BalletHub sits down with Sandra Brown to talk about her on-going journey through the world of dance from training at School of American Ballet, her career at American Ballet Theatre, performing on Broadway and now a Ballet Mistress at Colorado Ballet.
BalletHub: Hi Sandra, thanks for joining us today and letting ballet fans around the world get to know you a bit better and what you’re up to now! Let’s rewind some and start with how it all started. How did you get started in dance and when did you know you wanted it to be your life-long career?
Sandra Brown: I was actually a competitive ice skater from the age of 7. I started skating at age 3. I did take ballet around age 4 but then stopped to pursue ice skating more. At around age 9 my ice skating coach told me that I needed to get more graceful and to try taking some dance classes. I went to a fund raising auction with my mom and sister. My sister noticed there was a silent auction item to get one month free dance classes at the Erie Civic Ballet. We put our names down for something like $10 and we won it! I was so excited!
The teacher then was Arlene Ashton Hay. Her son was a soloist in NYC Ballet… Douglas Hay. She had been a professional dancer in the MET ballet for many years. I loved the classes. It offered me something different than the pressure and intensity of ice skating at such a young age. I felt a sense of group effort and appreciation instead of the one on one competition of the ice.
I loved the [ballet] classes. It offered me something different than the pressure and intensity of ice skating at such a young age. I felt a sense of group effort and appreciation instead of the one on one competition of the ice.
After taking on the rigors of an intense ice skating and dance schedule, I started having some physical problems. I had chest pains and had to see some cardiologists. They thought it was a murmur and when asked about my activities… felt it was too much. I was doing patch work in the morning at 6AM before school and then freestyle coaching after. Then off to dance class and any rehearsals after…leaving me to come home around 10PM to start homework. I was still a straight A student, but nonetheless, took it’s toll on my body. The doctors said to my parents that I had to choose between dance and ice skating at age 10. It was one of the hardest decisions I ever made because I knew whatever I chose that it would be what I did for a lifetime. I loved both but looked realistically at the career of both. Back then, if you didn’t make it to the Olympics in skating there was only Sesame Street on ice and with dance I knew that there were companies all over the world. I knew it was limiting to skate on ice and felt that I could dance in many more venues.
I also knew the expense of ice skating that incurred on my family… I had 4 siblings… I was not the only child. I knew dancing was much cheaper for them to support. Ice time, skates, and private coaches were extremely expensive. Dance classes and a pair of shoes was minimal in comparison.
Looking back now, I was surprised I had such an understanding of such things. My parents were very into academics. My mom was an RN and my dad an electrical engineer at GE. He also taught engineering at 2 colleges on his off time to support the family. I knew that if a door closed in dance I would always have my academics to fall back on.
Was there a dancer you looked up to and who inspired you during your years training?
Because my teacher’s son was in NYC ballet, I saw many videos of NYC ballet dancers and thought that was the company I wanted to dance in someday! I remember seeing Heather Watts in Calcium Light Night when she was becoming a prima ballerina. It was ground breaking choreography then and she was pure artistically with a creature like way of moving her body. I actually learned it and danced it at something like age 12.
I loved the idea of dance and movement and theatricality combined.
I had books on Anna Pavlova and Maria Tallchief. I never really connected with one dancer though. I loved the idea of dance and movement and theatricality combined.
When did you decide you wanted to train at School of American Ballet and how was the audition process?
My teacher, Arlene Ashton Hay, took us to NYC periodically. I went when I was about 10 in 1980. Her son went through the School of American Ballet. She knew it was “the” school in the country to get trained. So she took us to get evaluated. They liked me but told her that I had a good facility and that I needed to get stronger. They would consider me for the school and they wanted to see me again in a year or two. I had no idea the importance of that at the time.
I will never forget the experience [of performing Juliet]. I remember saying to myself in the bows… that if I had to retire now I would be fulfilled.
