Elizabeth Brown grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, where she studied dance with Kathey Ward and Li Chou Cheng. She moved to New York City in 2000 to attend the Alvin Ailey School and Steps on Broadway. Currently, she trains with Willy Burmann and is also a member of ad hoc Ballet. She is a founding member of New Chamber Ballet, where her roles include parts in Air, Trio op. 12, Fall, Dawn, Life, Just Holding On, Round, Spring, Silk, Terzetto, Three Ghost Rags, Night Is Falling, Follia, Viduity, Aeolia, Dreams, Cascade, Arachnophilia, Romantic Pieces, Monologue, All the Rage, Composition in Dark Colors, 104 Fahrenheit, Five Songs for Piano, Love Song Solos, Little Bird, Happy Dance of the Wild Skeletons, Emilia, Slow Dancing to Kurt Weill, The Letter, Glove, Klavierstück, The Other Woman, A Present, Allow You to Look at Me, and In the Parlour.
Photo by: Rachel Nevins
Elizabeth Brown in conversation about dancing and New Chamber Ballet.
What brought you to ballet?
I was about six years old, sitting next to my mom's bed reading something, and she asked me if I would like to take ballet classes. I said yes. I remember the classes being really scary. My teacher was Ms. Kathey Ward, and her studio, Creative Arts Theatre & Dance in Arlington, TX, had all kinds of dance and acting classes. There were also six student produced shows every year, so as I got older I had the chance to learn how to run the sound board, build sets and work on the backstage crew in addition to lots of ballet, jazz and modern classes. I stayed there until I was 14 and then I went to the Gayle Corkery School of Dance, where I studied with Gayle Corkery herself, as well as Li Chou and Carrie Cheng.
What did you like about ballet at the time?
When I was young I was never one of the prodigies, but I always worked hard and came to every class. I had the most wonderful teacher in Li Chou Cheng, who always expected the best from each of us, and we strove to give it to him because we respected him so much. I always liked the work of it all - doing the pliés everyday, the routine of class and rehearsal. I always loved pointe work! And I liked, and still like, the philosophy of it: that dance is a metaphor for life. Living and Dancing seem like the same thing to me.
It's logical then that you became a dancer...
Actually, I didn't really know that I liked dancing until about last year! Being injured for a lot of the 2008-2009 season gave me time to ponder my existence. I had always been questioning whether I was dancing because it was what I had always done, or if I really enjoyed it enough to chose it as an adult. But I realized that it doesn't matter how or why you came to something if at the end of the day it makes you feel good.
How did you end up in NYC?
In 1997 and again in 1999 I went to the American Dance Festival. I loved ADF as I had never experienced so many different people and ideas and forms of dance. I was able to take Paul Taylor and Gerri Houlihan repertory classes, and fell in love with being able to move in so many different ways. The quality of dancers there really opened my eyes - the true meaning of fierce! I thought I wanted to be a modern dancer since I didn't feel like I fit in ballet. So I auditioned for the certificate program at the Ailey School. I don't think I really knew what I was getting into when I left Texas for New York City. But my best friend already lived here, so when I was accepted into Ailey it just seemed that that was what I was going to do. Of course, the first night I slept in my little room in Harlem I was terrified ... but slowly I got over all that and started my classes. And eventually, I realized that, really, I did want to be a ballerina, not a modern dancer. Especially after I met Peff Modelski at Steps.
Who were your most inspiring teachers?
Pushpa Mahendru, my elementary school teacher - she taught me to, above all else, respect myself. Kathey Ward, my first ballet teacher - I loved how she always called us "ladies". She always wanted us to move, bigger and better, and to try our best. She was very big on etiquette. She went with us to get our first pair of pointe shoes and taught us how to sew them ourselves. She was really teaching us how to be ladies, not just ballerinas. Li Chou Cheng, he always gave the hardest class! But you were never sore because you were having fun, and you were really moving the whole time. He was always full of energy and talked about being strong all the time, even when things are hard. Peff Modelski, she taught me so many things about myself, namely how to believe in myself. She has such a complete understanding of the body and the mind that she is a wonderful guide and friend to me. Willy Burmann, for truly teaching me that it's not what you do, but how you do it.
What brought you to New Chamber Ballet?
I met Miro through Peff Modelski, before New Chamber Ballet existed. He was still working with a loose group of dancers then. I started working with him on a piece he made for a school performance by Studio Maestro in the spring of 2004, and which we later repeated at his own showing at City Center. That group - Denise Small, myself, and later Christin Hanna - eventually became the nucleus of New Chamber Ballet.
What do you think is different at New Chamber Ballet than in other companies?
I think that working so closely with the director and other dancers is different than in other companies. As well as having one focused person at the helm instead of a lot of people who aren't sure what they want. It's nice to work for someone you believe in and who believes in you. One of the things I love about New Chamber Ballet is that I get to dance with the most incredibly wonderful people! We are all trying to create something that is extremely important to us, and it is interesting to see yourself and others move through that kind of commitment and the slight insanity it breeds. Also, working with live musicians is exciting, especially since we always work with the same two musicians: Erik Carlson on the violin and Melody Fader at the piano. They are part of the company. What a joy to have live music to dance to at every show! When they come to rehearsals before the performance and we get to hear them play, it seems like hearing the music for the first time.
What do you love most about being a dancer?
Moving, learning, pushing myself, being myself, and performing.
What do you love least about being a dancer?
And, of course what I love least about dancing is... pushing myself, being myself, performing. I've also come to realize that I don't like learning new steps. I like the steps much better later in the process, when they make more sense.
Do you have a favorite piece to dance, and why?
I've always liked Silk. I love, love, love the music - it has this sort of trance-like quality to it, that is nice to be inside.
You just finished work on a new ballet with Constantine Baecher. What is it like to work with him?
Working with Constantine is an experience! He has very clear ideas as to what he is looking for, which is always good, unless it involves things you aren't quite sure youre capable of accomplishing! His work is always challenging, but organic, not awkward at all. I am always excited and nervous to work with him, and the piece always becomes a favorite of mine. He is very capable of being understanding without being a push-over - that's a great combination in a choreographer.
Another choreographer you have worked with a lot, at New Chamber Ballet and beyond, is Deborah Lohse. How did that collaboration come about?
I met Deborah when she performed her own work as a guest with New Chamber Ballet at City Center. She asked me if I would like to work with her, and of course, I said yes. Having someone approach you and ask you to perform their work is very flattering. Working with Deborah has been an incredible experience. She deeply believes in her dancers, and she really pushes us to be ourselves, to make every move our own. It is deeply liberating for us to know that there are no wrong answers. There is also more of an emotional aspect to her work. Generally it deals with the uncomfortable parts of life, and that forces you to confront things that aren't exactly nice and pretty to deal with. It becomes such a pleasure to see how far you can go, and it creates a newness to the work that lasts through the last performance. It is not so much about technique and hoping that your pirouettes work and that you're turned out. It is about really being present with yourself - and, in turn, I have tried to use that idea to make the technical things work. It's really just about your intent, and the rest will follow. Which I believe is true in life as well.