Sara and Leigh-Ann Esty are one of those pairs of identical twins who have always been closer to each other than to anyone else, an intimacy intensified by their shared talent and track in life.
They grew up in the small town of Gorham, Maine, and started studying dance together at age 3, continuing through high school. Then they were off to the Miami City Ballet school, joining the company as apprentices in 2005 and dancing there together for nine years.
“She’s half of who I am, as corny as that sounds” Sara says of her sister. “It’s an incredible bond that’s unexplainable to a lot of people.”
Then their path diverged in 2014, when Sara was chosen from almost 2,000 dancers who auditioned for the Broadway-bound musical “An American in Paris.” Besides the intimidating leap into the new realms of acting and singing, she would, for the first time in her 28 years, be apart from her sister.
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“To be with someone that long and then separate is difficult for anyone, but because we happen to be twins and very close, it was hard,” Leigh-Ann says. “A lot of people wondered, ‘Are you guys going to be ok?’ ”
They were. Leigh-Ann grew as a dancer on her own at MCB. Sara went from understudying the lead role of Lise in “American in Paris” to taking the part full-time on the hit show’s national tour, which comes to the Adrienne Arsht Center from Tuesday to Sunday. Her understudy is none other than Leigh-Ann, who left MCB last spring to join her sister.
“When they offered me the tour, they said, ‘I wish we could clone you,’” Sara says. “And I said, ‘It’s funny you should say that.’ ”
The people behind the show are delighted and a little astonished at this minor casting miracle. “It’s really incredible,” says associate director and choreographer Dontee Kiehn. When the Estys donned identical wigs and costumes for a pre-tour photo shoot, everyone did a double-take.
“It’s always an obvious twin thing that’s hard to take in,” Kiehn says. “But I find them so different now.”
The Estys owe their new careers to “American in Paris” director and renowned ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who has been a resident choreographer with the New York City Ballet and England’s Royal Ballet. Wheeldon, who based his show on the beloved 1951 movie musical starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, made Lise a ballet dancer who stars in a new ballet production. That meant they needed strong classical dancers.
Sara was dazzled when she got a Facebook message from a casting director in 2013. “I’d seen the movie, I’m a big Gene Kelly fan — Gershwin tunes, Chris Wheeldon, my head was spinning,” she says. She sang “Embraceable You” for Wheeldon in a tiny rehearsal room at New World School of the Arts and was offered the part while she was home in Maine for Christmas.
“I was completely in shock but excited, and before I could think about anything, I said yes, yes. Then I got off the phone and looked at my mother and said, ‘I think I just accepted a job on Broadway.’ ”
The casting director had also reached out to Leigh-Ann. But unlike Sara, by then a soloist at MCB who had danced a number of major roles and was ready to try something new, Leigh-Ann felt she had more to do in Miami. And at age 28, the sisters realized that it might be time for them to be apart for a while.
“At that time in our lives, we felt it was healthy to find our own individuality and grow from there,” Leigh-Ann says.
Growing up in Maine, the Estys used to spend hours inventing shows and dances at home, inviting friends to be “guest stars.” The couple who ran the Maine State Ballet School they attended growing up were former NYCB dancer Linda MacArthur Miele, who had gone on to Broadway, and her husband, a Broadway dancer. (To add to the coincidences in this article, Miele babysat for MCB founding artistic director Edward Villella when he was a star at NYCB.)
Although producers sent her to acting and singing lessons, Sara found that taking on the complex lead character in a full-length show was a good bit different from play-acting in her living room.
“It’s the deepest pool I have yet to encounter,” Sara says. “It’s finding the truest part of yourself and becoming this other person … to become someone else completely is way harder than I expected, but also very liberating.”
When Leigh-Ann went to see her sister perform on Broadway, she would startle fellow cast members. But she was also shocked to see her sister in such a different way.
“It was an out-of-body experience,” Leigh-Ann says. “She did such a good job at becoming the character I had a hard time finding any of my sister. It was so weird for me — that’s Sara, but it’s not. It was so impressive to see what she had accomplished and learned in this new field, and also intimidating. I’ve been there with her learning to do things for 28 years, and here she is in her 29th year learning to do something without me and succeeding.”
When producers began casting the tour, Sara suggested her sister and urged Leigh-Ann to audition. Now that she has joined the cast, Leigh-Ann, who performs Lise at Sunday matinees and is in the ensemble for the rest of the week, finds herself just starting the process Sara began over two years ago. Sara went from understudy and ensemble member during tryouts in Paris to playing Lise twice a week during the show’s year-and-a-half run in New York.
Still, Leigh-Ann says she is finding her own way in the role.
“We are different people, so the character comes out of our souls differently,” she says. “Of course there’s guidance, but it’s very cool to have the freedom to do things how I would see the character doing them.”
Kiehn says the twins are continuing to branch out artistically.
“Sara has natural instincts and a natural voice … and she has grown so much,” she says. “What was so much fun in developing Leigh’s performance is finding the differences. They’re on such different trajectories on this journey.”
The sisters are delighted to be sharing their lives and art again. On longer tour stops, they rent an apartment so they can room together (in Miami, they’ll be staying with friends). Despite the potential for competition, they say their intrinsic intimacy has diverted any jealousy.
“We were always raised to be each other’s biggest supporters,” Sara says. “The fact that we had that time to grow on our own for a couple of years and now we’re coming back together is awesome. I’m so glad she had that time without me, and she’s glad I had my own time. And now we’re back together.”
If you go
What: ‘An American in Paris’
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
Info: $29 to $150; 305-949-6722 or arshtcenter.org