An Interview with Karen Brown, Artistic Director of Oakland Ballet

by Toba Singer

Oakland, June 2003 -- Karen Brown attracted my attention when she began her stewardship of Oakland Ballet three years ago. A female ballet company Artistic Director, who is African-American, she seemed genuinely eager for, and expert at, outreach into the Black community of Oakland. She struck me as a born leader and I have been curious about where those leadership qualities would take her and Oakland Ballet.

Karen Brown on her childhood and her decision to become a professional dancer

“Well, I didn't plan to be a professional dancer,” Ms. Brown said with a coy smile that suggested there was much more to the story. “My Dad was an MD All the people I knew were professional people, leaders, and educators. I was a straight-A student at school. I studied. As such, I enjoyed the science of ballet. It added balance to my life. Ron Colton was my teacher. He was Balanchine-trained. He took a position as Artistic Director of a company where I grew up in Augusta, Georgia. Eventually, I won a scholarship to The American Ballet Center affiliated with the Robert Joffrey Ballet Company in New York. My favorite teacher at Joffrey was Meredith Bayliss. I assumed that the natural progression would be that I’d join the company, but a teacher and friend, who knew Arthur Mitchell told me, ‘Oh, no. They already have their one black dancer. I’ll put you in touch with Arthur Mitchell [of Dance Theatre of Harlem].’

“I thought, ‘OK, That’s fine.’ I learned that Mr. Mitchell was going to send a representative from DTH to SERBA [Southeastern Regional Ballet Association Festival], and that Mr. Joffrey was going to be there. So I went there, and I was looking for a Black man. There was this one white guy who was always with Arthur Mitchell. He turned out to be Karel Shook, DTH’s co-director. He arranged a full scholarship for me.

“I was happy to be returning to New York. After four weeks at DTH, Mr. Mitchell asked me to join the company as an apprentice. He said that I’d get a salary, my shoes, and then he said, ‘Oh, and we’re going to Mexico City.’ I had to tell my dad, who was expecting me to go to college in September. Joining the company seemed like a good idea to me; I could just go to college next year. My teacher said: ‘She can always go to school; she can’t always dance.’

“The next year came, and then the next, and I wasn’t worried because I had had good grades. I think my parents realized that I was getting the kind of education they could never pay for, no matter how affluent we were. I was really enjoying it; I got my education on tour. I always studied while on the road, not being one to just see the inside of the hotel and theater. I always kept a journal, and set up personal tours when we were on a performance tour. Somewhere along the line, I realized that dance would be my profession. So, I had no plan. It just evolved naturally out of my experience.

“I was a well-rounded student in high school, but I did set aside many of the social things that go along with being a teenager,” Brown added with pride. “I was a cheerleader (they needed someone who could do splits), served on Student Council and learned how to multi-task from Day One.”

Ms. Brown took time to paint a picture of her family life and the solid foundation it provided. “It was very important to our parents that we led well-rounded lives, so we could make informed choices: We were exposed to ballet, theater and opera. We traveled, and my parents had friends all over the world. Sometimes my parents’ friends would visit our home, and our parents gave us homework in preparation for their visit. My parents were affluent enough to afford to maximize our exposure to a broad spectrum of culture. Some of my parents’ friends were people they had met before we came along, as each of my parents had diverse interests. They were good networkers, and they taught those skills to us. For example, if they expected visitors from Finland, we kids had to do research on Finland in preparation for the visit. Even though I wasn’t allowed to attend slumber parties or social gatherings because my parents didn’t feel that they would be useful or productive, looking back on that time, I never felt deprived as a child.

“I attended Catholic high school in Augusta. I was not part of the social scene at my school; that was in part because of activities I couldn’t participate in which took place while I was in dance class, and in part because of how my parents allowed us or didn’t allow us to socialize. I felt that the world I was exposed to by my parents was more interesting than socializing with my peers.”

Karen Brown on acting

“I would have loved to have danced Michael Smuin’s ‘Medea.’ That role would have been perfect for me. I had studied the monologue from the play as part of our acting class at DTH.”

