Josef Brown trained as a dancer at the McDonald College of the Arts in Sydney and at the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne. He joined the Australian Ballet in 1991 and was promoted to soloist in 1994, with principal roles in classical ballets including Onegin in Onegin, Danilo in The Merry Widow, Vronsky in Anna Karenina, Pinkerton in Madam Butterfly, Soldier/Lover in Nutcracker, Inspector in Le Concour and Lescaut in Manon, as well as in contemporary dance pieces such as Jardi Tancat, In the Middle Somewhat Elevated, Afternoon of the Faun, Divergence and Return to a Strange Land.
During a leave of absence in 1995, Brown performed as an actor/dancer/singer in the multimedia production In the Body of the Son for Nomad Dance. In 1996 he joined Modern Dans Topluluguu in Ankara, Turkey, where he worked for a year before joining Sydney Dance Company. During his time with Sydney Dance Company, Graeme Murphy created the roles of John the Baptist in Salome (1998), Zeus in Mythologia (2000), the Swan Silver duet for the Federation production, Tivoli (2001) and Dorian in Shades of Gray (2004) for Brown. New York-based choreographer Stephen Petronio also created the Stagger Lee duo from Underland for him.
Brown’s choreography credits include Shifted for Sydney Dance Company, Hala & Emancipate for SDCo and 3 + Distraction for the Australian Ballet. In 2003 Brown travelled to Palestine as the recipient of a grant awarded from the Australia Council for the Arts. His film-work Art, During Seige, shot while in Palestine, was made into a short-form documentary.
In November 2004, Brown created the stage role of Johnny Castle in Australia’s premiere stage production of Dirty Dancing, for which he received the 2005 Australian Dance Award for Best Performer in a Stage Musical as well as being nominated for Best Male Dancer in the 2005 Green Room Awards and Best Male Performer in the 2005 MO Awards. He now leads the cast of the just-opened West End production of the hit adaptation of the iconic 1987 film.
Date & place of birth
Born on 8 October 1969 in Woomera, Australia. It used to be a space tracking station that my dad was working on. The British let off four atom bombs there and a lot of rockets and things. I’m the same age as Patrick Swayze was when he did the film of Dirty Dancing.
Lives now in
My wife and I have a flat back Sydney that we’re renting out. We’re set up here, in west London, now for at least three to five years. I mean, if you’re going to come over here, you want to see a bit. I’m going to be working very hard for the duration of my Dirty Dancing contract so there won’t be a lot of time to see everything, so I want time after that to get to know London.
What made you want to become a dancer?
I was always very energetic as a kid. People used to call me a mini-Elvis because I was always shaking my body around. But I had no opportunity to get into dance properly until I was about 15. Some girls asked my mate and me if we wanted to come along to a Friday night jazz class. We were like “what?!”, but we really wanted to kiss these girls so we kind of went along with it. Very much on the quiet, we threw on a pair of sweatpants and leg-warmers, as you did in the Eighties, and took ourselves along to these jazz classes. At about the same time, the break-dancing phenomenon came to Australia. I really got into that because that was dancing guys were allowed to do. It was very tough and everyone got into their gangs and tribes and a lot of racial tension eased off as well. So anyway, at about 16 after a year of this Friday night jazz, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Acting was something I was interested in so I went along to the McDonald College of the Arts, which was the only place at that time where you could learn how to dance and finish high school, and they accepted me because I was tall. One thing led to another and I fell in love with classical ballet having never seen it before and with the people because they had a vision about what they wanted to do with their lives. I had no dedication and no discipline in my life and I kind of absorbed that and it had a domino effect. I got accepted into the Australian Ballet and started doing principal work. Then I realised contemporary dance was more where I wanted to go and then I started looking for avenues where I could be using my voice more and be more of an actor. Acting was originally the thing I wanted to do, but it’s taken me a long time to get here.
