On the Rise: Brian Letendre
Many dancers are celebrated for their grace or flexibility. Brian Letendre has earned kudos for remaining perfectly still. As a statue-come-to-life in the box-office-busting Mary Poppins, Letendre not only must pull off double tours en l’air but—perhaps even more of a challenge— turn convincingly to stone. In a show chock-full of gasp-inducing stagecraft, Letendre’s low-tech effect and strong classical technique have given him one of the most memorable roles now on Broadway.
“Everyone in the show is very different, and part of the process is finding out how people move because we don’t insist that you do steps in a certain way,” explains Mary Poppins resident choreographer Tom Kosis. “It was Brian’s ballet technique that choreographer Matthew Bourne really hooked on to.”
To see Letendre transform from marbleized mannequin to magically unfrozen figure is to experience a sense of childhood wonder. It’s not just Letendre’s physical control or fluid line. It’s his effortless dynamic shift from one extreme to another.
But despite racking up an impressive roster of work in recent years — from originating a role in the flop Urban Cowboy to winning a spot in Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out— Letendre’s route to Broadway has been more detour than direct. Born and raised on New York’s Staten Island, Letendre, 27, suffered from weight problems as a child, and didn’t begin serious dance training until age 15.
At the time, he had been accepted to the voice program at LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts, but due to his weight and inexperience was rejected from the dance program. One year later, with classes at Broadway Dance Center under his belt and a physique closer to the chiseled-cheekbone look he sports today, he won a spot in it. “Even when I was heavy as a kid, I always moved,” Letendre recalls. “I loved the aesthetic of classical ballet and the quirkiness of contemporary ballet.”
Once on the road to a dance career, Letendre made up for lost time, supplementing his high school training with classes with Francis Patrelle at Ballet Academy East and taking guest roles in local high school musicals on Staten Island. And he soon reaped the rewards with a National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts scholarship, a mention by Jennifer Dunning in The New York Times as “very promising,” and, finally, an acceptance to Juilliard.
Which meant that he had to dismantle everything he had learned up to that point. “They take you apart and put you back together and put the icing on and send you out,” Letendre say of Juilliard’s training. But he was in capable hands, working closely with teachers like Carolyn Adams, who remembers him as straightforward, curious, and compassionate. “He had an aesthetic and a belief system going,” she recalls. “There are a lot of kids who have beautiful technique and perfect attendance, and that’s all wonderful. But Brian worked with a certain purpose.”
Letendre also trained under the late Benjamin Harkarvy, then director of Juilliard’s dance division, who had “the eye of a hawk,” he remembers. “He could look at what you’re doing and say, ‘Brian, on your sixth and seven pirouette, your rib is shifting off your hip and that’s why you’re falling out,’” Letendre recalls. “And that, for my brain, was dissecting it far too much, but he would fix you, and it would work.”
Harkarvy’s methods worked faster than Letendre anticipated. He had a role in his first show, Carousel, at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, by the time graduation rolled around. A manager and an Equity card followed, as did My Fair Lady, also at Paper Mill. Then, in 2003, Letendre got his first big Broadway break, Urban Cowboy. The thrill, however, was short-lived: The show closed in just under two months.
But Letendre rolled with the punches. “I was so eager to be working. I remember seeing the closing notice and seeing people crying and panicking and looking around, and thinking, Should I be crying too?” Though Letendre had already auditioned for Movin’ Out nearly 10 times, he put himself back through the ringer, and this time emerged with the part of James in hand. With increasingly strong Broadway credentials, Letendre got a Mary Poppins role in relatively short order.
So what’s next? While Letendre doesn’t list specific professional goals, saying, “I just want stuff to sink my teeth into,” he does have a personal one. “I want to own an apartment in New York, maybe have a cottage to go to somewhere,” he says. Then he adds with a smile, “Be as legitimately successful as people who aren’t in this industry.”
Erica Orden writes and edits for
The New York Sun.