I asked her who taught acting when she was at DTH. “Hal DeWint, was the Hollywood acting coach whom I worked with during an unanticipated layoff. We had all kinds of instruction at DTH. Cathy Grant was teaching Pilates back then, but because she wasn’t certified, and out of respect for Joseph Pilates, she instead called it ‘Special Exercises.’ We took modern, tap, ballet, jazz, ethnic dance, singing, and acting classes.”

I asked whether acting class substituted for character class. “Mr. Mitchell’s philosophy was that no matter what you’re dancing on stage, abstract or not, there’s always a character -- not that the audience necessarily needs to know, but you, the dancer, need to know who that character is. Maybe the piece is intended to be abstract, but you cannot dance it abstractly.

“He said, ‘I don’t care whether you like women or men, if there’s a man and a woman onstage, there’s always a character and always something going on.’ That’s something I am trying to pass on to the dancers here.”

Karen Brown on becoming Artistic Director of Oakland Ballet

When I first met Ms. Brown, she mentioned that she and Maina Gielgud assumed new artistic director positions at around the same time. Ms. Gielgud was warming up to step into a parallel position to Ms. Brown’s at Boston Ballet. A speculation is that the then-board and management at Boston Ballet over-projected what they would be able to accomplish with the budget, compromising Ms. Gielgud’s position to the extent that she felt she had no alternative but to resign before she began. I reminded Ms. Brown that she had mentioned to me then that she felt great empathy towards Ms. Gielgud and the challenges she faced as a female artistic director.

“I had such a pang in my heart when Maina Gielgud left Boston Ballet. I think that my experience with the Board of Directors here has been very different. It has been growing and evolving as I have been growing and evolving. Nobody could ask for a better Board President than Lee Halterman. He is totally committed and totally accessible. He was with Ron Dellums [former US Congressman] and then campaign manager for Barbara Lee [an Oakland Democratic Party Congressional Representative]. Now he’s saying, ‘I can’t believe I’m a board president!’ Oakland Ballet is totally committed to diversity, to how dancers need to train, and to paying attention to what audiences are saying.

“I report to the board. The board is responsible for the fiscal soundness of the Ballet. I have the artistic responsibility. The biggest lesson that I learned at the end of this performance season was that I have to undertake total responsibility. I was assuming that their part was policy and procedure and I would do the artistic side. Now I’m more aware that it can’t really be that separate. I was trying to avoid problems by staying out of their side of things. It has totally worked out the way it’s supposed to: This is why I believe in divine order,” Brown intoned, with a satisfied smile. “The next step is for me to bring someone onto the board. I haven’t done that yet, but it has to happen. I am making it a point to not try to impress them with how much I know about my job, but instead to demystify my role. Each of my reports to the board includes some instruction about what I do, the better to share and educate. An educated board is a stronger board. I grew up in a family of seven children: We all knew how to do everything. We’re all going toward the same place: The more information everyone has the better.”

There had been an online advertisement in recent months for the position of Chief Financial Officer of Oakland Ballet. I asked Ms. Brown whether the position had been filled and what form the administrative structure of the company has taken.

“We decided to change our administrative structure. Instead of filling the [now-vacated] Executive Director position, our executive director took on the job of Development Director. In place of one executive director, we created two new positions: We now have a development director and a financial director, and it is working out very well. I don’t know of any other ballet company that has that structure. We don’t do a lot of things like anybody else. We have set up a situation where people have to work as a team: I was expecting that. We have such a small staff that we have to work as a team, where everyone does everything.”

Karen Brown on selecting and staging works for Oakland Ballet

Ms. Brown is well known for the roles she danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem, especially in Agnes De Mille’s “Fall River Legend,” the video of which airs regularly on PBS.

“The first ballets I wanted to do when I came here were ‘Fall River Legend,’ ‘Schéhérazade,’ and ‘Billy the Kid.’ I had ‘Fall River Legend’ up on the board to do but it didn’t fit on the stage at the Paramount Theater! The stage manager said, ‘You can either have the dancers on the stage or the sets.’

