'I'm the kind of person who never looks ahead," Leslie Browne said recently, in a moment of self-reflection. "I take each day as it comes."
A practical stance, as it turned out.
On Jan. 3, Browne danced the role of Juliet at the American Ballet Theatre premiere of Kenneth MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet" in Washington. Two days later, as she prepared to perform her second Juliet, she discovered that she had unknowingly fractured a toe at dress rehearsal--and had to cancel all performing for the next two months.
So, when Browne dances Juliet tonight in Shrine Auditorium, it will be, in her words, "probably like a first-night performance all over again." But it will be far from her first dance comeback.
As she summarized her career up to this Juliet, the New York-born 28-year-old spoke of her experiences in the School of American Ballet, the New York City Ballet, two movies ("The Turning Point," "Nijinsky") and Ballet Theatre. But she interspersed much of this personal dance history with such phrases as "I disappeared after that" and "after that, I quit again," in a lightly self-mocking but not at all cynical tone.
In "The Turning Point," she appeared opposite Mikhail Baryshnikov, then at the zenith of his superstardom with Ballet Theatre. The film's success led to her being hired by Ballet Theatre in 1977 as a soloist--a middle-rank dancer--instead of in the corps de ballet. As a result, "the older kids--senior members--gave me a really rough time," she recalled.
During work on "Nijinsky," Browne's appendix ruptured. So, she explained, "I had to take six months off to convalesce--besides the further six months of filming." She remembered that period of recuperation and reflection as "a hard time, but the most constructive of my life, because up to then everything had happened so fast."
She welcomed her chance to rejoin Ballet Theatre after that period. Baryshnikov was just taking over as artistic director and "I wanted to be part of it," she said.
However, after a few seasons of work there, plus a film-for-TV project that she had to pull out of, Browne quit, again: "I fell madly in love, got married and didn't want to work anymore." But her marriage led her back to her career, because "my husband (Leonide Slepak) really encouraged me to go back; he knew that I would really regret quitting, and he was right."
When she referred to that time, she remembered how out of shape she was and how helpful her husband became: "He said that the first thing we have to do is to teach you how to enjoy ballet class; how to take class intelligently and not look on it as sheer drudgery."
She also credited New York ballet teacher Finis Jhung with playing a crucial role in helping her get back into dancing shape: "He's the most wonderful teacher, very quiet and very concentrated."
After she again rejoined Ballet Theatre, Browne took aim at an enticing new goal. When she went to sign her next contract, company directors told her they wanted her to learn Juliet in the coming season, if she came back from the summer in strong shape. "I took two classes a day, the whole summer. It was torture," she said.
Browne learned the role of Juliet from Georgina Parkinson, a 20-year dancer in the Royal Ballet who is now a Ballet Theatre ballet mistress. When MacMillan himself arrived, preparations advanced.
Browne found him especially concerned about "the lines--because in this kind of ballet you have to have very soft lines--and the neatness of the feet, because the dancing is very big. You can throw yourself around, but you still have to place your feet in clean positions; the tendency is to get sloppy."
When Browne discussed Juliet's dramatic moments, she drew on her experience as a film actress and declared that "working with Herbert Ross (who directed both her movies) definitely helped for this (ballet) role, because he always used to tell me that the only thing that has to be clear are your intentions. As long as they are clear in your own head, they'll be clear to an audience.
"All MacMillan's ballets appeal to me," Browne emphasized. "They are not fairy tales. They are real stories about real people--like the movies."