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An American Dance Dynasty.

The Brown family boasts three generations of dancers, including five members who have been with American Ballet Theatre. Is this a world record?

All ballet families are certainly not Mike: a short list would include the illustrious Vestris and Taglioni clans of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; Filippo Taglioni, widely traveled principal dancer and ballet master, was the father of Made Taglioni (1804-1884), who ranks as one of the greatest ballerinas of all time. Then there are the Petipas, particularly Jean Antoine and his two sons, Lucien and, most notably, Marius. Closer to home and to our own day, we have the Littlefields of Philadelphia; the Christensen brothers of Utah; and, more recently, Jacques d'Amboise and Carolyn George, whose son Chris, now a respected choreographer, was a New York City Ballet principal, and whose daughter Charlotte is a Broadway star. Even so, to have five members of one all-American family performing at one time or another with the same great classical troupe--American Ballet Theatre--is indeed extraordinary and may even constitute one for The Guinness Book of World Records.

Isabel Brown, who danced with her husband, Kelly Brown, in the company then known as Ballet Theatre, is the mother of four: former ABT principal Leslie Browne; current ABT soloist Ethan Brown; and former ABT corps member Elizabeth Brown, who danced under the name of Elizabeth Laing. The eldest Brown offspring, Kevin, is a Hollywood producer--thus still very much in the arts. It's certainly worth getting to know this family!

Isabel now lives in a spacious, high-ceilinged apartment on New York City's Upper West Side. The light, airy decor is further enhanced by what is practically a photographic museum of the Brown family's achievements. Nearly every tabletop and bureau is covered with neatly framed images of Kelly, Leslie, Ethan, Elizabeth, and Isabel in dance poses and group pictures of celebrity gatherings. (Isabel--a veritable fount of insider knowledge of the ballet world today--is said to be the repository of many great dance-world anecdotes, most of them, she says, unprintable. It's our loss.)

Isabel Mirrow and Kelly Brown together embody a true all-American mix: Isabel's parents were Russian immigrants who had come to America at the same time as their friends, the parents of famed ballerina Nora Kaye. The two families lived on separate floors of the same New York City brownstone, and since Nora--eight years older than Isabel--was a dancer, ballet was in the air. Isabel became interested, and her mother took her to a studio operated by Virginia Lee in Carnegie Hall. Her talent resulted in a scholarship at age twelve, and a career was launched. Later she studied with Anatole Vilzak, and one classmate there was the late Svetlana Beriosova, who was one of many celebrity dancers to become a good friend. Isabel danced in various Broadway musicals prior to auditioning for and being accepted by Ballet Theatre in 1946. The list of legendary dancers with whom she shared the stage when appearing with the company at the old Metropolitan Opera House reads like a dance Who's Who of the period: Alicia Markova, Anton Dolin, Tatiana Riabouchinska, Irina Baronova, Tamara Toumanova, Alicia Alonso, Igor Youskevitch.

Kelly Brown was born Kelly Kingman in Jackson, Mississippi. His mother's first marriage was brief, and she then married one Mr. Brown and moved to Maysville, Kentucky. Having had dance training, she opened a typical all-purpose dance school of the time. "Grandma Sue" was apparently a one-woman dynamo: she did everything from teaching ballet, toe, tap, and acrobatic to making scenery and costumes and providing music.

Kelly went on to study in Chicago, and, notes Isabel, "I was with the company about a year when Kelly came in. He had not had many years of dancing, maybe three. Ballet Theatre people saw him in Chicago at the Stone-Camryn School, and they fell in love with him, and after two months Agnes de Mille, Antony Tudor, and Jerry Robbins went nuts over him." The young novice received star treatment and was put into leading roles almost immediately. He excelled in the dramatic parts, as did Isabel and as would their children. The couple met when Balanchine came in to do Theme and Variations in 1947. Their marriage in 1951 produced four children.

Son Ethan Brown comments that his father was very talented and could have been a major ballet star but that he left Ballet Theatre to work on Broadway. Kelly was in many Broadway musicals in the days when there was a wealth of employment for ballet dancers in shows such as Shinbone Alley and I Can Get It for You Wholesale, along with countless others.

He also worked in Hollywood in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Daddy Long Legs (1955), and The Girl Most Likely (1957). When Kelly's performing career came to an end, the family relocated to Phoenix, where they ran a successful dance school. Robert Lindgren, later to become head of the dance department of the North Carolina School of the Arts, had turned his school over to them, and they operated it for ten years. Kelly turned out to be an exceptionally gifted teacher.

The careers of the two daughters, Leslie and Lizzie, began when New York City Ballet principal Jillana came to Phoenix to audition children for the School of American Ballet. Leslie was fifteen. Isabel recalls, "Jillana picked those two out of the whole bunch without knowing that they were my children. Everyone thought that I had planned and plotted it. They started studying at twelve and eleven, and she picked them for SAB without my prompting." After that initial session at SAB, the school called Isabel to say that Lizzie, although very talented, was still too young to stay in New York but that they wanted to keep Leslie. They wanted Lizzie to come back in a year. Leslie was placed in a beginners' class, but her ability was so apparent that before the year was up she had danced a principal part in a school performance of Concerto Barocco.

