BWW Interviews: David MacGillivray - From Ballet to Broadway to Acupuncture Physician

David MacGillivray, DOM AP, (, spent more than 20 years as a ballet dancer and Broadway performer. He appeared with the National Ballet of Canada and in the original production of Susan Stroman's Contact, performing with the musical throughout its entire three year run.

Photograph (c) Tyler Matkowski

After retiring from dancing, he pursued an alternate career that built on his previous skills as a dancer. He is now a board certified, licensed acupuncture physician with a Master's degree in Oriental medicine. His practice combines acupuncture, massage, Japanese-style Hara diagnosis, trigger point therapy, stretching and herbal or homeopathic prescriptions.

Now based in Orlando, Florida, he treats patients for a variety of health problems, as well as serving as a licensed massage therapist on staff at Cirque du Soleil's La Nouba since 2007

Broadwayworld recently interviewed Dr. MacGillivray to discuss his career.

Q. When did you first start dancing?

A. In Edmonton, a small mid-western Canadian town. I was 12 years old and beginning 7th grade. I needed some electives to complement my regular classes, so I chose drama and music. Drama was life affirming. I looked around and wondered where this class had been all my life! My drama teacher was very encouraging, so the next summer I enrolled in a summer drama camp in Drumheller, Alberta, where I was introduced to a "movement class" for actors. And this movement class led me to seek more dance classes from local schools, so I took jazz and ballet as often and as much as possible.

Photograph (c) Allan McBraer

Q. So you realized that you were headed for a career in the performing arts. How did you go about achieving this?

A. I was lucky enough to realize early on that if I wanted to dance, or do something in the theater, I'd have to leave Edmonton. So in the early stages of my career I moved to Toronto to pursue dance/theater, not knowing at that time where exactly I was going. I was just moving away to, in my mind, bigger and better things..

Q. So where did you wind up?

A.I was very fortunate to be accepted into the National Ballet School of Canada on scholarship. This is where the foundation of my technique was solidified and my understanding of hard work and commitment to dance would be forged. It's an amazing institution, where ballet class six days a week is the norm. There was also a range of other classes; from men's ballet to partnering to Spanish dance class, all of which rounded out my technique. During the years in the National Ballet School I made many visits to NYC, where I took class with David Howard, Finis Jung, various teachers at STEPS, and classes at SAB and the Joffrey Ballet School.

Q. So, with a few exceptions, everything was centered on ballet?

A. There were some exceptions: Spanish dance, as I mentioned, but also classes in NYC with Zena Rommett for Floor Barre, and Eric Bealer a teacher at the Finis Studio, who taught something called 'American Yoga.' These two classes built strength and alignment that I just couldn't find in a ballet class.

Q. You talk about teachers. Who would you say influenced you the most?

A. Reid Anderson, definitely. I originally met him in 1985 when he came to create a ballet for BalletBC, a small ballet company in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He created a small gem of a ballet for 8 dancers. He built a great pas de deux for my partner, Charie Evans, and me. I think this was the first time I'd ever worked on a piece of original choreography. It was amazing to work with a man who, himself, was a great partner and teacher. He had just retired from dancing as a principal at the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany, one of the premier companies in the world, an incubator of major ballet talent and choreographers.

Q. What do you think made Reid Anderson so special?

A. His insight into movement, technique, theatricality, and professionalism was immense. I couldn't get enough! He encouraged risk and would not accept banal or trivial work from any of the dancers. I acquired world class partnering skills by listening to the technical knowledge he gained over his career as a principal dancer.

Q. You left the National Ballet after graduation. Why?

A. When I was in the National Ballet School, Alexander Grant was the director of the Company, and had been for as long as I could remember. But when I was ready to audition for the company, Erik Bruhn was just taking over as Artistic Director and making some big changes to the company. The outcome of my audition for the company was that no position was offered to me. In hindsight, it was really the best thing to happen to me. I was not as good a dancer as I needed to be, and if I had been accepted into the corps, I probably would have stayed there for the duration of my career.

Q. So what were your plans after the National Ballet audition?

A. I went on an extended trip to Europe to see other companies and audition for jobs. I received some offers abroad, but, in the end, I settled on a great dancing opportunity with Alberta Ballet in my hometown of Edmonton.

