Take 5 with Aunika Browne
Though AUNIKA BROWNE isn’t a professional dancer as she’d once hoped, she’s still filling a leading role in the ballet world. Browne is the executive director of the Wilmington Ballet School consortium, and she is determined to ensure it thrives as we recover from COVID. The Wilmington Ballet group is composed of the US International Ballet, a professional ballet company; the Wilmington Ballet Company, its outreach arm, and the Wilmington School of Ballet.
“We will keep pushing and see what we can do,” says Browne. “It’s really exciting to grow our audience and our student base.”
Browne is no stranger to overcoming challenges. When her dream of dancing professionally was cut short by a debilitating illness that left her barely able to walk, Browne forged a new path. As she gained strength, Browne began working with dance students, and that’s when she discovered that teaching dance was her true passion.
Even though the odds were against her—Browne had limited experience as a teacher, no experience as a business owner, and was only 23—she decided to open her own dance studio. Within two years she had 60 students, and she was collaborating with the Wilmington School of Ballet on its Nutcracker.
Two years later, ELIZABETH HESTER, the founder of the Wilmington Ballet group, offered Browne the executive directorship of the entire organization.
Browne took a big gulp, found investors, and took the job. Then COVID hit. Students couldn’t take classes in the studio, and the company’s primary source of revenue, ticket sales, was lost.
For Browne, these problems were simply obstacles to overcome.
“Like I tell the dancers, there’s always a challenge or mountain to face in life,” she says. “Life throws curve balls and you have to go for it and keep fighting for your dreams.”
True to form, Browne did just that. She kept the studio going by restricting in-person classes to eight students and giving online classes. She kept the company going by live streaming their performances.
Now Browne is taking on her latest challenge. While the school is thriving—enrollment has hit a high—she wants to get the US International Ballet back on its feet. By traveling to dance festivals throughout the US, Browne brought in new dancers to replace those lost during the pandemic.
Browne also hired Jonhal Fernández as the company’s new artistic director. She says Fernández shares Hester’s vision for a professional company that includes dancers of diverse body types and that he is the right person to steer the company into the future.
“Jonhal will work with me to achieve our goals,” says Browne. “His dreams are as big as mine as to where the company can go.”
Browne has also developed strategies to make the company sustainable. In the upcoming season, it will perform several well-loved ballets, including Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, Don Quixote, and Peter and the Wolf. It will also give free performances in the schools, and resume touring.
Browne also plans to expand ballet’s presence in the community and build an audience for the art form.
“Ballet must be willing to adapt to a wider audience,” she says. “It has to be more inclusive, and show all kinds of race, age, and gender on stage so more people in the audience can relate to the performers.”
Take 5 with Aunika Browne
The performing arts suffered during COVID. What impact has it had on ballet students?
“For our serious dancers, we’re trying to continue as much of the disciple and regular training schedule as we can. However, a lot of our older students lost their passion for ballet during COVID. Now, we’re supporting them as much as possible and moving their training to another style of dance if they want to try something else.”
How are you ensuring the US International Ballet will survive after COVID’s setbacks?
“We’ve adapted to a new way of thinking to keep the art form alive. During COVID, we did a livestream production at the Wilson Center, and we’ll live stream most of our future performances so we reach a larger audience. We’ve also done a lot of recruiting to attract new dancers. I traveled to ballet festivals across the U.S. to meet dancers and tell them about our program and the scholarships we offer. We were down to twelve dancers from thirty-five. Now, we’re bringing in more dancers and finalizing contracts.”
What are your performance plans for the company in the future?
“In the coming year, we plan to perform Don Quixote, Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, and Peter and the Wolf. In 2023, we will go back into the schools and give free performances for the children. We also want to get back to touring locally.”
You recently hired a new artistic director for the US International Ballet. What talents and goals does he bring to the position?
“Under Jonhal Fernández’s leadership, the vision of Elizabeth Hester, the company’s founder, for a ballet company that does not discriminate on the basis of body type and gives talented dancers a chance to perform will remain true. Fernández can also work with all kinds of people and with dancers of all levels. His dreams are as big as mine as to where the company can go.”
How do you plan to build an audience for ballet in Wilmington?
“Building an audience is a challenge we face. We have to let people know we are here and get exposure. Also, ballet must be willing to adapt to a wider audience. It must be more inclusive and show that all races, genders, and ages can be on stage, so more people in the audience can relate to the performers.”
To view more of photographer Terah Hoobler’s work, go to terahhoobler.com.
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