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
Kate Snedeker: What have you been doing since your retirement from
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
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?
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?
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
"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
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
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 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
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
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
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Edited by Basheva
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