"I always stood in the wings and I thanked the people
that helped me get where I was."

 

An Interview with Leslie Browne,
Retired Principal Dancer, American Ballet Theatre
June 17, 2002

By Kate Snedeker

 

 

I recently sat down with Leslie Browne while she was in West Chester, Pennsylvania, teaching a couple of master classes for the Brandywine Ballet.

Born in New York City to former American Ballet Theatre (ABT) dancers, Kelly Brown and Isabel Mirrow, Browne and two of her siblings (Ethan Brown, a soloist with ABT and Elizabeth Laing, a former ABT dancer) began their ballet training at their father's studio in Phoenix, Arizona, and continued on scholarship at the School of American Ballet (SAB). She then joined the corps of the New York City Ballet (NYCB); at the age of 17, she was cast alongside Mikhail Baryshnikov as the young ballerina in The Turning Point, a film loosely based on the story of her own family.

It was during her tenure at NYCB that she changed the spelling of her last name. After hearing that an audience member, while looking at an NYCB program, mistakenly thought that “Leslie Brown” was a man, a very embarrassed Browne added an “e” to her last name to make it look more feminine.

Ms. Browne joined ABT as a soloist in 1976, where she was promoted to principal in 1986, and danced until her retirement in 1993.


Kate Snedeker: What have you been doing since your retirement from ABT?
Leslie Browne:
Well, I left the company in '93, so then I took a year off, and then I did guestings. I just did, like, five years of guest appearances. Actually, with the guestings, I did three years of acting training. So I did a two-year course and a one-year course, and then I did a Broadway show. I did The Red Shoes. And then did a play, and then I did lots of auditions. I took singing lessons and all that. I just felt like I was really starting over, it was going to be a lot of work to get that career going. So I gravitated back to dancing.

Then Marsha [Zuzt-Brown, executive director of the now-defunct Russian Ballet Theatre] in Delaware asked me to choreograph a ballet for them. It went very well. I felt at ease with choreographing, and so I continued with that. And then I started teaching, doing open classes in New York, open professional classes. And I hated it, just hated it! You never knew who was going to be in your class, and sometimes you would have twenty people, and sometimes you would have ten; sometimes you would get dirty looks from people. It's like, “Don't correct me!” And then I started teaching at the young people's [dance] program at STEPS. It's a separate program, and it's a training program for kids. So, I have my own class there, and develop them and move them forward, and I like that.

Is it weekly? Do you see the same kids several times a week?
Three to four times a week, I see the same kids. And they don't have any other teacher. Each level has just one teacher.

So you're just teaching one level?
Yes.

How old are these kids?
Eleven, twelve, and thirteen.

Are they deciding whether they are going to be professional? Is that the age when they have to make that commitment?
Yes, usually my class weeds out the ones who are not training for a professional career. Everyone I have, even if they are not talented, they all are serious. They want to learn the technique. And that's what I look for in a student. I don't necessarily look for someone who is going to be the next prima ballerina, or get into ABT. But, if they really want to learn the real thing and are focused, they can take my class; it's not a large class at this point. I think I have ten to twelve girls. But it's grown, every year it grows. So next year, I'll probably have a few more. In a couple more years, it'll be a nice-sized class.

I've noticed that you've been doing choreography for the ABT summer program. Is that the only choreography you've done so far? Or have you choreographed for other companies?
Well, I did three pieces for Marsha in Wilmington, Delaware. I did two for her company, as well as a pas de deux for a couple going to the Jackson competition. And then I did a piece for myself and a partner for a benefit – a pas de deux. And then I did [a piece for the ABT summer program performance]; this is my fourth ABT summer program. So that's been good, that I get to do that every year. Then I did a piece for STEPS where I teach. We do a performance, not every year, but we did one last year, so I did a piece for them. Yes, little bits here and there, but nothing with a company. Oh! I went to Russia, and I choreographed something for the Kirov.

I got it just barely finished and then I had to leave. This was when Sept. 11th happened and everything. It was just a mess and I never went back there, but I did set my piece. They had one evening of new choreographers, new young choreographers, but you know, if they have another one I'll go back. I [also] did a piece for the ABT Studio Company, the second company. I did a pas de trois for them, and I'm hoping to do another piece for them. They do a lot of new choreography and contemporary things.

