her no matter what state she’s in, what she just did, or did not do. She tries, in those moments of heavy self-imposed expectation, to just look at herself through the eyes of her cat, and realize she is fine the way she is, worthy of positive affirmation no matter what happens on stage. She wants other aspiring dancers, or athletes of any kind, to take that on board their own process. You’re doing what you’re doing not to win something or impress someone, but for the joy of an activity you love.

The award got it through to her that her work was indeed worthy of appreciation, most importantly in her own mind. It didn’t make her feel cocky, it actually made her feel it was OK to accept inevitable imperfection, to just relax and enjoy the doing of this amazing physical artistry.

“I often wish I could tell myself that it’s all just OK, and winning that award was helpful for that,” she said. “My mental health comes first.”

Mackenzie is painfully aware that she is a leader in her community’s dance world. She excelled as a child at this creative sport, and had a whole world of peers and mentors growing up.

COVID took almost all of them away, just based on her age at the time and how the pandemic amplified the usual drop-off in any group activity for that age group. She found herself alone in her bracket.

“I would go to the studio and run my choreography, that’s all I’d do, because I don’t take dance classes. They don’t offer them for my caliber at my dance studio. So that was kind of hard,” she said.

But her coaches - Brianna Gosselin, Brianna Godsoe, Taya Yamamoto, her friend Emily - rallied around her and created a group number together, a rare event among teachers, and built it to include Mackenzie, just so she still got that peer-level experience of ensemble work. She appreciated that very much.

She does her work at For The Love of Dance, and has also in the past been with Gold Pan City Dance. In addition to that she has travelled to a couple of studios in the Okanagan, and worked in Prince George with both Judy Russell’s Enchainement Dance Studio and Dance Your Hart Out, plus made strong friendships at the provincials with Excalibur Theatre Arts in Prince George that she hopes to pursue.

Now, as she nears the natural end of her amateur dance life, she is starting to look ahead and honestly consider dance as a possible profession.

“A super cool thing, to me, is being able to move the way we can,” she said. “Not everyone can, not everyone has the mind-muscle connection to do that. People don’t always understand how deeply I think about it, but I do. It means so much to be able to tell a story with your movement. It’s like reading someone’s feelings walking down the street, expressing how you feel based on your movements. It’s a very mental sport.”

Life on the whole is very much a mental activity, and this year was a positive transition point for Mackenzie, looking ahead to the joy still awaiting her on the stage.