“While we could have done it at Zellerbach, that was not so appealing because it is too expensive, but I would love to do it some day. It’s a frustration not to be able to do the calendar far enough in advance. I would be really comfortable planning three to four years in advance, and I’m getting there. There is so much to learn. It’s good I didn’t know how complicated it was before I accepted the directorship, or I might not have done it! The biggest thing is how clear in your mind you have to be, with every little detail being well understood. It has only been during this past season that I understood the dynamics of ‘Nutcracker’ here. We never did it at DTH. There, my time from November to the beginning of the year was basically mine to spend with my family. I was always able to go home at least twice a year.

“Part of not understanding the [‘Nutcracker’] dynamic is that everybody here is so familiar with it that they couldn’t understand what about it would pose a challenge for me. I worried that the rehearsal director and former artistic director (Ronn Guidi) might be afraid that I wouldn’t take care of it. The truth is that it ran on its own. Our ballet mistress set it and Ronn came in and polished it. The good thing about the first year was that the cast was the same as before. It didn’t work the same way the second year when almost one third of the dancers were new and they just needed to learn steps. This past year, Ronn wasn’t available for much more than casting. To me that was testimony to his confidence in the company. We had a wonderful guesting situation. Guesting situations can be horrible, but that wasn’t the case. Ikolo Griffin and Paunika Jones came in from DTH. It was her first time guesting; I’m not sure about whether it was Ikolo’s first time. The end result was that every dancer asked them to come back.”

Karen Brown on Oakland Ballet’s collaborations with musicians and choreographers

The hallmark of Oakland Ballet under Ms. Brown’s direction has been its collaborations with musicians and choreographers from a variety of traditions. Oakland Ballet’s outreach, especially to the Black community, reveals something important about Karen Brown -- her commitment to cutting a broad swath for the company. I asked her how she goes about planning and executing these projects.

“Networking has brought a lot together. I find myself working on the music, working together with Renée Heider, figuring things out, having grand ideas and starting out trying to make those work as opposed to, ‘Oh, we could never get that and Robert [Moses] and Zap Mama.’ There’s all the negotiating, but you come to an agreement first, trusting the choreographers, encouraging them to go their grandest vision, and not the bargain basement. You have to approach it like, ‘If I had all the money in the world how would I do it? Let’s start there.’ If you claim it, if you put it out there, the universe will provide it. You have to be clear about what you want. You’re a pole of attraction: ‘I want this one to look like that.’”

Karen Brown on Oakland Ballet’s tradition of diversity
and the status of Black dancers in ballet today

The mission statement of the company includes the word “diversity.” I asked Ms. Brown how she interpreted the use of this term.

“For the general public, the goal is not to underestimate people. But for people who are not big ballet fans, using the term “diversity” opens their minds to ballet not being just about 'Le Corsaire' or 'Swan Lake.'"

But Brown also notes that a diverse rep suits a number of purposes, from broadning audience taste to helping to develop artists. In the 22 years she spent at DTH, she also saw a repertoire of works that included Bournonville, Balanchine, and stagings of Ballet Russe classics by Frederick Franklin, and Alexandra Danilova that she believes gave that company staying power. "Where else could I have gone and done all of that? What other company would have had me in the late ‘70s early ‘80s? Companies were not really opening doors to dancers of color. If you didn’t have the perfect body, the great [Caucasian] body, it was far-fetched to imagine getting hired."

I asked Ms. Brown if it was better or perhaps even worse for Black ballet dancers today, where the pressure of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and early ‘70s has waned or been co-opted in the arts world.

“I don’t think it’s much better. Is it worse? I can’t say it’s worse because at least you see a Black woman principal in Houston, you see Evelyn Cisneros [a Chicana who retired from San Francisco Ballet three seasons ago], a young man in SFB; a great dancer, though still in the corps [the Black dancer Chidozie Nzerem]. Is it better? Not as good as it should be. It could always be better, especially when you know that the only person who decides this question is the artistic director.

“The pressure isn’t on now; I think maybe the repertoire being more diverse is an ‘out,’ the same as there being Blacks in the administrative offices, but not in the company. There’s more outreach. I know there were a great number of people who came to see “Nutcracker” because Ikolo was dancing it. A great arabesque is a great arabesque no matter what its color is. It would be great if you could hire dancers like you hire musicians, sitting behind a screen, so you can’t tell their color.”