But, you know, I'm not fast in the way that it takes me a while to get a piece to music, get the concept, get everything together so that I'm ready to do a piece. I have to do a lot of preparation work before I go into the studio. And I'm hoping also to do the choreographic workshop [at the New York Choreographic Institute at NYCB] where you get to do a ten-minute piece, and then if it's good, they let you move on to something else or something like that.

I know that both your parents danced with ABT, but how did you end up in Phoenix? Were you born in Phoenix?
No, born in New York. Then, when I was seven, my dad was doing musical theatre and television and commercials – he'd left ABT – he decided to take over a studio in Arizona. He was offered a studio, and he went and he did it and he took the whole family with him. And so I ended up staying there until she – my mother, who was not happy being there 'cause she loved New York – sent me back to New York on scholarship at SAB and then she didn't let me come back! She was like, “you're not coming back here [laughter]!”

Did your parents eventually move back, or are they still in Arizona?
No… my sister came on scholarship the next year, and then my brother and then my mom came right after she got all the kids out and then she left my dad.

Is he still in Phoenix?
He passed away… he smoked and drank so he had a lot of different things going on. [Kelly Brown died of a heart attack in 1981 while teaching a ballet class. He was 52.] Now, my older brother is the only one that's rebelled, and he did not want to dance. He became a producer and he's doing very well in his own right.

Is your mom still alive?
Yes, she's very much [alive] – too alive [laughter]!

Does she teach, or has she retired?
No, she never taught. No, she taught like one day a week at my dad's school, but she never liked it. So she did different things. She worked in a travel agency for a while, and she worked for Finis Jhung's company, helping to raise money and she did little things here and there. But, now she's completely retired… She just runs around – to the ballet [laughter].


"Whatever teacher was in the room, they were it for me for that hour and a half."


Besides ballet, did you ever consider doing anything else as a career?
Oh yeah! I probably wouldn't have done ballet if it wasn't in our family. I wouldn't have done it. I probably would have been an actress. I think I wanted to be an actress. I had a lot of interests! I played instruments – I played the piano, I played the flute, I played the violin. I was in all the Little League games – very much into sports. I was on the track team, and I would have a lot of ribbons from my hop-step-jump. I was like, eighty pounds and used to fly through the air. I used to love reading and all of the science fairs – I really created these projects. You know, “The Atom!” I think that at one point my mother said, look, you know, you have to focus yourself and just do one thing! We decided – I decided – I guess, that it was going to be ballet, but only pretty much because that's what our family did.

Did you ever see your parents dance with ABT?
No, no, by the time we were born, they were out and my dad was doing Broadway and television already. First of all, my mom was really not that talented. She was basically a corps girl and my dad was the one who was going all the way. She had a very pretty face and a pretty smile. My dad was really the one, but he wasn't really ambitious and he didn't want to pursue it all the way to the top. He left and I kind of understand now – because of politics and everything. It takes the joy out of your work when you have to deal with so much.

Were there any dancers that you particularly admired when you were starting to dance?
I did! I admired Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, Antoinette Sibley, Merle Park, [Natalia] Makarova, Gelsey Kirkland... Lynn Seymour.

Are there any current dancers, with American Ballet Theatre or otherwise, whom you admire or enjoy watching?
I do, I do! Gillian Murphy is an amazing technician. She's very exciting to watch in stuff. Michele Wiles is coming up – she has a very easy technique. She's got a lot to learn still, and she's got to mature, but she's got this kind of natural, easy technique that's just really a pleasure to look at! And then there're some girls in the corps which people don't know about. There's Misty Copeland; she's a hot one. She's just recovering from a back injury so she's been out for a while. That's about it

Did any teachers at SAB or back in Arizona influence you?
Well, I don't remember, really, because I am, like, the consummate student. I listen to everybody. Whatever teacher was in the room, they were it for me for that hour and a half. So, I think everybody had an influence on me… and I had so many different teachers. I mean, first off, my dad played an important role because he always told me keep it – keep everything simple and don't show the effort, and he was a purist: don't see the strain, don't force anything. And then I went to SAB, and of course they force everything and twist you into a pretzel [laughter]. So he wasn't really happy about me going there, actually. But it wasn't my decision – my mom wanted me to go. At SAB, I had so many teachers: Suki Schorer, Stanley Williams, Tumkovsky, Dudin, Dubrovska, Danilova – they all had an influence in their way. I studied with David Howard at one point, and he had also a different kind of influence. And at the ABT theatre school, it was Patricia Wilde and Leon Danilian.