Q. What was it like dancing in a small company?

A. I got to dance A LOT! And I learned a great deal, not just from dancing in one place, but touring as well.

Q. You later returned to the National Ballet. What was your rank and your favorite roles?

A. When I did make it back to the National Ballet, I was hired as a Second Soloist. One of my big highlights was dancing with Karen Kain, a Canadian icon. I partnered her in a Jiri Kylian ballet, Dream Dances. I also performed the title role in John Cranko's Onegin that very same year. And I also did a great tour, performing the role of Espada in the National Ballet's production of Don Quixote.

In John Cranko's Onegin - Photograph: (c) David Street

Q. What do you remember most about performing with the Company?

A. Funny, not the performances, but the rehearsals. I'll always remember how well Karen - a true star -treated me during rehearsals, how adaptable she was and always willing to experiment with perhaps a different hand grip or a way of attacking a lift. She always allowed experimentation in the studio. And today she is the director of the Company. The creation and rehearsal process is a great experience when one is working with talented driven people.

Q. Do you have any favorite choreographers?

A. Because of my work with Reid Anderson and his insights that he shared about Cranko's work, I've seen, danced, and love many Cranko ballets. I also love Jiri Kylian, Billy Forsythe, and John Alleyne. Many of these works shaped my view of dance and what the art form can do.

Q. What made you decide to leave ballet and move to New York?

A. I never made a conscious decision to leave ballet. I was recovering from a knee injury and having a conversation with my wife. Somehow, we decided to move to NYC. It's somewhere I'd always wanted to live and work. We took the plunge. I timed my arrival in the city in the early fall, knowing that I could pick up Nutcracker guesting work until Christmas and then, if I was lucky, land a position with ABT or some other substantial ballet company in the city.

Q. And then your Broadway career began. How did that happen?

That fall I auditioned for Lincoln Center's touring production of Carousel, the Nick Hytner production that originated at London's National Theatre. I went to four auditions for and was hired as an understudy for the 'Fairground Boy' as well as a spot in the ensemble. Later, on tour, I became Dance Captain. Doing 'Fairground Boy' was just like performing any other ballet, so even though I was doing a "'Broadway Musical," I was pretty much performing the milieu that was home to me, and the fact that it was choreography by England's famed choreographer, Kenneth MacMillan, didn't hurt. To sum it up, I loved the extended touring and the Broadway family on the road.

Q. After the Carousel tour ended, what did you do?

A. I went on to dance in Livent's production of Phantom of the Opera in Canada, performing the 'Slave Master,' another Broadway role that requires a ballet technique.

Q. And then your Susan Stroman phase began.

With Karen Ziemba in Susan Stroman's Contact - Photograph (c) Paul Kolnick

A. I was again lucky enough to get into the second workshop of Susan Stroman and John Weidman's work in-progress with Lincoln Center, which later became known as Contact, a musical that won a number of awards, most notably the 2000 Tony for Best Musical. Once again, it was primarily my ballet and partnering skills that landed me the job. Incidentally, my partner was the wonderful Karen Ziemba. I was a principal in that show until it closed.

Q. What's the difference between performing a ballet and a musical?

A. A Broadway show requires you to maintain brilliance nightly - eight shows a week, week in week out! You get the chance to build a character over the long term. You learn how to find new nuances in your performance. To learn how to be fresh and exciting every night is an art form. You also know that you're part of a larger community. To be performing in NYC on Broadway is to be part of history, to be a member of an elite club of performers. The Broadway family is quite extraordinary - from the producers, stage crew, wardrobe, ushers etc. When you are in, you can consider yourself very lucky.

When you rehearse for a ballet role, it's like preparing for your chance at winning the Olympic gold. Your window of opportunity is small, and the rewards are often more ethereal and short-lived. The bar on technical skill and artistic merit is set so high that, most times, it's impossible to reach you goal. Every role and ballet has a different challenge: artistically, technically and stamina wise.

Q. What made you decide to leave dancing? Was it a tough decision?

A. I never consciously left dancing, or quit per se. When Contact ended I was 40. I was looking forward to some time off to evaluate my energy and options for the next chapter of my life.