I remarked that I appreciated the segment in a work Oakland Ballet had performed two seasons ago, “Thirsting/La Femme au Puits,” by the African-American choreographer, Robert Henry Johnson. In it, a curtain fell just at knee-length such that all you could see were the dancers’ legs from the knees down, and you couldn’t tell what race or necessarily what sex they were.

Ms. Brown continued to discuss race issues in casting. “In ‘Nutcracker,’ there is a role for a maid and there’s Chinese tea. Both invite stereotypical casting. A dancer’s race or color can place them in these roles before they even take a step. I remember a redhead, who was very voluptuous, but she was never cast in Arabian because of her red hair. If I have a Black dancer, I am really adamant that she is not going dance a maid unless she is there that same night as a lead in full-length work. I sat the company down and explained that this company is about multiculturalism, and we select according to artistry. We have to institute controls regarding casting according to skin color to allow artistry to flourish. I can think of an instance where a choreographer was creating a piece and there comes a point in it where every single dancer onstage ostracizes one of the other dancers onstage. If the ostracized dancer were of a different color than the majority of dancers, it would have read as blatantly to the audience as it read to me. I see what I see when I look at it. Is everybody going to see that? Maybe not everybody, but a good proportion of the audience will see it. It’s a role that a young dancer wants, and should be able to dance. Any dancer should be able to think, ‘that role could have been danced by me.’ That’s the problem .”

Karen Brown on the auditioning process

I learned from dancers who had taken the Oakland Ballet audition this year that Ms. Brown had said that she was looking for something very specific in the audition. I asked her what that specific thing was.

Ms. Brown threw back her head and laughed, as she said in mock seriousness: “The specific thing I was looking for was men. I was on a manhunt, and I found quite a few! We held two auditions: in Oakland and New York . The three to four-city auditions we held previously didn’t work out. When we did ours late last year, we ran into spring recitals and breaks. We do a six-hour audition: noon to 6 p.m . The first hour is to register. I’m a part of registration because we’re so short-staffed. Mario [Alonzo] and I went to New York. He teaches class; I adjudicate. We auditioned 67 dancers in New York and 47 here. We were looking for four men and two women. We were looking for six and got four. We instituted an apprenticeship program, a hard thing to ask someone to do because the Bay Area is the most expensive place to live in the country.

“My goal initially was to get them to relax. I thanked them for coming because it is a big undertaking; I explained that I was looking for something specific that I couldn’t really describe: people who create magic onstage. I cut [dancers] after barre, giving them information to help calm them down. The hardest part is the cuts: I call them forward. I thank them for coming, and honestly explain that for one reason or another they are not right for me; and that it doesn’t mean that you’re not a good dancer. It tears me up, but I do look them straight in the eye. After a certain point, usually the third cut, I will share information if they get dressed in their street clothes, observe the rest of the audition and speak with them afterwards. Some will ask [for feedback]; some won’t. A woman who auditioned last year and was cut after barre, asked for feedback. I told her that I didn’t see anything in that room that would tell me why she’d not be cut, but I told her to go back and get dressed [in dance clothes] again, and keep going. She didn’t make it to the end. I told her what she needed to work on. She came back this year to audition. I said to her, ‘You’ve been working on what I told you to.’ I hired her.

“In addition to barre, Mario gives them combinations, choreography and improvisation. I give them the option after they are cut of getting dressed and staying to watch the rest of the audition. Nobody has ever left. I want to see how they represent themselves, and so before the post-audition interview, I ask them to come back into the studio in what they chose to wear that day. It tells me how you feel about how you look walking down the street to what could be the most important thing you go to this year. To me, dancers are special people: They are angels put here on earth and therefore are more special than other people. They need to carry themselves that way.”

Karen Brown on the financial problems facing ballet companies

Since everyone’s talking about money right now -- especially the box office shortfalls for last season’s “Nutcracker,” I asked Ms. Brown about Oakland’s losses.

