Interview With Puanani Brown Highlights

Updated: Aug 4, 2021

Q: What were some of the difficulties you faced as a professional ballet dancer?

A: It’s a super challenging profession. In Kindergarten, one thing that always made me upset was the stereotype of ballet being associated with really really girly things and being pink when there's so much grit and determination and blood, sweat, and tears that go into ballet. I remember that even in Kindergarten I just felt so upset that people didn’t get it.

For me, the things that were always physically challenging were jumps and turns. I liked the lyrical, slow stuff–– stuff that was easier for me; I always had trouble turning and jumping. And that was kind of always throughout, always a thing.

Definitely getting to the School of American Ballet, leaving home, and being surrounded in this environment where there is so much pressure and so much competition–––people you see in the company are just so skinny. You get there and everyone’s going through puberty; there are definitely a lot of eating disorders and trying to figure all of that out. That was definitely tough, but once you are professional at that point it’s like you have to figure it out or you have to be able to have balance physically, mentally, emotionally. I think you just won’t survive as a professional dancer if you don’t have that kind of thing figured out. It becomes really difficult.

My senior year at the School of American Ballet, I got an acceptance letter to Harvard and then I was also offered an apprenticeship at New York City Ballet, which was my dream and that was the only thing I wanted to do in the world. So I accepted the apprenticeship, and you can only defer from Harvard for a year, and then you have to let them know or you will lose your spot. So I asked the director of my school Kay Mazzo what she thought I should do: should I say no or talk to Peter Martin… and she encouraged me to talk to Peter Martin; she said “You are the only girl who was accepted from the school this year– I see no reason why you would not get a full contract. But you might ask to ease your mind.”

So I went into this meeting, and he was basically like, “Oh, I heard. You should go to school.” And it was kind of like, even questioning something outside of ballet made me unfit to be in the company. Like I didn’t want it enough–– that was the impression that I got. I was so devastated and I decided to work so hard to prove him wrong. I started training privately with Darla Hooever outside of work in the company to get stronger. And I gave it my all and at the end of the year he was like, “Alright, bye.” At that time it was the most crushing, devastating experience in my life. In retrospect, it was probably the best thing that has ever happened to me.

So I went to school, and I met a whole bunch of people outside of ballet, who were so interesting and had so many things going on for them. Having that opportunity to be a normal person for a second was really incredible. I continued to dance ballet at Harvard with the Harvard Ballet Company, definitely a whole different level of ballet; taking ballet when I could versus taking it every single day, multiple classes a day… and it allowed me to find joy in dance again. At that point, I had been trying to prove myself for so long that I was like, “This is for me. I am doing what I love because I love it.” At the end of the first year, freshman year, I decided to go back to ballet– that’s when I decided to give it a second go. Continued to train with Darla, she whipped me into shape, and I started auditioning and got into American Ballet Theatre. And that was awesome.

Q: How did you overcome the hardships of balancing university/school and ballet?

I have always loved school, and from a young age at the WAshington School of Ballet, I got into some of the more advanced levels which was called Pre-Release. You start ballet day at about two I believe, so in order to leave school early, I had to be doing well. They always went hand in hand: being able to do what I love and keeping my grades up even though I went to a sort of hippie school so they didn’t have a whole grading system, but I still needed to be doing well academically.

That carried on when I came to New York City and was at the dorms, I was very serious about school throughout that. Again, that just went hand in hand. Then when I got to be a professional, I really did one or the other. So I know a lot of people who have done both like my sister. She danced with New York City Ballet for fourteen years and over that time period, she chipped away at her college undergraduate degree at Columbia, general studies. She graduated top of her class, and everything. She is now at med school and now she is retired from ballet and doing med school fully. So for me, at Harvard I danced for fun and then when I came back to ballet, I just did ballet. And then when my knee surgery kind of brought my career to an end, I went back to school and finished Harvard as an older student.

Q: Have you witnessed or seen any discrimination and/or racism of any kind and a lack of diversity during your ballet journey?

That is a great question and I think this is something that’s something that is emerging so much right now. A lot of people and friends are started speaking up about racism that they have experienced firsthand. I did look lighter–– I have fair skin and I am pretty white passing. And so I don’t feel like I ever experienced anything ever very directly in my ballet career. Though, I also heard friends of ours in New York City who were mixed and maybe looked a little bit more Caucasian actually made a decision to not bring their Asian parents backstage because they didn’t want the director to know that they were of Asian ancestry. So I think that's pretty telling itself.