I actually thought that when I left dance I would be a photographer. I always had a camera. In fact, I have a collection of amazing black and white photos, using only available light, that I took backstage of Contact. It shows the gritty and tired side, the amazingly beautiful men and women, and the hard work that the performers took to make it look effortless! Photography was not going to be a place where I made a living, ultimately. I did some good commercial work after retiring, but I never connected with the work at the heart level.

Then my wife was offered a job in Orlando, Florida. It was a great opportunity for her, and I realized that for many years she had followed me around the country, and it was now my turn to follow her. We decided that maybe we didn't need to be in NYC if I wasn't pursuing a stage career. So we packed up and moved to Orlando.

It wasn't so tough to leave dancing as it was to leave NYC and the possibilities of the city. In truth, had we stayed in NY I would have headed back to class and tried to get another show or another tour, postponing retirement for another 10 years or more.

Q. What do you miss the most about not being in New York?

A. I miss the tribe - the shared experiences that only fellow performers understand - and the highs; but I don't miss the lows, like the pain in my body or the fear of a show closing and the decision of what to do next.

Q. These were all tough decisions. Was there anywhere to turn for help or advice?

A. I have to thank the 'Career Transition for Dancers' in NY. They helped me with scholarship funding for my massage training that transitioned me from dancer to Dr. of Oriental Medicine. I've also utilized their counseling services, and, when I'm in the city, if they are having a meeting or event, I do my best to attend. They offer great information, and they allow me to connect with others who are still dancing or in the midst of a difficult change.

Q. You are now an Acupuncture physician. Why did you decide to go into that profession?

A. Yes, I am a Doctor of Oriental Medicine with a four-year master's degree. How does one go from being a dancer to prescribing herbal formulas and using acupuncture to treat problems ranging from infertility to shin splints? Like most dancers, I've had my share of injuries. I've had knee surgery, cortisone injections, concussions, torn muscles, tendonitis, back problems, the list goes on. I've taken medication, had therapy, received massage and acupuncture, etc. And the therapy I always came back to over the years was acupuncture. While I was performing in Contact, I had a weekly acupuncture appointment every Sunday after our last show of the week. My acupuncturist in NY is really the one that inspired me to try my hand at healing. He encouraged me to attend massage school. As soon as massage school started I knew that I wanted to learn more about acupuncture and Chinese medicine. When I finished massage school, I entered a master's program for Chinese medicine.

What is also amazing about acupuncture and Chinese medicine is that every day is a new experience. Everyone comes in with a different problem, and I must choose the correct way to treat the person. I don't treat a disease, I treat a person. I listen and must find a way to make a positive change in someone's life. It's a pretty cool job.

Q. In your new profession, do you treat many dancers?

A. I'm part of Orlando Ballet's volunteer medical team, and I treat their ballet dancers throughout the year. They love that I speak ballet and that they don't have to explain everything to me about their pains. I also help them stay in good health by prescribing herbal formulas that help them recover from injuries faster and regain their energy potential after a hard week of shows - an area of my practice I'd like to expand.

I've also been on staff since 2007 at Cirque du Soliel's La Nouba in Downtown Disney. I'm part of their performance medical team. I treat a range of performers, from the dancers to the gymnasts, acrobats, flyers and more. They work very hard and perform 10 shows a week. It's an environment that reminds me of working on Broadway--it's a little piece of home in Orlando--and it's a great honor to work with the artists here.

Q. If you had to do it all over again, would you do the same?

A. I've been very fortunate with my career and my successes. If I could learn from my past, I would enjoy 'the dance' more. Dancers are the first to compare or denigrate their performance or abilities; they are their own worst critics. In Chinese medicine, I've learned that balance is best. I wish I had worked harder in the past, pushed myself more, but I wish I would have laughed louder and enjoyed more as well. To move is to live; never stop moving your body or your dreams. The journey really is the destination, and I'm blessed to have a loving wife and a wonderful daughter who keep me laughing.

I love that my job now is often listening to people and trying to hear what their souls are saying, not just what their bodies are suffering from. Health is not just the absence of pain, but the vitality and joy to move forward - to dance towards life.

Related Articles View More Dance Stories

From This Author Barnett Serchuk

Before you go...

Never Miss a Story
Like Us On Facebook
Follow Us On Twitter
Follow Us On Instagram instagram