Puanani with Joshua Thew in George Balanchine's The Four Temperaments during a School of American Ballet 2007 workshop performance (by Paul Kolnik)
American Ballet Theatre corps member Puanani Brown performs with elegance and ease. To an outsider, she seems to have it all. But finding her place in the dance world was a challenge. Puanani grew up in Silver Spring, MD, where, at 7, she began dancing at the Washington School of Ballet. For eight years, Puanani built a strong foundation of classical technique, and in 2004, she won the gold medal in the women’s senior division at the Youth America Grand Prix. Not long after, the then-16-year-old moved to NYC to train at the School of American Ballet, New York City Ballet’s feeder school. She lived in the school’s dorms at Lincoln Center and worked hard learning the Balanchine style while attending the Professional Children’s School.
In the spring of 2007 Puanani was offered an apprenticeship with NYCB—a dream come true for any young ballerina. But at the end of her apprenticeship, the company didn’t offer her a contract, and Puanani’s ballet career was derailed. So she shifted gears and headed off to college. But after spending a year at Harvard, Puanani decided to give herself a second chance. Read on to find out what kept this 22-year-old motivated during tough times. —Katie Rolnick
I graduated from high school in 2007 and had a tough decision to make: attend Harvard University or accept an apprenticeship with New York City Ballet. Ballet has always been my focus and passion, but I’m also serious about academics, and I was hesitant to turn down the opportunity to attend an Ivy League school. Fortunately, the university allows students who have been accepted to defer their initial enrollment for a year, and I was able to accept NYCB’s offer.
Apprentices are considered students of the School of American Ballet, but they take class, rehearse and perform with company members for about a year, after which they’re either offered a company contract or not. I was excited to dance with NYCB and my older sister, Likolani (Liko), who is in the corps de ballet.
My apprenticeship was full of amazing opportunities and special memories. I worked with legends like Merrill Ashley, who danced with NYCB for 31 years! I toured to London, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and Saratoga Springs, NY, and I performed at NYCB’s home, Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater (now named the David H. Koch Theater). I’ll never forget looking out into the huge, empty State Theater during my first stage rehearsal with NYCB, and the thrill of performing for nearly 3,000 people.
I started my apprenticeship with high hopes for a future with NYCB. But my mid-year meeting didn’t go well. I resolved to continue fighting for a spot in the corps, but after that meeting I lost a great deal of self-confidence. I stopped dancing for myself and, instead, tried desperately to prove that I belonged with NYCB. But it was not meant to be: At the end of the season, I wasn’t offered a contract. I completed my apprenticeship in Saratoga Springs, NY, in the summer of 2008 and started my freshman year at Harvard that fall.
When I arrived at school, I was ready for a change of pace. I fell in love with Harvard’s beautiful campus in Cambridge, MA. Though I had already lived away from home for four years (while studying at SAB), I had only lived with other dancers in a completely ballet-oriented environment. It was inspiring to be with peers who had different and wide-ranging interests. I was also ready to explore and took advantage of Harvard’s broad curriculum and extracurricular programs. I studied economics, French and psychology. I joined several indigenous people’s clubs (as a Native Hawaiian), helped canvass for Barack Obama and had a boyfriend for the first time in my life!
Puanani with James Fuller in a piece by Avi Scher at a 2009 Harvard Ballet Company performance (by Ed Yoo)
After just one semester at Harvard, students secure their place and can defer their enrollment indefinitely. This policy would have allowed me to leave school and return to ballet. However, during the fall semester I really wasn’t sure I wanted to go back. I was still so hurt. I joined the Harvard Ballet Company (HBC)—more out of a feeling of obligation to myself (and my years of training) than a real desire to dance. But as the school year progressed, my feelings changed. In March, former NYCB principal Damian Woetzel invited me to perform the opening of George Balanchine’s Serenade for an event at Harvard called “Witness,” which commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I danced with Damian to the live accompaniment of cellist Yo-Yo Ma. I had arrived on campus with little confidence, unsure of my new life at college and still reeling from my experience with NYCB. Thanks to HBC, I learned to dance for myself without fear of failure.
That spring, I realized that, although leaving ballet had been undeniably painful, the thing that had upset me the most was the thought of never dancing again. At the end of my freshman year, I decided to take an open-ended leave of absence. I immediately started training again, knowing that I had a lot of work to do to regain the strength and technique I had before attending college. I committed myself to a summer intensive at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. At CPYB, Darla Hoover, the associate artistic director of both CPYB and NYC’s Ballet Academy East, invited me to train with her in the fall as a full-time student at BAE. I was honored to accept.
Last September, I began studying at BAE, taking two to three ballet classes a day, six days a week. Even though I was in class with younger students, I was happy to be dancing again. With a renewed spirit, I treated each class like it was my last. BAE’s staff of excellent teachers believed in me, and with their encouragement, I began to believe in myself again.
During the winter months, I auditioned for several ballet companies. And at the end of February, after taking a couple company classes with American Ballet Theatre, I was offered a full corps contract. I signed the contract and was at work a few days later!
I am grateful that I can return to Harvard after dancing, which I intend to do. Not only did my year at college reinforce my conviction to dance, it assured me that life does go on outside of ballet. While I chose to leave Harvard to follow my heart now, I know how much college has to offer. I also came to realize that NYCB wasn’t the place for me, as I have found a company that feels right. And most importantly, I now know with certainty that I want to dance simply because I love it.