In a recent article for the NY Times entitled “Exchanging Slippers For Schoolbooks” Gia Kourlas looked at the motivations of dancers – active and inactive – to further their studies, particularly in the context of the increased attendance at undergraduate courses for “nontraditional students” offered by Columbia University.
One of the student-dancers mentioned by Kourlas is New York City Ballet‘s Likolani Brown. Coincidentally, at the start of the ballet season, we had been in touch with her younger sister, American Ballet Theatre‘s Pua Brown, who had a similar experience juggling ballet and university. Pua only recently returned to dancing after an extended break to study at Harvard (French, economics and psychology). The biggest challenge she faced with this experience was making up for lost time, but she has since achieved what Dance Spirit Magazine calls a “triumphant comeback”.
Pua’s mother is native Hawaiian, born and raised in Honolulu, and her father is originally from Iowa. They met in Hawaii and eventually settled in Maryland where Pua was born. From age 7 to 15 she went to the Washington School of Ballet and in 2004 she won a gold medal at the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) “I was trained by Patricia Berrend at the Washington School of Ballet and I won the gold medal in the women’s senior division in the competition. From there I was offered a scholarship to be accepted in ballet schools like the Royal Ballet School in London, the Paris Opera, etc.”
She ended up choosing the School of American Ballet Summer Program and later became a student at SAB in order to be closer to her family “my parents were more comfortable sending me to a place that was closer to home so I went to New York when I was 16 and I was at SAB for 3 years, and finished high school.” Having subsequently applied to a number of Ivy League schools Pua got accepted at Harvard, but this coincided with the period where ballet companies were offering professional contracts, so she got a deferral at university and joined NYCB as an apprentice. She danced for a year and then it was decision time for Harvard. However, at this point dancing had become her priority “I knew it was really what I wanted to do. But when I called a meeting the AD told me to go to college. So it was devastating at the time but I am glad he told me then.”
For Pua, it was incredibly difficult to return to professional ballet “It is really interesting how quickly ballet leaves your body after just a year. I danced at Harvard in their company, but it was maybe 1-2 classes a week and most of the time in there I was sitting doing homework so getting back in shape was really hard.”
She was fortunate, she says, to have Darla Hoover as friend and mentor. On Hoover’s advice Pua went to a summer program at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and soon she was back to taking 2-3 classes a day at Ballet Academy East (BAE) on top of training with Darla privately. It was at this point that opportunities started to materialise “I took class with ABT at the end of February and at that point Kevin [McKenzie] said he didn’t have any jobs opening until June, but he told me I was a beautiful dancer and encouraged me to continue taking class with the company.” So did Pua and the very next week a place had opened for someone to join the corps at short notice “So I came in the next day to sign it and that was it.”
Pua is now living in New York. As ABT is a touring company she travels a lot, but the company rehearses in New York for most of the year. What of the future? “Well, right now I am taking it step by step. I am grateful to be at ABT, and of course every dancer dreams of getting more and more parts. While this year I will officially be a second year corps member, it is actually my first full year with the company. I am really so fortunate to be dancing again, especially at ABT. Where I am now is really a dream in itself.”
Pua Brown in her own words:
Of her education
I was going for my academics at the Professional Children’s School (PCS) and before, in Washington, I had been to the Washington Waldorf School which is somewhat of an alternative school. But when I finished at PCS in NY, I graduated and I was applying to both [ballet] companies and colleges. So I applied to as many Ivy League schools as I could because I thought it was worth a shot, Harvard, Princeton, etc.
I always had good role models. My parents are very funny; they never pushed me but they always encouraged us to strive for excellence, even though they don’t ever tell us what to do. They were definitely very supportive of the whole application process. So I got into Stanford, Harvard and I had heard that they had a great dance program, so I asked to defer for a year, which I could do initially, as at that point I was still auditioning for ballet companies.
Of her experience as a corps dancer in Aronofsky’s Black Swan
It was really very interesting just to see how it all comes together, with multiple takes required to get the scene perfectly to what the director is envisioning. It was long hours for extra work, I think that the call was at at 5 pm and we were released at 5 am!
I am very curious as to how [the ballet world] will be depicted and whether it will make us dancers seem a bit crazier than we actually are….
About being a YumiGirl
I know that Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis wear [Yumiko] leotards in the movie, it is very cool! When I was at SAB, I was in the dorms, and there was a longtime Yumi representative, Alicia. I ordered from her several times and I really enjoyed the process of talking with her and finding out colours and getting your Yumiko leotards finally when the shipping came. So when Alicia left I applied online and became the representative of the dorms. And when I was an apprentice at NYCB I remained a representative; and the same when I moved to Harvard. Now, I am sort of a freelance YumiGirl, I am still active where I can be.
Of starting again at ABT
It has been wonderful. I am grateful to be in a company where I feel encouraged and there is a lot of care from the administration. I really appreciate that especially because coming back to ballet was a scary thing for me.
I really feel inspired and encouraged to keep working and improving. In the short time that I’ve been with the company, I feel like I’ve already learned a great deal from the many incredible dancers I work with, as well as from the artistic staff. I am very motivated to learn and grow and hopefully that will lead me to some featured roles. It would be wonderful if I had the chance to perform something like “Classical Girls” in Don Quixote this season which I learned and rehearsed a bit last year.
Pua’s advice for those returning to professional ballet
You have to know why you are doing it. That’s what I found at Harvard, I remember why I danced, and it wasn’t for anyone else, it was just for me, because it was what I loved to do. Coming back I knew I shouldn’t get discouraged, I knew it would be incredibly hard, and I was lucky to have people like Darla and my parents around. I was very fortunate in that way, the major thing is to keep working as hard as you can… Don’t get discouraged!