We were coached by some of the NYC ballet dancers and took class with Maestro Celli, who apparently was the last pupil living trained by Cecchetti (originator of the Cecchetti method of dance), Diana Byers, Margaret Craske, and Robert Denver. That year we had dancers from NYC ballet guesting in our Nutcracker. They were Antonia Franceschi (who had just appeared in the film “Fame” and later became a friend of mine), Anthony Duell, and Douglas Hay. We were exposed at a young age to the great artists of dance and where it was to go if you wanted to succeed in the profession. I owe a lot of gratitude to my former teacher and mentor.
So when it was time to start auditioning for companies, were you anxious or nervous? Did you always want to dance for American Ballet Theatre?
I had been training at the School of American Ballet full time at the age of 15. They accepted me first in the summer program and then asked me to stay for the year on full scholarship. It was difficult for my parents to let me go on my own. It was, in fact, my brothers and sisters that sat them down and convinced them to let me go all the way from Erie, PA. They knew it was a lifetime opportunity that you don’t turn down. Again, I owe so much gratitude to my siblings for their support. I had been training at the school for 2 years when I decided to audition for ABT. Mikhail Baryshnikov was the director then. He would come to SAB many times during the year and take class with us. It was the top level all girls class, C2. So it was very obvious when he was there. He stood next to me at barre many occasions.
I had a roommate at the time that was a big ABT fan. I never saw them perform until he suggested I do so. I was a big NYC ballet fan… saw them practically every night. We would go to the theater and approach a man that worked for the company. I forget his name… but he knew we were students and would give us a free pass to watch any NYC ballet performance. Anyway, my roommate took me to the “other” theater… the MET, to see Baryshnikov and Deirdre Carberry, just a soloist, dance Don Q. I was blown away. I was standing on my seat… the last row in the theater… screaming “Bravo!” Deirdre did triple fouettes in the 3rd Act! The whole evening was amazing. I knew then I wanted to dance with a company that could make me feel like that! So, no, I wasn’t nervous at all to audition for Misha. I was nervous that SAB would find out that I was going to the audition but then they posted a sign that all of us in C2 were suggested to go.
How did you hear that you got your first job with American Ballet Theatre and what was your reaction?
I went to the audition at the ABT studios and Misha asked myself and 4 other girls to return the next day to take company class at the MET. I took company class with all the major stars of the company, half of whom I didn’t know at the time. He asked us to return 4 days in a row! Then he took me down a hall and asked if I wanted to join the corps de ballet. He handed me a contract and said bring it back signed the next day if so. But then I had a major melt down. I went outside; my parents were visiting, and broke down in tears. Crazy! That week was not only my finals at school, but the annual SAB workshop. I was exhausted physically and emotionally. The workshop was where you worked the whole year to be seen by Peter Martins and if he likes you, will be asked to join NYC ballet. So I didn’t know what to do. Do I wait and see if Peter takes me into NYC ballet where I thought was my lifetime dream or take this offer to ABT?
It was difficult for my parents to let me go on my own. It was, in fact, my brothers and sisters that sat them down and convinced them to let me go all the way from Erie, PA [to New York]. They knew it was a lifetime opportunity that you don’t turn down. Again, I owe so much gratitude to my siblings for their support.
I went the next day to Madame Gleboff, the director of SAB, and asked her opinion. She told me that Peter hasn’t had much time to see me since I have been injured a bit, even though I had solos in the workshop, and that he was not taking me into the company this year. I could stay in the school another year and see. Looking back, she did me a great favor by being honest.
I had also applied to college just in case and had gotten scholarships to both NYU and Fordham Universities. So I was in a dilemma. Do I go to school and stay at SAB or go to work for Misha? But then I realized that school would always be there and a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush… or whatever that saying is…and took that job ABT! I have never regretted that decision!
So now you have a contract at one of the best companies in the world! How do you remember your first few days at ABT? What about your first performance ever with the company?
Misha really took care of the dancers he hired that year. There were 4 of us from SAB including myself and a dancer from California. He asked us to attend a summer program up in Rochester, NY to train under Jurgen Schneider and Luba Gulyaeva, Vaganova teachers of ABT, to “undue our terrible habits from SAB” (in the words of Misha). He really wanted us to work on our port de bras as well as other things. So he paid our tuition and boarding to go and also gave us some per diem out of his own pocket. It was intense and grueling. We called it the “USSR Arms Camp!” And even made t-shirts with that on it! They made us better dancers though.