Career highlights to date
My career highlights are the contemporaries I’ve worked with. I’ve had some wonderful role models that have come and gone in my life. My best friend Nicholas Rowe, he’s just done some amazing work and he’s constantly an inspiration to me. And my wife, Katherine, as a dancer, she’s someone I would watch all the time. And the choreographer Graeme Murphy. He did an Australian Nutcracker, in which he created this character who had gone from the Russian Ballet back in 1917 during the revolution and had emigrated to Australia and she’s looking back on her life from the perspective of 1980s Australia - I think it’s wonderful, so creative. Other highlights? Nacho Duarte’s ballet, Jardi Tancat, particularly when I first did that contemporary movement. Working in Turkey. Mostly people though, the highlights are these wonderful people that are still my friends. And lovers, these lovers who have passed through my life, these women who have been an amazing inspiration to me.
Jiri Kylian, Nacho Duarte, Graeme Murphy, Stephen Petronio. I’m always looking for the new choreography. I want new experiences and new challenges.
If you hadn’t become a dancer, what might you have done professionally?
I’d love to have been a musician if I hadn’t become a dancer. I love piano and I do play it, though very very badly. I’d love to be virtuosic and have that level of technical accomplishment on an instrument, just to be really in touch with it. As a dancer, you love feeling kinetically with the music - it’s a kind of simpatico, you feel as though you’re embodying the music somehow. But to be actually creating the music at that same beautiful technical level where it’s so easy…. Like everything in life, you have to get to a really high standard before you can be free. I’d love to have that kind of mastery on a musical instrument, though I fear it may be too late. Other than that, I’ve always loved the ocean, so maybe an oceanographer or something.
What differences have you noticed between dance & theatre audiences?
I guess they vary. Some have more money. People who are coming to Dirty Dancing, some may not ever even go to the theatre or dance usually. In the dance world, in very broad terms, you get a lot of young people coming to contemporary dance and older people going to classical ballet. But there’s a lot of crossover between dance genres and between dance and theatre. I don’t really like to generalise.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
What sucks about being a performer is you don’t get to see many shows. Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen Sinatra and We Will Rock You, both of which I absolutely loved. I had such a ball at We Will Rock You. I’m a big Queen fan. Queen was one of the first concerts I ever went to as a kid when they came to Australia and so to be able to listen to that music again brought back a lot of memories. I’d love to see more shows, and we’re not doing Wednesday matinees so hopefully I’ll be able to drag myself out on a Wednesday matinee and see some.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Leonardo Da Vinci. That level of creativity is not bounded by anything. You don’t get to box that guy - you can’t say he was a painter or an inventor; he did all sorts of things.
Peter Singer’s book The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. It tries to break down what we eat and where everything comes from and the real costs of producing what we have. It’s fascinating. And I’m in to Graham Greene at the moment. I’d never read any Graham Greene novels when my best friend put me on to him. I’ve just finished reading The Quiet American, which was brilliant.
Favourite holiday destinations
Portugal. I’ve never been there before, but I’m really looking forward to going. There’s no place I keep going back to, but the favourite I’ve been to so far is Cape Tribulation in the far north of Queensland, where my wife and I had the most beautiful honeymoon. It’s the oldest living rainforest.
Why did you want to accept the part of Johnny Castle in Dirty Dancing?
I was working with Sydney Dance Company when the show’s choreographer, who knew my work, called me up and said, “Dirty Dancing is being created for the stage, would you be interested in coming along to an audition?” I was really ready for a change in my life so it was perfect timing really. The challenges for me, coming from a primarily dance background, were about using my voice. I’ve always been one of these dancers who’s longed to use their voice, and oddly enough, as I’m acting sometimes, I want to make it more physical. This gives me the chance to use my voice more and to use my dance background as well. To try to recreate this character, who is such an iconic and beloved character, is what I’ve been most drawn to. And I love the narrative.
What did you think of the film?