At New York City Ballet when you go to a show, there are so few Asian dancers on stage. That was something that stood out to me. My sister and I are both of Chinese ancestry; I am also a Native Hawaiian, Portuguese, English, Irish, Scotch, Dutch–– I am a huge mix of different races and nationalities. There are definitely very few Native Hawaiian ballet dancers. But we are out there, and I guess just thinking about Indigenous ballet dancers. That’s also something I am not sure how many there are. But I will say that having Maria Tallchief and Jack Sudol as representing Indigenous ballet dancers is pretty awesome because they are such ballet legends.

I think that that was something that was something that was always very present for me: that lack of diversity. And it goes, you know, across the board, every kind of POC, very underrepresented. And I don’t feel like I am the best person to speak about that experience, but I am super happy to point you in the right direction to others who have been very open about things recently. And you hear stories, you hear awful stories about Nutcracker casting, and things like that that are so behind the times in a lot of ways.

And it is also present in things like our ballet shoes. They are always satin, pink, and now that's starting to change. Some companies like Bloch are bringing in new skintones but in Swan Like having to cake your skin to make it lighter. I remember when my sister told me once because it was in the summertime, and before they had a little bit of a break, the ballet mistress saying like, “Don't get tan so we don’t want any black swans coming back.” So those little things that make people of color so marginalized in this ballet world where we are all supposed to be super skinny, fair skinned, amazing feet: images and it just doesn’t capture the reality of who we are and who dancers are. And I think being able to see role models like Misty; she has just done so much to go out of her way to be role models for people. Having personal relationships with tongue balck dancers and mentoring them because she didn’t really have that. You kind of need to be the thing that you were missing in your career. There is a lot of really great change happening, but for sure, it is everywhere.

Q: What do you think should change in the ballet world?

I actually wrote down a list of different things thinking about this question. But for sure, I mean– having the opportunity to go to college from ballet and kind of socialize in a different way allowed me to really see a lot of issues in the ballet world that I would love to hear change and I think even hearing some of my friends who are dancing calling for this.

So I definitely think that more women and more people of color in positions of power would make a huge difference. And it would be a huge step forward from the current dynamic that we see. If there are more directors who are women or BIPOC (Black Indigenous and People of Color) it would change this current status where we have a whole bunch of young women coming into a company and try to prove themselves to this male figure that is really behind the times–- creates a paternalistic and patriarchal system.

I also think that having a dancer's choice would be a huge step forward. Let’s say when a director is on his way out, maybe it’s a good opportunity to ask the dancers who they would want to see directing the company. It’s just so much part of this art form; it is so much part of our life and our world that having the opportunity to contribute to that decision would make a huge difference and would empower dancers to have some control over the artistic vision and culture of the company.

Also allowing dancers to retire with honor, versus just pushing them out and having them retire not on their terms. I have seen really close friends recently who had to announce on Facebook after covid, “I am no longer going to be a dancer, and it wasn’t my choice. I don’t even have a final performance after 14 years” or whatever. It’s just not right. You should have the opportunity to say goodbye to the stage and to the audience.

Allowing dancers to go on more vacation days. Maybe we have four vacation days––I’ve heard ABT has that now, but I think that’s new, I don’t remember having any vacation days. That’s a problem, and even being able to go to a funeral. A dancer’s funeral. We were not allowed to go.

Harassment. Like sexual harassment or any kind of harassment training or education for young dancers who come directly out of high school, a lot of them might not even finish highs school. Coming into this very competitive, challenging work environment and not being able to tell what is harassment and what’s not harassment and just saying, “Oh, it’s consensual if something should happen, so it’s okay,”but they don’t understand no, that there are power dynamics involved where someone is taking advantage of their power. That’s so critical and that needs to change.

I think that’s my list. But yeah, empowering dancers… one thing that Ifind now in my professional career is that there are certain things in ballet that are borderline abusive and it is normalized. It is normalized to also not have a voice–– you are supposed to be quiet and take directions. And you are trained to be that way from a very young age, so it takes a lot to be able to speak up for yourself later on in life.

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