After that we went to NYC to train again with Jurgen. He was also a Ballet Master with the company and taught company class practically every day. Misha wanted us to take class with him as much as possible before we started rehearsing with the company. At that time ABT was having it’s Choreographers Workshop in the summer so only a hand full of dancers were there. I do remember meeting Ethan Brown and Kathleen Moore (who later became one of my best friends and my Maid of Honor in my wedding). I will never forget the first few rehearsals once the whole company was back to work. We were learning Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Sleeping Beauty. The company was huge then. This was 1987. I think there were close to 110 dancers. So the new dancers basically were cast in walk on parts. If you got to dance you were really lucky. I was scheduled to be a Court Lady in the Prologue with a big dress and a wig. Kathleen Moore was the lead Court Lady. She had done it before and told us that we had to hold our arms just so (bending her elbows slightly and lifting her arms slightly away from your body). She made such an impression on me. She took a small part so seriously that I had great admiration for her from that day on.
My first performances were that fall in Orange County, CA. We were the first company to perform in the new Orange County Performing Arts Theater. It was beautiful. We were also working on the repertoire then as well. Clark Tippet was choreographing Bruch Violin Concerto. I was learning the corps de ballet. We also were learning Symphonie Concertante, a Balanchine Ballet and Gaite Parisienne. Before we left for our next tour, which was 3 months on the road, a girl left the company and I got cast in her part in both Bruch Violin Concerto and in Symphonie Concertante even though that was not the spot I had learned. I was fast learner and could do any spot if asked. I was so lucky! I was thrilled!
You earned your promotion to Soloist at ABT, a company where the talent and competition is obviously extremely high. How was that experience leading up to and right after your promotion?
I had been learning and dancing solos for a few years. My first solo was a Flower Girl in Don Q. It was a strange time after Misha left being the Artistic Director. Jane Hermann, who was the Executive Director, became the Artistic Director as well. I had injured my foot that year and didn’t know that is was a cracked bone for a long time and kept dancing on it. I had hurt it in a Ulysses Dove ballet called Serious Pleasures. So at the end of our season at the MET I couldn’t do everything I was supposed to. The night I got promoted, I was dancing Glen Tetley’s Sacre du Printemps. It was in flat shoes so it was ok for my foot injury. It was after the show that I saw Jane in the hall and she said because I had worked so hard the whole season that I deserve to be a soloist. It was 1992. I was extremely excited but it was a bit hampered by the fact that I couldn’t finish the season strong.
What was your favorite role you performed while at ABT?
Well, I would have to say Juliet. I only got to perform it once in Chicago. I was on the schedule to perform it at the MET and Marianna Tcherkassky was “leaving” the company and they ended up giving her my performance as her farewell. But it was a year of coaching and rehearsing a role like that.
I will never forget the experience. I remember saying to myself in the bows… that if I had to retire now I would be fulfilled.
You originated the role of Desdemona in Lar Lubovitch’s full-length Othello. How was it to have this full-length ballet created on you?
That was another ballet that took an entire year to put together. I had worked with Lar many times on other ballets before this project. I first met him when I went outside of ABT and auditioned for the “Red Shoes” on Broadway. ABT had some financial difficulties in 1992. The company directors came to the dancers’ union to ask for us to accept dancing only 26 weeks. We were at 42 weeks. It was humbling. I remember a ballet mistress telling me that it was a sinking ship and I better get out. So I started auditioning for other things just in case hence the “Red Shoes.” Lar had already picked his lead ballerina but offered me a corps part. I thanked him and said I was a soloist at ABT and couldn’t leave for that. I was thankful I didn’t leave when it folded after 4 shows and many other problems in the process. But then Lar was commissioned to stage “Red Shoes” the ballet at ABT. I got to dance the lead so was even more thankful I stayed put!
After that, he did a ballet that he had done before called “Brahms” but choreographed a 4th movement on us. The original only had 3 movements. I was chosen as one of the 4 principals. Then Othello began. I was chosen to learn Desdemona with Desmond Richardson, who was brought in to learn the role of Othello. I had no idea who he was and was asked to do a photo shoot with him before the season started. No one ever told me anything. Lar moves very fast in rehearsals and because Desmond and I had never worked together before we struggled with some of the partnering.