I’ll be honest with you, I wasn’t one of those people – and I’ve met many, many now – who would go home and watch it every Friday or whatever. But the film had a big influence on me when I was 16 or 17. I was sort of a street kid, not knowing where I was going, and Johnny Castle (as played by Patrick Swayze) came along as this tough, very masculine presence who was also a dancer. I was interested in dance at that time but only just getting into it. I looked at him and thought, “oh I can do that, I can be a dancer and I can also be as masculine as I feel like I want to be or as I am”.
Your producers have shied away from calling Dirty Dancing a musical. Is it a musical?
No, it’s not. It’s probably 70 percent narrative. It’s basically the movie with a few more scenes added that give it more subtext about the 1960s period it’s set in, to do with race riots and class hierarchy, that make it even more interesting. You don’t look at the movie and say it’s a musical, and it’s exactly the same thing on stage. It’s a play with music and dance, and a love story that happens to work through the medium of dance. I call it a big act of theatre.
How do you feel about making your West End debut in Dirty Dancing?
I performed at the Coliseum back in 1992 and it was my first big dance review. I don’t like to put more pressure on in the West End than anywhere else. I’ve performed in a lot of theatres around the world in dance troupes. People say, oh we’re going to London or New York, and suddenly there’s much more pressure on us as opposed to going out in the sticks in Wagga Wagga (in New South Wales). I don’t know the people in New York I’m performing to any more than I know them out in Wagga Wagga so why should I have any more respect for them than I do for the people in Wagga Wagga? I have a duty to give them just as good a performance as I would anywhere else in the world. It’s great being in the West End, feeling like you’re in the heart of this great culture. You can walk just down the road and there’s another great theatre with some great performers and you’re surrounded by so much energy and motivation. That’s the great thing about performing here in the West End - it keeps you motivated and driven.
To what do you attribute the enormous success of Dirty Dancing?
Dirty Dancing is a love story told through dance but not in a tacky way. It’s sexy and beautiful. It’s about the transformative power of love between Baby and Johnny. I think we respond to this relationship because we recognise it as one of life’s pivotal moments. But it’s also about how their love ripples out into a community and changes other people. Baby and Johnny become a catalyst. Everyone’s perspective of the world ends up having to alter and, instead of receding into a position of fear, they choose to embrace this change, and celebrate it through dance.
Do you think Baby & Johnny stay together after the story ends?
I don’t know. I suppose you could speculate and say, “yeah, they end up together and now they’ve got three kids and he’s working on Broadway and she’s become a doctor or something”. Or maybe it’s just a time or a moment in their lives, one of those magic things where they can say I changed right there.
Do you have a favourite number from Dirty Dancing?
It changes every night. One night one of the dance or scene pieces goes so perfectly and I think “ah god, we nailed that”. Then you’ll go on and try and repeat that the next night, and of course it won’t happen. Your expectations are there, but then another scene will work just beautifully so it’s okay.
And what about a favourite line?
There are a couple of cute lines that other people say, but I don’t really love any one of my own lines. Of course, the audience goes crazy as soon as I say that famous line (“Nobody puts Baby in a corner”). It’s not just the line itself as the moment that people go wild for. Did you know that in Germany the film was wrongly subtitled so that it said “Baby belongs to me”? And, in the stage show now, it still gets exactly the same reaction.
What are the audience reactions like in general to Dirty Dancing?
Audiences come to the show with a real open-heartedness. They know it’s not the film, but I think they want to be there again and experience the world of Dirty Dancing live. By the time we finish “Time of My Life”, they are all up on their feet and dancing. There’s even been a conga line going out of the theatre, people just screaming and loving it. Sometimes, people have tried to whisper things to me or come up and tried to give us presents during the show. One night, two ladies decided to jump up on stage and have a dance with us. I wouldn’t recommend that.
- Josef Brown was speaking to Terri Paddock
Dirty Dancing opened on 24 October 2006 (previews from 29 September) at the West End’s Aldwych Theatre.