Meanwhile, the Browns' marriage had broken down: "The next year I divorced Kelly and came back to New York with Ethan. He was fourteen, and I asked him what he wanted to do and he said he didn't know. When he saw all of the girls in adagio class at SAB, he liked that very much, and so he started there!"

When visited this past spring after a tough rehearsal at ABT's famous 890 Broadway headquarters, Ethan, affable though weary, picks up the thread of the family story. The Brown kids had a very normal childhood: "All the kids took class, but we didn't have to. My dad was a great teacher, a wonderful teacher." The athletic boy found that peer pressure at age nine made him stop dancing for about three years. He wanted to keep his friends and retain his popularity; at age twelve, however, at his father's request (boys were needed to partner the girls), he resumed classes and found that he liked it. It was still athletic, but in a more disciplined and challenging way. His friends, somewhat more mature by then, had become more open-minded and accepting, and one or two of them even "jumped into the [ballet] boat" with him and started classes.

After Ethan and his mother moved back to New York, he auditioned for SAB and "got in immediately because I was born turned out. Thanks to my parents, I had a natural facility.... In fact, all I did at the audition was grand plie in Second Position, and that was it." He had been at the school six years and was planning on going into New York City Ballet. One day Mikhail Baryshnikov, who had been watching class at the school and who had worked closely with Leslie, just walked up to him and told him that he was in ABT: "He didn't even ask me; he told me." That incident has led to an eighteen-year career with the company, twelve of those years as a soloist. He's the Brown who's still dancing with ABT and who will perform many roles in their current spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Sadly, Kelly Brown, only in his early fifties, died just about two weeks before Ethan joined ABT in 1981: "I would have liked to have him see me get into the company before he died." He adds, "They were great parents--truly great parents."

Leslie chats in a Lincoln Center-area coffee bar, on the fly before rushing home to walk her Lhasa apso. Articulate and knowledgeable, she says that until about age twelve, she, too, had a pretty normal childhood in Phoenix. Her interests and abilities were--and remain--wide-ranging and included doing well in school in both academic and athletic pursuits. She also played the violin, piano, and flute; wanted to be an actress; and was enthusiastic about her science projects. When it came time to concentrate on just one career, she found it difficult; but dancing seems to have been in her blood, and an SAB scholarship more or less settled things. She joined the corps of NYCB, but a giant boost to her career occurred when Gelsey Kirkland was unable to fulfill her contract to perform in the classic Herbert Ross film The. Turning Point (1977), and Leslie Browne was cast instead. (She chose to add an e to her surname, which, she said, sounded a bit more feminine.)

There is some disagreement among Isabel, Ethan, and Leslie about just how much of that very successful film is based on their family. Isabel says that the story of a dancer who gives up her career to raise a family and one of whose children rises to ballet stardom is closely based on the Browns. Ethan points out various surface differences, and Leslie says that it's really not their family at all but that screenwriter and playwright Arthur Laurents used their input for the script because they were a useful source of information.

In any event the film was a fine showcase, particularly for Leslie (she received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress) and for a newcomer named Baryshnikov, with many other world-famous dancers prominently featured. After the film, Leslie joined ABT, eventually rising to principal rank and performing a great variety of classical, dramatic, and modern roles.

Since leaving ABT in the early nineties, she has embarked on a new phase of her career. While still continuing as a freelance dancer, she has begun choreographing and has had several of her works performed by the Russian Ballet Theatre of Wilmington, Delaware; in Phoenix, at the School of the Arts; and by the ABT Studio Company. Choreography seems simply to have drifted her way. As well, she has been doing a certain amount of guest teaching; coming up currently is ABT's summer program. She also had a prominent acting and dancing role in the 1993 Broadway musical version of The Red Shoes. As a performer: "I still stay in shape for things that come along.... That way I don't have to cram to get ready." As of this writing, she had won an acting part and was scheduled to appear in May in an off-Broadway play. Watch this space.

Elizabeth, or Lizzie as she is known, trained at SAB and was with ABT for nine years, leaving the company in the late 1980s. She can be glimpsed in The Turning Point. Ethan says that Lizzie probably had the cleanest line and technique and the most perfect dancer's body of the three. Now, however, she has embarked on the one career that is probably more difficult and time-consuming than ballet: She and her husband, actor David Healy, are the parents of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy; and this past March she gave birth to twins--another boy and a girl. Are there three future dancers in the Brown dynasty?

Kevin, says Ethan, is the only one who went to college and "the brains of the family." Speaking from Los Angeles, Kevin says that he did take class and enjoyed it but never thought seriously of a dance career. A former journalist, he is now a producer of television films. Kevin's most recent movies are Soul of the Game (HBO, 1996); Bloodknot (Showtime, 1995); and Incident at Deception Ridge and The Colony (both for USA, 1994 and 1995, respectively). He has also produced a pilot for a series, Roswell High (about teenage aliens!), that is scheduled to air on the Fox network this fall.

Isabel Brown: "Everyone fell into it because we were dancers; I mean, it wasn't their choice, really. Leslie to this day wonders if she would have picked something else. I often wonder what they would have done if they hadn't danced."

But, given their lavish heritage of talent, good looks, and destiny, it is unlikely that this all-American--and, virtually, all-American Ballet Theatre--family could have done anything other than give us the pleasure of their dancing.

Doris Perlman is a contributing editor of Dance Magazine and a New York City-based freelance writer.
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Title Annotation:family in the American Ballet Theatre
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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