It was a difficult and stressful process also because we didn’t have the music composed in time for some rehearsals, so we worked guessing what it would be. But by the time it premiered the results were amazing! It was the first time in the history of ABT that they had commissioned a full length with new choreography and commissioned score by Elliot Goldenthal.
You also joined Complexions Contemporary Ballet, a company with an obvious focus on contemporary ballet. How was it different from dancing at ABT?
After the premiere of Othello I met Dwight Rhoden, the director of Complexions. He and Desmond Richardson were actually co-directors at the time. They both expressed that anytime I was off they would like me to come work for Complexions. So I started guesting with them in my off time around 1997. In 2003 I left ABT and worked with them full time for 2 years.
Dancing classical ballet is very rewarding but I will never forget the freedom that dancing with Complexions offered me. When I asked Dwight how I should execute a step he said feel it and make it your own. You are the artist. I never had that kind of freedom of expression at ABT. I felt it opened up new doors and experience new ways of challenging myself physically and mentally.
You’ve danced leading roles in tons of ballets and contemporary works at world class companies, but you’ve also performed on Broadway! Tell us about that experience.
My training was Cecchetti, Bournonville, Balanchine, Vaganova… you name it. I was never fearful of any type of movement or style because of that.
That is also a long story. It all began when I was on a gig with Robert LaFosse and Susan Jaffe. We were in London and supposed to head to Ireland and our theater was bombed. So we had 3 days off in London. I had a friend from SAB that was doing a production of Carousel, choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, and heard that a former soloist from ABT was doing the role of Louise Bigelow, Bonnie Moore. So I contacted him and he invited me to see the first preview. The show was amazing! A year later I heard that is was coming to Broadway and that they were looking for a person to do the role of Louise Bigelow. The person had to dance the main pas de deux but also act and sing. I knew right then that I could do it! I had seen it and knew what it required.
They started auditioning people in 2003 all over the country. I was on a gig with Heather Watts in Princeton, NJ, when a casting agent came out to see the show and rode the train back to NYC with us. He told us about the project and the next day he had contacted ABT to set up an audition to see all of the ABT dancers. Nicholas Hytner, the director, was at the audition and I could feel them all staring at me at the barre and center. At the end of the audition they asked me to stay for a minute and do a dry reading of the script with Nick! I was sooooo excited and knew the scene since I had seen it in London. They basically offered me the job right there.
But again, I was in a dilemma. ABT was having financial troubles. We were down to 26 weeks of work, so basically a part time job. I didn’t have an agent so I negotiated on my own with them. We worked out that I would do the rehearsals and the shows when I wasn’t dancing with ABT. So they would have to find an alternate the shows I couldn’t do. They accepted! The experience was probably one of the best I have had in my career. I became very close with many of the cast members as well as Nick. The cast also included famed people now that were just starting out their careers, like Audra McDonald and Taye Diggs. We are still friends to this day.
So you’ve danced for a classical company, a contemporary company, and for a broadway production that you had to sing! Were you a natural at singing or did you have formal training for that as well?
When ABT had the financial troubles in 1992, I got a vocal coach to help me put together a song or two for the Broadway auditions. When I got the job with Carousel, I had a dialect coach and a vocal coach that worked with the cast. The only song I sang was the last one in the production with the entire cast on stage. I stood next to Audra McDonald and Shirley Verrett, a famous opera singer with a voice of a god! All the hours on my voice didn’t matter, I couldn’t even hear myself sing next to these diva voices! I had to laugh. I will never be a singer! I can hold a tune but that is about it!
After Carousel I was considering trying out for Oklahoma, but the lead dancer also had to be a lead singer. My friend, Lovette, laughed at me. She was a singer and knew it was too hard. I tried rehearsing it a bit but never got the guts to go to the audition.
So far we’ve gotten to ice skating, classical ballet, contemporary ballet, singing… Is there anything else, like tap or acrobatics?
No that is about it….no time for anything else!
When and what did you dance as your farewell performance?
