A local homegrown talent has turned his passion for dance into a massive success story on the international stage.
Johnny McMillan, a 30-year-old contemporary dancer and choreographer from the Sault, has spent his entire adult life travelling and performing across North America and Europe with some of the world’s most highly regarded dance companies.
Long before achieving professional status in the international circuit, McMillan’s journey began like many others do:
“I was that kid that danced around in the living room all the time,” he says.
In 2003, McMillan joined the Sault’s newly established Studio Dance Arts company when he was 12 years old under the headship of Richard Kim.
Participating in everything from jazz and hip-hop to acrobatics and tap, McMillan’s early understanding of what dance could mean for him as a career was thanks to Kim’s guidance.
“He was my first example of a professional dancer,” McMillan says. “The moment I met him; I knew it could be a job. He’s one of the people who made dance inspiring and wonderful for me.”
Kim first saw McMillan perform when he was 11 years old, and he knew there was something special about the young dancer early on.
“He sparked on stage,” Kim says. “He’s just naturally gifted in understanding music. He has amazing musicality. His work ethic was through the roof – right from a young age. You could tell he lived and breathed dance. He was like a sponge, he just wanted to learn everything. That stuff you can’t teach.”
After trying a bit of everything, McMillan soon discovered ballet and contemporary was his true passion.
“It felt right,” he says. “It’s a bit of an escapism. It made sense of what my life was. Dance made me feel like myself.”
In grade 10, McMillan attended Interlochen Arts Academy, a prestigious fine arts school for high school students just outside of Traverse City, Michigan.
He explains the school was a completely different experience from being in a competitive studio where he had the opportunity to learn about an entirely separate world of dance.
“It was such an amazing experience to be put into an environment with like-minded students and be able to do what you wanted,” he says. “It’s a really special place.”
“That school opens up so many more opportunities and avenues working with professional teachers and choreographers that are in the industry,” Kim adds. “It really helps for post-secondary.”
After graduating with the young artist and fine artist awards at Interlochen, McMillan moved to Chicago and was offered a one-year apprenticeship with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, a contemporary dance company that tours around the U.S. and Europe.
Recognized as one of Dance Magazine’s ‘Top 25 to watch,’ McMillan eventually joined Chicago’s main company and was there for another three and a half years.
“Getting to work with all the choreographers that I ever wanted to work for was a very exciting and super adrenaline-pumping time,” he says. “It was always very exciting to perform.”
Near the end of his time in Chicago, McMillan began auditioning for several dance companies in Europe, and eventually got hired in Stockholm with the Royal Swedish Ballet where he was part of their classical and contemporary division.
The program’s director took over another company in Berlin, and McMillan followed them to Germany’s capital four years ago.
He’s worked with Staatballett Berlin ever since.
“I knew I wanted to dance in Europe because that’s where a lot of the choreographers are and where the new works get made before they start selling them around,” he says. “The productions are also much larger in Berlin.”
Because the pandemic halted many of the company’s shows over the last several years, McMillan says he has had more opportunities to choreograph. He hopes to begin freelancing soon to work with other choreographers in Europe.
“When you freelance, you get the opportunity to work with a choreographer more in-depth on their own projects instead of projects they’re just commissioned for,” he says. “I take every chance to choreograph when I can.”
McMillan does a ton of research ahead of time before collaborating with the dancers to figure out which movements relate to his piece, what kind of lighting works, and if there’s any set design or production required.
While it’s a tumultuous task, it has a giant pay off.
“There’s always that surreal moment where it kind of comes from nowhere and you’re putting stuff together,” he says. “To put your own work out there and have a positive response – it sort of feels like people see you in a way.”
From performing and teaching to choreographing and touring, Richard Kim is beyond impressed with his former student’s achievements, and he’s not surprised with the level of success McMillan has attained throughout his career.
“What he’s doing for dance is the equivalent of locals going off into the NHL – the pinnacle of what they can achieve,” Kim says. “We knew he would be able to achieve that level in the professional world if he wanted it. It was absolutely no surprise.”
Thanks to the guidance and professionalism from his teachers early on, McMillan says being from a small town like the Sault never deterred him from following his passion, and he encourages others from the area to chase their dreams too – no matter how big or how far away they might be.
“I get that moment a lot of, ‘how did I end up here?’” he says. “But it doesn’t matter where you’re from – who you are is not where you live. If you really want to do something and you want to go for it, the steps become a lot easier than one would think.”