“There was no advance indication anywhere in the industry that ‘Nutcracker’ was going to represent such a short-fall this season. We lost $300,000 at the box office, and considered ourselves lucky compared to other companies with even greater exposure: San Francisco, Boston and San Jose took big losses also. We did everything we possibly could. It’s our little jewel and people appreciate it because it’s different from other versions in the Bay Area. Our goal has been to change the income ratio so that repertoire programs would begin to bring in more. In the near future, we’d like to let ‘Nutcracker’ go and do something different for a holiday show, maybe eventually alternating ‘Nutcracker’ with something else to celebrate more than one culture at holiday time.”

I noted that Bay Area companies are facing or have experienced financial problems, citing recent media coverage about Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley, Diablo Ballet and San Francisco Ballet among others. I asked Ms. Brown what artistic directors and their boards could learn from this experience -- artistically, administratively and politically.

“We were able to attend the Dance USA Town Meeting. The big question that the meeting took up was money and what we can learn about managing it. The basic conclusion was that individual companies aren’t doing anything wrong. That’s comforting. The problems we face have to do with the economy in general, and we should be doing more to develop audiences. We do this here through our outreach program, going to churches, holding conversations about how to make it work, initiating discussions about holding a program in the church in praise of dance, talking about stakeholders, and how to do group sales. We are looking for those who believe in what we’re doing: We hold salons, sell subscriptions, reach out to find children interested in dance, participate in a joint program with the YMCA, where we have summer residencies -- a dance camp as part of their summer camp.

“We do this with seven different ‘Y’s, with themes such as ‘Dancing in your backyard,’ or go into the ‘Y’ in the Fall with excerpts from the second act of ‘Nutcracker,’ for families who won’t come to the Paramount Theater [Oakland Ballet's home theater]. The ‘Y’ uses it as a special event with a dinner. One organization gave us 10 bikes and we raffled them off to raise money at the dinner. It’s empowering for kids to see dancers and hear where they’re from . It opens up some possibilities, and talking about why they started dancing becomes interesting. When I am introduced as the woman in charge, Black, and all of that, some education is going on.”

Karen Brown on her goals for Oakland Ballet

I asked Ms. Brown what her overall goals were for Oakland Ballet, what it would cost to realize them, and what the payoff would be.

“I have institutional goals for the company -- dreams. I am really aware that all thriving dance organizations have schools attached. We need a school. We need a school. For one thing, a school would make some of the adjustment issues we have when bringing in dancers from outside go away. We would be informing people from a very young age about what we do, identifying talented artists. For the company, I’d like it to be a destination, not a pit stop. I don’t mind now that it’s a pit stop because I know how short careers are today. Dancers will come through here, get incredible information on how to be artists, and go on. I want them to do that: get to work with great artists, Nacho Duato, or go to Spoleto That’s what I want them to do: come here, share the best of this world with our community, take away the best, become the best artists, and continue to express themselves. I would like us to tour more. Being fiscally sound means being able to do the ballets we’ve become known for that we can’t do because of size and cost. It’s just as important to do ‘Billy the Kid,’ and ‘Green Table’ (requiring 18 and 24 dancers, respectively) as “Swan Lake.” It costs $15,000 to bring someone in from Europe. There’s the music price tag, including rights and the licensing. We have a $2.1 million budget. We need a $4 million budget. $6 million would be ideal.

“At $2.1 million, we are able to offer a contract of 21 weeks, and then bring 10 dancers in for six weeks. It would be better to have stronger dancers on longer. We did two tours last year -- to Reno with an overnight ‘Nutcracker,’ and to L.A. in August for Balletfest. We shared the program with Ballet Pacifica and Lines [Contemporary Ballet]. We did a ‘Nutcracker’ in Visalia [a small California town near Fresno] the first year I was here. We haven’t been able to open up classes on tour -- that would be ideal -- to have a residency.”

Karen Brown on balancing her personal life

Skeptical that her schedule permits Ms. Brown any personal time, I asked her what she made space for in her life outside of dance. She clearly enjoyed the question because she was prepared to impress me with yet another dimension of her life.

“I am learning make time to spend at a local health club where nobody knows who I am. I go there at 5:30 a.m., three times a week. I make time for a weekly massage, and am working on taking a nap every day. I meditate every day for an hour, journal and take ballet class. It has been five years since I’ve had class, but I want to, I have to get back into it.”

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