My last performance was dancing with Complexions. We did a William Forsythe ballet called Approximate Sonata, in which I was partnered by Desmond, and many other Dwight ballets. I was 4 and half months pregnant. It was Mother’s Day 2005. I knew that it would be the last time that I would dance professionally so that I could be a Mom. I was ready for a new adventure in my life.
That sounds like a script for a movie, your last performance on Mother’s Day in which you look forward to having a family! After you retired from the stage, what was your next move?
That summer, before I gave birth to my son, I was scheduled to teach in the ABT summer program and choreograph a ballet for the students to perform at the end of the summer intensive. I also was teaching Pilates at a studio in Bedford, NY.
I had gotten certified after my second knee surgery in 2002 not knowing if I would make it back onto stage.
In 2006, you moved to Denver, Colorado and started your first season as a Ballet Mistress for Colorado Ballet. Did you always see yourself as becoming a Ballet Mistress or staying connected with ballet after you retired from performing?
No. I thought that was it when I stopped dancing. I did like teaching and choreographing but really felt I wanted to concentrate on being Mom. I thought I was going to be mostly teaching Pilates and going back to school. I am so happy to be working as a ballet mistress and choreographer.
Now that you’re in the ballet mistress seat at the front of the room, do you have a different perspective or appreciation for the process of getting a production performance-ready?
Not really. I have always had an understanding of “the other side.” I started choreographing when I was 19. I had to audition a piece for Misha. It was a dancer’s choreographic workshop in ABT which was funded by the NEA[National Endowment for the Arts]. He would choose 2 dancers out of many. I was chosen in both 1989 and 1990, after that the funding was dropped and the program stopped. I was able to use the dancers of ABT for 3 weeks of rehearsal and then a performance at the end with lights and costumes. It was an incredible experience and gave me the understanding of what goes on to put a ballet together. It was difficult with injuries and scheduling with the other choreographer working at the same time with some of the same people.
You had to be very organized. I don’t think I slept those 3 weeks. Now it is a bit different with much more understanding and experience even though the productions are much larger and more at stake. I have never thought I couldn’t handle what I was doing and take it on with great enthusiasm.
This season at Colorado Ballet you’ll be choreographing a world premiere for the company. How would you describe your approach to choreographing?
I have a very musical background as well as loving the mathematics of dance (geometric formations and musicality). I am inspired by music first and foremost. I played the flute and can read music. I took private lessons with a woman that performed in the Symphony in Erie, PA. She was director of a flute choir that I was in. I was also in the band at school. So music is my great inspiration. Also, the great choreographers that I have had the privilege to work with and be choreographed on, like Lar Lubovitch, Mark Morris, Twyla Tharp, Nacho Duato, Dwight Rhoden… have given me the basis for understanding many forms of movement. I also am inspired by the theatricality of dance. What it is that we are trying to say as an artist or as a person in general to the world. I was in plays and musicals in high school as well as being on Broadway. I love to tell a story through dance.
Given your personal experience in ballet, what advice would you give aspiring dancers of today?
Experience as much as you can… take acting classes, character, modern, jazz. Go see other forms of theater as well as other dance companies.
Dance today seems as though it’s a very large melting pot. I think the reason I was able to have much personal success was because of my many experiences of being a performer. I was not stuck in just one way of doing something. My training was Cecchetti, Bournonville, Balanchine, Vaganova… you name it. I was never fearful of any type of movement or style because of that. I would be able to rehearse a full length classical variation and the next hour rehearse the lead in a Martha Graham ballet. It is so great to have a strong technical background but you need to be well versed in many forms of dance and styles. Never limit yourself.
Experience as much as you can… take acting classes, character, modern, jazz. Go see other forms of theater as well as other dance companies. Work with people that have also been professional dancers themselves to learn from and hear what they have to say. If you are in a dance company go out front in the theater, if you are not in the ballet or just an understudy, and see what works or not from other dancers. Keep in mind if you haven’t gotten a job to have something to fall back on. Keep school and your grades in good standing in case you need them even after your career is over.
Emulate good training practices but remember how to be an individual even if you are in the corps de ballet. Remember what it is that makes you special and show that as much as possible.