Where did your father train?
He was trained in Chicago, at Bentley Stone and Walter Cameron's studio, which I used to go to in the summers.

Shortly after finishing at SAB and joining the New York City Ballet, you were offered the role in The Turning Point, which co-starred Mikhail Baryshnikov. What was it like working with Baryshnikov?
It was really exciting. And, at that time in my life, it was like, I had to either just swallow it and do my job, or I would just flip out [laughter]! I was seventeen, so I swallowed it, and I did my job, and I didn't really show that I was as excited as I was. I thought if I let it go, it's going to be like, I'll be out of control!

Was the movie filmed entirely in New York? Obviously the outside scenes were…
It was filmed partly in New York and partly in LA, where they built the studios on the sound stage. So some of the studios we used here in New York, and then they rebuilt the exact same studio. You walked into the soundstage, and it was like, “Wait a minute! Am I in New York or what! There's even dust over here where there was in New York!” They are really amazing in the way they reproduce everything!

What were your favorite experiences in TV, movies, or on Broadway?
Well, you know, the thing is that after The Turning Point came out, we did massive tours promoting the film, so I really didn't have any time to digest anything. And then they were throwing me into TV shows. Like I did Happy Days, which could have been a great experience, but unfortunately, when I was doing that show, we were in Long Beach and I was doing my first The Leaves are Fading; I was also doing another show for someone who was choreographing this Broadway style number on me. So, I was so overloaded that I really couldn't enjoy anything. I was like “AAAH!” You know, I was getting up at five in the morning to get to the rehearsal for the dance thing, then I'd have to go to the Happy Days set after that, and then I'd have to go back to Long Island and rehearse for Leaves. So I was like, “This stinks! This stinks!”

What was your favorite ballet to dance in?
Probably Romeo and Juliet was one of my favorites. Don Quixote, which was frightening, but I still enjoyed it.

Frightening?
Frightening to me because it had just so much dancing in it. And it had the fouettés in the third act. They haunted me from the beginning of the ballet! I just thought, “Oh God, I have to do those thirty-two fouettés!”

Doesn't Swan Lake have thirty-two fouettés too?
But it's in the third act! See, in Swan Lake you only have second and third acts – you don't do anything in the first act, so you know you go on in the second act and you know the third act. But in Don Q you have the first act, then you have the miserable solo in the second act [hums the music] where it's all balancing and then the fouettés in the third act. The thing is, the ballets were all frightening to me, but exciting at the same time. I was one of those people who got very nervous going on stage. The whole day, I was like, “Oh my God!”

Do you have any ballets you like to watch, as opposed to dancing in them?
Well, the new things in the rep. When I was in the Company, we didn't have Onegin and Manon and Taming of the Shrew. I loved those ballets! I would have died to do those, but unfortunately they came after me. Those are my ballets, all those acting ballets. I think I prefer to watch Swan Lake probably more than do it because of, again, the third act – that bravura pas de deux. You know, I love the second act, but then you get to the third act and you have to bash out that thing.

Did you have any favorite partners in particular?
I enjoyed all my partners. Ricardo Bustamente – I loved dancing with him although he wasn't the strongest partner that I'd worked with, but I liked the rapport we had. There was Patrick Bissell – he was amazing! I mean, he was so tall and his hands were so large, so he would partner you like you felt like you were this big [holds hands as if surrounding a tiny waist]. You could just throw yourself at him and you knew he would be there. That was a great partnership; we did Don Q together in the first year I did Don Q. And, oh, Andris Liepa – I danced with him when he was a guest artist with our company. And also, when we went to Paris and performed at the Paris Opera House I had their principal dancer, Laurent Hilaire, do Romeo and Juliet with me, and that was amazing.

Do you have any favorite roles, as opposed to whole ballets?
Well, I did the Tudor ballets. In Jardin aux Lilas I loved doing Caroline. And Dark Elegies, I did the pas de deux; that was beautiful. And Pillar of Fire – I did Hagar and that was amazing. After you finish that ballet, you feel so satisfied because you've just done so much within that half an hour. You went through so many things and it's really a wonderful role.

Did you have any pre-performance rituals or superstitions?
God, it's been so long I don't remember! Not really. I always stood in the wings and I thanked the people that helped me get where I was. So that's one thing that I did: thank you and God bless so and so and so and so. And then I just prayed to God that I wouldn't fall on my face!

 

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Edited by Basheva and Malcolm Tay


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