We’re privileged to honor four extraordinary educators with this year’s Dance Teacher Awards in August at our New York Dance Teacher Summit. The awardees include Julie Kent, Djana Bell, Rhonda Miller, Sue Samuels and Stephanie Kersten.
Julie Kent is coaching two dancers from The Washington Ballet Trainee Program on a partnered penché, but she might as well be addressing herself. The longtime American Ballet Theatre principal retired from the stage in 2015, after a 29-year career spent mesmerizing audiences. A little over a year later, she became the artistic director of The Washington Ballet.
Though the ballet world—including, at first, Kent herself—was surprised by The Washington Ballet’s push for her leadership, in retrospect, it felt like the prima ballerina’s natural next step. Kent’s career has been a steady ascension, marked by quiet discipline, easy musicality and an abundance of natural grace. She moved quickly through the ranks at ABT, tackling dramatic roles of the last three centuries—Petipa’s Giselle and Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet among them—with focus and agility. The question quickly became: Why shouldn’t someone with such a wealth of experience and attention to detail lead an internationally recognized company?
Initially, she herself balked at the idea. After all, she was happily settling into her post-retirement role as artistic director of ABT’s summer intensives. Accepting The Washington Ballet position would mean uprooting her two kids—not to mention asking her husband, Victor Barbee, ABT’s associate artistic director since 2003, to give up his job. “It just wasn’t something I was interested in doing,” says Kent, “because it’s a really, really demanding, difficult job that I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle.”
But at the end of the day, she felt compelled to do it, for both personal and professional reasons. “I wanted to be a role model for my children,” she says, “and show their mother in a leadership role.”
Now, two years into her tenure, the same warmth she exhibited onstage—making audience members feel like she could be their friend, with her easy smile and ballerina-next-door easy elegance—carries over to the dancers and students of The Washington Ballet.
Kent with The Washington School of Ballet Students Nicholas Cowden and Abigail Granlund. Photo by Rachel Papo
“Make sure she’s straight up on her leg,” Kent coaches the two trainees on an arabesque balance. Catching sight in the mirror of the pleasing tableau the three of them have formed, she smiles. “Look how nice we look.”
If the dancers are in awe of Kent—who they no doubt grew up idolizing not only on the stage but also in dance films like Center Stage (2000) and Dancers (1987)—they don’t show it. They appear just as eager as Kent to deep-dive into the work. Since taking the helm at The Washington Ballet, she’s hired new dancers and taken a thoughtful approach to the repertoire she programs—including world premieres from her fellow ABT dancers, former and present: Ethan Stiefel, Gemma Bond, Marcelo Gomes. Commissioning new work has been a particular goal of hers. “I wanted the dancers to be responsible for realizing what is just an idea in somebody’s head into a living, breathing work of art,” she says.
Kent with student Nicholas Cowden. Photo by Rachel Papo
Kent has many more plans in store, too. “I’d love to commission some larger-scale works,” she says, “whether a one-act or two-act, but with more production value. And I want a choreographic festival, to really take advantage of our situation as the ballet company of the nation’s capital.”
DT: You’ve been an idol to many girls and women as a ballerina, and now you’re iconic in another way—as a female leader in a male-dominated world. Is that something you’re actively thinking about?
JK: One of the reasons we accepted this position and moved here was that I really wanted to be that person who accepts a challenge. I wanted my children to see it and experience it and know that. If they came to me in 10 or 15 years and said, “Mom, I’ve got this great opportunity to do something, but I’m happy where I am and I’m comfortable,” I would say, “You’ve gotta go for it!” But how could I really give that advice if I don’t have the courage to take it myself?
There is nothing in life that is really exciting and incredible and life-changing that is easy. I remind myself that a lot. My children see how hard we’re working, and they’re proud. My daughter is always patting me on the shoulder when she hears me introduced as the director of The Washington Ballet. Our son always congratulates us—”I read the reviews. That’s great, Mom. I loved the performance.” Being a good role model is showing that even if it’s really hard, if it’s something you really want to do, people will be there to cheer you on and help you through it. It’s not gonna be easy. And that’s OK.
Check out the July issue for Julie Kent’s full Q&A.